“Of course, all vagrants think they’re on a quest. At least at first.”
When reading this book, my earliest thought on protagonist Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom was that he was missing a sense of catharsis, but it became clearer as I got further in that it would probably be better to say he’s missing a sense of belief. Do you suppose that’s just two words for the same thing? The most surprising discovery for me was discovering that a highly literary work famous for diving into a single consciousness and which was filled with analysis and philosophy and observations and character detail was also driven by a basic dramatic engine; nothing as spectacular as certain other examples, but it’s a story in which Rabbit runs away from home and cheats on his wife for a few months, and in which everything else flows from that. When I thought perhaps this was a Christian response to nihilism akin to Crime & Punishment, it just kept on going, with Rabbit’s newfound enthusiasm for his life suddenly dissipating for reasons he didn’t understand; it still very clearly is a rejection of modernism, but it’s one that really shows the work of it – Rabbit’s confusion is comprehensible no matter how I feel about it and it’s not something that will just go away. I found myself wondering if it’s even worth trying to save people – whether Eccles’s attempts to help Rabbit were just some hero complex that was making things worse, and this seemed to me an honest reaction rather than anything the novel was prodding me into, whether deliberately or through incompetence.
I didn’t choose this book because I thought it reflected 1960, I chose this book because it very much does not reflect 2021. John Updike has become a symbol for self-obsessed white male Boomers who never had a thought they didn’t express, and I notice he’s usually namedropped by women when complaining about the whiteness and maleness of the Canon. This is not an era in which it is fashionable to try to nonjudgementally empathise with a successful old white guy, which is entirely understandable; even aside from the boredom of hearing the same names and praises repeatedly, the genders and skin colours of people lost and nearly lost to history can make these men and their works feel as if they’re crushing those people under their own cultural weight. The thing is that we’ve now reached the point where it feels genuinely funny to properly engage with the Great White Male Artists again – to see them not as a jumping off point for insults or as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the world, but as an artist who has made a work that can be studied and learned from. I think a little iconoclasm can be healthy – to remind us that a person is a person, not a symbol – but swapping out one symbol for another is not the same thing. Besides, I’m starting to see the same names and jeers repeatedly, and I’m getting bored with that.