In my last post I made a distinction between the level of detail expected from writers in the Low Lit Tradition versus those who aspire to High Lit.. Robert B. Parker, master of Low Lit, handles character entrances like a sketch artist on Bourbon Street – a few quick, bold strokes, the caricature is established, and away we go.
|John Updike is a different type of writer, High Lit right from the beginning of his career in the 1950s. He writes as Monet would paint – many fine brush strokes, a lot of shadings, some contradictory elements that make for a richer image. Updike and other High Lit types want a degree of ambiguity in a character up front. Complexity is a plus in all story-telling, and it takes precedence over speed in the High Lit style.|
In Rabbit Run, Updike’s 1959 novel, Harry Angstrom, a young man known as Rabbit from his days as a high school basketball star, leaves his wife and two young children and begins living with a loose older woman in his small town. His wife’s parents send their Episcopalian minister to see if he can talk Rabbit into reconciling with his wife. The minister, driving a gray car Updike likens to a shark, catches up to Rabbit on a street just after he’s removed all his clothes from the couple’s apartment. Here’s how Updike handles the Reverend’s introduction:
The fair young man with his throat manacled in white lets his car glide diagonally against the curb, yanks on the handbrake, and shuts off the motor, thus parking on the wrong side of the street, cockeyed. Funny how ministers ignore small laws. Rabbit remembers how Kruppenbach’s son used to tear around town on a motorcycle. It seemed somehow blasphemous.”Well, I’m Jack Eccles,” this minister says, and inconsequently laughs a syllable. The white stripe of an unlit cigarette hanging from his lips makes with the echoing collar a comic picture in the car window. He gets out of his car, a ‘58 Buick four-door Special, with those canted fins and that rocket-arc of chrome on the side, and offers his hand. To accept it Rabbit has to put his big ball of clothes down in the strip of grass between the pavement and the curb.
Note how credibly Updike instills complexity in the Reverend Jack Eccles character by having Rabbit notice the way the minister parks on the wrong side of the street. The equivocal nature of Eccles, set up here in the first meeting, plays into the role the minister will take on as the novel proceeds. Over time the young minister becomes obsessed with Rabbit and his choices in life.
Is Eccles just being conscientious, just doing his job, in trying to hold Rabbit’s little family together? Or does his dogged pursuit of Rabbit begin to suggest Inspector Javert on the tail of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables? Perhaps Eccles experiences a sort of vicarious wish fulfillment through Rabbit, the kind of man who acts out the impishly perverse impulses Eccles may himself feel. Rabbit remembers at one point that Eccles is rumored to be gay and he wonders whether this might explain his pursuit. These are fruitful ambiguities, and they begin to be suggested from the moment Eccles appears.
In the quoted paragraph Updike is using a type of narration favored by High Lit types since Henry James, “free indirect style.” As the critic James Wood explains in How Fiction Works: “On the one hand, the author wants to have his or her own words, wants to be the master of a personal style; on the other hand, narrative bends toward its characters and their habits of speech.”
Rabbit is not well educated, not a deep thinker, and, in this novel, abysmally lacking in self-awareness. In the course of the later novels Updike wrote about him, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom will become an American Everyman, an archetypal mid-20th century middle-class male with an insatiable urge for more of everything – houses, cars, money, his neighbors’ wives, spiritual solace.
Thus the quoted passage oscillates between the style of our super-articulate author (Updike) and the plebian Rabbit. The free indirect style allows the reader to see both through the character’s and author’s eyes. When done well, there is a fruitful yet barely noticeable tension between the two points of view. The technique allows a skillful writer like Updike to have it both ways.
Consider this marvelous metaphor: “The fair young man with his throat manacled in white…” That “manacled” captures the sense of desperation Eccles feels about his profession: he’s a modern minister without much faith. He’s trapped in his life too, just as much as Rabbit is in his. But “manacled” is not a metaphor that would occur to the character of Rabbit as he’s been established. That metaphor is pure Updike, but if the author has done his spade work well, we do not detect the gap.
This is partly because Updike immediately returns to true Rabbit consciousness with the line,”Rabbit remembers how Kruppenbach’s son used to tear around town on a motorcycle.” (Kruppenbach is the town’s Lutheran minster.) That cliché – “used to tear around town on a motorcycle” – is all Rabbit-think. The narrative bends back in his direction.
And then there’s this: “’Well, I’m Jack Eccles,’ this minister says, and inconsequently laughs a syllable.” What in the world does “inconsequently laughs a syllable” mean? My interpretation: a lesser writer would say something like “gives a nervous laugh,” but Updike is too much the stylist to allow Rabbit another monstrous cliché so quickly.
And who’s in charge for this sentence? “The white stripe of an unlit cigarette hanging from his lips makes with the echoing collar a comic picture in the car window. “ Updike again, of course. Rabbit is not the sort of fellow to notice such a painterly pattern and metaphorize a cigarette into a white stripe.
But we return to Rabbit-think with the detailed description of Eccles’s car, “a ‘58 Buick four-door Special, with those canted fins and that rocket-arc of chrome on the side.” Rabbit, who later in life will become a Toyota dealer, is just the kind of American male to lavish attention on that big Buick.
The free indirect style, also known, according to James Wood, as “close third person,” “going into character,” or “close writing,” is an extraordinarily useful tool for the writer’s workshop. It’s tricky to master, but when done artfully, the technique can create a convincing balance between the lifelike quality fiction strives for and the artifice required to achieve it.
In his Introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of the four collected Rabbit novels, written in 1995, Updike says that “the character of Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom was for me a way in – a ticket to the America all around me. What I saw through Rabbit’s eyes was more worth telling than what I saw through my own, though the difference was often slight; his life, less defended and logocentric than my own, went places mine could not.”
Updike was by nature a gifted noticer and deft articulator of the details he so lovingly extracted from life. When he reined in his gift and tempered the noticing for the sake of a character like Rabbit Angstrom, he produced glorious fiction.
Note: This is a revised version of a 317am post from last year, post #3 in my Tips for Writers series running this week and next.