- Rabbit (Un)Redeemed: The Drama of Belief in John Updike’s Fiction
John Updike, we are told—and we are told it often, sometimes by Updike himself—is a Christian writer. In many ways, this assertion has become as calcified in critical circles as the argument that, say, John Barth is a postmodernist. Updike's first, and most formative, professional readers—George Hunt, Jeff Campbell, Rachel Burchard, and Alice and Kenneth Hamilton, to name a few—laid the groundwork by assiduously reading his 1960s fiction through the prism of Kierkegaardian existentialism and the crisis theology of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and others—very much as Updike instructed them to do. Thirty years later, not much has changed. Even his most vocal detractors—particularly Frederick Crews and the two Woods, Ralph and James—have tended to fault Updike's more recent fiction less for trying to sustain a Christian vision within a secular, post-Christian world than for advocating a bad, or at least supremely complacent, brand of solipsistic Christianity. What few of his numerous critics have entertained, but which I suspect has dawned on a great many of his devoted readers, is the very real possibility that John Updike, for the last decade or so, has been losing his faith.
That possibility sits at the heart of Peter J. Bailey's superb new book, Rabbit (Un)Redeemed: The Drama of Belief in John Updike's Fiction. By reading chronologically through a selection of Updike's most religiously preoccupied texts, Bailey convincingly charts what he describes as "the reluctantly expanding secularism of Updike's aesthetic" (33). He begins with three early Olinger stories—"Pigeon Feathers," and those two farraginous, career-making masterpieces, "The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother's Thimble, and Fanning Island," and "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car"—and then proceeds through the Rabbit tetralogy before wrapping up his discussion with a detailed reading of In the Beauty of the Lilies and a coda-like dip into the Rabbit series' own anticlimactic coda, "Rabbit Remembered." What Bailey discovers here is indeed a "drama of belief," or, more specifically, a dramatic depiction of a once-powerful faith gradually eroding over time, and yet what makes his book significant is that, for Bailey, the drama is less Rabbit's than it is Updike's.
Like many critics before him, Bailey reads Rabbit as something of a surrogate for Updike himself, a fellow believer who possesses all of Updike's considerable powers of observation without the concomitant literary skills. Zeroing in on the latter, Bailey argues that Rabbit, contrary to most critical opinion, challenges as much [End Page 191] as he affirms Updike's religious faith. As Bailey explains, Updike's aesthetic vision is almost entirely indistinguishable from his religious views, both of which spring from a firm conviction that "'the truth is somehow holy,'" and that "'there is some act of virtue in trying to get things down exactly as they are.'" (122). "Imitation is praise," Updike has famously proclaimed in his 1990 memoirs, Self-Consciousness—"Description expresses love. . . . What small faith I have has given me what artistic courage I have." By way of contrast, "Rabbit's faith," Bailey argues, "is more ephemeral and less eloquent than Updike's, making him more vulnerable to nihilism than Updike, whose descent into despair often seems provided with a safety net by his ability to articulate the fall" (40-41). Rabbit therefore presents Updike with a direct challenge to his own religious aesthetic, for, if it is true that Rabbit's sensual affirmations of creaturely reality ultimately go nowhere, particularly since he cannot write them down and get them published in The New Yorker, isn't it entirely possible that Updike's "holy" effort to "get things down exactly as they are"—all fifty books' worth—similarly goes nowhere, or at least nowhere beyond the empyrean of print? Bailey worries over this problem, to be sure, but, even more importantly, he demonstrates that Updike has been worrying about it too.