If life is a novel, death is an editor. It strikes through every extraneous detail. It erases periods of divagation, inactivity, and muddle. Writers are an odd subspecies of public figure, however — an expansively private one — and when a writer dies, our journalistic last rites run the risk of cutting his million-word testimony down to a stingy clutch of nouns. Another quirk of writers, though: they bequeath us the tools we need to reach our own conclusions, without the mediation of professionals. For those disinclined to snap judgments, the death of a novelist may invite a long — even leisurely — period of reconsideration.

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If life is a novel, death is an editor. It strikes through every extraneous detail. It erases periods of divagation, inactivity, and muddle. Writers are an odd subspecies of public figure, however — an expansively private one — and when a writer dies, our journalistic last rites run the risk of cutting his million-word testimony down to a stingy clutch of nouns.

Another quirk of writers, though: they bequeath us the tools we need to reach our own conclusions, without the mediation of professionals. For those disinclined to snap judgments, the death of a novelist may invite a long — even leisurely — period of reconsideration. In particular, I was bowled over by the strangeness, the reckless compassion, and the emotional power of Rabbit Redux Late in life, Updike published a slimmer novel called Terrorist , which met with distinctly mixed reviews.

Reviewers found fault with Rabbit Redux , as well, Updike confesses in his introduction to the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus. Rabbit soon discovers, however, that his wife, Janice, is contemplating an abandonment of her own. Now a working woman, she has succumbed to the charms of her coworker, Charlie Stavros. Stavros shows her an emotional and sexual solicitude Harry has never been capable of. Updike, who openly admired many of those values, has sometimes been characterized by writers to his left as a reactionary.

However, a bravura early scene in which Angstrom and Stavros debate the war in Vietnam exposes this as a caricature. More than Bellow in Mr. He seems to conclude that politics are personal on both sides of the ideological divide. Stavros will eventually try to persuade Janice to return to her husband. Indeed, by this point, Rabbit Redux has assumed a form borrowed from the counterculture Updike is supposed to have hated: the consciousness-raising session.

The middle section of the book, wherein Janice moves out of the house — is a long, strange, irresponsible trip. Harry begins smoking dope and exploring the down-and-out side of Brewer. He entangles himself with a teenage runaway named Jill and a petty criminal-cum-black-nationalist named Skeeter.

This is what the world of many white male characters in novels might look like, stripped of political correctness and bad faith. I can imagine readers who are black, or are women, or both, taking exception to Jill and Skeeter, who hover somewhere between character and symbol. Perhaps it even precipitated a change in suburban readers, circa , as a novel more deferential to pieties or circumspect about stereotypes could not. But this verdict is far too narrow to contain the vast corpus Updike left behind.

Agitated by the times, his limpid prose in this book approaches the visionary. Yet even in his redoubled grief — that extraordinary, comma-less catharsis — there is some hopeful green stuff woven. Rilke wrote that beauty was merely the beginning of the arc of terror.

Rabbit Redux suggests a corollary: that terror may sometimes be the beginning of the arc of beauty. As eras accrue and each literary movement gives way to the next, canon space which remains fixed becomes survival of the fittest. Ludwig Tieck , William Congreve , and Francisco de Quevedo were household names in their day, but are now anthology also-rans of their respective movements.

So who gets to be heard from among those morbid aesthetes known as The Decadents? And Arthur Rimbaud , certainly, though he is more sui generis than representative.

Oscar Wilde abides, but as a pithy epigrammatist. This battle is waged, for the most part, in academe, but occasionally an intrepid publisher will root around among the dead and resurrect a neglected figure. His exquisite if precious prose rivals the man who almost shot him, but contemporary readers may surfeit of his elaborate characterizations and attention to ornament.

Sumptuously translated by Eva Richter , Monsieur de Bougrelon is delivered with characteristic flourishes and yet its bejeweled chest eventually opens to reveal the beating heart of a Decadent ethos. Bougrelon appears to them apparition-like, an absurd, pathetic dandy who seems at best deluded—though his delusions prove carefully crafted—at worst insane.

The book is based on just such a lackluster trip to Amsterdam taken by Lorrain and Octave Uzanne. Monsieur Edgard de Mortimer. The most salient feature of Mortimer is his being dead, and thus a product of romanticized memory. I am an idea in an era that has no more of them.

More style than substance at face value , Monsieur de Bougrelon is steeped in the superficial—an oxymoronic epitaph for its author and the Decadents in general. Many Decadents revel in a rejection of the real, but for Lorrain it is flight, not pilgrimage, that drives his figures to the outlands of a reality they can never quite escape. Openly gay effectively, though he never came out , Lorrain eschewed the hetero-mask of so many authors e.

His masks are not meant to conceal or replace what lies beneath, but rather to present themselves as masks. His spectral presences are representatives of reality, and not some mysterious beyond. The ghosts, grotesque monsters, and filthy animals are the human beings who walk the city streets. They are not transmogrified, merely revealed in their true aspect.

So the original question remains, why should Monsieur de Bougrelon survive the cull of literary history? A case could be made for Monsieur de Bougrelon being both indicative of an ethos and simultaneously striking a tone that most Decadents bypass en route to the logical extremes of melodrama and sado-masochism.

As we advanced, slowly and contemplatively, along those display cases that were like sarcophagi, an infinite sadness, a tender compassion, penetrated us, wearying and soothing at once…we drifted from here to there, beyond the century, no longer in a museum but in a sickroom, almost afraid of waking the souls that were in the rags laid out before our eyes.

What is a sentence? That just was. There are simple and complex sentences. Some hold words remote, some ideas off key. Some lightly kiss your cheek like a European friend and some incense with their grandeur or insouciance.

Recently, two elderly statesmen of letters released books of non-fiction, though some of their best known works are novels and novellas penned decades earlier. William H. As Gass lays out some of these sentences in diagrams, scrolls, and bullet points, one sees their structure, harmonics, and meaning much better. His project is to notate sentences like a composer writing music, but notating in reverse — the music is already evident as Gass leads the reader from the balcony into opening of the oboe in the orchestra pit.

Their words make love of the kind the mind makes when the mind fears its body may not measure up. Like Gass, Alexander Theroux is also a celebrator of fine words and creator of ornate sentences, but with a few more inches of fury to his hat size. Yet the divagations into marginalia and widespread panic the amount of annual U. The episodes with less than kind people he met in his time there — many being Fulbright scholars as was his painter wife enjoying or enduring their research year — are still hot on the surface of his skin, continually stinging like some Inferno -like torment, and at times they override the richly wrought compendia of such a learned soul.

How could so many appear smug? As much as I admire his writing, it is hard to stay in his stream of sentences that might soon spit another spiteful judgment at someone who has crossed him — sometimes the water is magical and sometimes the pen goes awry, squid-mad, and suddenly one is afloat in toxins. That middle section of Redux felt like paint-by-numbers political fiction to me.

It's where I stalled out on the Rabbit books. Rabbit, Run, in my memory, came by its relevance more organically. Commentary on the sexual revolution? Civil rights issues? Got it. Now let's throw in some dope and some A Space Odyssey, and we've got ourselves one hell of a relevant book!

All of this in rust-belt Pennsylvania, and mediated by the perspective of a "typical American"! I couldn't help feeling that Updike was thinking in political categories first, human beings second. Norman Rush's people, by contrast, embody politics in dizzyingly complex ways.

They are never reducible to categories. They sort of perspire politics. It almost never feels forced. I admire Updike's willingness to go beyond what he knew, to risk seeming foolish, especially since his competence in high-church domestic realism was so formidable that he'd have been celebrated if he'd written nothing else.

But it's hard to think of a writer as talented and intelligent who got out of his depth as frequently. I agree and disagree with the previous comment — the middle section at first did feel calculated, the way an episode of Law and Order, say, can reference issues rather than actually consider them, but upon reflection, something more emerges… and remember, this book wasn't written 10 years after the events it reacts to — it was written, more or less, as they were happening, making the charge of over-calcuatedness less persuasive.

Rabbit's confused, inarticulate anger find a sort of metaphorical parallel in Vietnam. The allegory of "middle America meets teen runaway and black nationalist" falls away and the psychological reality of Rabbit's experience starts to come to the fore. But Updike does presage some critical-theoretical approaches to American foreign policy — the moment when he and Skeeter confusingly find themselves agreeing about the necessity of the war comes to mind.

Basically — I think the Skeeter-Jill-Rabbit-Nelson middle section is more problematic in a good way than it might seem. This is more than just Forrest Gump meandering through a picture-postcard version of history.

Jill and Skeeter are two of the most powerful characters Updike or anyone ever created. His was a Shakesperian talent whose likes we will never see again. I have yet to encounter a single person except for my teacher who condemned me to read this piece of writing this semester who has to say something nice about this book and is not American.

Most of the political references are lost on me, but what set me off is the ridiculously boring plot: married couple breaks up after a long period of mutual indifference and reunites at the end following a series of absurd events. The characters, especially Harry, are exaggerated and the events they get drawn into or trigger themselves are plainly too far fetched.

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As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard. Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy.


The 100 best novels: No 88 – Rabbit Redux by John Updike (1971)

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Beauty and the Arc of Terror: Rabbit Redux Reconsidered

He was always something of a miniaturist. His first hope was to be a poet. When that ambition misfired, he took his delight in the English sentence and made a name for himself as a New Yorker short story writer. Finally, he brought his gifts of wit, curiosity and invention to the American novel. On first meeting, Harry is selling a revolutionary vegetable-peeler on commission later, he will run a Toyota dealership , and wrestling with a miserable suburban marriage. Harry is a good man whose circumstances provoke him to do bad things. In the first volume, he leaves his boozy wife, Janice, to go off with a call-girl but not for long.


Rabbit Redux

Rabbit Redux is a novel by John Updike. Rabbit Redux finds former high-school basketball star Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom working a dead-end job as a Linotype operator at the local printing plant. Thirty-six, he feels that he is quickly approaching middle age and irrelevance, a fear he sees reflected in the economic decline of his hometown, Brewer, Pennsylvania. When his wife leaves him for an eccentric Greek man named Charlie Stavros, Harry and his thirteen-year-old son Nelson are at a loss. Seeking to fill the void left by Janice, Harry starts a commune , composed of himself; Nelson; Skeeter, a cynical, drug-dealing African-American Vietnam vet with messianic delusions; and Jill, a wealthy, white, runaway teenager from Connecticut. While Skeeter keeps Jill in sexual thrall to him with heroin, Harry and Nelson are both drawn to Jill for the different things she represents to them: lost innocence and sexual conquest for Harry, and first love and coming of age for Nelson. Against the backdrop of the Summer of Love , Harry, Skeeter, and Jill do drugs, have sex, and debate religion, race relations, and other political issues of the s while Nelson attempts to romance Jill.

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