the film Strange Days, set on New Year’s Eve 1999, there is a device called the “squid deck”
that can record one person’s experience onto a minidisk and then play it back for another. I saw this film in
Florence, Italy, and emerged to the cobblestone streets feeling that I had seen a dramatization of the end of
subjectivity in the very birthplace of Humanism. What I had always felt made humans human — the
inability, ultimately, to communicate the depths of our experience and individuality — would be lost with
the advent of this technological bridge. I did not see this as an advancement. For what lends poignancy to
the fact of consciousness is the difficulty, the impossibility, in expressing its quiddity. Poetry most
conspicuously, but all human interaction really, is constantly butting up against the fact of
incommunicability. But the struggle, the exertion and friction of the asymptotic approach, is what has
always given literature, and life, its meaning.
I thus imagined that the invention of the squid deck would signal the death of literature. Yet that
day has not yet come and might never come. And in the meantime we beat on, aching to express and taking
solace in the provisional achievements of others.
It was with this in mind that I read and marveled at John Updike’s portrayal of an conflicted wife* * *
masturbating alongside her sleeping husband in the second of his famous “Rabbit” books. Updike enters
Janice Angstrom’s mind, as Joyce had Molly Bloom’s, and returns with the layer-on-layer imbrications of
her desire for her husband and her lover, for her free and fixed lives, for her future and her past, all of which
rush over as her hand moves between her legs. If the experiences of other people are truly unknowable,
Updike has come as close as one can get.
From Rabbit Redux by John Updike
Her body feels tense as a harp. She wants to be touched . . . How sad it was with Harry now, they had
become locked rooms to each other . . . She’d been with him so many times she could be quick in coming,
sometimes asking him just to pound away and startling herself, coming, herself her toy, how strange to
have to learn to play . . .
This is silly. This thinking is going nowhere, there is tomorrow to face . . . at lunch [she] can go
over to Charlie’s apartment, the light used to embarrass her but she likes it best in the day now, you can see
everything, men’s bottoms so innocent, even the little hole like a purse drawn tight, the hair downy and
dark . . . Determined to bring herself off, Janice returns her hand and opens her eyes to look at Harry
sleeping, all huddled into himself, stupid of him to keep her sex locked up all these years, his fault, all his
fault, it was there all along, it was his job to call it out, she does everything for Charlie because he asks
her, it feels holy, she doesn’t care, you have to live, they put you here you have to live, you were made for
one thing . . . it feels like a falling, a falling away, a deep eye opening, a coming into the deep you, Harry
wouldn’t know about that, he never did dare dwell on it, racing ahead, he’s too fastidious, hates sex really,
she was there all along, there she is, oh: not quite. She knows he knows, she opens her eyes, she sees him
lying on the edge of the bed, the edge of a precipice, they are on it together, they are about to fall off, she
closes her eyes, she is about to fall off: there. Oh. Oh. The bed complains.
© John Updike