brian 's Reviews > Rabbit, Run

Rabbit, Run by John Updike
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Nov 24, 2008

really liked it

bellow's writing blows my mind but rarely touches my heart. a handful of mailer's essays and novels are essential, but it's his guts and brain and balls and heart and the ferocity with which he lived life that's the real inspiration. roth? well, i've made my views on roth very well known in bookface world. and the few updike short stories i've read only convinced me that his elegant & writerly style really bugs the shit out of me.

all of 'em (bellow, mailer, roth, updike) found themselves as the right people at the right time: white dudes in america when america was the shit and white dudes were kings of the shit. but they knew that their kingdom of shit, of course, owed much to the disenfranchisement of non-dudes and non-whites. and fools have always found 'em to be racist and/or sexist, not realizing that a post-war examination of racism and sexism was much of the point; that this conflict, that life as 'guilty royalty', lies at the heart of much of their work. i've always found mailer and roth to be -- wait for it, wait for it -- amongst the most compassionate of any and all writers. and they're hardasses. they accept no preconceived notions. they want to know, they NEED to know, even if they find themselves branded self-loathing jews or repressed homosexuals or shouted down by an angry panel of feminists...

well nobody catches more shit than updike and nobody gets more sucked off. and i, of course, found myself in the former camp. and digging it. updike, from my not-having-read-much-of-his-stuff perspective always kinda came off as some dull & smiling yuppie dick. and that obsession with the perfect, elegant, adjective-heavy sentence makes me wanna diarrhea. updike seemed kinda like the literary equivalent of billy joel sitting down for a lunch of kraft cheese and mayonnaise on wonder bread. and so i started the first Rabbit and my suspicions were immediately confirmed. i mean, those first two sentences:

Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts.

aaaarrrggghh! horrible. the kind of shit to make a writing teacher come in his/her jeans. and he uses all those writerly terms that don't really correspond to anything in real life. people talking are 'clucking' or 'chirping'; 'crisp' to describe a pair of slacks; or 'lumpy' to describe people or words or ideas or anything the hell else.

and it's not just, as many people have pointed out, that Rabbit is a dickhead -- it's that he's an uninteresting dickhead. and updike sets an uninteresting dickhead against a symbolically charged tapestry meant to represent a kind of microcosmic america. and it's dull and obvious and schematic and, again, writerly.

and then 1/2way through the book, neck deep in boredom and fury, something happened. rabbit and ruth (the tragic town slut he's shacked up with) run into rabbit's sister, who's headed down the same road as ruth... and it resonated. and as the events of the second half unfolded, i HATED updike even more as i realized that the bastard was fucking with me. and it was working. it had worked. and all that junk in the first half is suddenly given new significance by the events of the latter half and i was, yes, blown away by updike's compassion and understanding and skill.

so updike. my first book. made me cry. i'm not talking misty eyed and lump in the throat, but, like, tears running down my cheeks. not bad. and i feel okay upgrading updike from 'smiling yuppie dick' to 'subject of unfortunately cheery author photo'. and i just bought the second Rabbit book. we'll see.
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Comments (showing 1-23 of 23) (23 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (last edited Nov 23, 2008 05:54PM) (new)

I really like John Updike as a person. He has the crinkliest old man smile, but still looks like a little boy. I loved his youth memoir because he absolutely cherishes objects of his past, and I do, too. I like his essays on art. His poetry is not good, but I don't loathe it. "S." is one of my favorite novels. His short stories give jumpstarts to my faith in God. Really! They're not fun or funny, but they're right.

However, I do have problems with him. I read three novels with male protagonists in this order: "Of the Farm," "Month of Sundays," and "Rabbit, Run." I think he's a great writer, but I just don't LIKE his characters. I kind of hate them. Rabbit, for example, is a terrible person. I can enjoy terrible people and even empathize with them, but I couldn't with Rabbit! I didn't care if he lived or died, really. He was a puke. Yes, Updike was compassionate to him, but I wasn't. I was infuriated! So the books just weren't enjoyable to me, and my ex-boyfriend kept insisting that I'd like the next one better, so I kept trying. Until I read Rabbit. Then Josh said that I should try more Rabbit books because as he gets older, blah, blah, blah, and I wasn't having it. I haven't looked back.

Yes, you can separate the protagonist from the author. Look at Confederacy of Dunces! And Roth is nothing like the Swede. No. However, in Updike's case, you kind of CAN confuse the two because he writes the same protagonist again and again and again.

By the way, I've only read "American Pastoral" of Roth's writings. It was a true and beautiful book! I didn't like Merry and I didn't really like Swede Levov (more like pity, really), but I loved the story. I read it twice and listened to it on audio and I cried every time! Damn! I have two more of his books purchased and waiting on my shelves, but David keeps damping my Rothlove. MAKE HIM STOP!

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

I can also admit that my feelings about Updike's protagonists are mixed in with my feelings for my ex. He WORSHIPS Updike, so I let the male characters represent Josh a little. I'd be like, "Holy hell! Josh is a sexist pig! A cheater!" This is probably a little irrational on my part.

Also, in his short story, "A+P," he describes the girls who walk in as having heads like bees buzzing in a jar, and my ex thought that was the PERFECT way to describe most girls. You can see where I can't judge his writing truly fairly. I was just a girl in love for the first time. Leave me alone!

message 3: by brian (last edited Nov 23, 2008 09:14PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

brian   david's a heartless dick. American Pastoral is one of the most moving books i've read in my life. you really need to read the next two in the trilogy, miss montambo: I Married a Communist and The Human Stain. (the latter is the weakest of the three, but well worth reading)

i agree that Rabbit is a puke but back to my point of post-war white dudes as kings of the shit, i think Rabbit is a fair representation of a certain kind of horribly conflicted white dude who feels that he's meant for better things but cannot understand why he's caught in a life of mediocrity. so Rabbit, as the title makes clear, runs. and he shits on everyone around him. and he can. because he is, again, king of the shit.

message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

But look: pretty cute.

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message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

He is king of the shit. I completely agree! :)

Scoobs "i think Rabbit is a fair representation of a certain kind of horribly conflicted white dude who feels that he's meant for better things but cannot understand why he's caught in a life of mediocrity. so Rabbit, as the title makes clear, runs. and he shits on everyone around him. and he can. because he is, again, king of the shit."

but what happens when there's no more shit to be king of? especially as the times change.

i guess we have to read on to see how Rabbit figures it out. or doesn't.

message 7: by brian (last edited Nov 23, 2008 07:36PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

brian   montambo - it's a good thing updike's too old for you, 'cause an updike/montambo kid would be so damn cute it'd be like staring directly into the sun.

scoobs - yup. can't wait to watch rabbit's trajectory though the decades.

message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

David, as your projections about what Updike is capable of (in point #2) are off-base, I can't really "listen" to the rest of your argument. Updike may be into ass sex, but not with the dead or unconscious. He's holding onto life. I've never known such an old man that holds onto youth and sex as John.

message 9: by brian (last edited Nov 24, 2008 06:47AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

brian   david, when you write (in point #3):

...a man who is far too easily blown.

i'd respond that this would only apply to any guy who bought you a drink and told you you were pretty... but i won't. that'd just be mean.

message 10: by Félix (new)

Félix This is almost a certainty. I would put serious money on it.

message 11: by Jessica (new) - added it

Jessica Sarah, that is not how Updike/Montambo babies get made.... just FYI. Not that I've got anything against the practice, otherwise.

By the by, is it really your birthday, David??? I'll let Brian know! I think there is something he's been wanting to give you.

message 12: by Jessica (new)

Jessica DFJ: his birthday was 23 days ago...that's how late I am in gift giving.

message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

Thanks, Jessica. I'll keep that in mind in case I ever DO decide to take the plunge and have John Updike's baby. I'm pretty sure that in order to attract him, though, I'd need to be sort of animal-like. Like steaming cattle.

brian   just show him the motorcycle picture, montambo. if that doesn't work then he ain't human.

message 15: by [deleted user] (new)

Oh! Good idea.

message 16: by [deleted user] (new)

All right, I want in on this. Anyone who thinks Updike has no heart needs to read his short story, "Separating." It is the most eloquent, heartrending tale of divorce I've ever read. It'll make you cry. (And David, though we hardly know each other, I'm thick-skinned, so go ahead and insult my mahnood if you must.)

I never hated Updike, but there was a time that I thought ill of him. And then I realized one day that I thought ill of him because he wasn't making his characters and stories quite the way I wanted him to. But output can matter in my world, and the sheer accretion of his work began to wear me down; not that I'd read it all, and I still haven't, but I began to be amazed at how high the quality of his prolific work was. He's a real pro, and when I adopted that stance, I began to be more open to just accepting Updike for what he is. And then I really began to enjoy his work even more. For what it's worth, I'll quickly insert here that my favorite of the Rabbit books is RABBIT IS RICH, and my favorite novel of his is COUPLES.

I like his writerly writing, Brian. I love those lush sentences, those astute adjectives, the care of description. Plain sentences bore the holy fuck out of me. You say writing teachers love his flowery prose, but I seem to think that writing teachers have long been espousing prose that doesn't draw attention to itself. Fuck that. I want prose that draws attention to itself. I want to be dazzled by a master's ability with the single sentence. Writing like that isn't easy, not at all, and when someone can do it well, he or she should. And Updike does.

I also like Updike because good and evil play a role in his novels. Yes, most of the men are ass holes, but they know they are, and they are aware of the gap between who they are and who they wish they could be. They all know God is watching. I like good old-fashioned sin and one person's dealing with that sin. I HATE moral relativism, it's so easy. I HATE stories whose characters spend more time at their therapist's than at their church. In fiction, I like a religious perspective, like Isaac Singer', and not a psychological perspective. I like that Rabbit Angstrom runs to his minister in times of trouble and not to his couples counselor.

And I think Updike is a master at conveying those quiet moments in life, those private triumphs and agonies, which is what most of life is. Take COUPLES. Yes, it's about shitty marriages and people fucking around and nobody abiding by any sense of morality, but what it's really about, I think, is the evanescent nature of friendship, and how, in this world, we can be subjected to going through much of it alone, and even if our friendships aren't permanent, they're still necessary, if for no other reason than to get through the day. Rabbit Angstrom is just a guy who's not particularly intelligent who's just trying to figure out what he's supposed to do in life as a husband, a father, an employee. Is he shallow? Well of course he is, but how many suburban car salesman find themselves thumbing through Buber and Nietsche at the end of the day?

So I find Updike a pro, a real pro. He's not always good, he's rarely great, but there's something really special about him.

message 17: by brian (last edited Nov 25, 2008 10:57AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

brian   great thoughts, erik. you're one of the booksters that i might not always agree with, but am always eager to hear what you have to say on a subject...

i'm not acting as an advocate of plain sentences (although i do love the accumulated effect of plain sentences on a charged subject -- for me, it's usually more of a killer than a long string of gorgeously crafted sentences...), but i get irritated by sentences that are too self-consciously pretty. as i mentioned earlier, i'm stunned by bellow's writing and he's arguably more self-conscious than updike. but he's not overly adjective heavy and flowery and pretty. they're dense and tangled and full of images and ideas, but they're tough and, well, strange, even. yeah, they're kind of weird. i mean, check that famous first sentence of Augie March:

I am an American, Chicago born - Chicago, that somber city - and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.

i'm 1/3 of the way into the second Rabbit book and when he gets going, when the plot is moving things along, Updike's sentences work beautifully and match the action -- but when things slow down and the sentences don't exist to propel the story... i think Updike drowns in sentence love. and it's also that i hate that particular kind of sentence. i'll take terse (hemingway) and tough (mailer) and dense (melville) and just fucking strange (genet) over loping lush elegant and beautifully crafted sentences. and that's just my personal preference, so it's stupid to argue, y'know? some people really get into that sentence shit. i don't.

but YES! you're totally right on the quiet moments in his books and the nature of friendship and how to keep going and what one is supposed to do, etc... it's all about that. and it's good good shit.

message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

Yes, I am a huge Bellow fan. HENDERSON THE RAIN KING is, to my thinking, one of the great novels of the twentieth century. And I love his voice, a sort of mix between high art and Chicago gangster. I think Mailer is ridiculous; I think he was overrated, and I think the only reason he was accepted into the New York elite was that all those sissies liked the idea of a tough guy in their corner. I'm astonished by how bad his books, especially his novels, are, but I did think EXECUTIONER'S SONG was pretty good. And I totally hear and agree with all the bad you say about Updike. I think not one criticism you lob at him is unwarranted. But as I said, the accumulation of his high-quality work was a tidal wave that overwhelmed all the beach huts of my objections. I'm glad you started this thread. These more developed book chats are my favorite part about this site.

message 19: by Ben (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ben Well, I need to read this. Thank you everyone for the input, and Brian, thanks for another excellent review. RIP.

message 20: by Hollis (last edited May 21, 2009 10:37AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hollis I completely agree with you on this one. From the very first page Updike's writing annoyed the fuck out of me. Like, just because a writer can create a blizzard of opaque metaphors and throw them in your face, does that mean he has to have Pulitzers chucked at him? It reminds me of a virtuoso dancer preening and admiring his own footwork. It's fun for a few pages but after the three hundred it gets irritating. Very, very over-rated as a writer in my opinion. I do agree that I got into much more as I read through and I ended up giving it 3 or 4 stars because I liked the way he brought it all together, but I'm not sure how much more of his work I can be bothered to read.

I'm not sure I even like him as a person. From reading two of his critical collections and his memoir 'Self-Consciousness' he comes accross as such as an unbearable twat that I would probably want to punch him in the face if I met him. Not that that affects the fact that he can write well.

Jessica i like this review. I also loathed this book until the end, when his last run made the boring rest of the book worth it.

PS i thought the stream of conscious writing was gimmiky bullshit, though.

message 22: by Jeffrey (new) - added it

Jeffrey Mcandrew Updike was a genius. That's my dumb white guy opinion.

message 23: by Greg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg Z Brian, like you, I'm blown away by Updike's ability to write!

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