Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Books for Writers: Down the 'Rabbit' Hole

I first ran into John Updike's Rabbit Run in high school, part of either a junior or senior advanced-placement English class. I can't recall if the teacher who walked us through it was the elegantly Mrs. Robinsonesque gymnastics coach (junior year) or our ribald headmaster, who rubbed his legs together like a cricket any time a book referenced sexual desire or activity (senior year). This was in the late 1980s, either '88 or '89, and I was likely more interested in whether I could get a girl to take her bra off in my Ford Escort than in the “classics.”
Before cracking the book for this critique I thought back to what I remembered of it. Only one thing stood out: Rabbit Angstrom was a bit of a prick. I vaguely remembered a scene wherein Rabbit attempts to achieve an orgasm with the crack of his wife's ass, whilst she was recovering from giving birth to their daughter. When the child later drowns in the bathtub, her mother drunk on booze and sorrow, Rabbit ducks any responsibility.

My second read, this month, was more satisfying. I understood Rabbit – an early example of the modern “quarter-life crisis” – better but I still don't like him. He's a one-trick pony. His game has a very shallow bench and cannot adapt when life throws it a curve. He's attractive to women because he has no regard for them; he doesn't care about anything but a handful of memories of his faded glory. He suspects, but is not quite convinced that, he became a waste of food once he graduated. Interesting that Updike's Rabbit is oft seen as a metaphor for the America of the late 1950s: young, tested in battle but ultimately feckless.
Updike wrote Rabbit in the present tense, in part because he wanted the book to read like a movie:
The present tense was in part meant to be an equivalent of the cinematic mode of narration. The opening bit of the boys playing basketball was visualized to be taking place under the titles and credits. This doesn't mean, though, that I really wanted to write for the movies. It meant I wanted to make a movie. I could come closer by writing it in my own book than by attempting to get through to Hollywood.” (The Art of Fiction No. 43, Paris Review, 1967)
I confess I have not read a great deal of Updike's work, but this desire for a movie-like writing style, added to Updike's experience as a graphic artist and cartoonist, would seem to be the rationale behind the author's use of visual detail.
Rabbit, Run is written in the third-person, with the reader experiencing the tale second-hand, usually through Rabbit's eyes. What the narrator tells us Rabbit sees, suggests young Mr. Angstrom has more depth than his actions reveal. After the death of his daughter, while Rabbit reacquaints with his wife's family, his eyes seem “hot and vulnerable to the light” (Rabbit, Run, page 235). Later, at the funeral home, his vulnerable eyes see the “unworn carpets of very pale green” and the curtains and walls in “atonal half colors” and a “violet like the violet that kills germs on toilet seats in gas stations.” (Rabbit, Run, page 248). Color and shape are merely reflected light and Rabbit's eyes seem subject to them, after his daughter's death and well before: “Her hair in sunlight sprays red, brown, gold, white and black across her pillow … He sees by the faint rose streaks how imperfectly he scrubbed her face in the dark.” (Rabbit, Run, page 77). He's like the figure in Edward Munch's painting The Scream, trying to block out all the screeching colors of the world.
Screeching colors, time's flow, crying children, nagging partners: if Rabbit is truly vulnerable to everything he sees, it is no wonder he must run. Again, how like America.


  1. I'm picturing your cricket... er, teacher - hilarious. And a little disturbing. What a vivid memory standing out in the book first time around. Isn't it interesting how our perception shifts when we read books again? Makes me want to reread some books I haven't touched in years.

  2. I'm with you, and I'm inclined to think a lot of the "classic" lit is wasted on the young. It might even be scaring them away from reading. I still haven't dipped back into Saul Bellow.

  3. I thought Rabbit was a prick, too and I don't think I liked him much better in the later books. I did like the books, though--a good example of an unlikeable yet sympathetic character? Maybe.

  4. An author I couldn't deal with in highschool was Faulkner. I was so frustrated with him. I felt like yelling "Just get on with your point man!" I wonder now how I would feel about "Intruder In The Dust" if I read it today. Interesting idea to readdress those classics that were first introduced in high school. I surely haven't read them again. How do you pick what your students read?

  5. I read many of the classics in high school, then again as an English major in college. I recently found some of my AP English Essays from high school - what a difference 20 years makes!

  6. Kellianne, most of the books the students read in the core English classes are prescribed; the usual suspects: Catcher, Gatsby, a little Shakespeare, Mockingbird, Ethan Frome, etc. It nearly takes an act of Congress (or Board of Education) to change it. The electives are where the fun is. I taught sci-fi lit for a while; we have a sports-lit class. You can have a lot of fun with the right kids and the right book. I had a lot of buy-in for "Ender's Game," for example.