Week 7 reading response: John Updike is in the details

You only have to teach literature to realize that most young readers are poor noticers.
James Wood, How Fiction Works

Show James Wood what’s what. In your response, briefly discuss 7 – 10 of Updike’s details from the Rabbit at Rest excerpt. Over the course of your response (i.e., not for each detail), employ at least five of the terms and concepts Wood explores, including but not limited to:

  1. focus
  2. thisness: abstraction and palpability
  3. the enrichment of observation
  4. overaesthetic appreciation
  5. arbitrariness
  6. irrelevance
  7. off-duty vs. on-duty detail
  8. realism
  9. chosenness
  10. co-creation of character

Separately, keep a close eye on how Updike’s characters fight, on the skirmish nature of their conversations in the context of the broader war of their family relationships. Notice what’s unsaid and yet speaks loudly. Compare Updike’s rendering of repression, labored patience, barely controlled fury, and passive aggression with Franzen’s. You don’t have to write about this, but keep it in mind as you read – it will help with this and next week’s writing assignment, and we’ll talk about it Tuesday.

Week 7 reading response: John Updike is in the details

7 thoughts on “Week 7 reading response: John Updike is in the details

  1. Lola Jalbert says:

    “Around the eleventh hole-a dogleg par-five that he butchers, slicing his second shot, a four-wood, so wildly it winds up in a condo’s side yard, between some plastic trash cans and a concrete slab with some rusting steel clothesline poles sunk in it..” (66)

    “The top row holds the skin mags, sealed in plastic, pieces of printed paper hiding details of the open-mouthed girls, open-mouthed as if perpetually astonished by their own tangible assets.” (18)

    “In their sudden small plight he is newly aware of her preciousness, the jewel-cut of her eyes and eyelashes, the downy glaze in front of her ears and the gleam of each filament of her luxuriant hair, pulled taut into a thick pigtail adorned with an unreal stiff write ribbon.” (19)

    “It has always vaguely interested him, that sinister mulch of facts our little lives grow out of before joining the mulch themselves, the grafile brown rotting layers of previous deaths, layers that if deep enough and squeezed hard enough make coal as in Pennsylvania.” (44)

    “He still can’t get over Norfolk pines, the way they look like the plastic trees you buy for Christmas, the branches spaced like slats and each one of them a plume perfect as a bird’s feather and the whole tree absolutely conical in shape.” (45)

    “Roy drops his spoon and Pru squats down to pick it up, her shorty robe flaring out over one thigh. A lacy peep of jet-black bikini underpants. A slightly shiny vaccination oval high up.” (50)

    “Her freckled thighs have that broad bland smoothness of car fenders. Her feet are long and bony, pink in their toe-joints and papery-white on top, in cork-soled lipstick-red clogs. Her toenail polish is chipped, and Rabbit finds that sexy too.” (47)

    These examples particularly show Wood’s concepts of focus. John Updike is the master of making obscure details mean a lot, and alternately, taking quite important scenes and pulling them back to Earth with specific details. Though nobody dies in the excerpt that I’ve read thus far, Updike still pulls the world back into realism with small details after intense emotional moments. The way he always notices his son’s earring, bald spot, and rat tail after a fight, for example. Or the way he notices his wife’s bangs when he’s mad at her. It seems to be Rabbit’s way of humanizing (or perhaps even delegitimizing) his opponents.
    He also demonstrates quite a bit of ‘thisness,’ characterized by small grounding details nestled between action and plot, such as the downy hair in front of his granddaughter’s ears and the plastic trash cans and rusting clothesline poles where his golf ball lands. These examples make scenes more realistic by making them more specific; the reader wants to ask, “if this didn’t actually happen, how would you know about the trash cans?”
    Updike sometimes falls into the trap of too much detail, or the Flaubertian trap of enrichment of detail. Rabbit’s descriptions of his granddaughter would be, in my opinion, far stronger without anything but the down in front of her ears.
    Updike is the king of seemingly irrelevant details, such as the “shiny vaccination oval” on Pru’s leg. Does this detail serve a purpose for the story? I guess it might-I haven’t read to the end yet, but as of this section it isn’t referenced again. I like these irrelevant details; I enjoy the fact that an author hasn’t put everything in as a symbol, motif, or metaphor. Life is full of insignificant details and any good realist writer knows that-I appreciate when they reference them.
    Rabbit at Rest is arrestingly realistic, even painfully so. I don’t find his seemingly “random” details to be fakely real as does Barthes. I think that his attention to detail can only add to the novel and that it is in no way overdone. I do think that the average person notices many things every day that have no significant value to their life, and I believe this to be what Updike is referencing in his realistic detailing.

    Updike is, along with Franzen, a master at creating tense familial situations. His characters say so much with so few words, yet somehow it is easy and natural for the reader to read between the lines to find out what they are really upset about. Maybe this is because Updike has captured a certain feeling or atmosphere that can be applied to so many family interactions and conflicts. I still haven’t figured out how to write conflicts this successfully, but I will continue to read Updike critically to see what I can learn.


  2. 1.His daughter-in-law surprises him by, as he bends dutifully forward to kiss her cheek, kissing him flush on the mouth. Her lips have a wry regretful shy downward twist but are warm, warm and soft and big as cushions in the kiss’s aftermath within him.(14)
    2.Lovely complexion, cheeks rosy under the freckles, and the details of her face-lashes, eyebrows, ears, nostril-wings, lips quick to lift up on her teeth-frighteningly perfect, as if too easy to smash. (13)
    3.With them, he is a big Swede, they call him Angstrom, a comical pet gentile, a big pale uncircumcised hunk of the American dream. (57)
    4.His remark makes the child’s tears spill, put through the curved lashes onto her cheeks like the silvery jerking tracks rain makes on windowpanes. (49)
    5.It is wider than commercial-use, unlimited-access highways tend to be up north, and somehow the competitive roadside enterprise looks worse in the constant sunlight, as if like plastic garbage bags it will never rot away. (29)
    6.Rabbit takes them and his mug full of sludgy coffee and squeezes back past Pru, concentrating on the sensation in his groin as her shorty robe grazes it, and with a wicked impulses gives the kitchen table a nudge with the back of his thighs to get Janice’s full cup of coffee rocking so it will slosh and spill. (53)
    7.Family life, life with children, is something out of his past, that he has not been sorry to leave behind; it was for him like a bush in some neglected corner of the back yard that gets overgrown, a lilac bush or privet some bindweed has invaded from underneath with leaves so similar and tendrils so tightly entwining it gives the gardener a headache in the sun to try to separate bad growth from good. (47)
    Most of the passages I have chosen address the concept of enrichment of observation through the extensive and vivid descriptions. Updike gives us a background of collected memories that are used to add something more to the description of a simple road, like Route 41. Also, in Updike’s writing we can notice the concept of focus (example n.4) since he gives us detailed descriptions while narrowing his focus that one specific thing. It almost looks cinematic- the zoomed shot of Judy’s cheek and her tear falling. Rabbit is paying too close of attention to this certain detail. In a real life setting a child’s tear, especially in that situation, wouldn’t have gotten such an elaborate report. This is the point were I felt the fiction took the first prize away from reality. Nevertheless, Updike is very much capable of realistic descriptions. The way Updike describes Rabbit’s feelings about his family life, his son, his grandchildren and interaction with women. It’s not pretty, but it’s very common and human. It’s believable. Being attracted to someone you should have never laid eyes on, being envious of your family, being tired of your life… All of these are very relatable. Updike makes it even more interesting with an arbitrary twist(examples n.1&6), that gives the reader more insight on how damaged Rabbit’s character is and introduces us to his instincts that had been buried deep under the weight of his life. Why would these thoughts cross his mind when thinking about his grand-daughter? Does he really feel like his son’s wife would be a good way of regaining his youth? We don’t know. There is something in his subconsciousness that we are not allowed to see. It is these little moments that add something enigmatic to Rabbit’s character. We, as readers are left to guess. Sometimes, our doubts are addressed and resolved. Other times, they are not. However, by using this style of writing, Updike requests close-reading. While reading this book,I have started appreciating the way Updike chooses to repeat some words adding a new meaning every time they get mentioned and finally turning them into symbols. Sometimes, some details seem out of place, but only if you have forgotten about their first appearance twenty pages before. All in all, I’ve really enjoyed the way Updike introduces us to the character of Rabbit and his relationship with his family, friends and the world through a series of different writing methods.


  3. Loulou says:

    “He fold its cloth weight over his arm and she is like a butterfly herself now, in her pink dress. Her green eyes have gone wide in this gray airport’s bustling limbo, under reddish-brown eyebrows one of which near the flat bulge of her little freckled nose has a little cowlick, fanning the hairs the wrong way;” (19)

    “Nelson has that cowlick, and inherited it from Harry, who used to lick his middle finger and try to slick it down in the high-school boy’s lavatory mirror. Amazing, that a thing so tiny could pass on. Maybe the only immortality, a little genetic quirk going on and on like a computerized number in your monthly bank statement.” (19)

    “He and little Judith arrive across the hazardous hot asphalt at the pearl-gray Camry, which is his, he knows, from Janice’s tennis racket and press on the back seat, flung in there separately -the dumb mutt, what’s the use of a press if you don’t put the racket in it?” (23)

    Almost the entirety of page 38.

    “There is a glitch, a secret. He talks too much, too rapidly. Nellie used to be taciturn and sullen and now he keeps spilling out words , giving more answer than there was question. Something is revving him up, something wrong.” (41)

    “”Six hours I was on the table,” Bernie is urging into his ear. “I woke up and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even open my eyelids. They freeze you, so your blood flow is down to almost nothing. I was like locked into a black coffin. No. It’s like I was in the coffin. And then out of this blackness I hear this weird voice, with a thick Indian accent, the Pakestani anesthetist.”” (63)

    “”It was a bomb, silly, “ Judy says, “it had to be.” Children, they believe that headlines always happen to other people.” (79)

    “He had looked forward to having her, her little brown firm body, in bed beside him… Fifty two years later and she still had a solid ass. Not like Thelma, who’s been losing it lately.” (86)

    The quotes that I chose mostly have to do with enrichment of observation. The first one, because the comparison to a butterfly, a little girl in a pink dress in a big gray space. Stands outs, and therefore wonderfully spotted. The second and third quote shows an insight into the head of the character, strengthening it, by showing his thoughts. Therefore making us know him more. This also applies to quote seven. I think has to do with co-creation of character. I also chose page 38, I didn’t write it down, because it is too long, but the whole page is about the conversation between Harry and Nelson, about cars. There is certainly a lot of detail in that part, but I found it to become really boring (because I’m not interested in cars?), and felt like skipping this part, feeling that it was irrelevant. However, I did like the reference to their conversation about cars on page 41. “revving him up”. Good aesthetic. The sixth quote is again the rich observation, but also creation of character. By giving these little insights in characters, how small they might be, enriches the story. The seventh quote it shows the arbitrariness. The last quote immediately reminded me of the part in Wood, the excerpt from Chekhov, how the man eats a melon after sex. The quote doesn’t go into great detail about Harry’s infidelities, just subtly mentions it. Not judging it. Just a matter of fact that
    Thelma’s ass is getting saggy, and how Janice’s ass is still great


  4. Ronni says:

    “The door to 413 has a double lock operated with two keys, one of which also opens the outer door downstairs” (p. 32).
    “Judy’s hand has slipped out of his as he stands puzzling on the strip of Bermuda grass on the edge of the parking lot, Bermuda grows everywhere down here, watered by sprinklers, and doesn’t feel like real grass to him, too matted and broad, kind of crunchy underfoot” (p. 21).
    “With Cindy Murkett in her black bikini that showed the hairs in her crotch. Her breasts slipsloppy in their little black sling” (p. 55).
    “As he bites into the stale doughnut the sugar patters down on the paper and dusts the crimson lapels of his seigneurial bathrobe” (p. 54).
    “[Life with children] was for him like a bush in some neglected corner of the back yard that gets overgrown, a lilac bush or privet some bindweed has invaded from underneath with leaves so similar and tendrils so tightly entwining it gives the gardener a headache in the sun to try to separate bad growth from good” (p. 47).
    “That pelvis that in her high-cut but otherwise demure white bathing suit looks so gently pried wider by the passing years” (p. 43).
    “On the telephone wires, instead of the sparrows and starlings you see in Pennsylvania, lone hawks and buzzards sit” (p. 29).
    “Pru lifts the groggy boy off Nelson’s shoulders and arranges him in the shadows of the back seat; Roy’s thumb is stuck in his mouth and his dark eyes open for an unseeing second” (p. 25).

    I wonder about the concept of ‘thisness’ in the details that Updike brings forth through Rabbit in ‘Rabbit at Rest’. James Wood defines thisness as “any detail that draws abstraction towards itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a pub of palpability, any detail that centres our attention with its concretion”. I feel like almost every detail in Updike’s writing possesses that quality – of pulling back, then zooming in to focus on an aspect of an object’s palpability. However, I’m not sure if in ‘Rabbit at Rest’ this can be defined as thisness, because detail in this book is a double agent, describing not only Rabbit’s surroundings, but his personal relation to it: his thought process, his trains of thought. In abstracting from something, Updike is actually describing Rabbit’s thought – a kind of meta-description. And in zooming in again, he is showing us the thing that is most important to Rabbit about the object. So a big question that I had, after reading both texts, was: logically, could there exist any form of abstraction in Updike’s language as Rabbit?
    Another thing that I would like to put my finger on is the thin line between Rabbit’s consciousness and Updike’s narration in ‘Rabbit at Rest’. There is no doubt that the use of detail in the book only adds to the readers’ experience, but I stopped many times to wonder at the arbitrariness and irrelevance of the details put forth. They were beautiful and compelling despite their irrelevance, to be sure, but I was constantly aware that there is no way that Rabbit as a character would actually notice all of these things. I was convinced by the details in the text, and I was convinced by Rabbit’s character – so the writing is obviously successful. So where is that line that divides between Rabbit’s thoughts and the details that he thinks? If it were drawn one millimeter to the left or to the right, Updike’s whole novel would be completely upended.


  5. Lindsay says:

    „Lovely complexion, cheeks rosy under the freckles, and the details of her face lashes, eyebrows, ears, nostril-wings, lips quick to lift up on her teeth – frighteningly perfect, as if too easy to smash. (24, my italics)“

    These are the kinds of comments from Rabbit that make us as readers start with surprise. Our sense of appropriate description is turned on its head by the violent juxtaposition of the natural flow of his thoughts placed into the context of the world he is describing – in this case, the teeth of a nine year old girl, which would be “too easy to smash.” Here we may a detail similar to, but not the same as, the ‘thisness’ of Wood, and it is a technique that Updike uses often: The discomforting juxtaposition of casually violent description of perfectly mundane or everyday objects (such as teeth).

    „This airport has been ‘designed with big windows viewing the runways, so if there’s a crash everybody can feast upon it with their own eyes. (13)“

    In this passage Updike uses the free direct speech of Rabbit to intervene and change the detail he is noticed. These big windows could be described as letting in a lot of light, or as majestic viewpoints onto the runways, but instead we have Rabbit bring us back into his interior world of upfront pleasure in violence: “feast upon it with their own eyes.”

    „a Camaro seems to have a mouth, two fat metal lips parted as if to hiss (5).“

    Here the detail noticed by Rabbit conflates his racist hatred with the description of the car. We notice the car through rabbits skewed eyes, and therefore gain a more focused idea of how the way he perceives the world is prejudiced by his opinions.

    „ For the first time he sees she is also wearing symmetrical white barrettes, shaped like butterflies (37).“

    Here, when Rabbit notices these hair-clips, Updike is allowing us both to see the preciousness of this young girl among the larger congested family drama, as well as playing upon the poetic resonance of a “symmetry” of things, like in love or a marriage where two people would ideally mirror each other. Of course, nothing about Rabbit’s family is symmetrical, he sees it rather as a huge contest of opposite and conflicts.

    „back seat, flung in there separately the dumb mutt, what’s the use of a cover if you don’t put the racket in it (45)?“

    This is another example of how Updike masterfully uses Rabbit’s noticing to also make us notice just how petty and impatient he is with his thoughts about other people, in this instance his wife. He could have just told us the racket was in the back of the car, instead he uses this example to show how Rabbit will pick up

    „its protruding side mirror and its racing stripe in three tones of brown (52).“

    Although this detail seems to be irrelevant, it provides a subtle contrast to Rabbit’s attempt to drive the car and his inability to recognise that he might be a unsafe driver. The side mirror “protrudes” close in to Rabbit, and he tries not to make contact with the “racing stripes of the other car.” Rabbit is far from the athleticism of racing, in any aspect of his life; he rather gives us the impression of a man dwindling.

    „On the telephone wires, instead of the sparrows and starlings you see in Pennsylvania, lone hawks and buzzards sit (59).“

    Here we have a great example of chosenness, because the specificity of the birds sitting on the telegraph wire, in contrast to the finer creature of Pennsylvania, are “lone hawks and buzzards.”


  6. Wilma says:

    “As the candy settles in his stomach, a sense of doom regrows its claws around his heart: little prongs like those that hold fast a diamond solitaire” p.8

    “As if invisible pry bars have slightly spread her bones and new calcium been wedged in and the flesh gently stretched to fit, she now presents more front” p.14

    The detail in these two passages is of a similar nature: Updike really zooms in physically on both his original object and the one he likens it: he almost over-appreciates the detail of each of these two objects and thus gives us very interesting phrases.

    “Confidently now he approaches the brown glass exit doors, but the wrong one pops its seal and slides open when his body trips the electric eye” p.20

    “Judy’s voice floats up to him like a thin lifeline. “what color is the car, Grandpa?”” p.21

    Here we see a sort of humanization of each object discussed, revealing a fragility and sort of personality within the interaction of very physical, abstract concepts, bringing them to life and adding to our understanding of underlying feelings, emotions and concepts.

    “…Neither the Angstroms nor the Springers have bunched-up fat lips like that, like a row of plump berries run together…” p.33

    Focus is interesting here: Rabbit seems to always zoom in on people’s features and physical attributes whenever he’s in conflict, or any conversation really. He takes their physical self as his first informant, and doesn’t really care for what those around him say. In some instances, he even uses certain attributes that he deems unattractive against the person’s merits. Here, he does this with lips.

    “The palm tree is one of those whose trunk looks like a giant braid. It breathes on him, with its faint rustle, its dim smell like that of a friendly attic full of dried-out old school papers and love letters.” p.59

    “Family life, life with children, is something out of his past, that he had not been sorry to leave behind; it was for him like a bush in some neglected corner of the back yard that gets overgrown, a lilac bush or privet some bindweed has invaded from underneath…” p.47

    These two passages are interesting to consider together, as one passage humanizes a plant, and another tries to “plantify” something very human. The effect very clearly shows us what Rabbit cares about in each instance: He cares for the plant, and its effect o him, so he draws it somewhat closer. Family life on the other hand is not close to him, thus described as something other and physically far. After he’s establishes this, he goes deeper and deeper into the detail that he sees within the family life bush.These passages thus deal with Wood’s ideas of focus, chosenness and overaesthetic appreciation.


  7. Joel says:

    Unfortunately my Rabbit at Rest is sitting peacefully on my father’s night table in Barcelona. So forgive me if I don’t cite direct quotes from Updike but I shall test my memory on this one.
    In one occasion, Rabbit is at home sitting in the living room, watching tv or reading the newspaper surrounded by his grandchildren when there is a brief and unexpected mention about the Florida manatees. One would expect that this would not extend far more than a sentence, but Updike dedicates an entire page to describe the manatee’s physical appearance, their conduct, even their sexual behavior. With that example we see what Wood may mean by [necessary] irrelevance. The manatees have probably nothing to do with the advancement of the plot, but at the same time they contribute to the whole atmosphere the characters find themselves in, i.e. a characteristic animal from the State of Florida, maybe even that is a water mammal and Rabbit already had a drowning encounter that haunts him throughout the novels.
    Something that suck with my when reading Updike’s novel is how the detail we are presented is first filtered through Rabbit’s racist and discontent life. I recall when after golfing with his friends, they all sit down to cool off, but all Rabbit is aware of is they jewishness and how pathetic he finds it. This is something Updike throws out throughout the novel and is a very clever tool to bring the reader into Rabbit’s state of mind. In that golf scene, it stuck me how Updike overemphasizes the golfers own awareness of their jewishness. What I mean is, jewish people talk a lot more than just about being jewish. But all that Rabbit heras from them is their jewishness. And is something that seems to happen to Rabbit every time he is in conflict, he directs his attention to the other people’s physical appearances or whatever sets them apart from him.
    Also, something that struck me in Updike’s novel as much as Franzen’s, is their mastery in dialogue. Through the first part of the novel, Rabbit and his son are barely talking to each other and avoiding any time of contact, but we the readers feel and slowly begin to hear that they are screaming at each other. Its the same case with Prue and Rabbit, since they don’t really exchange any interesting dialogues but one can read what is not being said in their formal talks and one knows that some sort of sexual tension was boiling up between them. In their dialogue, what is not being said and what is bottling up inside the character is what speaks the loudest.


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