Being stalked by that coal-black noonday demon. The blade of melancholy around every corner. Every conversation reminiscent, derivative, redundant. Every book, every movie, every song seems to slip out of some cultural echo chamber that is muted, tired, and sad. The world is running out of resources. We are running out of Helium, Phosphates. Everything seems so futile. The stars themselves bent light from the expanding universe, red shifted dots that are the past, more cinder than light.
I blame John Updike.
I’m reading Rabbit is Rich, Updike’s third Rabbit novel, and it is superb. It’s also depressing, challenging, hateful, wordy, ragged and invasive. I feel diminished reading it. Updike can be an incredible writer, but he’s too prolific; a number of his novels are terrible, and plenty of his short stories are precious, overwritten and pretentious. (Sometimes reading his work, I wish Hemingway or Carver would barge in and say, “Enough! ‘He drank his beer and watched television.’ It doesn’t require ten paragraphs to say that.”) But the Rabbit novels are unique. By tethering his immense prose skills to a misanthropic stand-in for the average American male, he’s created a series of novels that are unsentimental, terrifying, sexy and funny as hell. Rabbit, Run has the former high school sports star Rabbit leaving his wife in his first sexual crisis, in his mid-twenties. He shacks up with a new woman across town, causing havoc in everyone’s life around him. Rabbit, Redux has his wife leave him in his mid-thirties, and his sexual congress with a teenager with disastrous results. Both end in tragedy.
Rabbit is Rich has Rabbit contented and chubby, entering the mid-forties with a whine and a whisper. He hates his son, tolerates his mother in law and sort of slides through his days. The resulting novel deals with Japanese manufacturing supremacy, the deflating U.S. dollar, the sense that the world in all of its complex machinations is winding down, and that there’s nothing anyone can do about it. (Replace Japanese with Chinese and you have a perfect description of the U.S. in 2012.) The novel is laced with a deflation; all the characters, all the buildings and devices, the world itself is all losing steam. It’s pages and pages of beautiful flab. It isn’t doing much for my own ambitions.
It isn’t just Updike, though. I blame Steve Coogan, too.
Coogan is a talented British comic actor who’s lost track of his career and he knows it. After cutting his teeth on some BBC TV, Coogan starred in one of the great films of the 2000s, Tristram Shandy—he plays himself in a failed adaptation of the idiosyncratic Lawrence Sterne novel—and then disappeared into some very mediocre movies. He’s wasted and icky in Tropic Thunder. Ditto for Night at the Museum. Hamlet 2 is funny, but sort of one-note and thin. And he’s the weak link in In the Loop, a vicious and great political satire. Drug addiction, some bad luck, and strange choices have cost him ten years of work, and as he enters middle age—the same age as Rabbit—he’s faced with the dark clouds of discontent.
He recently starred in The Trip, a loose sequel of sorts to Tristram Shandy, and a return to his talents. The movie follows Coogan and friend Rob Bryden on a food tour through northern England. I watched it last night. I won’t get into the details, this isn’t a review, but it’s hilarious. But under the surface is a seething fury against aging, against being forgotten. Beneath the banal banter between Bryden and Coogan, there’s a lurking King Lear. Coogan’s face betrays every absurd decision he’s made. His character is floundering about, looking for the role of a lifetime. For Coogan, the role of a lifetime is playing himself.
And back to me. I feel so alone, sometimes, striving in the labyrinths of my own words, thoughts, heart. What is the point? Giving up writing, taking up a different, lesser passion—say needlepoint or ping pong, running marathons or pickling seasonal veggies, hell even the guitar—what difference would it make in the greater energy of the universe? To breathe or not, does it impact the movement of the stars?
It is an excuse to do nothing. I have no pithy rejoinder, no humorous anecdote, nothing in response. I do have Woody Allen who gets it right in Play it Again, Sam.
Perhaps it isn’t the world that’s running out of energy but the human race.