“Say what you see.” That was Roy Walker’s advice to contestants on the UK quiz show Catchphrase. We are attracted to other people’s observations—it is one of the reasons we read for pleasure. To be granted access to such perceptions creates an unspoken bond between reader and writer. For authors like John Updike, precise and accurate observation is almost a sacred responsibility. “You have to describe people as you see them,” he told an interviewer on C-Span in 2005, “and not worry too much about being politically correct.”
Yet what happens when the author is left in no doubt that accurate observation will be considered a social unkindness, an act of discrimination and bias? In those situations, the creator may scribble down somewhat less than what their mind’s eye observes. The bond between author and reader is replaced by the bond between author and society.
In August a literary fuss broke out over Kate Clanchy’s memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me (2019). When phrases like “chocolate-coloured skin” and “almond-shaped eyes” were criticised as racial tropes, Clanchy first denied having written such things and then vowed to rewrite some sections of the book “better, more lovingly.” This response implies that when she penned those physical descriptions, her memories of the schoolchildren concerned were tinged with some undefined negative emotion—not racism per se but something, at any rate, less than love. But it is more plausible that Clanchy, a left-wing Oxbridge-educated poet, was never at any stage “unloving”; she was simply being an observant writer, relating what she remembered. Nevertheless, some people took these infelicitous descriptions to be racial stereotypes and because the bond between Kate Clanchy and society is stronger than that between Kate Clanchy and her readers, we will soon be treated to a self-censored second edition of her Orwell Prize-winning writing.
If even an impeccably progressive Scottish poet can get herself into hot water simply by asserting her role as a writer, it is probably fortunate for John Updike that he left the publishing scene for good back in 2009. Although a double Pulitzer Award winning novelist, critic and short story writer, and one of the indisputable giants of American letters, it is not especially surprising that, to quote Meghan O’Gieblyn, “his name had been expurgated from syllabi” by the end of the last century. The sexually-explicit content of some of Updike’s material (most infamously 1968’s Couples) laid him open, like his contemporary Philip Roth, to charges of misogyny. However, he also touched fearlessly on race relations during his long career, most prominently in Rabbit Redux (1971), the second novel in the famous Rabbit tetralogy.
While Clanchy’s memoir stumbled unwittingly into a row about racial stereotypes, Rabbit Redux confronts these tropes head on. In order to delve deep into Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s fear of social and racial unrest in late sixties America, Updike conjures up a stereotypical young black radical, Hubert H. Farnsworth, or Skeeter as he is more commonly known. Skeeter is a drug-dealer we first meet in a dingy jazz bar, in the company of pimps, prostitutes and pool hustlers. He is sexually libidinous, surly, aggressive, opiniated, hubristic. His language is street-level primitive (“niggers,” “cunts” and “crackers”). Yet he has a fierce, focused intelligence, exhibits an acute knowledge of the historical suffering of his people, and possesses a keen religio-political consciousness, modulating in his case into a hilariously profane black Messiah complex. He is the young black revolutionary writ large. A stalking, silky panther. Educated, angry, dangerous. Every white-bread Pennsylvanian’s nightmare made flesh. Especially one such as Rabbit, still reeling from the adulterous departure of his wife and the arrival of the Connecticut runaway Jill.
Racial tropes are strewn throughout the book’s 350 pages. The disrespected blacks of the “stagnant city of Brewer” have complexions that run the gamut from “ashy” to “shoe-polished.” When Skeeter becomes his unexpected houseguest, Rabbit is able to undertake a closer examination of black male physiology. Viewed in a domestic setting—against a background of banal household objects and sitting betwixt Harry’s young teenage son, Nelson, and the waif-like Jill—Skeeter’s presence is often that of an absence: a shadowy gap in normality, disappearing not just when the lights are out but also when he reclines on Rabbit’s dingily upholstered sofa. The only colour is the silver glint off his glasses, the only frame of spatial reference his outsize afro, which is described as an “orb,” “a bushy black sphere.”
Yet in better light than the cosy illumination provided by the living room’s driftwood lamp, Rabbit can appreciate the finer details of his visitor. And it clearly is an appreciation, not just a spectral fear but something akin to a Victorian gentleman’s scientific investigation of the exotic other. “Physically” we are told, “Skeeter fascinates Rabbit.” So Harry reflects more than once on the black man’s pale palms and the curious bitonal disparity this presents. When Skeeter raises a finger, he sees “a brown crayon.” As a former basketball star gone to thirty-something seed, Rabbit focuses on the younger man’s natural athleticism: “His skinny chest, naked, is stunning in its articulation: every muscle sharp in its attachment to the bone.” Skeeter’s taut masculinity is a clear cause of personal angst for Angstrom, yet Updike must have also been aware that it plays into a wider preconception of “the Negro” as physical specimen rather than enlightened man of reason. The animality of the black man is the inevitable continuation of such prejudice. Skeeter, or rather parts of Skeeter, are compared to various species of the animal kingdom. When his fingers are caressing Jill’s breasts, it is as if “black spiders are fighting,” while “his hands flutter like bats against the moon.” In another place, African Americans are said to have “cocks like eels.” Such examples lead inevitably to the most notorious trope of all: the black man’s phallic prowess, invariably manifested in the sexual pursuit, the dark devouring, of fragile white women: “An inch or two of Skeeter’s long cock is un-enclosed by [Jill’s] face, a purplish inch bleached to lilac, below his metallic pubic explosion.”
The disturbance this causes Rabbit is troubling indeed: “he sees her mouth defiled by Skeeter’s kiss and feels her rotting with his luminous poison.” Elsewhere: “He is poison, he is murder, he is black.”
The story of Rabbit Redux is in large part Skeeter’s education of Harry. A tenuous initial bond is formed after Rabbit realises they are both abused by the same plutocratic class of “these Benighted States.” But this deepens into something approaching a bromantic affinity: first, when the hyper-articulate Skeeter shares his pained yet psychedelic reminiscences of Vietnam (and the possibility that conflict opens up for the white and black “grunts” of society to share in a meaningful brotherhood), and second, when Skeeter gives Rabbit a crash course in black American history: particularly the aftermath of post-Civil War reconstruction. And, by the end of their micro-commune experience, Rabbit is much tighter with Skeeter than he is with Jill. He defends his ornery friend to the police and to those members of the white rust-belt neighbourhood who treat Skeeter’s antics with open, even homicidal contempt. There is a character arc of sorts here. But the arc is far from complete, as befits a point-in-time entry in a sequence of novels. It would be the easiest thing in the world for Updike to signal his protagonist’s moral progression through changing the style of the observations; to steadily drop the close-to-the-bone biological descriptions; to ditch the racial tropes. But the difference between the loping Caucasian gait of Rabbit Angstrom and America’s many black bodies never stops being pertinent. The last image Harry has of Skeeter alludes, one final time, to the capacity of the latter’s skin to blend into the dark earth tones of its immediate surroundings. Updike resists the temptation to let Rabbit ignore the ebony shell of his fugitive acquaintance. A lesser writer would have spun some rainbow-hued affirmation of post-racial colour-blindness. Updike rejects such facile resolution.
Yes, Harry Angstrom is educated, but what did he really learn? “Rabbit’s reluctant crossing of the color line,” notes Updike in his afterword to the Everyman’s Library edition, “represents a tortured form of progress.” His association with Skeeter certainly gives Harry a few moments of dope-addled clarity, inspiring in him a more self-consciously “pimped” persona (“Trying to be Skeeter, Rabbit goads [Jill]. ‘Christ … what the hell kind of piece of ass are you?’”), but when the self-styled “Black Jesus” heads for the hills, our hero is once again back in a world of strange revolutions and social upheavals he cannot easily understand. Is this an allegorical device for the slow, “tortured” awakening of white America? No. It’s more likely that Rabbit’s “progress” lies simply in his greater ease around black people. Early in the novel, before Skeeter and Jill rock up on his doorstep, we learn that: “Talking to Negroes makes him feel itchy, up behind the eyeballs, maybe because theirs look so semi-liquid and yellow in the white and sore. Their whole beings seem lubricated in pain.”
By the end this itch is somewhat scratched. This is because his one-sided consideration of blacks as born victims, the wretched and abused of the Great Republic, has become a shaky yet multidimensional recognition of blackness as an integral part of the American story: to quote Updike’s afterword, “black music, black sorrow, black jubilation, black English, black style”—and, he could have added, the promise (or threat) of black leadership, black rule, black future. This is Rabbit’s education, but at no time is it couched in courteously veiled language. Rabbit, like Updike, describes people as he sees them.
So what should we make of Rabbit Redux fifty years on? Given that Kate Clanchy’s publisher, Picador, deemed it appropriate to “apologise profoundly” in the wake of the Some Kids I Taught debacle, it is difficult to imagine how Rabbit Redux—with its much more politically incorrect, indecorous and indecent language—could possibly be accepted by a major publisher in 2021. Updike’s whiteness would almost certainly be viewed as disqualifying.
But at least this spiky, provocative work still exists, and it will be in print for a good while to come, if only because it is one novel in a much-admired series of four, the last two of which bagged the Pulitzer. One would hope that, in its golden anniversary year, Redux is re-evaluated in light of our current post-Floyd conversation on race. With both The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods doing good business on Netflix, it seems that many view the turbulent radicalism of the late sixties and the impact of Vietnam on race relations as peculiarly relevant to our contemporary concerns.
Rabbit Redux undoubtedly presents a challenge for the modern reader. It tests to breaking point the proposition that the reason we enjoy creative writing is because we value the opportunity of experiencing that which is observed by another. We look forward to the prospect of seeing the world through the eyes and intellect of that person. We might not like what we read; we might be bored, saddened or revolted. But such is life. It would be a sad day for the future of literature if we blithely accepted that, for fear of being accused of promoting tropes or stereotypes, writers should habitually give less of themselves. If such tropes accord with the truth as subjectively perceived (either directly by the author or via a flawed protagonist like Rabbit Angstrom), then it is up to the reader to morally question their usage within the context of the work and the reading experience. So, for example, a reader of the Clanchy memoir could ask: “Are these descriptions simply a few instances of clichéd awkwardness, easily dismissed?” And a reader of Updike might ask: “These descriptions are making me genuinely uneasy—what is the author really getting me to confront?”
If the physical descriptions are a blatant lie, a grotesque exaggeration designed to make the reader be scornful of a particular group (such as in antisemitic caricature), then people have every right to put pressure on the publisher and author, to loosen that otherwise sacrosanct bond between reader and writer, for the good of society. It is not, however, in the interests of a free society for such regulation to be encouraged when the writer is simply following Roy Walker’s cheery injunction to “say what you see.”