Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Rabbit, Run, by John Updike

It is a nice coincidence that I was reading Rabbit, Run when I saw that the New York Times had published an essay by Katie Roiphe about the terrible plight of the American male novelist whose creativity, it seems, has been castrated by feminism, no longer allowed the unabashed virility of expression that Updike (and others) so prolixly enjoyed. I will get around to Updike in a moment, but I think responding to the following quote from Roiphe provides a nice point of entry to the issues at play.
there is a punitive, vituperative quality in the published reviews that is always revealing of something larger in the culture, something beyond one aging writer’s failure to produce fine enough sentences. All of which is to say: How is it possible that Philip Roth’s sex scenes are still enraging us?
I find the idea that anything is "always revealing of something larger in the culture" hilariously nebulous, but in answer to her question, could it be that our purported outrage over Roth's sex scenes is not in fact cultural—has little, in other words, to do with "something larger in the culture?" Could it be instead that the daisy chain of Roth's sex scenes over so many novels has attenuated on its own terms, and that our reactions to new scenes enter into an enclosed loop of bored frustration? Roth's sex scenes have stopped communicating with the "culture" and communicate only with themselves, and if his readers have ever previously felt unamused or irritated by his provocations, they will only find those feelings swell with each new offering.

Roiphe is intent, however, on insisting that any and all negative reactions to sex in fiction is cultural, is about the way feminist ideas about gender have closed off certain imaginative possibilities for men writing about sex. "Rather than an interest in conquest or consummation, there is an obsessive fascination with trepidation, and with a convoluted, postfeminist second-guessing." I find this a little thin, and a little too hopeful—Roiphe is merely drawing some familiar lines and trusting that the reader will see the full figure. Mark Athitakis has an excellent point about the way not ideas but, among other things, actual demographic changes (which may have something to do with feminism, but are certainly not reducible to it) have shifted the ground of the male sexual imagination:"I’m just not sure what feminism has to do with it, at least any more than it has to do with changing marriage patterns (you can’t be a randy adulterer in your 20s if everybody’s waiting till they’re 30 to get hitched), more explicit sex in other media, or anything else." Athitakis goes on to make a fine argument about the blurriness of the generational lines Roiphe draws.

Missing the point about adultery is characteristic of Roiphe's piece: she notices when talking about Updike and Bellow the huge importance of the specific fact of adultery to their sexual imaginations, but she whisks this crucial element out of sight when she wants to start making comparisons; following her logic, single men evidently should be approaching (or writing about) sex as an adulterous adventure, and there's something missing if they don't. Roiphe routinely misses or hides other vital details about the specificities of each author or work she deals with: in a comment to the Athitakis post, Whet Moser has some great points about Roiphe's bizarre interpretations of Wallace and Roth, her too charitable papering-over of Mailer's domestic abuse, and her reliance on clichés. He could also have mentioned that she missed the point about why Kunkel writes his narrator into this sentence: "We were sleeping together brother-sister style and mostly refraining from outright sex" (the narrator actually has incestuous feelings for his real sister); or pointed out that Roiphe seems unaware that just because a writer creates a male character who is ambivalent about sex doesn't mean that the writer himself is ambivalent about it—Roiphe resolutely refuses to disentangle any relationship between character and author, just assuming that the Roth-to-Zuckerman ratio holds just as well for DFW-to-Erdedy or Franzen-to-Chip. It's easier that way, I guess—no author pays attention to things like characters anyway, right?*

I would have to say, though, that my favorite line of the piece is this (although the begging-for-the-red-pencil awkwardness of her final metaphor is priceless too): "These are writers in love with irony, with the literary possibility of self-consciousness so extreme it almost precludes the minimal abandon necessary for the sexual act itself, and in direct rebellion against the Roth, Updike and Bellow their college girlfriends denounced." Evidently (somewhat harkening back to her Morning After work), college co-eds are to blame for everything—including, it seems, post-post-modernism or however you want to term the ethos she's alluding to. Nineteen-year-old women everywhere, you're on notice: stop cock-blocking the virility of our national literature!

Oh right, I was going to write about Rabbit, Run.

In the light of this essay, it was interesting to me how Updike in some ways incorporated or tried to anticipate what he thought might be the criticism of the gender politics of the novel. In two (actually pretty good) sections, he gives both Rabbit's lover Ruth and his wife Janice a voice (and the singular article is correct—in both cases it's the same voice, a sort of run-together sub-Molly-Bloom voice which is nonetheless well constructed).

In Ruth's monologue, she says to herself of Rabbit, "he just lived in his skin and didn't give a thought to the consequences of anything." Not a terribly subtle psychological insight, but nevertheless astute. Rabbit's nature is—as Updike's writing is—predominantly intransitive: Rabbit, Run is a perfect title because it needs no object—or adverb for that matter.** There aren't, properly speaking, objects of Rabbit's action—not in his mind, anyway. He doesn't give a thought to the consequences of anything, just as the characteristic Updike sentence eschews transitive action verbs for either intransitives or verbs of being or feeling, or, as in this passage, to displace repeatedly the object of an action into the subject position, tucked innocuously into a subordinate clause:
For what made him angry at Janice wasn't so much that she was in the right for once and he was wrong and stupid but the closed feeling of it, the feeling of being closed in. He had gone to church and brought back this little flame and had nowhere to put it on the dark damp walls of the apartment, so it had flickered and gone out. And the feeling that he wouldn't always be able to produce this flame. What held him back all day was the feeling that somewhere there was something better for him than listening to babies cry and cheating people and it's this feeling he tries to kill, right there on the bus, he grips the chrome bar and leans far over two women with white pleated blouses and laps of  packages and closes his eyes and tries to kill it.
There are transitive verbs in this passage (it would be extremely tedious without them) but only at the end does it really come out straight: "[he] closes his eyes and tries to kill it."

Updike's sex scenes (at least in Rabbit, Run) are generally like this too: quite differently from Roth, they are mostly populated with verbs (where verbs appear—much of these scenes are sentence fragments) that serve to bridge the gap between a body part and its state or appearance—when they connect anything at all. "With her help, their blond loins fit. Something sad in the capture." Ruth's dirty talk is also intransitive: "Come on. Work."

Virility is usually transitive, even when men imagine themselves as the recipients of an action: "you shook me all night long;" "rock me." (John Updike would not have made a good lyricist for a metal band.) But for Updike, virility is the indefiniteness of the intransitive verb: giving a verb an object (or an adverb) limits it or directs it, marks off its territory and its time. Even nebulousness is too defined: it is not Rabbit, run somewhere, because somewhere is still a limit, and only in the purity of complete intransitivity can Rabbit exist.***

*If you are interested in characters of the Mailerian, Bellovian or Rothian ratio, I'd urge you to check out Asterios Polyp, Dave Mazzuchelli's amazing graphic novel from last year. Polyp would actually be an interesting example of the generational blurring that Mark Athitakis speaks of: the titular character is very much a character like one you'd find in Mailer, Bellow, or Roth, but he undergoes a transformation of sorts into something that borrows a good deal from the post-post-modernism Roiphe detests.
**It occurs to me that Couples could also be read as, in addition to being a plural noun, an intransitive verb, a euphemism for the sexual act: "he and she couple."
***For the record, I think this is bullshit. Life, like sex, is better in the transitive.


Richard said...

Even assuming that the assumed Roth-to-Zuckerman ratio exists for Roth-to-Zuckerman is highly problematic.

Andrew Seal said...


zunguzungu said...

I am shocked, shocked to find that different generations, who learned to have sex according at times when the socially normalized gender roles were different, turn out to write about sex differently!

Which is not to take away from your point; the man-bites-dog aspect of the piece is less obnoxious than the lurking specter of feminists seeking to castrate our man-writers, but it's worth pointing out that even the underlying why-we-should-care is pretty dishwater weak.

SLK said...

I also find it really upsetting that Roiphe assumes that writers fifty years apart from each other should have similar and recognizable attitudes to sex and women merely because they're male. She envisions this chain of literary masculinity which completely excludes the female authors of the time. Henry Miller's writing about sex is thus relevant and Anais Nin's isn't, although Bellow, Roth, Chabon, etc. have probably read both. Women here are only the sexual objects in literature, they're never the writers of sex scenes themselves in Roiphe's head. Male writers today are as influenced by female authors as they are by male ones; they are the literary heirs of an entire generation of writers, not just the ones with similar genitals.