Hoptellectual: Updike, Rushdie and the Unending Death Contained in Life

Finally, Rabbit is rich. After all of the complaining and the ineffective child raising and lovemaking, Rabbit is Rich. Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is the lens which John Updike uses to view different eras in America (Angstrom is also an antiquated scientific measurement, 1E-10 meters), and after slogging his way through the 60’s and most of the 70’s, he’s found some fortune in the oil crisis of the Carter administration. Of course Rabbit hasn’t changed a bit. He’s still helplessly crude and perfunctory, and can never understand why anyone around him does the things they do, but now he has money.

John Updike auditioning for the lead in "The Graduate."

Early on in Updike’s novel, aptly titled Rabbit is Rich, we find out a person from Rabbit’s past has died. Skeeter was a strange lodger who lived in Rabbit’s house shortly after the moon landing, and left as awkwardly as he came. Rabbit, being his usual compelling and confused self, thinks about the event in his own terms:

“But that had been so long ago the paper in his hand this last April felt little different from any other news item or from those sports clippings framed in his showroom, about himself. Your selves die too.”

Selfishly, we see this reinvention of the self as a really great thing. We can shed old skins, occupy new worlds and meet new people. But when other people in our lives change, the effects are less than satisfactory. It’s a double standard, because we rely on our friends to remain the same so that we may grow and change (see my “Beer in Review” for more).

In Rabbit’s case, Skeeter was a massive pain in the ass, and very intriguing at the same time. When he left Rabbit’s life, that version of him died. Rabbit couldn’t really relate to Skeeter then, and there’s little chance he could at the time of Skeeter’s death (Skeeter had started his own sort-of church, the Messiah Now Freedom Family, and Rabbit really isn’t one for organized anything). “Harry felt he was seen by this furious man anew, as with X-rays. Yet he was surely a madman and his demand inordinate and endless and with him dead Rabbit feels safer.”

In a relationship, on the other hand, the death of a self represents a seismic shift, again because of that double standard. In Salman Rushdie’s At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers, Rushdie’s narrator must cope with the changes that have altered the love of his life, Gale, and made her as relatable as an astronaut on Mars (in the short story, the narrator sees his ex-lover Gale at a bar while watching an astronaut slowly suffocate on the TV).

Upon pining for his old lover Gale, he mentions that “the Gale I adore is not entirely a real person.” The Gale he is in love with is just a copy, a memory of a love that he enjoyed for her feeling of home amidst a world of disconnect and no intimacy. Copies deteriorate. They become warped with time, and all the “selves” that populate an existence blur together and become different through reimagination.

So what can we rely on? The bleak view that I subscribed to before I had to pay for the New York Times, was simply nothing (I can really only afford to subscribe to one thing at a time…get it Oh well. Damn you NYT!). You rely on yourself and try to objectively rationalize your own changes against a a fluid backdrop.

The other more positive viewpoint involves just letting things be, much like Paul Westerberg implied. The Replacements’ Let it Be is a great place for understanding this philosophy because of how it embraces the mundane changes and self-doubts that we all go through. So listen to it, and expand on this.

Like Rabbit better before he had money? Tell us about it on Twitter (@midwestbeer), Facebook or send us an email mwbeercollective@gmail.com.

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