John Updike Updike, John (Vol. 15)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The interest of Updike as a moral fabulist is that his judgments are never univocal. By his own avowal, he has too much tenderness for his characters to condemn their follies. On the other hand, his sense of humor and his ethics do not permit him to let their foibles go unnoticed. He himself acknowledges this duality when he affirms that all his work says "Yes, but." We find the same ambivalence in the definition he gives of the people he considers as spiritually alive: "I feel that to be a person is to be in a situation of tension, is to be in a dialectical situation." Most of the charm of Updike's protagonists in general, and of Harry Angstrom in particular, is that, close to them as we may feel, we can never really anticipate the inconclusive ending to which their contradictions will lead them. We do not even know where Rabbit is heading at the end of Rabbit, Run. Perhaps it is because of this ultimate ambiguity that his existence leaves such a lasting impression on our inner sensibilities….

Ten years later, bringing him back to life in Rabbit Redux, Updike poses the critic another problem: must he consider this book as a continuation or just as another step in the novelist's itinerary? In recent years, as a reaction against the excesses of critical biography and literary history, there has developed a tendency to regard a novel as a self-contained unit producing its own logic, its own reference system. And indeed Rabbit Redux can be pleasurable and exciting even if one has not read the first book, Updike providing enough data to enable us to have a fair understanding of the factual links between the two works. Yet it is obvious that there exist shades of meaning perceptible only to those who are already familiar with Rabbit, Run. Elements of the decor such as the iceplant, the park, the quarry, images like those of the web, the net, the hole, carry latent connotations that the newcomer cannot grasp. He can neither fully enjoy the comical zest of the inversion of roles—epitomized by Harry's complaint: "Everybody now is like the way I used to be"—nor be aware of the similarities between the two novels, similarities in structure but also in tone since Updike returns here to the present tense he had almost completely abandoned after Rabbit, Run. Besides, through a series of echoes, reminders, and private jokes, he establishes with the initiated reader a complicity which greatly contributes to his pleasure. Mirroring scenes and motifs from the first book, even going to the length of repeating complete sentences, the author plays on an intertextual shuttle which modifies the separate meaning of each book. Following his example, one can imagine that it may be instructive to juxtapose or superpose fragments of his prose and either other passages of his books or the production of another writer used as external reference. The purpose of this article is to work out a number of variations on the character of Rabbit, concentrating primarily on his apprehension of "the poetry of space" … and on the metaphors which express it. (p. 95)

[Most] constituents of the beat mystique [of the 1950s] appear in the sensibility of Harry Angstrom: his sentimental involvement with the popular culture of his time; his bitter dissatisfaction with the standards of the era of conformity; his instinctive revolt against the forces of depersonalization; his somewhat inarticulate, though insistently asserted, belief in "something else"; his desire, unconsidered but persistent, to get away from it all and go back to nature; all this makes of him an archetypal figure now, that of the pioneer on the trail of modern disaffiliation. (p. 96)

The journey need not be long or eventful for Updike's heroes to relish the elation of going away. (p. 97)

[It] is typical of Harry's inconsistency that, while fancying himself an enemy of conformity, he panics at the slightest suggestion of the wilderness he is supposed to be returning to. The Amish passengers of a buggy past...

(The entire section is 8,961 words.)