One Wednesday, I think it was, I was just finishing up a couple of hours of leafleting for forthcoming meditation classes, and conveniently happened to stop in front of a library. Now, I have a habit, ingrained since childhood, of being very easily distracted by the printed word; newspaper headlines, bookshopes and, yes, libraries.
To cut a long story short, I found myself sitting down with a copy of John Updike's Rabbit at Rest with the page open with about 70 pages to go. This is a very bad habit of mine, made worse by the fact that this book was actually the concluding book of a tetralogy...no matter, for within three pages, I was firmly plonked into the shoes of one Henry 'Rabbit' Angstrom.
At this point in the book, it is very much Henry and his thoughts; it appears he has recently estranged his wife and family (I only vaguely gather the reasons for this in the small part of the book remaining, but we become so intimate with Henry's insular nature that we feel it was probably only a matter of time), and the superficial circle of friends and contacts he has built up over the years are fickling away. Without anything being explicitly said, one gets the feeling that Henry is a man who is waiting whilst his soul radios for permission to jump ship. We follow Henry out of his Florida condo, were even the briefest of routine contact with someone at the lobby sparks off a train of thought to fill the void. Updike is amazing at capturing some things, like when Henry reads the news headlines and the none-so-subtle effect they have on him - these passages alone should be held up as a testament to the power of mass media. And we feel there is some tiny part of him trying to do something about all this, to break out of the mould, as Harry the entrenched white man's white man goes down the the basketball courts and asks the local black kids can he shoot a few hoops, and so on the day goes until he's back home reading a novel about the American War of Independence and we're stuck right in there with him, urging Washington and Rochambeau to get their act together and scramble their ships and troops to the right places at the right times, and we put the book down with him knowing that tomorrow night we will pick up where we left off. This is the plight of homo Westernus, and we cannot help but like him and wish for some breakthrough of being as he nears an end which has never been suggested but which all the laws of pathos demand, for we can clearly see that being, just as we can see its behavioural cage chasing after every promise of cheap satisfaction known to modern-day advertising. And there is such a moment as I will never forget, where I realise I am on the second last page and Henry has had his heart attack and he is just regaining consciousness or is he and I cannot even recall the passage now but myself such a meditative experience strikes me something so otherworldly but something so foreign as this cannot penetrate Henry now, not after a whole lifetime of shutting oneself off...
Much has been said of the hunt for the Great American Novel; many people were looking for a great American novel that was vast and sprawling and dynamic, because that's the kind of America they wanted to convince themselves existed, but for me the small portion of Rabbit at Rest I read captures a cornwer of present-day American consciousness in a way I never thought possible. I'm kind of glad I only stepped into it 70 pages from the end; I have rather fond memories of Henry Angstrom, and I don't think I would have had the same nice experience had I been with him as he puts himself through all the sad, mean-spirited and lurid episodes of his life that (from doing a little research on the tetralogy) seem to recur like a broken record.