- Reviewed by
These two slim, recent volumes on Updike are remarkably good although relatively modest in scope and sometimes somewhat narrowly opinionated toward views inconsistent with their own, especially in the Ristoff study of the Rabbit books. Judie Newman's is the more comprehensive study, with chapters on the social ethic in The Poorhouse Fair and Couples; the work ethic in the Rabbit books; the aesthetic sphere in The Centaur, Of the Farm, Marry Me, and A Month of Sundays; and what she calls the politics of the imagination in The Coup and The Witches of Eastwick. Both books, however, give new, fresh attention to Updike's fiction as a rich reservoir of social and historical developments, more exclusively by Dilvo Ristoff than by Newman, as Ristoff's subtitle explicitly indicates.
Ristoff's book would be better, in my view, were it less rigid in its too insistent contention on the "inseparableness of fiction and history" in Updike's trilogy, although no one before, in so far as I know, has so clearly shown, as he has, how historically representative Rabbit in fact is. Updike's sense of "scene" is indeed "place-specific and time-specific" and "obsessively referential in nature." But I am not quite so convinced that, "because of its referentiality," his fiction is "primarily" a reflection of social, economic, or political aspects of American life. Updike's fiction is "among the best examples of social fiction in the United States," but, in my view, it is not only that.
Even so, no one else has previously shown with such attention to detail, with such clarity and conviction, how the pictured America in the Rabbit books is indeed both "bumpy, ugly, and gritty" and only sometimes "smooth and pleasant," with a realism that brings both together by a "social painter who loves them so dearly that he can show us their folly, their dramas, their tragedies, their cruelties, and their weaknesses, and still manage to convince us that what he wants is not to condemn or condone but to understand." Ristoff's keen insight into the variety of ways political and social events are everywhere reflected in the novels [End Page 771] can nevertheless also occasionally blind him—perhaps because he seems to move from event to text rather than from text to event—to rich nuances in personal relations, say in Rabbit Redux, to those between Rabbit and Skeeter, between Rabbit and Jill, or even between Rabbit and Janice. For Ristoff, Rabbitt, at the end of that novel, is said, wrongly, I believe, to have "not changed significantly." But he is led to this, it seems to me, not by the events within the novel so much as by his conviction that middle America itself was also "fundamentally unchanged" by the events of the Sixties.
Newman is less dogmatic in her attitudes toward Updike's fiction. Her view of the Rabbit books, for example, also sees the trilogy cohering around what she calls "one major organizing theme: that of the relation between individual and society," but for her it is a picture of an individual "in conflict with social constraints which are politically and economically determined." For Ristoff Rabbit everywhere reflected American values; Newman asks instead whether Rabbit does not stand for "values of presocial innocence, instinct, even spiritual grace, which are lost to social man." She describes Rabbit Redux as reflecting perhaps an "ahistorical spatial form," seeing as a particular strength of the novel its "uncertainty" between historical events acting upon characters and merely "symbolic background, extentions of . . . Angstrom's subjective sense of self." Ristoff describes Rabbit Is Rich as "presenting a rather static protagonist against a dynamic scene." For Newman, Rabbit is seen at the end of the trilogy as representing, in, she maintains, an allusion to Thoreau, a "compromise between saving and spending," a possible realization that although "the things of this world have not been cast off, they have...