About ten years ago, Rabbit Angstrom had a heart attack and died, laying to rest for several million readers a sixteen-hundred-page account of a singularly average life. Rabbit’s known world encompassed four volumes of John Updike’s finest writing, published over as many decades, beginning in 1960 with Rabbit, Run. By then Rabbit was eight years out of high school, and whatever was once exceptional about him was gone: on the basketball court he’d been the local hero, which, if not quite a Herculean feat, at least was more noteworthy than his current position demonstrating kitchen gadgets at the local five-and-dime. (His son’s postmortem: “He peaked too early.”) Still, Rabbit lived. He married, had children, made enough money to retire. He also temporarily abandoned his wife and slept with his daughter-in-law. He did all that, much more than that, then died playing pick-up basketball with a total stranger a thousand miles from home, having more-or-less lost everything he’d gained in those four full volumes.
With the publication of Rabbit at Rest in 1990, John Updike had chronicled something about as profound as can be imagined in this common era. In mundane terms, he’d found a tragedy for the present day: strip the world of its fancy clothing, look at it beneath its girdle of hope, embrace the naked underbelly and all there is to live for is the sexual immediate. Of course sex has consequences, and those consequences underlie every turn in Rabbit’s life. But all that those turns do is take him in a perfect circle. Viewed in its entirety, examined for its consequences, Rabbit Angstrom’s life is inconsequential, perhaps pathetic. Only when seen up close, as it is lived, does it show itself to be something more. Worthy, even, of the great American novel.
Then along with the new millennium comes Rabbit Remembered, like a bastard child, barging in on old understandings with new ideas. In fact, Rabbit Remembered is a story about a bastard child, a daughter Rabbit had without his knowledge, conceived during the first of his extramarital affairs. Annabelle, as his daughter is called, is Updike’s excuse for ringing the Angstrom doorbell one more time, and entering into the lives of the survivors ten years after Rabbit’s demise. In merely 182 pages the novella is insulated with twelve standard-issue magazine stories Updike sacrifices the rich everyday of Rabbit’s life by imposing on it a retrospective gloss unfathomable in the previous four present-tense volumes. And, in the plump forty-year-old person of Annabelle, Updike surrenders sex to its lackluster consequences.
Annabelle is herself no virgin, nor does she particularly lack luster. In fact, everyone sexualizes her from her half-brother to his mother to his mother’s second husband sometimes nearly to the point of legal violation. With a virtuoso touch, Updike teases out the sexual tensions Annabelle brings to the family. From all appearances, though, Rabbit Remembered is meant to accomplish something more significant than that, to append to Rabbit’s life a concluding chapter in which death turns out not to be so devastatingly conclusive: to let Rabbit live postmortem in his progeny. Likely, it’s a plea for a future beyond the grave late in the author’s own life. In all fairness to Rabbit, we ought to read it as pure fiction.
Of course, Rabbit, Run was make-believe, too. “[A]ny resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental,” admonishes the publisher just above the copyright notice. But Rabbit up through Rabbit at Rest resembled persons living and dead all of us an existential everyman whose specific circumstances may seem foreign but whose basic urges remind us disturbingly of our own. With Updike’s encouragement, Rabbit acts on those urges. The former basketball champ’s psyche reveals itself, and exposes us to ourselves, in explicitly physical terms.
In Rabbit, Run, he runs from his pregnant wife Janice (“Just yesterday, it seems to him, she stopped being pretty,”), leaving her with their young son Nelson, putting as many miles as his ’55 Ford will carry him between his life and himself. Failed by his map, and his nerve, he winds up within a day nearly where he started: in a strange woman’s bed overlooking a church. Her cost is fifteen dollars for the night. Her name is Ruth. She is, or rather will soon be, Annabelle’s mother.
That trivial business transaction changes everyone’s future: Rabbit moves in with Ruth for a time, leaving drunken Janice to drown their infant daughter shortly after giving birth. Still, even baby Becky’s demise is of no great account to us, who have no blood ties to the Angstrom family, who don’t live in the imaginary town of Brewer, PA. Rather, it’s in the minutiae of the transaction itself, the negotiation of skin, that we find something essential about ourselves in Rabbit Angstrom.
Updike writes here as Egon Schiele paints. Through completely different media and in utterly different times, they pursue the same limit: Rabbit is frantic not so much to be in Ruth as to be of Ruth, to collect their flesh into some universal truth which maybe can explain to him the growing belittlement of his life. Schiele’s subjects, separated from the shared pigment of their embrace, expose themselves most through their genitalia; he paints the vagina the way another artist might depict the lingering violence of an unhealed knife wound. That is the vanishing point where we penetrate the painted surface. Likewise in Rabbit:
Rabbit’s mistake is to perceive sex as a means when in fact it is an end. Sex doesn’t provide insight, post-coitus. Sex is insight, its climax. “Nature leads you up like a mother,” Updike observes, “and as soon as she gets her little price leaves you with nothing.”
Which helps to explain why Rabbit Remembered remembers none of what was worth remembering in Rabbit Angstrom. Rabbit Remembered operates in post-coital time, a sort of eulogy in the form of an epilogue that attempts to make of Annabelle a legacy worthy of Rabbit. Certainly she’s solid enough, supports herself as a nurse caring for the elderly. Unlike Becky, she didn’t drown, and unlike Nelson, she didn’t inhale all the money Rabbit ever earned up her nose. She simply arrives, utterly unexpected, at Janice’s door shortly after her mother’s death, seeking family. Janice notices that “she seems, as [Rabbit] used to, a bit out of scale,” and Nelson observes that she has “that same weird innocence” as his father. That’s it.
Her appearance, which brings back Rabbit’s thirty-year-old infidelity, is presumably supposed to bring back Rabbit. Superficially she does that: everyone remembers old episodes and misery finds new company. She sexualizes lives nearly gone celibate since Rabbit’s departure, inadvertently facilitating the reunion of Nelson with his wife, and blamelessly provoking in Janice’s sixty-something husband, Ronnie, behavior so immature it would be reprehensible coming from a teenager. “Her innocence feels learned, a layer,” Updike observes, and in the raw sexuality lurking beneath, the mixed history in her genes, others see their own past stripped bare. For Nelson, she brings back the memory of a party where they met some years before, and with it “the image of [his pregnant wife] skidding down the metal-edged stairs, with the legs of the orange tights she had on splayed wide like a sexual invitation on the edge of disaster . . . ” For Ronnie (with whom Ruth also had an affair), she incites “a thrust from some past where she didn’t exist.” Annabelle affects other characters, baring their wounds and drawing them to new harm. In other words, life goes on. On and on, without Rabbit.
That’s fine, to the extent that the characters who still populate that world are interesting in their own right. And it allows Updike to make some characteristically astute observations: “[Janice] would never have believed in her teens what an innocent homely comfort it could be, after sixty, to have your bottom groped.” Yet it is hard to believe that Updike would have lent his attention to any of them were they not part and parcel of writing about Rabbit (Janice Redux? Nelson at Rest?). The only conceivable reason to write about them once Rabbit is gone is to write about Rabbit after the fact.
Except, there is no Rabbit after the fact, no life after death. Annabelle can bring back the memory of his adultery, but she can’t return us to him in her mother’s bed. More importantly, Annabelle can’t redeem Rabbit’s infidelity; good-natured as she may be, it had nothing to do with her. She isn’t Rabbit’s epiphany, or ours. She’s just a byproduct.
What remains, then, ten years after Rabbit has been put to rest? Janice and Ronnie “[tend] to each other’s needs, one of which, never stated, [is] getting ready for death,” and Nelson follows his wife to Ohio. (“The same weather, basically the same everything,” he tells Annabelle. “But I like it. I like seeing different license plates.”) Pity them, and their novella. They may have survived Rabbit on paper, but the whole lot lacks the small wisdom with which Updike graces his protagonist from the start, which redeems Rabbit despite his utter lack of accomplishment, even redeems him for it. On the run from Janice that first time, on his way toward Ruth, Rabbit stops for gas. The attendant asks him where he’s headed. He has no answer. “The only way to get somewhere, you know,” the man advises, “is to figure out where you’re going before you go there.” Rabbit hears him out. “I don’t think so,” he responds.
It is a novelist’s wisdom that Updike gives Rabbit, the instinct with which a writer leaves behind planning and its foregone conclusions to let his story follow a course as uncharted as life itself. The instinct with which that writer trusts his story to tell more than what he already knows. When Rabbit beds Ruth, he makes them pretend it’s their wedding night. He won’t let her use contraception. He enters her, as Updike enters his story, faithful only to the moment. For a full forty years, Rabbit shares that faith with his creator. Then he turns up dead.
Pity the author. Rabbit has taken the novelist in Updike with him, leaving alone an old man and his typewriter, absently trying to weave a conclusion from loose ends.