Tuesday, August 16, 2016

John Updike, "Rabbit, Run"

– Crest Books, 1965; 256 p.

Read from June 16th to July 21st 2016

My rating:

I knew almost nothing about John Updike before reading Rabbit, Run, except that he was a contemporary American writer and a pretty good stylist (and after finishing the novel I can tell you the last appreciation is an understatement). However I was expecting (I don’t know why, especially since I knew all along the novel was published first in 1960) a postmodernist approach instead of a neo-modernist one. In brief, I thought his literary prestige is due to some innovations in the narrative technique and it was quite a surprise (a delightful one) to discover that he uses to deploy his inimitable, truly mesmerizing narrative voice mostly traditional techniques. That is, there is no cleverly built up structure but a restless, rhythmic beat of a prose that discreetly and masterfully recreates a world by skillfully taming the words.

The reading key that could help us to better understand this world is offered not by the title (which is rather a characterization in nuce of the main character) but by one of the Pascal’s “pensées” put as the motto of our story: “The motions of Grace, the hardness of the heart; external circumstances.”

Indeed, the Grace and the Heart, that is, the Faith and the Love (or rather the lack of them) are the “circumstances” that make move around a world as small as a little town in the 60’s, as big as the timeless universe. A world in which the main character is forever looking for rabbit holes where he could hide from his moral and civic responsibilities that bore him to death. Like a male version of Madame Bovary he is not quite able to understand his own restlessness and discontent, that is, his immature ways: however, his perpetual running makes sense in a bizarre way, which renders him quite likeable even when he becomes aware of hurting the others and almost proud of it:

“When I ran from Janice I made an interesting discovery. (…) If you have the guts to be yourself,” he says, “other people will pay your price.”

In an article published in Harvard Magazine in 1996 (Rabbit Reread ), Robert Kiely names Harry Angstrom an “an ignorant, insensitive, uneducated, self-pitying bigot of no particular talent, imagination, or intelligence”. It is an opinion shared by many a reader who judged him solely by his actions and words than by his thoughts and point of view. Because let’s not forget that he is not only the main character of the story, but its main narrator (although not the only one) in a free indirect style. And it is in the role of the narrator that we discover his astute eye for the detail, his empathy with his surroundings, his desire to make sense of a universe that seems at the same time menacingly big and suffocatingly small:

He brought them up there. To see what? The city stretches from dollhouse rows at the base of the park through a broad blurred belly of flowerpot red patched with tar roofs and twinkling cars and ends as a rose tint in the mist that hangs above the distant river. Gas tanks glimmer in this smoke. Suburbs lie like scarves in it. But the city is huge in the middle view, and he opens his lips as if to force the lips of his soul to receive the taste of the truth about it, as the truth were a secret in such low solution that only immensity can give us a sensible taste.

There is always a subtle play of perspectives to be found in Updike’s prose, an alternation between the big and the small picture, a care for the detail that often springs from the background by means of an unexpected comparisons and / or epithet which reveals a story behind the story, like a possible tense relationship with the neighbor whose door is closed “like an angry face” or a metaphysical anxiety induced by a deserted landscape full of ghosts of “children clambering up from a grave”. Attuned to “the sound and the fury” of his surroundings, Harry tries, by turn, either to resign to or to escape the fate they mercilessly mirror:

He feels the truth: the thing that had left his life had left irrevocably; no search would recover it. no flight would reach it. It was here, beneath the town, in these smells and these voices, forever behind him.

It is amazing how an “ignorant, insensitive” oaf like Harry Angstrom is able to recognize and unveil the cannibalism of a city hungry for the modest truth of mediocrity that sustains it, although Robert Kiely is not completely wrong in his assumptions about Rabbit, for our (anti) hero is unable, or simply lacks the patience to understand people, to go beyond their physical appearance he genially notices in the smallest detail with the eye of an artist who wants to catch every shade of color of the body but is not interested at all in the shades of the soul:

Rabbit looks at Ruth. Her face is caked with orange dust. Her hair, her hair which seemed at first glance dirty blond or faded brown, is in fact many colors, red and yellow and brown and black, each hair passing in the light through a series of tints, like the hair of a dog.

Another remarkable stylistic trait is due to what I would like to call jigsaw images: the narrative voice gains unexpected inflexion whenever it chooses to scatter and redo not only landscapes and portraits (for example Ruth’s: “Her wet face, relaxed into slabs, is not pretty; the thick lips, torn from most of their paint, are the pale rims of a loose hole.”) but also states of mind, smashing fleeting images into glittering pieces:

Mr Springer returns and passes through the outside, bestowing upon his son-in-law a painfully complex smile, compounded of a wish to apologize for his wife (we’re both men; I know), a wish to keep distant (nevertheless you’ve behaved unforgivably; don’t touch me) and the car’s salesman reflex of politeness.

Julian Barnes, in his review published in The Guardian (John Updike Rereading. RunningAway ) is convinced that the Rabbit quartet is “the greatest postwar American fiction”. I only read the first of the four books, but I already strongly agree. This little novel is crafted with such an elegant simplicity that even its somber, Dantesque theme -  that there is no escape wherever you run away  – seems somehow bearable. For there is always at least a haven – in the beauty of the art. 


  1. I've been meaning to read it for quite a while, but other writers and titles have caught my attention in the meantime. Thanks for reminding me of it.