Well howdy! If you read my last post, you know I’ve come out of blogging retirement. And what better inspo to start than to voice my to complaints, which will surprise absolutely no one who’s made my acquaintance in real life.
First, some housekeeping. Folks, I have been reading, and it’s been glorious. I’ll talk more about this when I close up. If you’re an insomniac—and I knew this already, I just didn’t do it—reading is way better for your wee-hours soul than googling weird diets on your phone or scrolling through Instagram for four hours or doing way too much research the best dentists in your area.
There’s something calm about reading that pushes away that bloodshot-eyed tired mania and unease that comes with being up for hours while the rest of the world sleeps. Reading is almost like sleep, in fact. Your brain rests and goes somewhere else.
Well, until the book ends. Then you’ve got a blog post bursting out of you, full of all the thoughts you had about what was wrong with the book.
I jest, a little. I just finished reading Rabbit, Run, and the question I earnestly want to explore here is “What was John Updike thinking with all this?”
Ugh, author-focused reading is so passe, I know. But humor me. I mean, humor me in a second. First, let me humor you with a summary of what I read so you’re not totally in the dark.
WARNING: THIS WHOLE POST IS GOING TO BE FULL OF SEX BECAUSE THIS WHOLE BOOK IS FULL OF SEX. IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO HEAR ME RAMPAGE IN DETAIL ABOUT THE SEX IN THIS BOOK, JUST LOOK AT THIS NON-OFFENSIVE RABBIT FOR AWHILE AND THEN CLICK AWAY. AN OFFENSIVE RABBIT COMES AFTER.
Totally Objective Summary of Rabbit, Run, Done in Bullets!
- Harry Angstrom, AKA Rabbit, decides that he’s too stifled by having a wife—who is about to give birth to his second child.
- He decides to drive south. He needs to be free. Women, they cramp your STYLE, know what I’m sayin’? (Honestly, his wife does seem a bit awful at first, but wait until author Updike tells her history.)
- Defeated by getting lost a bunch of times in these barbaric non-GPS days, he heads back home. Home-ish. He can’t bear to see his gross wife anymore, so he goes and finds his old basketball coach.
- Has a weird time.
- Goes on a blind double date the next night, ’cause hey, time to start fresh, right? What with the second baby due any minute?
- Has another weird time.
- Goes home with blind-date lady and has oddly antagonistic sex during which he switches violently back and forth between worshipful and abusive, which—bonus fact!—is a theme throughout all his relationships. Note: Rabbit insists she not use her diaphragm because he can just tell when someone uses one, and sex that’s not potentially life-ruining for his partner is such a turnoff for him.
- Nonetheless, blind-date lady loves the sex. BTW, his wife did, too. All the women in the book want him.
- Another bonus fact! I’m on the second book now, when he’s nearing middle age and is fat and bloaty and gross, but no worries! Women still all pant with desire for him. We will talk about this later. I warned you.
- He sneaks into his family house the next day, grabs clothes, and decides to move in with blind-date lady without any discussion of this with said blind-date lady. She is cool with it because of course she is.
- Blah blah blah.
- He has an earnest friendship with a man while scheming on sleeping with his wife and while sexually harassing her. (But she wants it, of course. Sluts.)
- He gets back with his wife when she gives birth; what a great guy.
- Then he does explicit, HORRIFIC thing one night because his wife owes him for being so nice and coming back when she gave birth. I cannot even describe this here. I will not.
- Naturally, he leaves his wife again shortly after. This causes her to go on a bender and accidentally drown the infant. That’s right.
- He calls her a baby murder in front of everyone at the funeral…but don’t worry, he also generously forgives her! Wow.
- Blah blah blah the miserable end.
The Big Question: What Is Updike’s Deal?
Here’s the thing. I read Lolita, man. I know an author can write an utterly abhorrent character, and that he can stare into that abyss until it stares back at him. I know an author doesn’t have to like his characters to bring them to life, to really get into their psyche. But Rabbit, Run was already a pretty long book.
Updike wrote four more of these Rabbit-centric books. FOUR. Big books.
Yes, it’s so passe to read a book with a mind toward the author—we did away with this form of criticism with Barthes and haven’t looked back.
But this isn’t an attempt to study the man behind the work as if he’s a god and we can unlock his doctrine if we study his text with enough holy fervor. I’m just curious.
How can anyone spend four books’ worth of time writing this character?
I want to understand.
I know I’ve been snarky up until this point, but please trust, dear Afterlife Mr. Updike, that I ask this without a hint of sarcasm. I genuinely want to know. What was so entrancing about this man? Are his struggles relatable? Do you see Rabbit as an everyman and you’re writing an everyman’s story? If so, how do you write with any compassion at all for mankind?
You would have to hate us all.
But I Dunno, You Say. Maybe Some People Find Rabbit Likeable, You Say.
After reading my summary, I’m sure you think of me as pretty jaded against the character. And no doubt I am. In fact, according to this dude in The Guardian, Rabbit is likable—yea, loveable.
I earnestly would like to understand what redeeming qualities he has that doesn’t lower the bar for “non-terrible human being” down to the pits of Hell.
Here are the arguments for him being likable, as I see it.
- He seems to be attached to his children…you know, like every living thing on earth.
- And then there’s the thing where he didn’t actually rape anyone, probably, kind of, depending on how you define rape—just a lot of your run-of-the-mill sexual assault.
- He didn’t actually sleep with his friend’s wife, though he maybe could have (but maybe not and just imagined he was making this noble choice?)
- And he did go marching into that hospital when his wife was giving birth, the whole time acting as if he was marching to his doom, resigning himself to this woman he hates.
FINE, HE’S AWFUL
Okay, so please tell me I’ve convinced you that Rabbit is objectively horrible. You can’t argue with it. He’s just an abhorrent character all around.
And let’s further say that Updike hates him too. But here’s the thing. Updike can’t stop writing the character. He’s just entranced by the sheer vastness of his depravity, and it’s caused him to hate-compose these books. Hate-writing is a thing, right?
After all, Updike shows some compassion for the humans that are saddled with Rabbit in their lives. It’s really the chapters from his wife’s and his blind-date lover’s perspective that show how he’s ruined them. Updike writes them with empathy. And it’s those chapters that truly make you hate him.
So again, I ask why. Why, Updike, did you put so much of your time into writing this character?
Maybe These Book Are a Result of Hate-Writing, Dystopia-Channeling, and…?
I honestly doubt Updike liked Rabbit. I think he’d argue the book isn’t about that.
It’s more about wanting something you can’t have. That thing is the freedom to do whatever you feel like without consequences because this is AMERICA. From there, we watch Rabbit suffer the consequences of trying to make that true and then souring when it can’t be true.
I think Updike probably felt more like he was watching this unfold than creating the story. A kind of domestic, suburban dystopia, full of the despair of wanting to run but not being able to. He probably hated Rabbit, too.
Okay, I tried to be reasonable just now. I tried to be quiet.
But I protest.
Even if my suspicion above is true, it doesn’t explain everything. Rabbit doesn’t face the consequences like he deserves to. Updike adds lines to his book that make us want to feel for Rabbit, talking about the emptiness and depression that haunt him, spouting line after line to elicit compassion for him despite his actions.
But his actions are too much. There’s no suffering that excuses this suffering inflicted on others.
…And Wish Fulfillment. Just a Touch of Wish Fulfillment.
Everyone in Rabbit’s life should desert him.
He is weak, mealy.
He is emotional without any grace.
He feels real human yearning for meaning, but then he turns ugly on all the people he encounters that could fill it with that meaning.
He says the worst things he can think of to people he has power over, and he cowers before those who intimidate him, harboring resentment to full-circle release it on those who he takes all his miserable life woes out on.
And that leads me to the last of the number of reasons why I think Updike continued to write Rabbit.
The undercurrent of all these books is this:
Women can’t resist this garbage person.
Why there’s so, SO much terrible sex and the ladies are all like “Yep, can’t live without it!” This whole book is pouring sex, to the point where I feel like I need a cigarette after reading it. And women want so bad to please him.
This feels to me like wish-fulfillment writing.
What is wish-fulfillment writing? I’m so glad you asked!
It’s when you’re an author and you write a character who either permanently or temporarily serves as a surrogate for you. Then, you make things happen to them that you wish would happen to you.
When do you see this? I’m so glad you asked!
You see it mostly when many male authors write sex scenes. (AHEM, PLEASE SEE: KEN FOLLETT). But there’s more to it here, in Updike’s book.
Specifically, It’s Unconditional-Love Wish Fulfillment
It’s not just sex Updike is writing about. Well, I mean, on the surface, the whole book is nothing but sex. But the reaction of the women makes me think that there’s a piece of Updike that wants to write a man that women love unconditionally.
He writes women that are all weak to Rabbit—cannot resist him, in fact—even though (1) it’s in their best interest, (2) the man is garbage and gross and pathetic and spiteful and all around hateable.
Does Updike wish he could be this man? Does he wish it enough to make these women all clones, all made of constant desire for him—er, I mean Rabbit?
Apropos of nothing but worth mentioning, Rabbit vacillates wildly between wanting to smash the life out of and screw the life out of the women in his life. This is what bugs me most—this blending of murderous and sexual desire. It’s nightmarish.
This is how women die in real life by the hands of their partners—you can see it brewing in this book.
The Other Big Question: Why am I Reading This?
Uh. Well, ’cause two books in this quartet are in my Pulitzer journey and I wanted to read the whole series.
Also, honestly, I’m just hate-reading the books now, the way I suggested Updike was maybe hate-writing them. These books fuel me. After all, it brought me out of blogging retirement, didn’t it?
Stay tuned for Rabbit Redux, in which Updike discovers the C word! Good stuff!
Just kidding. I can’t write anymore about this. The taste in my mouth permeates my whole body.
I think I agree. Think because reading a review of Rabbit Run is only marginally better than reading Rabbit Run. Updike’s existence began to make more sense to me after reading In the Beauty of the Lilies, by far his best book and so of course his least read I suspect. It is also a
Story of decline, but the starting point is a lot higher and the slope more reasonable and recognizable.
I’ve never heard of the Beauty of Lilies. I wonder if it wouldn’t give me perspective, from what you say.
I think you nail it with the slope problem—I don’t even know if I could classify the whole series about Rabbit as a decline because it starts so low (though I’d say Rabbit Redux is the nadir).
Maybe that’s another issue I have with both this book and the whole series: the thing lacks all possible classic storytelling elements (redemption story, tragic hero, hero’s journey, rise and fall, essential challenge and success or challenge and failure—anything like that).
And if Updike had subverted the elements in some way that felt purposeful, that would be one thing. But the series and the character lacks art, in my mind. It’s just this gelatinous blob of “here’s some medium-terrible guy’s life.” He’s not even interesting-terrible, like Tony Soprano or Tony Montana or pretty much any Tonys in the bad guy cannon.
I don’t know. I’d have to give more thought to it, but I think your comment-by-omission that the Rabbit series lacks a high starting point to fall from and that it lacks the kind of narrative slope that satisfies us…well, I think that’s maybe the key to why I dislike these books so much.