John Updike – Rabbit, Run

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Writers try to express their meaning not just by their choice of words, but the way they’re used. Raymond Carver wrote about the simple life using simple words and simple structure. Paul Auster’s fiction tends to contain multiple layers, so his sentences tend to drag on, too. As for John Updike, any sentence that is not longer than a line is useless. A few of these survived, but they’re endangered species in Rabbit, Run. It’s unclear why.

There is a pretty big paragraph which describes the planet in the garden Rabbit works in. It’s a horrible piece of writing. It’s literally a list of the plants and a brief descriptions of them. It’s not writing and it’s not typing. It’s lifting up straight from a Beginner’s Guide to Garden Plants. Updike could have at least put in the end the name of the guide he lifted the descriptions from. After wading through the forest that is Updike’s words, I wanted to have some idea of how these plants look like.

There’s no way Updike actually wrote that paragraph. Early on in the novel, Updike describes a basketball game with big sentences and big paragraphs. The shock that someone used all these words and didn’t stumble wears off quickly. It’s that good. It transmits the energy of a basketball game, and this game is an important character building moment. That’s a good reason to linger on it. What did that description of the garden helped? Why were the roofs of the houses were described over, and over, and over?

Updike tells me a simple story using complex language. He’s the antithesis of Raymond Carver, only writing about the same thing. Updike occasionally writes paragraph that are as good as Carver, but then he quickly falls again. This style of writing is just not suited to the subject matter and the themes. Worse, Updike hints that he says the same empathy and insight that makes Carver’s fiction so engrossing.

Updike wants to transmit the dullness of suburban life, but can dull life be described in such an explosive language? Maybe, and Updike sometimes reads like he can do it. Too often, he lingers on irrelevant details. It makes sense when he lingers on the women’s bodies, and even on the golf game even though it ended up being incomprehensible. He can even make a description of a chair important. The problem is, Updike is not selective in what he describes. He describes everything, both things that are irrelevant to the story and themes and things that are.

Descriptions are more than to tell us what the scene looks like. In fact, ‘what the scene looks like’ is not that important. Whether there’s a picture of Hemingway or Steinbeck in the room is irrelevant – until it tells us more than just that the picture is there. If the author tells me there’s a picture of Hemingway on the wall, it should be because he wants to tell me the character is obsessive over Hemingway, is literary, wants to be macho, or something like that. This is called being selective in what you describe. Updike doesn’t fail because he’s bad at describing, but because he’s not selective in what he describes. Even a talented guitarist would be boring somewhere in a sixty-minute jam session.

The story itself crumbles underneath this weight. Rabbit is an asshole, and that’s great. Updike is willing to explore a character that John Green would have turned into a one-dimensional antagonist. He makes Rabbit human and believable enough, but he forgot to show us what made him appealing to other people. It’s to easy to imagine how a once basketball star would be fun to have around, but there aren’t any examples of that. People say they love him a lot, but that’s it. There’s even an instance when one says they can’t describe why. Was that a moment of self awareness?

The asshole aspects of Rabbit are great. Updike knows how to make understand, if not necessarily agree with Rabbit’s actions. As immoral as he is, every action of his makes sense. He’s also not just an asshole. Bad people don’t want to be bad. They just have a different set of values. Rabbit is capable of being moral just as he is capable of being an asshole. Two great moments show these sides. One moment is where Updike nails what “guys entitled to sex” means. It’s a great portrait of the sexual insecurity of males. Another is a big plot moment where Rabbit’s character turns around. It’s easy to make this an out-of-character moment and make the plot go dumb like E-40. Since Updike is wise enough to portray Rabbit is a human first, this sudden burst of good just makes him more real.

Updike is just as good as portraying the other characters. Every character has its own values and worldviews. It’s most apparent when Rabbit visits his parents-in-law and then his own parents, but morose in two scenes. There is one section that centers on Eccles, and another on Janice. In these scenes, Updike follows them in an ordinary day, but by selectively describing some things he gets into these characters’ head. Eccles is interesting to lead his own novel. Janice is more vague, although her scene is more important. Still, he managed to make the ‘who’s guilty’ question of the novel a never-ending debate. He did it not by being too vague, but by creating real, flawed human beings which are the cause of such tragedies.

These great moments though tend to be buried under heaps of words. Rabbit, Run feels like a language exercise, but it shouldn’t be. It’s a simple story about simple people. Even if these simple people go through an epic quest, writing them in a simple language will give them more respect (As in Grapes of Wrath). It’s worth reading for its story and ideas, but it’s a short book that has about 70 extra pages. Updike probably just wanted to avoid writing a novella.

2 rabbits out of 5

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Margaret Atwood – The Blind Assasssin

2000 Margaret Atwood The Blind Assasin

Of all the Margaret Atwood novels, The Blind Assassin is the one that wants the hardest to be the best. It won’t be content with being better than its brothers. It aims for the Classic List. It wants to sit alongside Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, The Grapes of Wrath and various others you think are overrated. It succeded at making people think that way, and the novel was pretty convincing for the most part that it deserved it. The approach had more style over substance, but there were 600 pages to through. It could take its time revealing its depth.

Only when it had the chance to be truly as complex as its structure, it fell. It fell where you’d least expect Atwood to fail. She’s excellent at portraying the female experience, especially under the gaze and control of men. She treats the subject with the respect and depth it deserves, recognizing the bad guys are human, as bad as they are (Life Before Man) and that girls can be just as cruel to girls (Cat’s Eye). In The Blind Assassin, there are two patriarchs, one of which is excused because he is supposed to have some nice political ideas. The truth is, he’s excused because he’s far more sexually attractive. Atwood should be the last person to give ammunition to guys who go on and on about how women like jerks.

Alex Thomas could be a fantastic character. He’s full of good intentions, and it’s great that he’s willing to make sacrifices for what he believes it. It doesn’t change the fact that his behavior with Iris – a far more interesting character than the crazy Laura – reeks of future wifebeating. The first intimate scene between them reads like an account of near-rape experience. Iris narrates as if she avoided a car crash. It’s exciting, but it’s not something you’d want go through again. There’s also a narrative device that details the relationship between the two, and Alex always comes off like a manipulator. He has mood swings, he’s idealist one second, and nihilist the next. His confusing behavior is what Pick-Up Artists recommend in order to get the emotions going in women and therefore, manipulate them.

This could have been a fantastic portaryal of a Dangerous Guy, and how sometimes it’s very hard to detect their manipulation. When the big moment arrived, though, it turned out the subtleness wasn’t a part of the theme. If Alex is not terrible for women, why are all these hints there? Maybe this is what Atwood likes in a man, but her control on the novel is too tight to let such things slip in. If Atwood hadn’t failed, it could have excused the rest of the failures.

The Blind Assassin is worse at portraying its antagonists than Life Before Man. This is weird, considering Life Before Man is the product of a younger author that can’t even try to hide its youth. The Blind Assassin, while more mature in every other aspect somehow ends up with antagonists that always border on caricature. Winifred suffers the most from this. Her character is the least believable thing here. She has no redeemable features, and there’s never a glimpse into her struggles. Richard, the main antagonist, fares better. Excluding the reveal at the end that drags his character down, he manages to be both a pretty awful person but also real. Richard also has no good traits, but he’s a living person with his own wants and needs, his own ambitions and objectives. Unlike Winifred, Richard could lead a novel, although not as long as this. 600 pages with a person like him is too much.

Maybe it’s a deliberate attempt at non-complex antagonists because fiction is the novel’s main theme. There are stories within stories, but anyone who read Auster is not going to be confused by its structure. The novel is not concerned with just written fiction but any kind of fiction. Stories are biographies, things we write for others, novels, the news and rumours. Atwood goes beyond the self-indulgent, “novelist’s relationship with his work” that authors succumb to after sitting in a dark room for too much time with too many books. Atwood examines the relationship between fiction and any kind of person, but what wants to say about it is unclear.

The most obvious guess is fiction is deceptive, but if you don’t elaborate this statement it’s too simplistic. In a way, everything is fiction. Human interaction is based on telling stories, even if it’s just “I found a way to discover fire”. If fiction, in general is deceptive, then there’s a huge hole in all of human interaction. You can’t talk about this without also involving the theme of how humans interact, and Atwood doesn’t touch on that. Like in the Alex Thomas case, we’re left with too many hints that the complex structure is not just there for complexity’s sake, but it never leads to something resembling a conclusion.

Beneath the messy themes, there’s a nice story. The complex structure may fail to bring any meaning, but it doesn’t drag the story down. All the stories in the novel are interesting enough. Atwood is still a fantastic writer, despite sometimes describing too much. There are various great sentences and quotables scattered all over the book, and tiny stories that touch on various themes. Maybe that’s what impressed so many people. The scope of The Blind Assassin means that it touches more themes than mentioned previously, too many to count here. This scope makes it entertaining, but it’s not enough to make it great, and therefore it falls below Cat’s Eye, Life Before Man and Oryx and Crake.