Monday, November 15, 2010

Running From Updike and the Boss

There is nothing like having a strong negative opinion about an artist, object or idea. It is a stance that gives you a bizarre, almost perverse sense of power. The kind of opinion I am referring to isn’t born out of ignorance, because when you express this opinion, you know full well what you are doing.  You engage in an argument with your friend or acquaintance who likes a certain band.  They explain why you should enjoy said band and in doing so explain why they personally believe in said band.  As they are doing this, the idea of the band crystallizes in your mind – all of their annoying tendencies, the clichés and tropes they rely on, the repetitive nature of their songs.  All of these traits become completely palpable as an object.  Then, you build up steam.  You feel it rising behind you and before you know it, you have your response to your friend or acquaintance: “Pink Floyd fucking sucks!”  You of course follow that up by mocking their trademark sound and try to win by submission.  However, if you are polite, you finally concede that said band just isn’t your kind of thing.

This sort of chain of events would perfectly describe my relationship to Bruce Springsteen and John Updike over the past ten years of my life. Precisely from when I was sixteen years old and I first read “A & P” and then saw it in a million different anthologies; when I realized that people put way too much faith into Bruce Springsteen right after 9/11.  However, in some bizarre coincidence, over the past few months I have found myself coming around to the work of both of these artists.  My change of heart hasn’t come begrudgingly either.  I have in many ways embraced both Updike and Springsteen forthrightly and, in doing so, I have found my own way to trace similarities between their work.  In specific, I want to focus on Updike’s Rabbit, Run and a trilogy of Springsteen songs off Born in the USA: “I’m Going Down,” “Glory Days,” and “Dancing in the Dark.”  The tie-in of these different snapshots for two prodigious (well, maybe Updike is truly more prodigious) and beloved artists has been able, at least in feel, to articulate a strange impalpable feeling that I have always struggled to define or express: that feeling is entrapment.  When I say “entrapment,” there is no element or air of espionage – it is the “entrapment” of the soul, of those strange and powerful moments when we see the light fade and the possibility for maneuvering, for finding that other way out of the room, strictly and firmly disappear.  What does that momentary loss mean?  How do we overcome it? And most importantly, what does it teach us about humanity?  What does it teach us about the soul?

John Updike was always a writer I chose to stay away from and it was mainly due to his reputation. I, as I foolishly do from time to time, grouped him in with a bunch of writers of the mid-20th century such as Philip Roth or Thomas Pynchon (someone he is nothing like) and Don Delillo.  I frowned on his reputation for writing gratuitous sex scenes and disapproved of his affiliation with the New Yorker, classifying it as some kind of mid-century snobbery that was fit for those post-modernists and other hacks who made their careers because “they were lucky and sucked.”  I was in a word “unfair” to Mr. Updike.  Unfortunately, it was upon his death and the subsequent press that that event garnered when I decided to pay him due attention.  I read about his prodigious ability and hard work ethic.  I admired his outward desire to write for “a dusty bookshelf in a town somewhere east of Kansas.”  I slapped him (and myself) on the back for his appreciation and gratitude towards James Joyce.  Updike, it turned out, was a true man of letters; a man who understood and saw the American tradition, but greatly appreciated the European sensibility and aesthetic.  He was a prodigious and dedicated talent – the kind of which I always imagined and sought myself to be.  Once this vision of the artist had firmly been secured in my mind, it was time to begin actually appreciating his work.  To do this, I decided to turn to one of his first novels.  The one whose tight, direct, present tense style helped to establish is reputation – Rabbit, Run.

Rabbit Angstrom is a former basketball prodigy (like me, well, OK, I’ll let you decide if that’s true or not).  However, there is no place for basketball in his life anymore.  There is no room for basketball in the literal sense or basketball in the figurative sense, basketball as something that one is good at, something that gives one joy and in turn gives the world joy in witnessing that “thing.”  With basketball no longer in his life, Rabbit finds himself restless.  I’m not going to describe or explain the plot.  I’m merely going to discuss this revelation of “basketball” and its approximation in our own lives. For Rabbit, basketball was his youth, it was a way for him to stake his hands into the world and be a part of it. Rabbit was not only a part of the world, but he was an integral element of life in the area of Pennsylvania where he grew up.  He was raised to a level of hero – a natural at the sport of basketball who made the game look beautiful.  What makes Rabbit a compelling character is the fact that he is not a bullish or boorish jock.  He glorifies his playing days, sure, but he also expresses a deep love of the game of basketball; the great rush one gets from the bounce of the ball, the feel of the spring in your thighs and calves, the roundness of the edge of the ball as you grasp it to rise for a layup.  He doesn’t fall into the easy clichés of a faded athlete. Rabbit doesn’t drink.  He appreciates the merits of working, the responsibilities of fatherhood (whether he exemplifies those responsibilities is another thing) and the fact that his glory days are indeed behind him.  Rabbit is a very self-aware character on many levels.

Rabbit is also compelling because he is a failure and he does not take full responsibility for his actions or the situations he finds himself in, though his path to those places may be innocent and misguided enough that any of us can relate to it.  The reason why we relate is precisely because of that element of “basketball” in our lives.  It may be a generalization to say that at one time in any person’s life, they had something they were good at.  There was something that they did that brought a smile to someone else’s face just because he or she was doing what they do best. For athletes, this can extend for a great period of time, like say the joy of watching Michael Jordan, or for a brief period of time, someone like Rabbit, Len Bias or Marcus Dupree. For others perhaps it is a period of tremendous sexual prowess, the artistic ability one exhibited in junior high school, being the fastest kid on the playground, being the student government president at college or the head of a fraternity. For perhaps all of us it is just being a child and the fact that  our parents, upon seeing us sprawling around on the carpet or hearing us chirp up with some indecipherable phrase, could do nothing but smile because we were in our element, we were a new addition to life, to their lives, to the idea of a family, and just being a child made them endlessly happy.  There is a role we fit at one time in our life that stands above all others.  It is our collective “basketball” and very often that period cannot last but a handful of years.

Rabbit is now a man of the everyday.  He has a wife he doesn’t love very much, a job he is apathetic about, a child that he cares and empathizes for but doesn’t necessarily love and yet he still has a heart that drives him and spurns him on, the same heart that pushed him on the basketball court.  It’s this heart that leads him to leave his home for no apparent reason other than he doesn’t feel at home there anymore.  There isn’t the same thrill.  He isn’t pleasing anyone the same way he pleased the spectators on the basketball court.  So, in order try and find a place, he takes up with a “part-time prostitute,” who is really just a woman that has slept with multiple men and maybe taken money afterwards once or twice.  Rabbit can almost make her happy, but in the end he has to return to his wife who is giving birth to his second child.  Rabbit has to succumb to the fact that even though the world is beautiful and there is that constant tugging on our hearts no matter how old we grow, there is still that one time when we shone brighter than the other times of our life.  And that isn’t a sad or bad thing.  It is merely true, because we wouldn’t want anything to burn incredibly brightly for a completely prolonged period of time.  Rabbit comes to vaguely comprehend this idea, but only after he suffers more than a few losses.

Updike relays his story with subtlety and poise. The narration closely focuses on the characters from the present tense and leaves you with an almost modernist feel to the narrative.  Details, colors, objects are relayed with that kaleidoscopic focus/unfocus that the best of the modernists could write with. There is a terrific element of control among the chaos that keeps the pace of the story, but never overwhelms the reader with presence.  Things just happen, which is precisely the point.  Rabbit has entered a point in life where things just happen.  His life no longer has that outside meaning that it once had when he was a basketball star, so now the awareness of action for the character and the repercussions are not as strong as they should be.  Perhaps they never were even at those heights of hardwood stardom.  Rabbit’s world is a world of the mundane and Updike presents that world with the utmost clarity.  We get the sense of a bombed out or soon to be bombed out Pennsylvania town.  There are beat up cars and small streets with cracked sidewalks, small town churches whose congregations are strong on Sundays.  Everything feels immediate and vibrant in its utter hopelessness.  There is a truth to the broken down environment of the world that Updike renders and that Rabbit lives in that calls out to you.  This is a part of Updike’s ability as a writer – it is part of his Joycean skill.  The beat up and normal, the “daily bread” as Joyce once said, becomes the stuff or art, of poetry, of something ephemeral and universal.

Bruce Springsteen is often credited with the same ability of making the mundane streets and cars of suburbia seem like the stuff of poetry, although he has come to that accolade through methods and phrasing that are much more crude.  When it comes to poetry and to heralding the mundane, Springsteen is wildly overrated.  He has made it through the decades on brute force and sweat, while simultaneously overwriting about characters with the same attributes.  And he is successful because he frames these tried and clichéd situations and characters with vibrant, heartfelt rock n’ roll, which is the testament to the format of guitar, drums, earnest vocals and horns to bring the message home.  I’ll never give my heart entirely up to the music of Bruce Springsteen, but I have come to a place where I can admit that sometimes he is just right about certain things.

Born in the USA is a fine album.  The title track is better as the first song on the album than it is when you hear it on the radio or in a stadium somewhere – it is actually quite harrowing. “Darlington County” is one of the most carefree songs in perhaps the history of rock n’ roll. “I’m On Fire” is meditative and concise and “No Surrender” is inspiring and predates the great sound of those Travelling Wilburys records.  However, where the album really picks up steam, where it really gets everything right is on three of the last four songs of the album: “I’m Going Down,” “Glory Days,” and “Dancing in the Dark.” When you take these three tracks into account as a whole, you get a sad, concrete picture of small town life, of feeling as though there is no way out – feeling that sense of entrapment.

“I’m Going Down,” to me, sounds the way that Rabbit, Run feels.  The track rumbles along on a classic rock n’ roll/rockabilly beat that is completely infectious. It’s a story about a couple that could be married or just long time lovers who are slowly falling apart. The song is all grey skies of  a November morning or the cold, windy bitter evening of February or January in some small town. The song finishes with a simple and devastating verse: I pull you close but when we kiss I can feel a doubt/I remember back when we started/My kisses used to turn you inside out/I used to drive you to work in the morning/Friday night I'd drive you all around/You used to love to drive me wild/But lately girl you get your kicks from just driving me down.” There is nothing overtly dramatic in those lines, but there is some element of truth, a presentation of a terrible relationship that seems undoubtedly real.  And as much as Springsteen uses the “driving” motif to death in all of his songs, here it feels appropriate. It’s a different detail.  There is an intimacy of driving a lover to work in the morning, either to her job or to the train to go to work.  It suggests a mutual agreement, working together that makes this anonymous couple seem that much more present in the middle of the music.  When that detail is matched with the fact that the girl used to drive the guy wild and now all she wants to do is drive him down, you get the full scope of their misery.  These people are both trapped in a terrible relationship in what feels like a small, working class town where the skies are always impossible grey in the fall and the warmth of the car heater and the living room of some home are never enough in the winter.  All of those elements remind me of the relationship between Rabbit and his wife Janice in Rabbit, Run.

A song of a failed relationship leads into a song literally about failure in “Glory Days.” The parallels between “Glory Days” and Rabbit, Run are obvious, but the poignancy comes with how the song can extend beyond a person who was just a successful athlete or once a beautiful girl in a high school.  Many people are averse to “Glory Days” because it has nearly been played to death and because its bright organ and overproduced drums just seem as obvious as the theme itself.  I’m a sucker for an organ (love that J. Geils Band “Centerfold”), but I can completely understand that criticism. The song is brash; Springsteen sings with a somewhat corny affect; and the fade-out/rock-out is out rightly cheesy. Yet, on repeated listens, what gets you about this song is Springsteen’s ability to make you focus on little details. They are scenes or poses you have seen in movies or heard about characters doing in other songs, but for some reason, Springsteen is able to make them stand out.  In “Glory Days” just like “I’m Goin’ Down,” it is the last verse that truly accomplishes this feat: “Now I think I'm going down to the well tonight and I'm going to drink till I get my fill/And I hope when I get old I don't sit around thinking about it/but I probably will/Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture/a little of the glory of, well time slips away/and leaves you with nothing mister but/boring stories of glory days.” We all have glory days in our lives, whether you were a great jock or some kind of prom queen.  The details that hammer it home for me every time are the mention of glory days passing you by in the “wink of a young girl’s eye” and “I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it, but I probably will.”  The first detail gets me because, yes, when I am older, what will most remind me about being young is catching eyes with a young girl my age and all of the promise that a quick encounter can promise, because for the both of you the rest of your lives and the world are ahead of you – glory days are always just around the corner again even if they did already happen when you were in high school.  The second detail gets me because, well, even though I wasn’t an outstanding athlete who lived and died by his accomplishments on the court or on the field, sometimes I just can’t help thinking about those old sports glories and those old tricks I used to play in high school; all the times I used to sneak out and party and go on adventures with my friends – those were all glory days as well and if you think about them or talk about them too much, you’ll end up looking stupid just like a washed up pitcher or shooting guard.  Once again, Bruce is able to make the obvious, the cliché and the boring, seem universal and groundbreaking – that is to say, he hits the truth of the matter.

Finally, there is everyone’s favorite single, “Dancing in the Dark.” Out of the three songs, “Dancing in the Dark” is the best song, not only stylistically, but also formally. It has the best hook, Bruce’s singing threads the fine line between tasteful evocation of the character and becoming overwrought and the production doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the song – this is why it is one of the most liked Springsteen songs even to non-Springsteen fans. It’s hard to explain what exactly is so moving about the song.  It stems mostly from the driving synth melody and also the drums, which are unrelenting. As I’ve documented before, this song also has my favorite Springsteen line, “Man, I’m just tired and bored with myself.”  That line is just one of the many that pop out of the mix of the song.  And at the heart of any good song, that’s what makes it stick.  At so many turns, Springsteen yelps lyrics of desperation like “I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face/Man I ain’t getting nowhere/I’m just living in a dump like this/There’s something happening somewhere/Baby I just know where that is” or “You can’t start a fire worrying about your little world falling apart.”  It’s a feeling of restlessness and it isn’t that well-covered restlessness of youth that Born to Run epitomized.  The restlessness on “Dancing in the Dark” is the same restlessness that Rabbit Angstrom felt.  There is no way out even if you know that the world exists out in the dark and that “there is something happening somewhere.”  Even if you know how to get to that place, you can’t leave because you don’t know the way out.  The funny thing about the song is that the each verse and chorus ooze with a desperation; the narrator is desperately seeking help and he knows what he needs, he suggest that he’s open for any kind of connection any kind of warmth or human interaction, but he just can’t figure it out.  “You can’t start a fire worrying about your little world falling apart.”  It’s advice that should hit us all in the gut.  You can’t hope to make strides forward if you are worried about the little worlds that we create for ourselves falling apart.  They are meant to in a certain way.  Perhaps figuring out what that way is is the key to it all.  By running away, Rabbit Angstrom allowed his world to fall apart.  He was penned in, he was pacing the room just like the singer and the feel of “Dancing in the Dark” suggest.  But when you act, when you decide to start a fire, whatever that fire might be, you have to be prepared to let things burn.  And maybe that was what Rabbit Angstrom was missing.

There is no easy way to connect Updike’s Rabbit, Run and these three songs off Springsteen’s Born in the USA.  However, there is a certain feel that both the book and the album contain.  Really, like most things, the feel is simply about understanding how time changes things and how you need to understand how certain times of your life fit into the overall story of your life.  You can’t become preoccupied with chasing down something you were once good at, the “basketball” of your life.  We are all given certain gifts and we are all given the ability to make someone else happy, to make them smile, even if it is for just a short period of time in our lives – for many of us it is that unconscious period of childhood where our mere existence makes our parents happy. For others of us, hopefully we can achieve that time again when we fall in love with the person we are meant to be with – that doesn’t happen for all of us, though we try our hardest.  And for still others, like Rabbit Angstrom or one of the characters in “Glory Days,” there is a period of youth where some of us excel at a sport or at being beautiful and graceful and young and those postures alone – that feel of running down the basketball court after a steal, catching a touchdown in the back of the end-zone, chasing someone down the line and taking the ball in a soccer game – can make others happy, fill them with joy and inspiration.  However, those moments will inevitably fade for us, even though, out in the strange night of whatever town we live in, they seem to burn on in all the windows that straddle the hillside or the curve along the shore.  We want that inexpressible joy in our lives, that ability to seem vital and important, we want to run and not care about our shortcomings or ourselves.  And there are moments when we can achieve that, but we have to let them pass.  If you spend your life chasing, you have to be prepared for the consequences and to understand what exactly happens when you bring that burn on the inside out into the world itself – that world of cracked pavements and grey upholstered car seats, those impossible misty November mornings and windy, orange February nights.

1 comment:

  1. These are more or less the remarks I made at the American Literature Association conference in Boston in May, 2013 with the exception of some improvisation I injected concerning Bosley Crowther, Manny Farber, and Sam Peckinpah and what I believe their works can contribute to understanding DeLillo. I also used graphic examples from the films of Tarnatino and Kubrick to illustrate how auteurs repeat images from film to film.