Rabbit Redux brings back after ten years—and brings back to health (Webster’s Dictionary, quoted on the blurb)—Rabbit Angstrom, now thirty-six. He’s with his wife Janice, but cold and stale. What then happens is that she commits adultery; Rabbit lets her go, and takes up with a classy addicted hippie, Jill, and her black messianic bad angel, Skeeter. Neighborhood arsonists burn down the house, and Jill is killed. Rabbit and Janice come back together. The book is mildly optimistic—is indeed more warmly optimistic than it thinks prudent to make patent.
There is a great deal in Rabbit Redux, but only because John Updike has put it there. There is more activity than purposefulness: an intricate scheme of parallelisms with the moon shot; a rich (but in the end funked or slighted) sense of possible parallels between oral sex and verbalism or certain verbal habits; likewise a sense of parallels between the job of linotyping and the job of writing. The book is cleverer than a barrel full of monkeys, and about as odd in its relation of form to content. It never decides just what the artistic reasons (sales and nostalgia are another matter) were for bringing back Rabbit instead of starting anew; its existence is likely to do retrospective damage to that better book Rabbit, Run.
Rabbit Redux is exceptionally observant; it shows the severe limits which are set to a work of art that commits itself so unremittingly to being observant. Noticing is not enough. Mr. Updike notices; he remarks things, and he remarks on them. But there is nothing left remarkable beneath the visited moon. He vacillates between the observantly indiscriminate and the glintingly significant, and by the smallest of shufflings the apt becomes the pat. One of the bad things about this hypertrophy of self-consciousness—success has awarded him a hypertrophy—is that it elicits from the reader both the wrong kind of assurance (click) and the wrong kind of dubiety (uh?).
All mentions of the moon too much solicit attention; they ogle as if they were as brave as the actual astronauts and deserved to be every eye’s cynosure, and far from creating a new perspective upon the earthly sufferings they simply eclipse them with their through-a-glass-darkly metaphoricality. “His breathing is a sleeping tide. So she lies there awake like the moon.” But by that point we have been so riddled with moon shots that neither the woman nor the moon is revealed through the comparison. Lies there like the moon? Awake like the moon? Either way it does not rise above the bathetic fallacy, does not rise into an intimation of love and of concern: “O more than moon, / Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere….” Updike does not find himself impelled to such comparisons; he spins them. “The electric clock burns beyond her head like a small moon’s skeleton.” Neat. But neat should not be as high a compliment as it is in the …