- Mapless Motion:Form and Space in Updike's Rabbit, Run
Twenty years ago the english critic Tony Tanner maintained, as the central thesis of his book City of Words (1971), that the fictional imagination of postwar America was as much troubled by the postmodernist novel's dissolution of form as by the constrictive, overdefinitive forms of conventional realism. Tanner linked the erosion of formal distinctions with fears of an entropic universe in which energy was always running down: the abiding anxiety of 1960s writers who discussed entropy (Pynchon, Burroughs) was its homogenizing effect on the universe where all things dwindled to nothing, all things became alike. The waste-making process resulted in a confusion and merging of identities and an eventual dissolving of all things into a blank, formless waste, a perfect homogeneity of nothingness.
John Updike was never of this experimental school of writers but, as Tanner observed, the characters of his early novels discussed these same processes, and the landscapes they inhabited were afflicted by the same cosmic entropy or universal wasting. Conner, in The Poorhouse Fair (1959), theorizes about "entropia," and George Caldwell, in The Centaur (1963), sees Nature as "garbage and confusion." Harry Angstrom, a tidy man who dislikes waste in his domestic affairs if not in his sexual ones, moves [End Page 35] in Rabbit, Run (1960) across a terrain of junk heaps, treeless wastes, and derelict houses which become part of a single integrated and indistinct mass (or mess). Even childbirth is seen by Rabbit as an entropic reduction of the universe to the one monochromatic filth: "Janice's babyish black nostrils [widen] to take in the antiseptic smell he smells, the smell running everywhere along the whitewashed walls, of being washed, washed, blood washed, retching washed until every surface smells like the inside of a bucket but it will never become clean because we will always fill it up again with our filth" (159). According to Tanner, doubleness was in Updike's early novels the ultimate defence against entropy and its wasting homogenization of the world (290), and love was crucial in this defence because love involves two in everything: "She was double everywhere but in her mouths. All things double. Without duality, entropy. The universe God's mirror," reflects Piet on Georgene in Couples (1968), a novel depicting a complex "universe of twos" (63). Coupledom has continued to be the dynamo of Updike's fictional universe—the chopping and changing of his twosomes in their tireless pursuit of novelty and their adoption of new mirror positions is what keeps their world in motion—and the theoretic importance of love is that it resists the assimilation, the entropic merging, of one identity into another. The idea had some literary currency in the Sixties on both sides of the Atlantic—"What will survive of us is love," Philip Larkin concluded the last poem of The Whitsun Weddings (46)—but in the form in which it has come down to contemporary writing it is fraught with fears that love is itself but another feature of the world's entropy, its every particle inscribed with the process of decay. Here, for example, is Julian Barnes in the "Parenthesis" to his recent A History of the World in Ten-and-a-Half Chapters (1989):
It will go wrong, this love; it probably will. . . . Our current model for the universe is entropy, which at the daily level translates as: things fuck up. But when love fails us, we must still go on believing in it. Is it encoded in every molecule that things fuck up, that love will fail? Perhaps it is. Still we must believe in love, just as we must believe in free will and objective truth. And when love fails, we should blame the history of the world.(246)
Moreover, within the context of Updike's fiction, the whole theory of love as an oppositional, antientropic force has always begged the question of whether his female characters are ever allowed sufficiently well-defined and distinct identities to resist being merged into and annihilated by the wills of their dominant males (feminist critics such as Mary Allen have expressed reservations about the bland...