John Updike is one of the big names in the pantheon of Big American Writers. You know the ones – the ones that are contenders for writing The Great American Novel (which is A Thing, people. Its own Wikipedia page and all.) Don’t ask me who anointed this group. I have no idea where I picked up who the members are – they include Roth, DeLillo, Foster Wallace and Franzen (check out the Wikipedia page to see other contenders.) Now that’s a risky group – I adore Roth and Franzen and DESPITE DeLillo and Foster Wallace. But tI was hopeful that Updike would be a winner.
I just HATED Rabbit, Run, written in 1960, the first of a 4 book series (written over 4 decades) about the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a one-time high-school basketball-star whose adult life is decidedly less successful. Updike nails the trailing dissatisfaction of early success – early on he notes “after you’ve been first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate.” It’s both psychologically perceptive and well written – so why didn’t I like it? Well – it’s so offensively, stridently sexist. And I’m not just getting all Feminist on you. There is statement after sweeping, belittling statement about “women” which are supposedly from Rabbit’s perspective – but with a complete absence of narratorial judgement (throughout) it feels like the narrator is totally complicit. Case in point:
“She laughs, on and on, in that excited way women use when they’re excited by you and ashamed of it.” Arg! SO PATRONISING!
This total lack of judgement is problematic in a tale in which the protagonist is (sorry Mum) a total DICK. Among other things, Rabbit:
- Runs out on his pregnant wife and toddler with barely a backward glance and no support
- Shacks up with a former-prostitute who he suddenly forces to perform sex acts on him when becoming jealous
- Runs out (again) on his super-vulnerable, newly-sober wife weeks after their newborn child is born
Honestly, it is UNBEARABLE reading about what Rabbit does and the total ease with which he gets away with it. And he’s not even likeable. In the words of Julian Barnes (a Rabbit fan), he is “slobbish, lust-driven, passive, patriotic, hard-hearted, prejudiced, puzzled, anxious.” Yet even the minister sent to sort him out seems to have some sort of envious crush on him. Why do people consort with this SELFISH idiot? Ironically, Updike said he wrote the book in response to the unrealistically positive vision of escape in Kerouac’s famous On The Road. And it’s true that there are big, shattering consequences to Rabbit’s choices – but for my satisfaction too many of those fall on others. But I don’t think Updike is writing for a pregnant mother of a toddler like me (I am in fact in EXACTLY the position of Rabbit’s wife at the outset of the book – minus being an alcoholic, of course.) He’s writing for the male reader, no question. And that pissed me off.
True, there are sudden (rare) shafts of light later on in the novel, when Updike delivers startlingly insightful glimpses into his flattened female characters. In particular relating to point 2 above, where Rabbit suddenly turns on Ruth and forces her into various acts, you get the pin-sharp sentence: “After being a wife a whore’s skin feels tight.” And there’s no question that Updike is one of the American greats for a reason. He can write with astonishing vividness. A game of golf becomes Rabbit’s war with his own psyche, each shot enraging and meaning so much more than a simple put. Here’s a sample:
“In his head he is talking to the clubs as if they’re women. The irons, light and thin yet somehow threacherous in his hands, are Janice [his wife]… When the slotted clubface gouges the dirt behind the ball and the shock jolts up his arms to his shoulders, his thought is that Janice has struck him… Anger turns his skin rotten, so the outside seeps through; his insides go jagged with tiny dry forks of bitter scratching brambles, where words hang like caterpillar nests that can’t be burned away…” And I could go on – this is bravura writing.
In the afterward of my edition, Updike notes “I sought to present sides of an unresolvable tension intrinsic to being human. Readers who expect novelists to reward and punish and satirise their characters from a superior standpoint will be disappointed.” Well, in the final reckoning, I was disappointed, in large part because I don’t think Updike presents equal sides of the tension he explores – or that he even tries to. He’s as in love with Rabbit as the rest of the rapt cast of characters – and I can’t see why. Updike has apparently written over 60 novels, but I will not be troubling them in the future.