Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Rabbit Redux by John Updike

 (Book Review)

And so I continue onto the next book in John Updike’s Rabbit series. This next book, Rabbit Redux, is one of those rare examples of a sequel that is arguably more famous than its predecessor because it works both as the continuation of the troubled domestic life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the former high school basketball star who never was able to settle into life once he left his basketball glories behind, and as a time piece from the 60s. In this next book, Rabbit ends up living together in a house with Jill, a teenage hippy who has run away from her rich parents, and Skeeter, a pseudo Black revolutionary.

I never experienced the 60s myself. Although my ex-girlfriend was fond of saying to me, “You know more about the 60s than most people I know who lived through it.” And (if I can say this without sounding arrogant) my conversations with baby-boomers have led me to believe that’s probably true. At least as far as big news events or historical facts go. But I don’t have a sense of what it was like to actually be alive at the time.

I think there are two fallacies we often fall into when we try and picture the past. One (as I mentioned in my review of the first Rabbit book) is the tendency to assume previous generations were never alive as vibrantly as we are, or didn't experience the full range of emotion of modern civilized man.

The opposite fallacy is to romanticize the past, and think that is when the excitement really happened. I often find myself thinking, “My generation has been raised on cable TV, video games, computers and the internet. These days everyone just sits in front of the TV at home. Back in the day people actually used to have lives. They would actually go out and do exciting stuff in their free time.”

What was most interesting to me about “Rabbit Redux” is the portrayal of how boring suburban life was even back in the 60s. The demonstrations and inner city riots are all stuff that happens on the TV, and might as well be in another country. Rabbit and his family waste just as much time sitting around the TV as people do today. There was just less on back then.

Of course the changing times are represented by Jill and Skeeter and the new community they form in Rabbit’s house. But neither of these characters really came alive for me as well as the characters in the original Rabbit story. In the hands of a less skilled writer, they would easily have become walking 60s stereo-types. It’s hard for anyone to write about the 60s without resorting to stereo-typed characters, and apparently it was just as hard at the time. I think John Updike manages to avoid this trap, but just barely.

The thing about the 60s, like any decade, is that the scope of human experience is broad enough that you can write about it in several different ways and have them all be correct. For instance Jill is portrayed as a spoiled rich kid who likes to repeat revolutionary slogans she doesn't really understand and still expects people to clean up after her like her parents’ maids used to. Skeeter comes off almost just as scatterbrained, plus sex crazed and egotistical. And I’m sure there were people like that back then. I've met a lot of scatterbrained people at protests these days myself. (Maybe people say that about me when I’m not around). But there were also a lot of intelligent, articulate people in the movement who made a lot of sacrifices. It just depends what you want to highlight.

I remember a Calvin Professor once talking about how brave John Updike was because he supported the Vietnam War during a time when intellectuals were supposed to be anti-War. That kind of bravery doesn't really impress me, but to each his own I guess. At least both sides look equally stupid in “Rabbit Redux”. The pro-war jingoism of Rabbit and his father doesn't come off any better than the anti-war slogans.

Also, by the second book I’m definitely coming around to Phil’s contention that John Updike writes the worst sex scenes in literature. It could be because now Phil has planted the idea in my brain. Or it could be because this book is a lot more sexually explicit than its predecessor. A lot more.

In particular the sexual descriptions of the teenage Jill made me feel like I was reading some sort of male fantasy about sexual teenage girls often found in Japanese literature. Shoko once said of Murakami Haruki’s “Norwegian Wood” that the women characters didn't seem like real woman, but rather what the male fantasy of a woman was like. I couldn't help but feel that Jill seemed like a middle-aged man’s fantasy about what a free love hippy was like. She was so incredibly eager to get into bed with the middle-aged Rabbit, and wouldn't take no for an answer.

Addendum: Once again Navis and I are one the same page. He recently reviewed this book in his blog as well.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The book "Bambi" was translated from German into English by Whittaker Chambers, who needed to supplement his income while working at a Communist newspaper. The story was made into an animated film by Walt Disney Productions . The company took the liberty of changing the species into a white-tailed deer, and of putting him into an American forest. Additionally, the tone of the story was significantly lightened; the original book was much darker and more brutal.

Link of the Day
Yet another one for the history buffs:
This video of the Japanese Student Movement contains fighting between police and protesters concerning Narita airport in the early 70s.

The farmers opposed Narita Airport because it forced them to give up their ancestral farming land. The students sympathized with the farmers, and were also upset because the proposed airport was supposed to be large enough to land American Airforce planes during the Vietnam War. This was the only time during the Japanese Student movement that an alliance was formed between the students and the farmers, and the students were able to enjoy public support.

The airport ended up being built in the end, but several people, both police and students, were killed in the fighting in the meantime. Watching this video, it's easy to see how.

This video was originally part of a larger documentary on the 20th century produced by NHK (the Japanese version of the BBC or PBS). Given that, I've always thought it was strange that they include "The Who" soundtrack at the end when the Molotov cocktails are being thrown. I know it's cliche to have 60s music against footage of protests, but it seems like they're trying to make the violence look fun.

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