EPS Review #207 - Rabbit, Run

Rabbit, Run, by John Updike, Penguin 1960, 280pp.

I found this book really unpleasant to read. Rabbit is an appalling man who runs out on his pregnant wife (Janice) and young son. He does not get very far, coming back to the same town but hooking up with a loose woman (Ruth), with whom he lives for a while. Janice is very lightly sketched. Mostly she just sits drinking hard liquor in front of the TV. Many scenes, like the double "date" with Ruth and Rabbit's old coach, made me squirm. It all reads like a recipe for how to have the worst human relationship possible. Marry somebody you do not know. Chase after every skirt with no clear plan in mind. Both sexes seem to regard oral sex as the most demeaning possible act. What is demeaning is the way all these characters talk to each other and treat each other. Ugh.

The writing did not give me any relief. Some of it is in polished New Yorker style, yet even descriptive passages have a jagged rhythm that makes them hard to read. And sometimes there are sudden bits of Faulkner run-on (or as Updike says in the afterword, Joycean female soliloquies). Odd.

Some factual items stuck in my craw, like a man with two kids not knowing the signs of pregnancy, from a woman he has forced not to use contraception. Also, I don't think babies drown that easily.

There is no humor in this book, except for one scene, where Rabbit briefly returns to Ruth. She tells him that she is pregnant and gives him some straight talk that he richly deserves, and needs. But at this point all he thinks about is a sandwich!

I did like the whole interaction with the priest, who involves himself in the affair so ambiguously. Holy counselor or busybody? Wise man or unrealised homosexual and cuckold? Rabbit's interludes with the pastoral wife who reads Freud were memorable.

But what I and other members of my book club found most rewarding was the Afterword (in the Penguin edition). Here we see the excellent critical Updike analysing his own work, and explaining that it was a reaction to Kerouac: what would really happen if a man just up and left. The further volumes came out one per decade, and show the issues of the times. I know that Updike looms large in my parents' generation, which makes me curious to continue the series. But I struggled so hard with the first volume that I am not sure I can.

Rudy Rucker, kinky SF writer and child of the 60s, blogged about the Rabbit series, and thinks Updike should have won the Nobel Prize. Updike won many other prizes.

John wrote: Good. That's another worthy book I can skip.

Emily wrote: I am so relieved that you didn't like it. I always feel like such a sexist when I say that Updike doesn't write for women. After reading Brazil with my book club I vowed never to read him again. His books were important when they came out, perhaps, but they have not aged well.

Neil wrote: I read the last Updike novel- it was indulgent crap - could say more but why bother

Gavin wrote: I thought the series got better and better.

Scott wrote: Wow, all that and you still have it 3 stars!

I just don't "get" Updike. Many people seem to love his work. And, as you say, he looms large for people of our parents generation, people exactly like your folks and mine; you'd think he'd have some resonance with, say, you and me. But... nope. Not for me, either.

It's interesting, his commentary on it; maybe I should go read that!

Kevin wrote: If that's three stars, what deserves only one?!

My mother wrote: When I first read your title, I thought, could it be Updikes book? Naaah, no such luck, but it was. And I was pleased as punch that you responded to the writing much as I did. I read it upon your Dad's recommendation, Updike a classmate, etc, while I was recuperating from a return trip to the hospital after you were born because of hemorrhaging. I had to be in bed for a month and I slept on the old hidabed in the living room of the rented cottage in W. My parents were there helping out, for which I was most grateful, but it was a low time for me physically and emotionally, and reading Rabbit Run was hardly an antidote. I hated it and refused to read any others. But now perhaps I will try again. On the other hand, I like reading now that feeds my heart and soul and mind, calling me to different perspectives and enriching my life in a number of ways. There is enough ugliness and violence in the world without reading more unredeeming works......

If you read more of that series, let me know and perhaps I will try again....

Archie wrote: Here's Julian Barnes on Rabbit - 'the greatest post-war American fiction'

My father wrote: I am an Updike lover - maybe I am prejudiced because he was my classmate. I think his prose is among the best ever, and I agree that his Rabbit series got better as he went along. One of the first I read was Couples, and though it had some gratuitous sex it also had humor and captivating writing. For range, try The Witches of Eastwick, also made into a movie with Jack Nicholson. Funny and a caustic commentary on the times.

David wrote: I cannot quite figure out why I would want to read about characters like these, or watch a movie about people like this. Am I supposed to be getting a glimpse into the darkness of my own soul? Is it teaching me a lesson about the human condition that I will find useful in the future?

I'm asking a serious question here.

I replied: If it were funny, or if the writing were amazing, or if it were shot through with human truths that made you feel a better man despite the horrible characters, then it might be worth reading. I kept wondering what someone like my new idol, Victor Hugo, might have done with the same characters.

Laurie wrote: I never liked reading Updike either. Maybe it really is generational.