One of the characters in Rabbit Remembered says of the detective novels she is always reading, “How do they make all this up? They must have a screw loose.” John Updike I feel is mocking himself. I’m sure that he thinks he has a screw loose, and he’s glad about it. He wouldn’t have wanted to have all his screws tight; who does?
I came to read Rabbit Remembered by mistake. I’ve been slowly–here and there, for a shot of humour, colour, and inventiveness, like a glass of Cognac–been reading my way through Updike’s Licks of Love. When I started reading Rabbit Remembered I thought I was reading another short story, but it’s a full novel, or at least a novella. I read more than half of it in one go on the plane yesterday from Bengaluru to London. That’s the way to read. (I seem to have given up watching films on planes: they almost always disappoint. My novels, never–I’m too choosy.)
Every sentence of Updike carries poetry and sharp observation–and often a joke as well. I’ve been reading Rabbit Remembered at the same time as reading Anna Karenina, and most sentences of Tolstoy contain insights–but they don’t have the fizz, the joy of words, the poetry of Updike (they probably have more poetry in Russian). The beauty of Tolstoy is in the vast range and the deep and timeless psychological understanding. In Anna Karenina marriage (“that bloody business) is examined from every angle. Updike too examines relationships acutely, but in a lighter, funnier way. Perhaps some would find Updike overwritten, but his sentences sing and seem effortless, which, of course, they can’t be. I contrast him with Will Self, who undoubtedly overwrites: his sentences have insights and complexity, but most feel heavy and laboured compared with Updike.
Rabbit Remembered is a book about a man who has been dead for ten years. Rabbit is the central character in the book but appears only in memories and dreams and is described primarily through the impact he has left on the living characters.
I’ve read the first two Rabbit books–Rabbit Run (twice, 25 years apart) and Rabbit Redux–and I think that I’ve read the third, Rabbit is Rich, but not the fourth, Rabbit at Rest. (At this point I decide to search for my copy of A Rabbit Omnibus; what a tedious task searching my disordered shelves, but I find it. I know now that I have read Rabbit is Rich because I’ve underlined passages.) As the characters remember Rabbit so do I.
Janice was Rabbit’s abused and abandoned wife. The never-to-be-forgotten climax of her life was when she drowned her baby daughter in the bath when drunk. But she’s a survivor who still lives in the house in which she grew up. Unlike most of the character’s she’s thin, and she’s married to Rabbit’s teenage rival, Ronnie–perhaps as some kind of revenge, perhaps to be close to somebody who was also close to Rabbit, perhaps both. She loved and still loves Rabbit despite the multiple betrayals. Ronnie always lost to Rabbit, although Rabbit “peaked too early” while a brilliant high school basketball player (he was tall). Thereafter Rabbit was a loser, although he always thought himself as a winner.
Memories of Rabbit are evoked when his probable “lovechild,” Annabelle, turns up at Janice’s door having been told at the age of 39 by her dying mother that she was Rabbit’s daughter. Janice doesn’t want anything to do with her, and Ronnie even more so–perhaps because he too fucked Annabelle’s mother (everybody did) but lost again to Rabbit in that Rabbit made her pregnant.
But Nelson, Rabbit’s son, is excited to discover that he has a sister, thinking perhaps of the baby sister who drowned, and wants to help Annabelle, who doesn’t actually need help. Nelson’s marriage has failed, and we learn that Rabbit slept with Nelson’s ex-wife just before he died. We can see why he’s called Rabbit. He also had an affair with Ronnie’s dead wife, beating him again. Rabbit was attractive to women because of his charm, wit, and hopelessness combined with an effortless confidence. (I remembered a scene of anal intercourse from one of the earlier books, which I thought at the time a description of sex that succeeded completely, something I had thought impossible.) I wonder if Rabbit does seem convincingly attractive to women readers. (There must be an essay on the topic.)
Nelson’s attempt to help Annabelle backfires dramatically and funnily when he invites her to a family Thanksgiving. Ronnie’s family see this as an opportunity to revenge themselves on Rabbit for having dishonoured (Tolstoy word) their mother. Presciently for a book published in 2000, much of the argument is over Hillary Clinton. Ronnie’s family, all convincing would-be Trump supporters, and two elderly guests hate her, whereas Nelson, Annabelle, and one of the Ronnie’s sons, a gay would-be dancer, admire her.
The book ends with redemption for the main characters, all of whom are damaged–as we all are.
I found myself wondering how much of Updike is in Rabbit. He’s clearly some sort of alter ego, not in being a loser but in being tall, charming, sexually incontinent, and with “a screw loose.”
Here are quotes I took from the book:
The year 1959 seems very close, as close as the beating of her heart, which beat then too, back in the tunnel of time, that same faithful muscle, in its darkness and blood. She doesn’t want to prolong the discussion, though; she doesn’t want to get involved, though there is a tug, back into the past’s sad damp pit.
Nobody wants war but men don’t want only peace either.
The sherry moves into her veins and begins to tint this nightmare a more agreeable color.
She used to say of these detective novels she was always reading, ‘How do they make all this up? They must have a screw loose.’
Dying people aren’t the most sensible, often, though you’d think they should be.
Her vast face holds a trace, a delicate imprint like a fern in shale, of the face she had as a young woman.
Health care is an expanding field, as the world fills up with people that would have been dead a hundred years ago. Everybody winds up needing care, pretty much.” “Yeah, you wonder if it’s worth all the effort. I mean, you’re keeping these Alzheimer’s wrecks going when they don’t even know enough to thank you, and I knock myself out to keep a bunch of depressive loonies from killing themselves, when if they did it it would save the government a fair amount of money.”
Even at the very end, there’s something in there, a soul or whatever, you have to love.
Everybody thinks their little story is the story of the universe.
His ear is jaded, hearing all day about families, dealing with all the variations of dependency and resentment, love and its opposite, all the sickly inturned can’t-get-away-from-itness of close relations.
If you let somebody talk enough, everything comes out, underside first.
Who would have thought the Internet, that’s supposed to knit the world into a shining tyranny-proof ball, would be so grubbily adolescent?
On drug addicts: “Living to the next hit, the next scrounged blow-out, gives their lives a point. Being clean exposes you to life’s having no point.”
Dad had loved her [his sister], and she him, with the heavy helplessness of blood, that casts us into a family as if into a doom.
At thirty-nine [or anything older], everybody’s their own problem.
“You worry too much. Life is wild. When it isn’t a total bore.”
This pale man in bifocals…reminds her of a doctor— the same chilly neatness, the same superior air of having mastered a language only a few can speak.
“You wonder how much dead weight society can carry,” he goes on. “At some point in the next millennium, governments will have to establish a cut-off point. Eskimos did it, when they were a viable population. Native American tribes did it. In Sicily, they used to make a party of it— everybody piled on with pillows, so when the old person smothered there was no single person who had, so to speak, ‘done it.’ ”
“I don’t know, there’s always something worthwhile there, even when they can’t remember from one minute to the next. They’re easy to make contact with. Maybe the shame they can’t express, about being useless, opens them up.”
Being adult, it seems, consists of not paying much attention.
Nelson [the father] sighs, seeing sex loom ahead for Roy [his son] as a dark and heartless omnivore.
As he runs through this bleak list it occurs to him that there is nothing to do in Diamond County— just be born, live, and die.
The planet is being cooked. The oceans will rise, the croplands will become deserts.
here is a partner in his childish dreams, the conspiracy of imagined speed and triumphant violence that boys erect around themselves like a tent in the back yard under the scary stars.
It’s like a nap, only you don’t wake up and have to find your shoes.
Pru and Annabelle have shaken hands like two big cats brushing whiskers,
Her survey of the four adult children, her son among them, and the mother of her grandchildren, all so touching, dressed up to greet this particular calendrical doom, with Harry and Fred and Mother and little Becky all squeezed inside them somehow, the DNA.
“It stretches,” Ronnie obnoxiously insists. “Like a condom.” Go to church all he wants, this guy is never going to get his brains out of his pants.