No More Territory Jun 16, 2009
Rabbit Angstrom, the protagonist of John Updike's Rabbit quartet, is repellent in his human frailties--lust, nostalgia, resentment, evasion, abdication of adult responsibility--and can be said to mirror his own country.
Rabbit is Rich finds Harry Angstrom newly rich with his inheritance of his father-in-law's Toyota dealership amid the oil crisis of the 1970s. He and his wife belong to a country club, live with Janice's mother, and their son Nelson who arrives with his pregnant wife-to-be Pru. There is a Caribbean idyll in which wives are swapped, a visit to an old lover Ruth, now gone to seed, and a grandchild.
From these simple plot elements, the author inhabits the fully realized eponymous character, whose perspective dominates the novel, with epic amplitude and scope. Updike's baroque style is best served by being filtered through Rabbit's consciousness in all its crudity. The male gaze is relentless. Yet Updike has created a character who, to me, is quintessentially American in his careless racial epithets, his endless sexualizing of women, his bewildered homophobia, his habitual dwelling in pastness. He is a man who is "a failed boy."
The author's manipulation of time in the novel is masterful and seemingly without effort. It is fair to say that the interiority of the women characters is given short shrift, but these after all are Rabbit's books.
Updike's depiction of marriage, sex, intergenerational strife, aging and American working lives is immensely compelling and persuasive. Paradoxically, the limitations of Rabbit's point of view opens up the author's vision of America over a four-decade span in the four novels.
What major writer would allow his main character to engage in a reverie about the disco queen Donna Summer, as Updike does here? The absorption of Seventies pop culture is quite remarkable. If Rabbit's attitudes are often provincial, sour, constricted and jaundiced, at the same time the novel has a marvelous fullness and a shocking candor, especially about sex.
In Rabbit is Rich, Harry Angstrom is Huck Finn not quite grown, with a wife, a son he resents, and a granddaughter, but with no more territory to light out to. It's all closed off now, and he simply awaits another "nail in the coffin." This is a superb novel.