You’ll be chain-drinking tea for comfort during this bumpy ride:
Rabbit, Run by John Updike is a hugely famous, hugely successful book. It made John Updike’s name as one of the American Greats of fiction writing, and I suspect that it crops up pretty frequently on school and college syllabi over in the U.S. And I kind of wish it had appeared on one of my required reading lists during my time in education; I came away from the book with SO many strong opinions, but at the same time I’ve rarely felt that there was more that I had overlooked in a novel. So if you did study this book, or if you have just formed strong opinions of your own – I really do want to hear more from you in the comments!
Anyway, here is the summary I used a couple of times when my friends and family asked what the book was about: “Man, Rabbit (not to be taken as Manrabbit, which is a different story entirely), has a pregnant wife, man leaves pregnant wife on a whim, man shacks up with hooker, man leaves hooker for wife upon baby’s birth, man leaves wife for hooker again (sort-of), man goes back to wife because [SPOILER!], man runs back to now pregnant-with-his-baby hooker, man runs off.” It should be renamed ‘Rabbit, Run(s out on women a lot)’. And let me tell you this. I hated Rabbit. He is a sucky guy. One day I’ll do a post on the top five fiction characters that made my blood boil, and you won’t even need to read it because I’m telling you now that Rabbit is right there at number one.
Counter-intuitively, this really marks Updike out as being a fantastic author for me. A bad writer would have taken Harry Angstrom (that’s Rabbit’s real name, by the way) and produced a caricature, which you wouldn’t be able to take seriously and thus you wouldn’t get that burning desire to throw your book under a bus. Updike’s use of language is beautifully poetic, and he uses this to create a densely but elegantly woven tapestry of a quite a lot of pretty heavy themes – including religious faith, fidelity, responsibility, love, and death among others. But in my interpretation of the book, what really stuck out were the themes of egotism and control – personified by Rabbit, and I saw this book as an examination of the interplay between an egotiostical personality and those other themes I just mentioned. When it comes to sex and “love”, Rabbit is demanding and domineering over “his women” to the point that it occasionally crosses the line into plain old abuse, and it all boils down to his need to be in complete control, and to be glorified like he was when he was a high-school basketball star (just let it go, Rabbit, jeez! You probably weren’t even that good.) There is this one scene – which is NSFW, just to warn you – where Rabbit demands a blowjob from Ruth, the hooker he’s seeing, because he finds out that she has given one to a man before. And I think his choice of words here says it all:
“Don’t be smart. Listen. Tonight you turned against me. I need to see you on your knees.”
In short, you might not enjoy this book’s content, but you will not forget Updike’s storytelling for a very long time after you turn the last page.
Would recommend to:
Anyone who wants to challenge themselves with a book that they know is unlikely to be a pleasant or a fun read, but that is extremely well-written and should evoke a fiery emotional response.
I’ve finished this and want something similar:
You’re in luck! John Updike wrote a whole series of “Rabbit” books. Along with ‘Rabbit, Run’, you’ll also find: ‘Rabbit Redux’, ‘Rabbit is Rich’, ‘Rabbit at Rest’, and a novella called ‘Rabbit Remembered’. I personally haven’t been able to stomach the thought of returning to Rabbit yet, although I will likely try again once the memory of his douchebagginess has dulled a bit.
For other books with characters to make you shoot rage-flames from your eyes, I’d suggest ‘In The Kitchen’ by Monica Ali, whose head-chef character made me want to jump out of my apartment window when I was on holiday in Budapest last year.
What do you think?
As I mentioned right back at the beginning of this post, I had a lot of strong feelings about this book when I finished it – but did feel that my understanding might have been deeper had I sat down and really applied some scholarly thought to it. I reckon ‘Rabbit, Run’ could really stimulate a great discussion – so maybe this is where we can make that magic happen? Let me know what you thought in the comments below!