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Hamlet Confronts Claudius
John Updike's Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel, "Rabbit Remembered"

by Charlie Onion

John Updike's new short story collection, Licks of Love, isn't his best, but the novella that closes the book is strong enough to recommend the collection even to non-Updike readers.

"Rabbit Remembered," the novella that occupies the back half of John Updike's Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel, "Rabbit Remembered," begins inauspiciously for readers who aren't intimately familiar with Updike's four-novel series about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Over the course of the series, Updike has introduced a menagerie of diversely dysfunctional characters, and his efforts to capsulize many of their stories in "Rabbit Remembered"'s opening pages might be off-putting to Rabbit newcomers. But bear with Updike: it gets better quickly.

The year is 1999, and Harry Angstrom's widow is married to a retired insurance salesman and sharing the family house with her forty-one-year-old son, Nelson. It's not a perfect set-up, but the three of them get along well enough to stay together, if only because changing would require a fight against inertia. Then a mysterious woman named Annabelle shows up on their doorstep and reveals a shocking secret to Harry's widow: Harry had an affair (no surprise to faithful Rabbit readers) with Annabelle's mother shortly after Nelson was born, and according to the mother, he was actually Annabelle's father.

Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel, "Rabbit Remembered"
John Updike
Alfred A. Knopf
360 pp.
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Nelson's mother and stepfather remain suspicious of Annabelle's motives, but Nelson himself is delighted to discover he has a sister. And this is where the novella gains strength. Nelson--a former drug addict and now a counselor in a local treatment center--secretly meets Annabelle, and they find themselves getting along strikingly well. They order the same food, they finish each other's sentences, and perhaps most tellingly, their caregiving jobs (Annabelle is a nurse) suggest their personalities are hard-wired to mirror each other.

But there's a more complicated reason Nelson insists on bringing Annabelle into his family: Nelson has more than a little in common with Hamlet. Both characters are literally father-haunted (like Hamlet's ghost father, Nelson's dead father appears to him, faceless, in a dream), and they both live rather awkwardly at home and harbor quiet jealousies against the stepfathers who have moved into their fathers' houses and taken possession of their mothers. (The Shakespeare references shouldn't surprise us; Updike's most recent novel, Gertrude and Claudius, was a reworking of Hamlet. Click here for WAG's review.) By bringing Annabelle into the family, Nelson subtly jabs at his stepfather, who himself had a fling with Annabelle's mother. She is, in a sense, a living ghost, a surrogate soldier in Nelson's quiet war against his stepfather's aggressions. But quiet wars have a way of getting louder, as Nelson discovers when he invites Annabelle to the family's Thanksgiving dinner. Ostensibly, he wants to give her a sense of connectedness, but Annabelle is smart enough to see through his motives ("'Nelson, are you sure it's my spell you're trying to break?'").

She does go to the family dinner, but as even casual readers might guess, it quickly becomes the sort of gathering in which dysfunctional families can hit peak performance. The question, of course, is whether Nelson can turn the experience into a catalyst for positive change--and whether Annabelle will want to stay with her new family after all. Readers may not care about--or even like--Nelson's extended family all that much, but Updike makes us care deeply about Nelson and Annabelle, and his managing to take the Angstrom family in a new, interesting direction is a considerable achievement.


While "Rabbit Remembered" is arguably long enough to have been published on its own, Updike seems determined to collect and bind everything but his grocery lists (witness last year's More Matter: Essays and Criticism--click here for WAG's review), and he throws in twelve short stories to accompany "Rabbit Remembered."

Frankly, he shouldn't have, if only because some readers will be so unmoved by them they may not read their way through to "Rabbit Remembered."

The short stories' themes--sex and adultery, love and guilt, nostalgia and rumination over past conquests--are standard-issue Updike, and they are at "Rabbit Remembered"'s center as well. But the twelve stories are largely devoid of the qualities--complex character development, nicely chosen details, etc.--that make "Rabbit Remembered" so strong by comparison. Instead, many of the stories feel like loose personal essays and casual autobiographical sketches (particularly "The Women Who Got Away"), and even the stories that are better developed (particularly "My Father on the Verge of Disgrace") lack the compressed dramatic tension that drives Updike's stronger story collections (like 1987's Trust Me).

The key to why these stories fail, over all, lies in their structure, I think. The focus throughout most of the stories is on the protagonist (often the story's narrator) as an individual through extended time, rather than on a time-compressed conflict shared among complicated characters. (Feminist readers, beware: the collection's secondary characters tend to fall into three predictable categories: potential sex partners, actual sex partners and angry husbands.) Unfortunately, stories about a character remembering the past tend to be structurally static in the present, no matter how powerful their narrated memories are. "His Oeuvre," for instance, rests on nothing more than Henry Bech (another one of Updike's recurring characters) spotting past lovers at his public lectures and using their appearances as an excuse to narrate their trysts (for our benefit, not the public audience). The actual meetings at the lectures aren't particularly dramatic, and the consequent lack of narrative momentum is a glaring weakness. And Updike's penchant for a neat, tacked-on ending intended to wrap up his thematic efforts in a single, profound sentence is troubling, particularly in the context of the collection's most sketch-like, open-ended pieces.


While the short stories in this collection might appeal primarily to Updike fanatics (indeed, one wonders whether some of the slighter sketches would have ever have appeared in such august magazines as The New Yorker, without Updike's byline), "Rabbit Remembered" has enough scenes of genuine emotion and drama to justify the rest of us buying the collection, I think. Besides, Annabelle is a compelling, complicated character in her own right, and given that Updike has written about the Angstroms in ten-year intervals for the last four decades, we may see her again a decade from now, so maybe we should familiarize ourselves with her issues.
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