September 24, 2010

The CCLaP 100: "Rabbit, Run," by John Updike

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Rabbit, Run, by John Updike

Rabbit, Run (1960)
By John Updike
Book #48 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
(Much of today's recap was culled from Wikipedia, for reasons that are explained below.)

Released right at the beginning of the countercultural 1960s, John Updike's "anti-hero" tale Rabbit, Run is centered around perhaps the most unlikable character in all of modern literature -- one Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, that is, a 26-year-old former high-school basketball star and now full-time jackass, a married salesman in suburban Pennsylvania with one kid already and another on the way, until literally on the spur of the moment one night he decides to abruptly leave them and move to Florida; but after getting lost on his way out of town, he decides instead to visit his creepy old basketball coach, who takes him out for an awkward dinner with two white-trash part-time prostitutes. One of them, Ruth, quickly falls into a dysfunctional relationship with Rabbit, living with him for two months while his family moves back in with his wife's parents, and with a local priest constantly bugging Rabbit to reconcile; but he ends up staying with Ruth, until finding out that she once had a fling with his high-school nemesis, at which point he rapes her and leaves, conveniently at the same time he finds out that his wife has just given birth to their new child.

The two reunite and Rabbit tries to be a good man again, but finds it hard -- among other foibles, he misinterprets an offer for coffee from a local minister's wife for a sexual advance, then tries to pressure his wife into post-natal sex before she's ready, physically assaulting her when she refuses, leading to her accidentally killing their child in a drunken incident. This then takes us into a slightly existentialist ending, with Rabbit fleeing the newborn's funeral after first loudly proclaiming his innocence to those gathered, then getting lost in a graveyard, then returning to Ruth to find out that she's pregnant too, then leaving her again after realizing that he's unwilling to divorce his wife; and this then sets the stage for the three sequels to come, symbolically charting the downfall of America in the second half of the 20th century by looking at the downfall of Rabbit himself.

The argument for it being a classic:
Well, for starters, say its fans, it's perhaps the most well-known book by the guy who a lot of people consider one of the most important writers of the entire 20th century, one of only three authors in history to win the Pulitzer more than once (and in fact, his two Pulitzers came from two of the other books in the "Rabbit" series, 1981's Rabbit is Rich and 1990's Rabbit at Rest); and in more general terms, a lot of people consider this four-book series as a whole to be literally the best thing the entire Postmodernist Era has to offer, a sweeping and beautifully written history of post-WW2 America as seen through the eyes of one of its most despicable citizens. Plus there's the fact that it's deceptively funny, an exquisitely constructed linguistic puzzle that confounds all expectations the further you read; and on top of all this, it's historically important for technical reasons too, with it being one of the first great examples of an entire novel being pulled off in a first-person present-day voice, one of the many stylistic innovations that occurred during this highly important period of literary history.

The argument against:
Like is the case with a lot of modern authors, critics of this book are not just ambivalent about their dislike but passionately active; they claim that along with '60s contemporaries like Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Don DeLillo and Norman Mailer, it was Postmodernists like Updike who literally ruined literature, and who were single-handedly responsible for movies and television becoming the new dominant media for popular culture in this country in these same years. And Rabbit, Run, they claim, is nearly a textbook example of what they're talking about, because of it being guilty of nearly every criticism that's ever been made about Postmodernism: it is overly talky yet goes nowhere, much more interested in precocious language than in constructing a good story, designed to appeal not to the general public but mostly to his fellow academes, and which lacquers a shiny intellectual sheen over what in reality is some pretty brutal misogyny, the kind of whiny, rambling snoozer that inspired the creation of such frou-frou critical terms as "essayistic saunter," "interruption of the abyss," "sense of self-qualification," "a dialectical theological debate between the book itself and its reader," and all the other impenetrable AcademicSpeak BS that has driven tens of millions of arts fans away from contemporary literature in the last 40 years, and right into the open arms of the film industry.

My verdict:
So to understand what my personal reaction to Rabbit, Run was, you really only need to know this -- that after starting it, not only did I quickly abandon my original plan to read all four "Rabbit" novels as part of this essay series, but even the first book itself became one of only a handful of CCLaP 100 titles so far I haven't been able to finish, and the only one so far that I abandoned not for arcane outdated language but rather because IT WAS SO FREAKING TERRIBLE. And that's because, Dear Lord, every single thing that critics of this book complain about is true; and in fact you could strongly argue that this single title virtually creates the blueprint for every snotty, cooly ironic, pop-culture-obsessed, casually sexist diatribe about jaded middle-class white people in the Big Bad Suburbs that has come since, a glut that had become intolerable by the turn of the 21st century and that the "Sincerists" of post-9/11 literature* are actively fighting against.

It can sometimes be a tough call for me with this type of book, because as I've said before, as someone who was raised in the late Postmodernist Age, I was conditioned as a punk-loving teen to rebel against it, and it's only now in my forties that I'm trying to go back and learn to have a simple appreciation for these groundbreaking authors of the '60s and '70s (for example, at the same time I'm writing the CCLaP 100, I'm also reading all nine of Philip Roth's "Zuckerman" novels, which like the "Rabbit" books is a highly regarded, award-winning Postmodernist series about the downfall of America in the late 20th century); and I want to make it clear that I'm not done with Updike yet, with him being simply too revered to give up on after just one bad novel. (If nothing else, I want to at least read his 1968 Couples, which along with Roth's Portnoy's Complaint was one of the racy must-reads of the countercultural era, and is widely credited for kickstarting the wife-swapping craze among '70s suburbanites.) But man, I have to confess, here during its 50th anniversary, the first thing I thought after giving up on Rabbit, Run was, "Sheesh, what a stinker that turned out to be," a novel I absolutely do not recommend to others at all, and that I suspect will end up being one of the worst titles of this entire essay series once all hundred books have finally been read. If you're interested in the history of early Postmodernism like I am, do yourself a favor and pick up some much more deserving books from the period instead.

Is it a classic? Good God, no

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer

Read even more about Rabbit, Run: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)

*Or, you know, call it what you will; but now that we're a decade in, I think it's almost impossible to deny anymore that we are firmly in the early years of a brand new artistic era, past the Postmodernism that came before it and in many ways an angry reaction to it, one in which the quest for irony-free authenticity, a new dedication to plot development, and a new appreciation for genre fiction is rapidly becoming the new touchstones of American intellectualism. I've been calling this "Sincerism" or "The Sincere Age" at CCLaP (which of course ties into a lot of other elements of our contemporary culture as well, from Michael Chabon to Lost to Radiohead to President Obama), and it'll be interesting I think to see what term society eventually settles on for this period in the future.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:57 PM, September 24, 2010. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |