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Updike Redux

By Michael Sragow

"Every human being who is more than a moron is in the arena of certain violent tensions.... locked out of the animal paradise of unthinking natural reflex...born into one political contract or another...It's a kind of agony really--the agony vents itself in ulcers internally, rage externally."

JOHN H. UPDIKE '54 hopped back to Cambridge one cold day in December from his Ipswich home! With long legs and arms that flopped around with nonchalant grace, he scaled the Crimson steps looking like a suburban squire should, work-booted, wearing nondescript dungarees and a good sweater gone bad. With eyes looking out from a face somewhere between a hawk's and a gnome's, he glanced at the fading pictures of fading editors on our tack-marked cork bulletin board, and asked the photographer. "How did you get those black borders on them?" Mechanical details and competence in mastering them impressed him--part of the reason he wrote Rabbit Redux was his vision of Rabbit as a linotyper.

It was one month after we'd met at an Allegheny terminal in Philadelphia, when, taken by surprise, he had agreed to come to Cambridge to talk about Rabbit Redux, and whatever else struck him to speak of. It was one week after he'd been hailed by The Times as one of the great contemporary American authors...right up there with Roth. Bellow, Malamud and Mailer. (No longer would he be the fall goy for all of New York's literary establishment.)

Neither the fortuitous accident which brought him in touch with his Crimson reviewer, nor his recent entrance into the literary pantheon, seemed to discomfit him much. After remarking that the Lampoon headquarters where he had once held sway were much plusher than the Crimson's game rooms, he spoke freely of future plans, in a light-timbred voice which unexpectedly erupted into husky laughter.

His next book will, hopefully, be the historical novel which was to have taken the place of Redux as his main output for 69-70. Based on the life of James Buchanan--interestingly enough, the only president to have been born and raised in Pennsylvania--the novel is meant to explore the tensions of a man of personal integrity thrust into a position of national power at a time when his actual strength was limited--and threatened by the cataclysms of pre-Civil War America. Buchanan had successfully risen above personal traumas in his love-life and in a tawdry Pennsylvania political arena: he got caught in the mire of an unfinished capital and unsophisticated state system once he got to the White House.

The tape recorder came, and Updike related why that novel has not yet been written:

THE TROUBLE IS, once you get down into the stream you begin to read around and you realize how little you know. The problem becomes how to keep it from becoming just an historical novel. Once, I thought if I forgot a lot, then I could really begin it. But I've talked enough about it, it's been in my mind long enough, that I must really do it in a carefree and rapid way and get it out of my system.

I'm glad in a way, that I did write Redux instead of pulling ahead with it. This, again, was a bit of a leap of the imagination--I haven't lived in Pennsylvania for a long time now and this Brewer is a rather different Brewer from the one in Rabbit Run--which was based on scenes in my childhood where I knew every wrinkle in the pavement. I still felt on solid ground in this book in a way...the next book will have to be a jump in the dark.

Q: The book has been hailed for its portrait of 'Middle America. 'Did the necessity to get that close to a man who is inarticulate and guided by mass culture to as great a degree as Rabbit require a similar leap?

A: Intellectually, I'm not essentially advanced over Harry Angstrom. I went to Harvard, it's true, and wasn't much good at basketball...other than that we're rather similar. I quite understand both his anger and passivity, and feeling of the whole Vietnam involvement as a puzzle, that something strange has gone wrong...but it's no great leap of the imagination to do that

1. after all, have moved from one small town in my childhood to another in my adulthood. There may be something also in the novelist's trade which shades you towards conservatism (I am a registered Democrat. I should say, on the town committee). Your sense of things exists because they evolved to that condition, they cannot be lightly or easily altered. It is my general sense of human institutions that they are outcroppings of human nature, that human nature is slow to change, that in general when you destroy one set of institutions you get...something worse. That's a silly thing to say. I'm joking of course.

Q: At one point in Redux, Rabbit looks over the books that Skeeter, the black radical carries--Marx, Fanon--and they disgust him, remind him of plumbing. Is that more or less your feeling also?

A: Well, I think to some degree yes, not just me but a lot of people have gone along under a number of assumptions based in part on the movies of the 30's, and all these investigations of our origins and terrible flaws, the built-in problems of the way things work in America is a little like scouring the plumbing in your own home...It's hard for some of us to get down in the cellar. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. That's a very real thing, the way that book sort of smells, it's the plumbing under the homes. I remember, this stink arising from under the house itself. Throughout the book he smells bad things.

Q You've written that "an easy humanism pervades the lands writing. Given the fact that you deal on a very personal basis with human stress how do you distinguish your...

A: Difficult humanism? I feel that, as a writer, I put into practice a set of democratic assumptions. Just as in a democracy anybody can be president, so anyone can be a character in a novel, at least in one by me. Every human being who is more than a moron is in the arena of certain violent tensions that are involved in being human...In fact there is an easy humanism that insists that man is an animal which feeds and sleeps and defecates and makes love and isn't that nice and natural and let's all have more of that.

But this is omitting intrinsic stresses in the human condition--you foresee things, for example, you foresee your own death.

You have really been locked out of the animal paradise of unthinking natural reflex.

You are born into one political contract or another, whose terms, though they sit very lightly at first, in the form of the draft, or taxes, eventually begin to make very real demands on you. The general social contract--living with other people, driving cars on highways--all this is difficult, it's painful. It's a kind of agony really--the agony vents itself in ulcers internally, rage externally...

In short, all of our institutions, of marriage, the family. Your driver's license, everything is kind of precarious, and maintained at a cost of tension.

Q: Easy humanism, then, lies in the belief that these individual problems can be ignored for the sake of larger panaceas...

A: Or who even take humanity as some kind of moral index. who say that to be human is to be good and our problems all arise from not being human enough. I think I take a rather darker view. We must of necessity lose our humanity all the time.

When asked about what my philosophy was I tried to write it down in Midpoint in handy couplets and discovered that of all my books it is the least read, and it was hardly reviewed at all. I concluded that nobody really cared what my philosophy was--I think that's right--the novelist is of interest only for what he does through empathy and image-producing, image-arranging: the more consciously a theorist he is the more apt he is to become impotent or cranky or both. Like Harry, I try to remain kind of open. Revolt, rebellion, violence, disgust are themselves there for a reason, they too are organically evolved out of a distinct reality, and must be considered respectfully...I try to love both the redneck and the anarchist bomb-thrower. I think they're both anarchists.

People are basically very anarchistic. Harry's search for infinite freedom--well, he's been kind of ground down, he's never really been answered.

Q: At the end of Rabbit Redux, Rabbit talks of going back to a farm...Are you thinking of bringing him back again?

A: I kind of left the book open, I even mounted a few threads that could be picked up. Janice talks about how he never should have had that awful indoor job. I even had a title about Rural Rabbit--that's going to be their next stage. I couldn't write that book now. Maybe in 1979 enough will have happened to both him and me that I can, but if it doesn't that's all right. Maybe I should stop while I'm-ahead-at least as far as the New York Times goes.

These two complement each other well enough. Anybody who really cared could get some interesting formal things out of the two books together. You never know how this works out in terms of flesh and blood. But certainly Janice bringing Stavros back to life is some kind of counterweight to the baby's death in the first book. She too had to make a passage--go through something to return--to get back into bed with him. All that's there, I'm not sure that a third book could do it again--it would have to be a different kind of a book--a short book, a pastoral book, an eclogue.

Q: There seems to be great nostalgia for the farm running through your books. Is the bucolic life an ideal one for you?

A: No, I think for Rabbit it is--remember, he is an animal...in the first book he was happy brainlessly working in Mrs. Smith's garden. Yes, he does pine after an animal existence.

A lot of men like him really do--I'm constantly surprised at the amount of men who get up at 4 in the morning in the hunting season and go out with a gun in the miserable weather and try to kill some harmless bird. What is this but some very deep need to get one with nature somehow, something that's remotely denied all of us.

I have few illusions of farm life. It's a good life, but I think it has much of the drudgery of industrial existence without some of the compensations. It's a brutal life. I lived on a farm, but am really not myself a rural creature. I really love New York City...at any rate I'm not sure that rural life or a big commune is an answer...The earth and agriculture are an index of something we need and are rapidly losing, the human animal is geared to interlock with all kinds of raw natural environments. The coming civilization--that doesn't mean just here, but worldwide--must accomodate people, it's a commonplace, I guess, ecology.

My mother was an ecologist before her time, and bred in me this feeling about land being precious, in some way the ground of our physical being.

Q: Do you find it difficult to keep writing in a cultural context where--as you said once--"homegrown cabbages" like Mailer and Jones are "mistaken for roses"? Do you still stand by that sentence, and is there any tradition you do feel a part of?

A: Since I wrote that sentence Jones's stock has gone down whereas Mailer's has risen. I think that considering Mailer's position at the time it is an apt enough remark. I think Mailer's subsequent career as far as I've kept up with it is a kind of self-resurrection to be admired. I do admire--not without reservation--Armies of the Night: there's a shrillness, and a willingness to accept your personal experience as an artist as metaphor for national experience.

That little bothers me in a sense--all writers do that to some extent. Harry Angstrom is supposed to be some kind of an American. But at least there's tact when you do it as a novel, whereas Mailer's is the sublime conviction that whatever happens to him happens to Them--it's like what's good for General Motors is good for the nation. Still, Armies of the Night was made wonderful by the richness, the ironic complexity of Mailer's view. He does have a very complicated mind at times. I quite like Prisoner of Sex, which I've just read.

It's a mistake to dismiss the book as a male chauvinist oink--it winds up as just that, I suppose, yet it's such a lovingly reasoned and felt-out explanation of how he does feel.

Do I feel part of a tradition? I think any writer to some extent inherits the mid-nineteenth century New Englanders--I think we all benefit from Emerson's marvelous sense of what an American is, from Melville's superb thunder, from Thoreau's jackal and all that.

I'm not too aware of it. I think that the present cultural scene is so changing, that to try to orient yourself very distinctly is just to make yourself sad and miserable. You get into a professional situation where you are a writer, you do it out of habit, you must write a certain number of words a day, the older you get the more old-fashioned you become.

A new kind of mind was produced by raising children on television. I was raised on movies, a different kind of experience entirely. You had to leave the house, you went to a kind of communal place, you saw a rather finished product. And movies of that era were inculcating a kind of Americanism, not of the official sort exactly, but it certainly was a sense...You know, when you saw Bogie stoically shrugging his shoulders, there was a whole world of what it was to be an American: what was right and what was wrong. On television you get this incessant fuzzy melange of little segments of things, and I think it must breed in you a different set of expectations, of notions of what people should be doing. I see nothing wrong with trying to sit in a room and turn out stuff that will repay re-reading. It makes something kind of solid, or at least in its own terms hard to improve. I'm not sure I do it but that's the effort.

I can well imagine that from some standpoints it's a silly thing to do. Print is dying. Who, after all, has the time to read novels. A few people seem to. I don't have time, it isn't what I do.

Q: Are there any things you feel so deeply for that you would abandon your novelist's stance for a Maileresque pose?

A: I'm sure there are--I don't think you quite know until you resist. Mailer himself is not much of a revolutionary. I somehow feel once you introduce the word, you find yourself backtreading or apologizing or something. The threats that have struck me, that have aroused some kind of gut feeling in me, have not been from the right but from the left--I don't know quite why this is, whether I'm so remote from the right that I don't take them seriously at all. I do take people who run the New York Review of Books seriously. I find that their contempt for the democratic system is so pervasive and profound as to be death-dealing and menacing really.

It expresses this everywhere, from the drawings up to the feelings that anybody who has power, who actually tries to make decisions involving the whole society, is ergo corrupt or insane. You get a kind of Calvinist sense of damnation connected with running the machinery--the machinery is going to be there, in any case--you can't revolutionize social machinery. It's a kind of wariness, a kind of unpleasability, a hopeless miasma arises from those pages.

It may be that intellectuals, the kind that get in there are themselves power-seekers, narrow, angry about not having the kind of power. Certainly, a Cambridge party is political to a fault. It could be that the academic world is a microcosm that breathes into it a certain bias, which when applied to the national scene amounts to a negation of the way it's more or less worked for 190 years.

Certainly the New York Review of Books seems to me to have rather little time to give to fiction--it regards fiction both in the space it gives it and the kind of reviews it gets as a pretty silly branch of the written word. I think, of course, fiction can say more things--it can contain ambiguity and it can show issues mixed in with the flesh and blood.

I think novels should become a little more informational. We have less time to read them--they must dehydrate a little, they must draw a little closer to the textures of things like television, newspapers, magazines, so full of facts.

Much of the excitement about the Vietnam involvement is a kind of local event in terms of history. It's certainly a symptom of certain things. It's a symptom of certain things. It's a symptom of the last gasp of pax americana--already things happen in Asia which for the first time we don't have much of a stake in, or nobody blames us for everything that's been happening in the world in the past 20 years. We're coming out of that role; we're becoming for a while just one more country.

It's very important that all of us understand what's happening to us--what history is doing to us in a way very rapidly. We're not even accepting its being done. How should the novel respond to the changes in human nature and the kinds of things that happen--I think that in some funny way the novel traditionally has an ending--things end badly or happily--events have significance--in light of that is somehow we don't live like that now--our sense of irony is so complicated, so the very kinds of stories we tell have to be different. The kind of stories that Salinger wrote in the 50's are different than those written in the 30's

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