Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

SIGNS AND SIGNAGE IN UPDIKE’S ‘RABBIT’ NOVELS (1)


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SIGNS AND SIGNAGE IN UPDIKE’S ‘RABBIT’ NOVELS (1)

            Signs and signage – road signs, movie marquees, newspaper headlines real and imaginary, municipal signs, electronic message boards, storefronts, etc. – function as important indicators of the shifts, changes, and developments in Angstrom’s consciousness as he grows older throughout the decades chronicled in Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ series.  Perhaps I should say Angstrom’s awareness of the signs, or, to be a bit more accurate, Updike’s descriptions of Angstrom’s awareness of the signs, rather than the signs themselves.  As the series progresses chronologically Angstrom grows more acutely aware of signs and their meanings and messages – by my rough count the signs and signage we come across break down as follows:

            Rabbit, Run –   8 signs in a novel of 284 pages (three of them on one page, one of them a duplicate)
            Rabbit Redux- 19 signs in 352 pages
            Rabbit is Rich – 23 signs in 437 pages
            Rabbit at Rest – 26 signs in 425 pages



            What are we to make of these appearances of signs in the novels?  For one thing, Updike is obviously including them in these fictions as part of his desire to present real slices of life from late twentieth century American society – what it is/was like to live in this time, in this place.  For another, they are a necessary element of prose that is meant to function partly as third person omniscient and partly as stream of consciousness   A third reason for the signs might be that they are simply part of the visual landscape, the surroundings, the environment, that Updike is always trying to capture in words - in other words  they can exist purely as visual content without any social meaning. (What Updike has called “giving the mundane its beautiful due.”). These and many other possible reasons are perfectly plausible, but I would like to introduce one perspective that, I would wager, probably wasn’t on Updike’s radar screen at all.  Nor is it on Angstrom’s.  I’ll suggest that the signs and signage in these novels illustrate the activation of the reticular activating system within a human mind.  This – the demonstration of the activating of the reticular cortex – exists in what I have elsewhere called the novelscape.
            I’m certainly no psychologist or neurologist, but as I understand it the reticular activating system is the part of the brain that helps focus sharp attention on something.  An example I’ve seen several times in various places is as follows.  Suppose you’ve decided to buy a red car – all of a sudden you will start to notice red cars all around you, everywhere you look.  Where were they before?  Of course they were there but because your reticular cortex wasn’t activated you didn’t notice them.  Similarly, how do we go from 8 signs in one novel to 19 in the next?  I would suggest that Angstrom’s reticular activating system has begun to be lit up to pay attention to signs, signage, and printed messages because he now works as a typesetter – it’s unavoidable. 


            In first discussing Rabbit, Run I’m referring to the 39th printing of the 1960 Fawcett Books edition.  In the future, for short, we'll refer to this edition simply as  RUN.
            According to my hypothesis, in Rabbit, Run Angstrom has no particular reason to pay attention to signs and signage any more than the average person does – he hasn’t begun to work in linotype yet – so we might look elsewhere for the reasons behind the signs contained therein.


            On page 18 the single sign that will occur in multiple novels appears – the name Jan stitched on Janice’s work smock at Kroll’s. 
            On page 27 Updike gives in to the temptation top use a STOP sign as a symbolic device, a mistake that probable innumerable artists have committed.  (See the very first scene of John Singleton’s film Boyz N The Hood for a more contemporary example of this error.) 
            On pages 29 and 41 there are road signs included for the sake of realism.
On page 73 the name F.X. PELLIGRINI, M.D. on a frosted glass door functions as a means to provide Ruth with an opportunity to make a remark that is more revealing about herself than Dr. Pelligrini.  
On page 248 three signs turn up – a banner for the drug PARADICHLOROBENZENE, a C.A.RE. poster, and the name F.X. PELLIGRINI on the door again (this time without the M.D. – why?).   Angstrom puzzles over the drug sign, “rereading this word, trying to see where it breaks, wondering if it can be pronounced”.  This is obviously a metaphor for the way his life as a whole is “breaking” by this point in the novel; the C.A.R.E poster is even more of a metaphor, a symbol. 
In my (admittedly totally subjective) estimation Updike by this point was consciously, carefully including signs and signage in the Rabbit saga, and was probably already, by the time he finished the first book in the series, planning for Angstrom to be joining his father at the printing plant in the second, where their appearances begin to take on something of a different character.


           

             

1 comment:

  1. Was the eye doctor sign in Great Gatsby as famous back then?

    ReplyDelete