Commenter Michael, who objected to the thrust of my comments about John Updike’s oeuvre a few weeks ago, reports on the recent meeting of his Portland, Maine book club and their discussion of Rabbit at Rest:
There was one fortyish [ed. note: Michael too is fortyish] female consciencious objector who scheduled a competing girls-nite-out rather than discuss why the Rabbit’s internal monologue several times refers to Mrs. Rabbit as a “dumb mutt”.
Otherwise, and I am barely spinning this, the group was, to quote [my wife and her mother], “blown away.” I think part of the reason is that Rabbit at Rest finds Updike at the height of his powers – several reviews indicate some sort of perfection of Updike’s craft in this novel.
As the visual artist / art historian in the group put it, “he notices everything”, and as others noticed, the way he jumps from Rabbit licking candied crumbs off his hand “like an anteater” in one sentence and contemplating a plane crash in the next, the sudden, realistic yet jarring changes of scope, are fascinating to follow. The run on sentences are gorgeous and also realistic.
The discussion was on point from beginning to end, and many people were compelled to read favorite passages, which almost never happens.
I think that Adam Gopnik put it far better than I ever could:
“Comedy was his default mode, though, and comedy is made of realism alloyed with love. A note of happiness rings through Updike’s prose, and draws us to it, makes us happy when we read it. It is not a fatuous happiness, or a happiness unaware of death (a preoccupation with death and dying was a steady feature of his work), but neither does it cede too much to mere mortality. One has a sense of someone who—as much as, though with more wit than, Andy Warhol—has spent a good deal of his life liking things. Women’s clothes, their hair, the hybridization of American accents; the way that the hyper-cold of the airline baggage compartment can be felt like a secret in the bag as you unpack—all these images and moments, recalled at random from his work, are not just reported but quietly rhapsodized, registered with love. It is his affections that rise, and that we recall.”
I too admire Updike’s skills as a writer, but as a feminist who believes that women are people too, it’s not “his affections that rise, and that [I] recall.” It is interesting to note the very severe divide in opinions between men and women commentors in the previous thread, too. Updike’s work perhaps both documents and serves as a rorshach test for the divide between the sexes among middle class Americans in the last half of the twentieth century, and perhaps the first decade of the twenty-first century as well. This is not to say that the act of enjoying Updike’s writing is essentially antifeminist, or that feminists can’t enjoy Updike. It’s to say that Updike, like Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and all writers, was a man of his time. Reading Updike’s characterizations of women is for me, and I think for many women, like coming across one of those blatantly racist passages in Twain, Fitzgerald, or Hemingway–you know, the ones that make you just sick because they’re so ugly and they remind you that for all of their gifts and their insights into human nature, these writers nevertheless shared the prejudices of their times.
Thanks, Michael, for your report, and I’m glad you had a great discussion of a book you all enjoyed.
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