Thursday, April 9, 2009

John Updike & Victor Hugo

I should admit right now that I don't know where, exactly, this comparison is going. Here, to get us started, however, are some facts. Both Updike's four 'Rabbit' novels and Hugo's Les Miserables are fictional biographies on an epic scale: both are huge (1500 and 1300 pages respectively) and in both the hero's life is part and parcel of huge transformations--social, political, economic--in every aspect of human life, in the very fabric of history. Neither hero is equipped to understand the way life is changing around him. Jan Valjean is entirely self-educated--to a degree beyond anything that could be rationally accounted for--but knows nothing about history or science and Harry Angstrom, with his typically paltry, high school education knows even less. There similarities cease; Hugo and Updike work from very different assumptions about history. Hugo not only believes in providence and progress but thinks they are fundamentally the same. The memory of the great Revolution and its failure was still alive and kicking for Hugo and many others of his generation. The Revolution lives. History, they believed, has a direction, guaranteed by God: liberty, equality and justice for all. Sound familiar? The men who made the American Revolution and wrote the American constitution had read the same books as the men of '89 and '93.

Writing a little more than a century after the publication of Les Miserables, Updike shows us how the world looks now--now that all the gods have died. Absent Providence-- Divine, Hegelian, whatever--history becomes literally aimless: just one damn thing after another. And that is how it appears to Updike's "pilgrim" (as he refers to him in his Preface), 'Rabbit' Angstrom--though, of course, Rabbit would not able to talk about the historical transformations he observes and comments on, resentfully, in these terms.

When history becomes aimless and progress is no longer built into the scheme of things, the bottom drops out of the American Dream, which not only assumes that the system is basically egalitarian and basically fair but is becoming more so:
I may have had a rotten deal but my kids will have a fair shot at the good life, i.e. a happy life in Hobbesian terms: continued success in getting and keeping worldly goods. As long as it seemed that the supply of goods was unlimited, all was well with the American Dream. Now we know for a fact that the supply of goods is not unlimited (which now sounds like an understatement) and that success in acquiring them goes to the powerful and the lucky. But of course we've always know that; the American Dream was sustained by hope, and a belief in progress. When hope fails and illusions fade, how do you feel? Resentful?

Resentment is one of the passions that keep our political pot on the boil--it is what the powerless feel when they feel, or are made to feel, how powerless they are. There are more losers than winners, and the losers don’t like being told that they deserve to be losers. The fact that our political culture is both libertarian and egalitarian means that there is a natural audience out there just waiting to have its resentments stroked. And now that the future holds little promise for ordinary people, that audience can only grow larger.

My first thought, as I was reading the 'Rabbit' novels was that it was an epic of resentment. Harry ('Rabbit') Angstrom is a man of ordinary intelligence and imagination, but badly educated like just about everyone else, with no marketable skills, no prospects and many resentments. But resentment is boring, and by the end of Rabbit Redux (Rabbit Returns) I was heavy bored by Harry Angstrom.

Updike had to give Rabbit a boost if he wanted to go on writing about him, and in the third volume, Rabbit Is Rich, he does so. Rabbit without money is a man with nothing but resentments; with money, he can begin to do things that make him interesting and, in scene after scene (the edge of his resentments dulled), richly comic-- like the scene in which Rabbit is trying to read Consumer Reports while his wife Janice, unnoticed at first, is trying to get his sexual attention. I also like the way conversations in this book always make me feel as if I too were walking a sort of tight-rope, a sense of tensions under control but only just. This book is so good, it makes me think I have been unjust to the first two. I have yet to read the last. I'll let you know what I find.

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