Sunday, October 5, 2008
John Updike: Rabbit, Run (1960)
"[W]hat kept him walking was the idea that somewhere he'd find an opening. For what made him mad at Janice wasn't so much that she was in the right for once and he was wrong and stupid but the closed feeling of it, the feeling of being closed in. . . . What held him back all day was the feeling that somewhere there was something better for him than listening to babies cry and cheating people in used-car lots and it's this feeling he tries to kill, right there on the bus; he grips the chrome bar and leans far over two women with white pleated blouses and laps of packages and closes his eyes and tries to kill it." Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom had been the star of his high school basketball team, but at 26 finds himself a salesman with a child and an alcoholic wife who watches too much television. At the beginning of the novel, Harry stumbles across some kids playing basketball in an alley and invites himself into their game, though he dwarfs them in size and skill. The ease with which he takes on all of the kids in the game reminds him of his glory as a high school player. When he gets home to find the drab reality of his wife drunk, he runs, though without direction, hoping to re-acquire his former state of grace. Updike's formidable, if rather uninventive, writing style is demonstrated in the long opening section presenting how Harry walks out and drives his car all night to another state, but returns back to the town he lives in by the morning. He meets his ex-coach there, who hooks him up with a prostitute whom he moves in with for three months. Yet when his wife gives birth to his child, Harry leaves his lover and returns to his wife, apparently making amends for his wrongs. But always seeking something more, he again attempts to flee, sending his wife into a bender that results in her drowning their newborn child. Harry is totally self-absorbed, and has to be admonished by both his wife and his lover that there are more important things than his feelings. Harry keeps getting chances to perhaps better his situation, but prefers to run rather than face reality. The sexual politics in the novel get rather ugly, as Harry demands his lover commit fellatio with the intention of degrading her (remember that the novel is from 1960 when this act could appear an unusual demand), and when he returns to his wife, he also takes advantage (that is, practically rapes) her shortly after she has given birth. Those scenes would be even more painful to read if Updike hadn't repeatedly made Harry do the most wrong and embarrassing things throughout the novel. In this contrast between Harry's self-image and his actual irresponsibility and cruelty, the book resembles much middle-class realist fiction from the 1950s and 1960s in which a middle class (perhaps lower-middle class here) protagonist believes he is somehow distinct from those around him, and tragically seeks to prove or discover that distinction. But rather than a sense of his cultural superiority (as is the case of the Wheelers in Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, from 1961), Harry is merely nostalgic for his adolescent sporting glory, a truly narrow achievement since Updike emphasizes that it didn't extend beyond the county. The most successful aspect of the novel is Updike's ability to show Harry's consciousness guiltily open up and begin to perceive what he is doing, only to close up as he runs, which is most evident in the brutal final scene at his child's funeral, in which Harry's guilt suddenly transforms into petty denial and humiliating flight. Appreciation of a novel such as this really comes down to one's concern with "style," which scholarly criticism rarely understands (its interest in technical elements such as point of view appears to cover style, but doesn't really capture it). Postwar realism has a rather limited set of settings, characters, and plot elements, just as suburban communities appear as serial variations of each other. Harry's quest for distinction, just like that of many other middle-class, suburban protagonists, can always be read self-reflexively as commenting on the position of the novelist, who attempts to clear a distinct position within the postwar field of literature through style rather than a more radical break in form or even content. But for academic critics to productively read such novels and stylistic strategies, they will have to align themselves much more closely with the MFA program's interest in the act of composition and a kind of close reading rarely seen since the pre-theory critics of the 1950s.