Saturday, April 5, 2008

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Have you ever seen those commercials for Adovart, the enlarged prostate medicine, in which the person in the commercial has a "going problem"? Well, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom seems to have a similar problem. Rabbit, a 26-year-old former h.s. basketball star one day decides to leave his pregnant wife. So, he just leaves. He ends up living with part-time prostitute Ruth. After essentially forcing her to have oral sex with him as punishment for her "treatment" of him at dinner ("I need to see you on your knees"), he gets a call that his wife (Janice) is in labor. So, he leaves Ruth and goes back to Janice. They are in marital bliss until one night, shortly after the birth, Rabbit wants to have sex with Janice. She's not really feeling it - after all, she just had a baby - so Rabbit tries to force her to have anal sex with him. When that doesn't go his way, he leaves again. While he's gone, Janice (who's an alcoholic of sorts...) gets drunk and accidently drowns the baby while giving it a bath. Back comes Rabbit. He sticks around until the funeral, where he kindly tells his wife, "Don't look at me like wasn't me who killed the baby." Obviously, people aren't really happy about that, so Rabbit turns around and does what he does best, which is run. He ends up back at Ruth's house. There he learns that she's pregnant, and has been thinking about getting an abortion. He tells her it's great that she's pregnant...he's left his wife for good and now they can be a family together. She gives him an ultimatum: get a divorce from Janice, or I'll have an abortion. Rabbit leaves to get sandwiches. But he isn't really going to get sandwiches. Guess what's he's really doing?

Rabbit is essentially an asshole. I don't know that I've ever come across such an irresponsible character before. Or one that I have disliked so much. Granted, the women in his life are always willing to take him back, no questions asked. They are also all pretty two-dimensional. There is Janice, his horribly stupid, drunk, childish wife; Ruth the not-quite-hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (but close enough); the Mother-in-Law with the evil eye, etc. I read a couple other reviews on the web, many of which praise Rabbit as an individualist and someone who looks out for his own interests. Sure, that's true: he's an individualist, and he'll be damned if he lets anyone come in between him and his sense of freedom, or whatever it is that keeps him running away from everything. One essay I found even argued Rabbit's philosophy is akin to Thoreau's:

Updike’s intention for writing the novel is the same as the philosophy Thoreau presents: live life to find what is right, even if it means going against the norms of society.

I suppose some people see their liberation in Rabbit: running away to solve one's problems. But there is a big difference between finding and doing what is right even when it conflicts with societal norms and just being an irresponsible asshole. And Rabbit is all of the latter, and none of the former.

Updike said in an interview that Rabbit, Run was his reaction to Kerouac's On the Road:

"Jack Kerouac’s On the Road came out in 1957 and, without reading it, I resented its apparent instruction to cut loose; Rabbit, Run was meant to be a realistic demonstration of what happens when a young American family man goes on the road – the people left behind get hurt."
I take great issue with this. On the Road is not an instruction to cut loose, though many (wrongfully) assume it is so. Sal Paradise is on essentially a hero's quest: to be transformed by America into a man, and also, pragmatically, to get material for a book. Sal (like Kerouac) wasn't the "American family man." His first marriage (childless) had been annulled and he lived with his mother. Hardly leaving behind the wife and kids. Kerouac, a deeply religious (Catholic), Republican mama's-boy (I say that out of love, Jack) never eschewed most of the social conventions of the time (other than a little sex and a little drugs), such as his strong belief in order, piety, and "white picket fences and the honey at home", as he so often reiterated. But of course nobody listened...they kept confusing Kerouac with Dean Moriarty, the Neal Cassady doppleganger of On the Road. Now there is a person who could be seen as the inspiration for Rabbit's action. Here was a "family man" (the term only loosely applies to Cassady - he was married and had children but was hardly what you would imagine as a typicaly family man). He married one girl (literally - I think she was 16), they got divorced, and he married again (while continuing to sleep with his first wife), then they divorced after a few kids, and he married again, had another kid, then went back to his second wife. Moriarty, had he been from a Pennsylvania, middle-class, stable family, might have been Rabbit. Rabbit, had he been a slightly schizophrenic son of a hobo alcoholic, who spent his entire childhood drifting across the country, might have been Moriarty. I would therefore classify Rabbit, Run as less of a reaction to On the Road as really showing what would happen if an actual family man took up the Moriarty torch. One also must keep in mind that at the end of On the Road, Paradise leaves Moriarty behind in favor of the traditional life. But then again, Updike states clearly that he didn't read On the Road. I wonder if he had, if he would have written Rabbit, Run in the same context.

I HATE Rabbit, like I hated the jocks in high school who got everything they wanted because they were superstars. But now they'd be 26, like Rabbit, and I wonder if any of them have similar "going" problems (and not the kind caused by prostates, though...). I truely, deeply hate Rabbit Angstrom. But to Updike's credit, I want to find out what happens to Rabbit in the subsequent Rabbit books. Hopefully, he gets his comeuppance.


robby virus said...

Rabbit is indeed an asshole. I always looked at his character in the novel as a conflict between the ideals of the 60s (hit the road, rebel from the life of suburban conformity) and the 50s (stay at home, work, support the kids, live in the suburbs). The subsequent novels continue the themes of reflecting the decades they were written in. They're good reads, and it's fun to follow what happens to Rabbit through his life. I definitely recommend them, and would love to hear your take!

*claire* said...

Oohh I feel the same with Rabbit. There is not one thing about him that I like. But.. I finished all his books ha ha. Just so I could find out what happens. The writing is great though so I didn't mind his character so much as if it were someone likeable but in a badly written book. :)

Robert Stone said...

These are more or less the remarks I made at the American Literature Association conference in Boston in May, 2013 with the exception of some improvisation I injected concerning Bosley Crowther, Manny Farber, and Sam Peckinpah and what I believe their works can contribute to understanding DeLillo. I also used graphic examples from the films of Tarnatino and Kubrick to illustrate how auteurs repeat images from film to film.