Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

I love this book for reasons I don't think that I can fully explain. I first read it some years ago solely because I had picked it up at a used bookstore--I don't think that it's something I would have sought ought if I hadn't simply stumbled across it. The plot is mind-numbingly simple: Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, former basketball star and current twenty-something nobody, leaves his pregnant wife. That's it. Sounds like a page turner, right?

I didn't think so either, but now it's one of my favorite books. Updike really seems to capture the experience of being human--the fickle, unconnected nature of our emotions and the petty meanderings of our thought. One of the reasons creating believable characters is so difficult is that we spend so much of our lives doing menial and insignificant things, thinking obtuse thoughts and wasting time. Characters are too often constructed around plot; they do concrete, planned-out things, but that isn't what life is like. It's a hard thing to explain, I think, but the point is that Updike makes Rabbit seem like a living, breathing, eating, shitting, fucking thing. Someone you could meet on the street. When tragedy befalls Rabbit, most of which is the result of his own negligence and monstrosity, it feels frighteningly real. (I would talk more about what exactly happens to Rabbit--two particularly heartbreaking scenes come to mind--but I don't want to ruin it for anyone who might read this book. Which you should.)

But also I love this book because of Updike's style. He has a real sense of verbal economy--no word is extraneous or out of place--but still remains versatile and adapts his style to each scene. I was reading this at the same time as The Corrections, and the simplicity and starkness of Updike's style made Franzen sour to the taste, in a way. Here's a phrase I particularly liked:

With women, you keep bumping against them, because they want different things, they're a different race. Either they give, like a plant, or scrape, like a stone.

Either they give, like a plant, or scrape, like a stone. Maybe no one else feels this way, but that's the sort of sentence that makes reading rewarding for me. Updike takes a concept that informs just about every one of Rabbit, Run's 284 pages and distills it into eleven words: Either they give, like a plant, or scrape, like a stone. Jonathan Franzen would have turned that into a sentence with eighteen distinct clauses that took up half a page. But there simply is no way to make Updike's sentence any more succinct, and I think that makes it beautiful. But again, maybe that's just me. I repeat this sentence over and over in my head.

So, I try not to re-read books (because there are so many left to read), but I want to read the sequels to this book: Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest, which detail the rest of Rabbit's life from his twenties to his death. I doubt the novels where Rabbit is older will speak to me as strongly, but I've heard that the books themselves actually get better.

Sidenote: The cover above says "Rabbit, Run, by the author of Rabbit Redux." The cover of mine, which is otherwise similar, says, "Rabbit, Run, by the author of Rabbit is Rich." What book have you ever seen where the cover namechecks the sequel?


Christopher said...

Updike was 28 when he wrote this. Holy crap.

Carlton Farmer said...

This sounds interesting.

Christopher said...

It's very good.