Thursday, August 19, 2010

John Updike's "Rabbit Redux"

My first Updike, and I exploded with pure pleasure. From the precise beauty of its descriptions. From its beguiling historical detail and allegorical meaning. From its nuanced understanding of men and women, particularly men, but also women, what they want, what they fear, what they fear to want.

The structure of the book is elegantly simple. It opens with a wife walking out on her husband, and closes with the probability of them getting back together again. Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is a man who feels responsible for the world but helpless to do anything for himself, let alone the world. Each section of the book focuses on the people he feels responsible for. In Section I, they are mom who is suffering from Parkinson's, and dad who is constantly reminding Harry to visit his dying mother. In Section II, after Janice left, Rabbit took up with Jill, a young white hippie who rejected her rich family. Her friend, a young black radical, Skeeter, took refuge with them in Section III. The combination, fired by racism, proves to be combustive. Mim, Harry's sister who works as a high-end prostitute, arrives in Section IV as an unlikely deus ex machina.

Adrift between a world that is dying and a world that is struggling to be born, Harry is a living portrait of Middle America at the time of the moon landing. If the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement divided society then, the novel shows how people came to hold such opposing views, how they abandoned them, and how they wavered. In this way the novel speaks to our present ideological divides: it undermines complacency, softens rigidity and blasts self-righteousness. It also puts sex where it belongs: at the center of all our discussions.

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