John Updike is a writer. He is a stylist. He has flair, he has language, he has imagination and voice. John Updike is a creator; he is a writer. He has, to his current publishing credit, penned multiple novel
s, short story anthologies, collections of essays, children's books, volumes of verse, a memoirs, and a play. Some of these even had high shelf velocity, were best sellers, that economic gauge of an author's hundred thousand words. Put another way, s
ome of these made John Updike a very rich writer. Among them is Rabbit Redux. Published in November of 1971, it enjoyed the acclaim that many of his previous novels did (as early as 1962 he had begun to be called the most gifted writer of his generation
), and weathered its share of criticism as many bestsellers do. It is a sequel, the second installment of a tetralogy that follows Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom through his adult life. Rabbit Redux, like all the tetralogy, is infused with contemporaneity, ine
xtricably tied and even motivated by the events of its time frame -- 1969. The novels were spaced roughly every ten years, and each details the essential and non-essential historical events which encircled the given era. Redux focuses, most specifically
, on the moon launch of ?69 (a cratered full moon is the only image on the striped cover of the first edition), but the Vietnam conflict, American racial turbulence, and the decade's severe political unrest are all laced into the story. Even the man-siz
ed paper boat that sailed, amusingly, from Iceland in 1969 is mentioned. The main characters of the story -- Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a former highschool basketball star, now a linotyper, Skeeter, a fugitive black revolutionary and over-all agitator, and
Jill, a waifish, somewhat oblivious New England 18-year-old runaway -- find their fates entangled, and feel their way through a few months of the era. Through these volatile personalities, Updike weaves language and writing that, while outstanding and e
ven lyrical, moves at times from being provocative to being altogether controversial. These most distinguishing elements of the novel -- quality of writing, a controversial tilt, an entanglement in the contemporary setting, and, finally, its recognizable
place in the tetralogy -- are what propelled it onto the bestsellers list.
An examination of its popularity reveals certain things. Good writing, for one, does not go unnoticed. Updike's writing is no exception. Reviewers cluster into unanimity when they turn toward the actual quality of his prose. Suzanne Uphaus, in John
Updike, writes: "Most important, there is Updike's remarkable mastery of language. For example, Updike's descriptive power is based on a skillful use of particular detail and an unerring sense of wistful nostalgia. Often Updike seems to be stretching
the possibilities of the written word as far as they can go. (Pp. 1,2)" On page 76 of that same book, she writes, "it could be argued that Rabbit Redux is Updike's greatest imaginative achievement." There is power in his work, a means of writing that as
tonishes readers. His feel for the importance of the ordinary is unsurpassed; a sudden violence, for instance, that would be, to lesser writers, ineffable beyond its mere enaction is pieced together by Updike with almost alarming adeptness and acumen: "
In their bedroom, Rabbit carefully closes the door and in a soft shaking voice tells Jill, ?You're turning my kid into a beggar and a whore just like yourself,' and, after waiting a second for her to enter a rebuttal, slaps her thin disdainful face with
its prim lips and its green eyes drenched so dark in defiance their shade is as of tree leaves, a shuffling concealing multitude, a microscopic forest he wants to bomb. (Redux pg. 169)" This wordsmithery is abundant in the pages, occurring in every poss
ible scenario, suffusing thoughts and actions with an impressive lyricism. Glowing praise is also offered by George Steiner, as quoted by Donald Greiner: "John Updike has been an enviable problem. Gifted at once with a supremely alert ear and eye for th
e pulse and sinew of contemporary American speech and with a passion for the rare word, for the jeweled and baroque precisions still vital beneath and around the current of common idiom, he has been able to write about literally anything. (Updike's Nove
ls, pg. x)"
Another key factor working for the popularity Redux is this precision of language, Updike's perspicacity as a writer somehow combined with his acuteness as a poet, being combined with a historical interiority and side plot of the late sixties themselves
. As Uphaus writes, "All the events of the novel occur against an omnipresent background of the specific historical events of the summer and fall of 1969. (Pg. 78)" Readers purchasing the novel in 1971 would find the immediacy of their own experience i
n its pages; the absorption of the book would carry vicariousness like few others. On page 11, Angstrom watches his father in a bar: "Pop stands whittled by the great American glare, squinting in the manna of blessings come down from the government, shuf
fling from side to side in nervous happiness that his day's work is done, that a beer is inside him, that Armstrong is above him, that the U.S. is the crown and stupefaction of human history." The book is immersed in its own time -- Angstom looks out u
pon the overarching patriotism inspired in the older generation by the moon launch, and then the disappointment and hurried skepticism of the young because of Vietnam: "we wouldn't be in this Vietnam mess if it was a white country. We wouldn't have gon
e in. We thought we just had to shout Boo and flash a few jazzy anti-personnel weapons. We thought it was one more Cherokee uprising. The trouble is, the Cherokees outnumber us now. (Redux pg. 49)" The varying ideas on current culture between characte
rs provides much of the tension and propulsion for the book, and because of these ideas' temporal proximity to the time of publication, they must have provided tension and propulsion for the readers, as well.
Tension, however, is also created by the controversial nature of the novel. Still early in the wake of the civil rights movement, Updike sketches a "household" for Angstrom that included an 18-year-old runaway drug addict, a black revolutionary criminal
, a pre-adolescent boy, and a mid-thirties suburbanite linotyper. Many nights are spent with the adults smoking marijuana together in front of the boy, and bandying back and forth about the shoddiness of the state of American affairs. Equally as many ni
ghts are spent with darkly erotic encounters between Skeeter, the revolutionary, and Jill, the runaway, or a merely passive, but explicitly described foray into adultery between she and Angstrom. "?Your tongue between my toes,' she says; her voice crack
s timidly, issuing the command. When again he complies, she edges forward on the bed and spreads her legs. ?Now here.' (Redux Pg. 176)" It has long been apparent in the publishing world that what craft and writing ability will not bring as far as numb
ers of readers, explicit sexuality and objectionable content probably will. Redux is a sequel to Rabbit, Run, a book whose first page declares it "graphic and merciless" and "shocking" because of, among other reasons, its "sexual candor." The memory of
the mob is not impressive, but even before word spread that Redux was candid as well, it surely must have been anticipated. Only adding to this anticipation is the fact that Rabbit Redux followed his novel Couples, which was highly erotic, even called th
e "suburbanite entry in the porno pageant. (William Gass, as quoted by Macnaughton, pg. 11)" Redux is taboo, and as evinced by Peyton Place, that is enough to draw millions of readers, whether they be businessmen, housewives, or grade-schoolers reading u
nder a blanket with the flashlight. Taboo writing appeals to Americans, who guard their own indecency until it becomes a point of celebration, or at the very least, something worthy of spectacle.
Clearly, Rabbit Redux had ample reason to become a bestseller. It basked in the glow of warm reviews, grabbed readers who sought both literature and things risque, and carried the well known names John Updike and Rabbit Angstrom. But it is not a widely
read book today. Many bestsellers drop off into obscurity, become replaced by the next million-seller, but Redux was almost fated to do so. It had no performances in the wider media, such as television or theater, for one. And, ironically, one of the
very things that helped boost its popularity in its own time, its historical interiority and contemporaneity, served to drag it to the dusty unread shelves of libraries. The immediacy of experience is lost today; the vicariousness cannot be regained ten,
twenty, and thirty years from the book's binding era. And because the plot is something almost dialectic, a grouping of the many thoughts and political diatribes of the characters, a reader nowadays has little to experience beyond the intellectual capa
city. The poor reviews at the time of publication often railed against this rambling, dialectic nature of the novel. Charles Samuels, in his review "Updike on the Present," wrote, "Updike remains too mute about questions of motivation to keep Rabbit Red
ux from having the dispiriting effect of a sordid story that is told to no clear purpose. (Macnaughton pg. 65)" Even in 1971, then, when the review appeared, there were readers who had trouble finding a thread within the novel. Readers in subsequent year
s were far more likely to be baffled by the loose plotting and absence of purpose. William Stafford, in "The Curious Greased Grace of John Updike," wrote "the novel is seen as being merely observant. In a word (or two), it is too coy, too cute, too ulti
mately empty. (Macnaughton pg. 68)" Critics who disliked the book asserted that Updike's peculiarly acute stylism with language was the only thing driving it. It was nothing but words. Even the closing of the novel provides no wrap-up, no accountabilit
y for the non-linear story. Updike wrote, "He. She. Sleeps. O.K.? (Redux, pg. 407)" The reader is entreated to make what he will of everything. Once removed from its cultural and historical context, how could such a book thrive? Redux came with its ow
n expiration date, in a way. Tying itself to the era forced it to bow out with the era.
Rabbit Redux had its set reasons for being the tenth best seller of 1971 -- it exhibited the distinctly Updike quality and sensitivity of language, it sparked political and moral curiosity because of its graphic subject matter, and it provided a means of
looking at the contemporary world that readers could not find elsewhere, nor create for themselves. As Updike himself wrote in "Bombs Made Out of Leftovers," "What we want from fiction, and what fiction is increasingly loathe to give us, is vicarious ex
perience. (Greiner, pg. xiii)" But time deteriorates, and when an age passes, its moments become less and less recognizable. No movie was made to match the book, no television show about the further adventures of Rabbit Angstrom. Rabbit Redux, and all
the novels in the Rabbit Tetralogy, are works for their own time, for readers in their own specific time. The lack of purpose that characterizes the book, its emphasis on historical interiority, make it dated. Its obsolescence is inherent. Reviews both
good and bad, however, admitted to the remarkable ability of Updike to merely write. Whether his books are compartmentalized for a decade, and that decade only, becomes less significant in the face of the fact that it is literature. Updike understands
his canon, and he understands his audience; he created something that could be exact in its own time, translate the universe in the only way possible -- the moment. As Updike wrote in "Rememberance of Things Past Remembered," "For a book to be great in a
reader's life it is not enough for the book to be great; the reader must be ready. (Greiner, pg. xiii)" John Updike provided the greatness, and no reader can be more ready than when he is immersed, as the book was, in his own time.