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Rabbit Undone

Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel

by John Updike
Knopf, 359 pp., $25.00

The meaning of John Updike’s new title, Licks of Love, becomes clear only when you glance at the dust jacket, where a round-bottomed banjo with a long skinny neck leans like a jaunty exclamation mark upward across the cover. A “lick,” in the kind of music that might be played on a banjo, is something short and rhythmic, without any of the cumulative elaborations of a straight-out melody. A lick, in music as in love, may be savory, but it is small. And as you plunge into Updike’s Licks of Love, the title does seem well chosen. The book contains a dozen short stories, and some of those stories (“The Women Who Got Away,” “Lunch Hour,” “My Father on the Verge of Disgrace,” “Oliver’s Evolution”) are so slight and cursory as to seem more like anecdotes than stories—licks, not melodies.

Even the title story, “Licks of Love in the Heart of the Cold War,” keeps within a modest range. A hotshot banjo player meets a young woman at a party, casually goes to bed with her, and, afterward, as he makes his way around the old Soviet Union on a State Department tour, finds himself followed everywhere he goes by a barrage of embarrassing and slightly mad love letters. It is a clever story, and it scatters a fine dust of wit and pathos over Updike’s familiar observation that any time sex makes an appearance, all hell is bound to break loose.

A few of the other stories in the collection add postscripts to one or another earlier tale or novel. “The Cats” brings us back to something very like the old homestead in the early novel Of the Farm from 1965 (except that everyone’s name seems to have changed). The narrator’s elderly mother has finally died, and the sexual tensions of youth have faded, and the old farm is overrun with cats who, like ghosts and childhood memories, seem impossible to get rid of. “His Oeuvre” tells a story of Updike’s frustrated Jewish novelist, Henry Bech, touring the country and at each new place running into one of his lovers from long ago—a heartbroken old man who, like someone in an Arthur Schnitzler play, has learned to anesthetize himself against the defeats and disappointments of today by savoring the amorous triumphs of yesterday.

His Oeuvre” is the best of the stories here (and will soon, in March, reappear as the conclusion to a new Everyman’s edition of The Complete Henry Bech). But for all the skill in that story and two or three others, Licks of Love is likely to strike you as too modest by half—until, having got past the dozen stories, you come to “Rabbit Remembered.” This, at 182 pages, is no lick at all. It is an unexpected new installment of Updike’s Rabbit series, to put at the end of Rabbit, Run and the next three novels, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest. You might almost be expected to say, in stumbling on “Rabbit Remembered,” wait a minute! Those unambitious plunks on Updike’s banjo at the start of his new book turn out to have been misleading, and the volume as a whole something more than a collection of small-scale anecdotes and tales.

Modesty is an old device of Updike’s, though, especially in the Rabbit books. You might even say that modesty, in all kinds of deceptive and insistent versions, lies at the center of everything that is most original and striking in those five books (counting the new “Rabbit Remembered” as a full new volume, which seems fair enough, considering its length). For if you could do the impossible with the Rabbit series and somehow tear off Updike’s veil of humility, and if you could see those five volumes for what they would otherwise be, you would find that Rabbit, now at some 1,800 pages, is a single very long novel written in a traditional and even somewhat old-fashioned form, well known to us from the nineteenth century.

It is what can reasonably be called a “total” work of art, meant to contain or at least to hint at the entirety of existence in an ever-expanding form. In this respect, the Rabbit story is a latter-day scion of a literary family whose original members include Balzac’s Human Comedy, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Hugo’s The Legend of the Centuries, and Benito Pérez Galdós’s Contemporary Novels and National Episodes, not to mention the giant extravaganzas of nineteenth-century philosophy like Hegel’s several volumes and Marx’s Capital—books that were written to illuminate every corner of life, but that, in their boundless ambition, could never be brought to a satisfactory conclusion, books that took up the whole of their authors’ lives to write and, even so, tended to trail off in a heartbreaking ellipsis. Whitman spent some forty years on Leaves of Grass. Updike has already done the same on Rabbit. He has the family persistence.

The main difference between Updike and these nineteenth-century predecessors rests only on that very strange and sometimes irritating modesty of his. These nineteenth-century writers were the sworn enemies of the humble, the limited, and the resigned. They wanted to wrap the universe in a single, all-powerful, unending narrative. Some of them wanted to suggest, as the philosophers explained it, that all of mankind was advancing ineluctably to a rational mastery of human destiny. That was the intention of the giant poems by Whitman and Hugo. But even the pessimists felt the spirit of triumph. Balzac, who took a dim view of ineluctable advances, nonetheless wanted to demonstrate that all of society could be analyzed according to simple principles of human behavior—the two irrepressible motives of l’amour and l’ambition. Balzac wanted to show that true artists were capable of achieving a complete understanding of human behavior—that mankind could achieve mastery of its own destiny at least in the noble form of artistic masterpieces. (That ambition turned out to be an early-twentieth-century idea, too.)

Updike entertains no such thoughts. He doesn’t even care to argue against them. Balzac, when he had conceived the idea for his Human Comedy, ran through the streets of Paris to his sister’s house crying, “I have become a genius!” But Updike gives what seems a well-rehearsed impression that he is tooling around the golf course and not claiming to be anything special. Modesty is his own extravaganza. Perhaps there was a moment early in his career when, in the old style, Updike did want to hint at larger ambitions. The first of his installments, Rabbit, Run, from 1960, made a point of stringing together sentences without using many commas, as if to make you recognize that, like James Joyce or John Dos Passos, Updike could convey the brilliance of his insights only by fracturing the ordinary conventions of grammar and punctuation.

Maybe he should have gone on with that kind of showiness, as if to insist that he, too, is a genius. He might have made it clear that he is a novel-writing counterpart to a poet like, say, John Ashbery, a man of the avant-garde, fascinated, as Ashbery is, by the rhythmic interplay of the outer world and the inner mind—might have shown himself to be a son of Joyce and not, as some people take him to be, of Sinclair Lewis. He might have won over the earnest hipsters of the reading public, who have never been able to forgive him his Republican car-lot landscapes. But modesty is not just an affectation with Updike, something he can kick over at whim. And in “Rabbit Remembered” this modesty finally outdoes itself, not just because of the way he half-conceals his new installment behind a hedge.

Each installment in the Rabbit series takes place ten years after the previous one, and “Rabbit Remembered” is set in 1999–2000, forty years after Rabbit, Run and ten years after Rabbit Angstrom’s death in Rabbit at Rest. Rabbit’s illegitimate daughter, Annabelle, a hospital nurse—born from his affair in Rabbit, Run with Ruth, a hapless prostitute—looks up Rabbit’s widow, Janice, and his son Nelson. The son would like to see Annabelle accepted into the family, and he invites her to join Janice and her new husband and the husband’s sons and daughter-in-law for Thanksgiving dinner. But the evening degenerates into nasty arguments about Bill Clinton and his sins. The daughter-in-law, “in a kind of orgasm, visibly quivering,” cries out, “It’s the sleaze!” But Annabelle and Nelson share a sympathy for the persecuted President (which we are made to feel is a lot like sharing a sympathy for the late Rabbit), and they strike up a friendship. Annabelle even starts a romance with Nelson’s childhood pal, Billy, who has turned up out of nowhere, after many years. The millennial computer disasters of Y2K fail to occur. E-mails dart back and forth.

Such are the main events of “Rabbit Remembered.” Updike concludes the story by cheerfully dispatching everyone into a happy-ever-after: Janice into a satisfactory old age with her new husband Ron, who was Rabbit’s old high school rival; Nelson into a reconciliation with his wife, Pru; Annabelle into marriage with Billy. It is the kind of ending that Hawthorne gave to his otherwise grim The House of the Seven Gables, with each of the surviving characters waving merrily goodbye, just to brighten the gloom. Nelson even manages to read to Annabelle a maxim from the Dalai Lama, “The very motion of our life is towards happiness,” which is the sort of thing Whitman and Hugo used to say about the whole of human history, but is meant, in this instance, to carry the weight of a fortune cookie.

All of this serves a rather clever function in the larger Rabbit novel. The long, slow drift of the giant novel has pointed, until this moment, in tragic directions. The previous installment, Rabbit at Rest, can leave you weeping at Rabbit’s death, and at the remoteness of the divine, and at lost possibilities. You could even imagine, by the final deathbed pages, that Updike has composed a tragedy of the common man, something like Death of a Salesman, except on a broader scale—a vast, slightly downbeat, but stirring, democratic salute to the heroism of the humble, at least in the character of Rabbit.

Rabbit at Rest might lead you to hear in Updike’s giant novel some of the triumphant and inspiring notes that resound in some of the masterworks of his nineteenth-century predecessors—the feeling that mankind is destined to conquer the miseries of existence, and that mankind is heroic, or at least that great artists are heroic, and that heroism will open the way to a rational domination of the chaotic world. But Updike seems to be of two minds about striking grand poses or leading anyone to discover heroic meanings in his novel.

Rabbit Remembered” carefully edits out any tone of tragedy or heroism, mostly by offering us a cheerful and slightly saccharine new episode, guaranteed to make you almost forget the deeper, more thrilling notes from Rabbit at Rest—a new installment designed to make you wonder if Rabbit, for all its length, isn’t a small novel without any special emotional force, a minor work about a minor man. And so here, in Updike’s tour de force, is a true oddity: a nineteenth-century-style giant opus that claims to be nothing of the sort; a book that embodies the huge and the grandiose and that, even so, trains your eyes on the modest and diminutive.

Updike’s habit of showing us the small and hinting at the big, while concealing the scale of his ambition—this habit touches almost everything he does, at least in Rabbit. There is a distinctly metaphysical aspect to it, in a Christian version. One of the marital tensions between Rabbit and Janice, back in the innocent days of Rabbit, Run, stems from their different Prot-estant denominational backgrounds. Janice’s family is Episcopal, in a style that is headed toward the smug, licentious liberalism of the Sixties. But Rabbit’s family is Lutheran, in the old, austere, Pennsylvania German tradition. Janice’s Episcopal minister rushes around town doing good works, including good works that are meant to keep up Rabbit’s morale and rescue his marriage. But the Lutheran minister has no interest in good works. The dour old man believes in a radical division between the ordinary world and the divine, which no good deed is going to mend.

In Rabbit Redux, one of Rabbit’s adulterous lovers says to him, “Don’t you think God is people?” And Rabbit, reflecting his Lutheran background, replies, “I think God is everything that isn’t people.” There are two realities, not one—a reality that is human, and a reality that is God’s. And what is God’s? Rabbit is not much of a churchgoer, and becomes less of one over the years. He can hardly answer by reciting the precepts of the Lutheran church, or any other church.

Neither is he a man to work up original thoughts. And yet the divine something-or-other never entirely fades from his life. Now and then he supposes that he has caught a glimpse. He notices it when he thinks about the gracefulness and beauty of basketball or golf, and again when he glances at a copper beech tree in his yard (which, by the time of “Remembered,” has died). Rabbit keeps running away from home and from Janice and from his own humdrum life, and you get the feeling that he may have gone off in quest of the invisible other world. But he doesn’t even try to imagine what that other reality might be.

Hints of an otherworldly existence, in a more diabolical version, press on Rabbit all the time in fleshly forms. Something distinctly weird adheres to sex in Rabbit’s life—not always, but sometimes. You begin to think that sex can spring up almost anywhere, unpredicted, without any logical connection to the rest of life or even to the medical reality of physical health. Sex is a visitation from beyond. The satanic orgies in Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick are not all that different from the middle-American bourgeois adultery in Rabbit. The Episcopal minister’s wife flirts with Rabbit in Rabbit, Run, in a sinister demonstration that not even the house of the Lord is safe from temptation. The titillating weirdness of sex pulls you forward through the enormous novel. Really? you keep saying, as you turn the pages. Are such things possible? And you inhale the whiff of sulfur.

This conjoining of the here-and-now with hints of a thrilling, invisible reality goes deep in Updike, too—down beneath the twists of his plot, beneath the doctrines of his competing Protestant ministers, into the sediments of his language. For the celebrated beauty of Updike’s prose is owed to something more than a lyrical ear and a deft way with visual images. The doubleness of Updike’s world—the visible world shadowed by hints of an invisible world—comes out as a doubleness in his prose. He sees a hardscrabble reality, and expresses it coarsely. His characters say ghastly things. In “Remembered” Nelson watches Janice’s new husband, Ron, go up to Annabelle at Thanksgiving and say something to make her cry. And when Nelson wonders what has happened, Ronnie explains that he asked Annabelle “how it felt being the bastard kid of a whore and a bum. I didn’t ask her for a blow job, though.” It’s shocking, and typical, too.

Yet Updike always ends up wrapping this sort of ugliness in the graceful pleats of his visual descriptions. The bleak and the sumptuous, in Updike, go together. They are the two sexes of his style, interdenominationally married—the spare and the luxurious, the Lutheran and the Episcopalian. The double style in his prose allows him to express two full and entirely different moods at the same time—pious and sinful, bitter and ecstatic. He seems to shudder with guilt; and also with pleasure, doubly alive, at war with himself over those different moods. It’s true that his two-sided prose sometimes wobbles out of control. In some of his writings he sinks into the lush mode of his style, as if he has drunk too much. And then, in some of the opening stories in Licks of Love, he seems rigid and austere, as if forswearing any stimulants at all.

But Rabbit, most of it, is written from somewhere halfway inside Rabbit’s head, and this keeps Updike from wandering too far in either direction. The bluntness has to be Rabbit’s, but so does the lyricism. At least the lyricism can’t veer too far from what Rabbit himself might be able to say or think. Everything, moreover, keeps to the present tense—a slightly complicated present tense, in which events take place, and thoughts run after them, half a beat behind, in languorous syncopation. And the present tense likewise imposes a discipline on the entire series.

There are moments when the limitations of Rabbit’s mental universe and the discipline of the writing can wear you down. You hardly ever have a chance to stand back and take in the larger picture, hardly ever get to reflect for more than a flickering moment on what has been going on. You can find yourself wishing that Rabbit could have a wild fantasy now and then, or go to the movies, or listen to a fire-and-brimstone sermon and come home uplifted by new ideas. Doesn’t Rabbit ever imagine himself as the millionaire basketball star he might have been, thousands of miles from Mt. Judge, PA? Or find himself trying on a few bizarre thoughts about God and the afterlife, just to see how they fit?

But he is not a thinker. Large ideas play no part in his life, except as they fall unpredictably upon him in tiny droplets. The man is narrow, and the narrow outlook can sometimes make you feel as if you’re stuck in a tunnel. The narrowness becomes the most irritating aspect of the novel, a sharper limitation than anything to be found in a few clumsy passages here and there, or in Updike’s sometimes hokey efforts at dragging in the evening news—flaws and gaucheries that you can certainly find, as could be expected even in a much smaller work.

But in “Remembered” Updike comes up with a clever way of expanding his novel’s outlook, if only after the fact. “Remembered,” too, is written in the present tense—some of it expressing Janice’s inner thinking, some of it Nelson’s. But the past-tense title of “Rabbit Remembered” is just as well chosen as Licks of Love, and your attention keeps drifting back to the man who is ten years gone, now seen through the sentimentalizing mist of time, now through the social-work language that Nelson, in his new, no longer coke-addicted state, has earnestly picked up. You get to see everything from the variable angles of retrospect.

About Rabbit, Nelson tells Annabelle,

What’s to say? He was narcissistically impaired, would be my diagnosis. Intuitive, but not very empathic. He never grew up…. He was careless and self-centered, but he had his points. People liked being around him. He was upbeat. Since he never grew up himself, he could be good with children, even with me when I was little. The smaller they were, the better he related…. Me he kept giving a sinking feeling. I mean, he did things, too. He ran away from Mom…. He got involved with a megalomaniacal black guy and a masochistic runaway white girl and got our house burned down. He had a crush on this nitwit young wife of a friend of my parents when they were in a country-club phase. Then he had a long secret affair with his oldest friend’s wife. I say friend, but in fact he and Ronnie always hated each other. I mean, this is not a constructive personality we’re talking about.

That little speech has its fun with Nelson and his professional jargon. Yet some of that jargon is on the mark. It’s a relief to see Rabbit presented as someone who can be clinically discussed. It’s even a relief to see Nelson’s adult mind at work, after four volumes of Rabbit’s more instinctive but hopelessly unanalytic way of thinking.

The retrospective gaze brings a thousand old details and tiny events into new focus. Also some not so tiny events. The single most fateful incident of Nelson’s life was the fire that destroyed the family’s house when he was a child, back in Redux. Nelson was staying over at his friend Billy’s on that night, and was never in danger. But the destruction of the house and the deaths of the black man and the runaway girl have shaped Nelson for life, and in some ways deformed him. Now, in “Remembered,” when the middle-aged Nelson runs into Billy, he reminds his old pal of the terrible fire. Billy says,

When was that? How old were we?”

Twelve, maybe you were thirteen. Are you serious, you’ve forgotten it?”

Well, when you mention it, it kind of comes back, but as a news item mostly.”

Nelson has spent thirty years brooding about those events. But Billy has had no reason to brood. Nelson was devastated by the fire, but not Billy, and thirty years is a long time. The conversation is over in a flash, and Updike makes no great fuss over it. But that little exchange, because it is entirely believable and yet somewhat amazing (“Are you serious?”), makes an acerbic commentary on friendship and the passage of time. What is vast to one person may be almost forgotten by his best friend. Not every event is linked to every other. It is a chilling moment. And it reminds us that, for all of Updike’s achievement in having written a novel on a grand scale that touches on any number of deep themes, Rabbit is most of all, in its accumulation of detail, a straightforward work of psychological observation, pebble piled on pebble, a masterpiece, in the end, of cool, stony record-taking.

I say “in the end,” but “Rabbit Remembered” can’t be the end, can it? Ten years ago Updike announced that Rabbit at Rest had brought the series to a close. But like a foolish politician who may have been elected long ago by promising to support term limits and now regrets it, Updike has already shown a nimble talent for shucking off the annoying constraints of consistency. For why shouldn’t he stay in office forever? Why not follow the example of his heroic nineteenth-century masters, until his own antiheroic “total” work of art someday trails off, unfinished because unfinishable?

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