Tuesday, March 22, 2011

John Updike's "Rabbit Is Rich"

What's extraordinary about Updike's art is how ordinary his materials are. No sensational subjects like pederasty, pandemic or terrorist plot, although Rabbit Is Rich teases with the possibility of incest. There is couple swapping, on a vacation at the Bahamas, its treatment is, however, neither moralistic nor voyeuristic, but sympathetic about human desires and fears. No epiphanic event: Pru, Harry Angstrom's daughter-in-law, falls from the stairs, but keeps her baby. She does not change, and neither does her feckless husband, Nelson.

Instead of sensation or epiphany, Updike offers in this third installment of his Rabbit tetralogy, the lived experience of a Toyota salesman in 1979, who has become rich because of his wife, who is struggling against the decay of age, who feels constantly threatened by a sullen son, and who reads Consumer Reports with a seriousness devoted to the Bible in an earlier age.

The last trait is a clue to the extraordinary nature of ordinary Harry. Despite his moral failings, his perceptual denseness, his linguistic crudities, he is immensely attractive, to readers and women, because of his great hope for life. This hope, so Protestant in spirit, is satirized in the zestful comical scenes of Harry's speculations in gold and silver. It is also castigated in the plot involving Ruth, a past lover, and her daughter, both of whom Harry abandoned. The meeting between Ruth and Harry is one of the most poignant scenes in my reading. 

Against death, necessity and boredom, however, this hope lifts Harry to some greater place. Sullied, doubtful, compromised, this may be the only kind of transcendence possible in our postmodern age, but its smallness only makes it more to be cherished. 

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