Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Rabbit At Rest: John Updike Has Died

John Updike,

So I heard you died. Cancer of the lung. I suppose you already know how important you are to me- I know you've imagined it, because you are a writer, and because you lived long enough ( 76 years ) to see the effect your books had, and because a while back, a young writer happened to write an entire book that was a homage to you, his obsession, John Updike the Novelist.

I first found you in a dusty paperback, on the deeply polished mahogany chest in my parent's bedroom, four drawers high and smelling and looking like Adulthood. I was 13. I grabbed the book and immediately noticed the title- Rabbit, Run = hooked. I was hooked. You had me at ' Rabbit ', Mr. Updike, and then with the addition of ' Run ' I knew, by the quickening in my veins, I had found someone, something special. A special novel. This feeling, finding a book that I know is going to change me, is a most cherished emotion, a feeling I am hard pressed to explain, except that it is like how Lucy felt looking into the Wardrobe; it is the drawing back of a veil, a mystery, and the revealing of something entirely true and yet never before articulated or expressed in just this way. It is the looking forward to sheer, mouth watering pleasure. The pleasure may be in the beautiful lyricism of the author, it may be in the sheer weight and expression of their intellect, it may be in the unexpected and unique voice, or it may be the brilliant expression of truth...and in some, rare and miraculous cases, it may be all these. Mr. Updike, Sir, your book was all of these, and more.

I lay on my parents bed and flipped through the novel. I caught racy scenes of sex that used words like ' cock ' and ' cunt ' and ' spirit ' and I knew I had found a secret door into an adult mind, an adult world. A world I felt was undeniably bound to be more honest and raw than my own, full of secrets, suffering and lonliness. I lay down surrounded by my mother's comforter on her perfectly made bed and read, and read...and read....

excerpts from Rabbit Run
' Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches, though he's twenty-six and six three. '

' But there were good things: Janice so shy about showing her body even in the first weeks of wedding yet one night coming into the bathroom expecting nothing he found the mirror clouded with steam and Janice just out of the shower standing there doped and pleased with a little blue towel lazily and unashamed her bottom bright pink with hot water the way a woman was of two halves bending over and turning and laughing at his expression whatever it was and putting her arms up to kiss him, a blush of steam on her body and the back of her soft neck slippery. '

' I'll tell you, ' he says. ' When I ran from Janice I made an interesting discovery. ' The tears bubble over her lids and the salty taste of the pool-water is sealed into her mouth. ' If you have the guts to be yourself, ' he says, ' other people'll pay your price. '

If I did some kind of free association, and let out what comes to my mind when I think of reading that Rabbit book, Mr. Updike, that day on my parent's bed at 13, I get

the colors, the way you made suburbia sharp and delineated and then muddy or watercolor
the sex, a constant, constantly wanting, yearning
trying to connect
failing to connect
paying the price, making others pay the price for failures
the voices, the way i could hear them talking
the honesty! the sheer bravery of putting down things the way they are, and after writing
a novel and working on another i will never, ever take that for granted or underestimate it's difficulty or importance
the images of women's bodies, constantly looking at them through Rabbit's eyes
details made precious, precious, human details
longing, hunger, spirit, sex, mind, body, move, eat, feel, work

Mr. Updike I read your novel and lay there on my parent's bed dumbstruck. What was This>? This amazing ferociously vivid life form smashed into so many small black letters on a page?
Oh shit, this was WRITING!! Your novel graduated me, abruptly and gratefully, from Anne of Green Gables to Rabbit Angstrom- I love that name, so perfect, summing up his twangy lanky youthful ridiculousness ' angstrom ' sounds like a twang. I lay and smelled the paperback like it was an illicit sex object- and maybe for me, it was. Intellectual sensuality- the ringing of phrases in my ears, observations on American life that stayed with me forever, visuals of the sex, the smell of the paper, the crinkled corners, the lay of your name, bold on the spine, Janice drunk in the house, Rabbit walking the streets at night, arguing with the priest, cowering around his parents, the look of his hand in his pocket that you had never described to my recall, Mr. Updike, but I was sure I could see exactly.

There was a fire lit in me and I read until, like an old lady with arthritis, my fingers cramped. I read the next Rabbit and tons of books not by you, Mr. Updike- Sophie's Choice and Carrie and Frost and Agatha Christie. I read and I was comforted and transported- perhaps the most eager believer of the Reading Rainbow commercials ' you'll fly away / i can go anywhere / take a look / it's in a book / '

There was a thing of terrible beauty in your book. By now, of course, I have read many observations on your works, essays taking apart your particular genius and meaning. I knew nothing about this and had never heard of you before in my life, but I knew that your shimmering intellectual and emotional story of Rabbit and his poor Janice and their poor doomed baby was ferociously alive, true, and it made me feel less alone, which really makes no sense, because I was a 13 year old girl and you were a grown man writing about grown adult life- only, it makes perfect sense, because that is what great novels do, engage you so entirely that you are simply not alone when you are reading them. You are in the company of another person's mind.

And of course, there is the magic alchemy that cannot be expressed, when a person picks up a novel and opens the page to find that this particular voice is the one you fall for over and again, without another soul in the world to agree or care or have a single opinion; at 13 I found you Mr Updike, and I never stopped reading. I never have. I'm 34 now, with three children of my own, a husband of my own, work, writing- a life that has always included your books on my shelf, and always will. I've read most of your works, ( love those Eastwick Witches! thank you for them ) and some of your essays and poetry; but like first love, Rabbit, Run ( oh how I love that comma! you speak my language! ) remains emblazened in my emotional memory, and I keep seeking that trembling excitement and gratification with every new novel I crack open.

Thank you John Updike. You changed my life.

Rabbit, Rest.


Maggie May Ethridge

In a 2005 "This I Believe" essay he wrote: "I seem most instinctively to believe in the human value of creative writing, whether in the form of verse or fiction, as a mode of truth-telling, self-expression and homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness."
Ms. Moon said...

Reading Updike for me has always been a lesson in humility. Sometimes, while reading him, I wonder why anyone else tries to write fiction, and especially- why should I? He has done it all. He is that good.
Lovely homage.

Bonbon Oiseau said...

what a beautiful letter...he had a voice to fall for and yes for sure---always lesson in humility...

Annie said...

I love your tribute and your quote.

Unknown said...

An excellent tribute.

nelya said...

That was so beautifully written. You have an amazing way with words, Maggie. I am so glad you stopped by my blog, otherwise I may have never arrived at yours. I am adding you to my blog list immediately!

Unknown said...

Wow it's amazing what one novel can do. I haven't thought about my first literature love, but you sure got me thinking. The fact that you read this book on your parents bed seems like a major part of this discovery. Very inspirational writing. I haven't read any Updike but I was looking at his books today on the Popular Penguin shelf.

previous next