22 May 2006

Rabbits

I'm about halfway through the "Rabbit" novels by John Updike, and already I'm beginning to regret that within a couple weeks the story is going to end, and the marvellous characters they contain are going to vanish from the world just as surely as the flesh-and-blood creatures who inhabit my "real" life. I'd always shied away from Updike, probably out of some class-borne prejudice; he was, in my imaginings, one of those chroniclers of the privileged and well-to-do. Harvard-educated and a New Yorker alumnus as well, what could he possibly know about the gritty facts of life as lived by the likes of myself and my more "authentic" cronies?

As often turns out to be the case, I couldn't have been more wrong. Although a couple Updike novels I'd read earlier did seem to dwell more on the suburban country club set, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom and his sometimes squalid, often befuddled existence come straight out of the blue collar Rust Belt world I grew up in. Since Updike himself has described his area of interest as "the American small town, Protestant middle class," and comes across as someone who is thoroughly a product of that environment, I found it remarkable that he'd been able to produce such a precisely nuanced view of sullen, frustrated working class life. Granted, by volume three of the Rabbit chronicles, his protagonist has landed with an insensate thud in the midst of the upwardly mobile middle classes about whom Updike more typically writes, but that transformation also reveals Updike's deft touch at dealing simultaneously with small, personal stories and the great sweeping panorama of social and cultural change in mid to late 20th century America.

The Rabbit novels are - perhaps in an oblique sense - almost Proustian in scope, not in terms of density or detail, but in the way images, fragmented memories and seemingly mundane or innocuous dialogue combine to evoke the sense, the sound, the smell, the feeling of a place, a world, a way of life that the passage of time has rendered unreachable but no less vivid - indeed, perhaps all the more vivid - because of it. As a writer, I have to admit that I'm awestruck, inspired, and on the verge of despair at the prospect of never being able to produce anything remotely so brilliant.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

No matter how much avant-garde (sometimes) bullshit literature I read and enjoy, nothing seems to approach the demure little grace of the Rabbit tetralogy. Every page is a cataclysmic little revelation of the unspoken and hidden depressions and joys, ups and downs of life.

Thanks for coming with me to see him read a few years ago.