Giving the Mundane its Beautiful Due

I just finished the last of John Updike’s Rabbit novels. In the middle of Rabbit at Rest I realized if there is one artist whose work most resembles Updike’s prose, it would be James Rosenquist.

Updike was an art school graduate who wrote with a painter’s eye. Rosenquist was a former billboard painter who became a blockbuster pop-artist. Both are experts in creating powerful, disorienting collages of everyday images, one with words and the other with paint. To read these novels or to view Rosenquist’s paintings is to experience an “evocation of the flicker of modern consciousness” (@The New Yorker’s Mark Stevens). It is an image stream of everything from airplanes and cars to the contents of the medicine cabinet …Everything to include the kitchen sink (Rabbit starts off as a kitchen gadget salesman, after all).

It took me a while to finish these four novels because after each one I felt like I had been punched in the gut. They chronicle the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a former high school basketball star. The reader follows Rabbit through early adulthood as a new father, chafing at the responsibilities of marriage and work, and through his middle age until his death. His life has unfolded against a background of history-shaping events – Vietnam War, the racial upheaval of the sixties and seventies, the Kent State shootings, the Iranian hostage crisis, and so on through the end of the Reagan administration. Despite his education level, Rabbit is a deeply philosophical man who impotently witnesses and marks the changes in ordinary middle America over the course of four decades.

I believe that Updike’s major achievement as a writer is his ability to patch together mundane glimpses of life and pin them to a larger existential angst about American post-war decline. He does this in a disturbingly natural way. But what gives the books their real weight is the complex character of Rabbit himself whose journey through life is a visceral struggle, at times joyful and at other times destructive. Rabbit is more alive than most people because he has heart – it is his heart that kills him in the end – and he is always in a bittersweet quest for something beyond himself.

In Rabbit at Rest, the blooming of a weeping cherry tree in the yard is a harbinger of Harry’s looming death as well as a sign that pure, natural beauty remains in the world. After suffering a heart attack, Harry’s observation of that world becomes even more keen and painful than before. He returns to Pennsylvania from Florida, where he and his wife spend six months of the year in semi-retirement.

“His first days back, Rabbit likes to drive around, freshening his memory and hurting himself with the pieces of his old self that cling to almost every corner of the Brewer area. The streets where he was a kid are still there, though the trolley cars no longer run. The iron bridges, the railroad yards rust inside the noose of bypasses that now encircles the city.”

Rabbit goes about his life taking in every detail from the toys on his granddaughter bed to trash littering the grounds of the family car dealership. Throughout the books, Updike exhaustively describes Rabbits surroundings. The march of images is punctuated by the regular intrusion of  billboards, commercials, popular TV sitcoms, and the evening news.

Rabbit is preoccupied with a series of plane crashes beginning with the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing and ending with the U.S.S Vincennes attack on an Iranian civilian airliner. Rabbit has a recurring vision of the passengers falling from the sky to their deaths just as he, too, is falling.

“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. There as been a lot of death in the newspapers lately. Before Christmas that Pan Am Flight 103 ripping open like a rotten melon five miles above Scotland and dropping all these bodies and flaming wreckage all over the golf course and the streets of this little town like Glockamorra, what was its real name, Lockerbie. Imagine sitting there in your seat being lulled by the hum of the big Rolls Royce engines and the stewardesses bringing the clinking drinks caddy and the feeling of having caught the plane and nothing to do now but relax and then with a roar and giant ripping noise and shattered screams this whole cozy world dropping away and nothing under you but black space and your chest squeezed by the terrible unbreathable cold, that cold you can scarcely believe is there but that you sometimes actually still feel packed into your suitcases, stored in the unpressurized hold, when you unpack your clothes, the dirty underwear and beach towels with the merciless chill of death from outer space still in them.”

The panoply presented in Updike’s story brings to my mind Rosenquist’s entire oeuvre but especially the panoramic vision of his 86-foot-long painting, F-111 (1964). The candy-colored painting consists of a parade of images taken from television and advertising but also references real life, if it could be separated from the dominance of artificial images. Fragments of the fighter jet, which was used extensively to bomb North Vietnam, blend with other disparate pictures: a smiling girl under a rocket-shaped hairdryer, a mushroom cloud, a white layer cake, a mushroom-shaped formation of bubbles rising from a scuba diver’s mask, and a close-up image of spaghetti.

In Fair Mural (1964), the artist combines Uncle Sam’s top hat with a spoon, part of a car, a picture of the moon and other fragments. The painting brings to my mind the passage in Rabbit at Rest in which Harry Angstrom plays Uncle Sam in the town’s somewhat pathetic Fourth of July parade. The images, taken from old magazine ads, offer up a perfect modern life but their flatness reminds the viewer of their impossibility. Similarly, the Brewer Fourth of July parade is described as a threadbare exercise, a point emphasized by the failure of the “stickum” holding the fake beard on Rabbit’s face.

The meaningful collision of disconnected images continues into Rosenquist’s later work. In Nasturtium Salad (1984), serrated images of beautiful women from fashion magazines are lain over a verdant patch of flowering nasturtium. I cannot help but think about Rabbit’s constant reminiscences of past loves. I can imagine him recalling one of his old infatuations while looking out over his little garden behind the house on Jackson Road.

            

Rosenquist’s most recent paintings verge into the abstract. Especially if you know his early work, you can decipher the visual reference-points – electrical cables, crinkled plastic wrap, mirror-like steel coils, everything the color of firecracker wrappers and exploding in a constant, unfolding movement. The racing images kick into hyper-drive, just as they seem to pick up a little more velocity in each of the Rabbit books. If Rabbit had lived to the year 2000 and beyond, what would he have made of the internet, of 9/11, and Fox News? Of having hundreds of 24-hour channels and any bit of information at his fingertips?

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