Read 05/08/2017 to 11/08/2017
Rating: 3 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room Road Trip Challenge
Rabbit, Run is the first novel in John Updike’s series about Rabbit Angstrom, an unlikeable man in his mid-twenties who is suffering an existential crisis. He lurches from selfish act to selfish act, abandoning his pregnant wife and two year old son, taking up with an escort, playing golf with the local minister, and all the while bemoaning the fact that he hasn’t achieved anything since his high school basketball team. He has no self-awareness, no interest in other people, and is almost a parody embodiment of the male condition.
I’ve had this book on my shelf for a number of years. I bought it because I’d never read any Updike, and he’s a Pulitzer prize winner twice over, so there must be something about him. Recently, though, I’ve read a few reviews and comments on social media written by women excoriating him for his misogyny. Passages that have been quoted show a man who lacks the desire to see women as anything other than objects in the lives of his male protagonists, objects that are a source of irritation and a receptacle for loathing.
As I took in these opinions and comments, I knew that I had Rabbit, Run coming up as one of my Road Trip Challenge reads. I don’t like to knee-jerk to others’ opinions, even when I respect the people giving those opinions, but part of me felt I shouldn’t read the book, knowing that I was approaching it with an expectation that bordered on prejudice against Updike, and that it would likely raise my hackles. Another part of me felt that this wasn’t giving me the chance to experience Updike on my own terms, that I should put the opinions of others to one side and approach the book without preconceived ideas.
I gave the context of the book some thought. Updike started the Rabbit Angstrom series of books in the 1960s. Rabbit, Run is set in 1959. It was a time when men were exclusively The Boss, and women were viewed as helpmeets supporting their husbands in the important, breadwinning work. I thought about my parents, who married in 1958, and what the dynamic was in their relationship. I thought about how I enjoyed watching Mad Men, despite the chauvinism on display and the central character being a cheat with a sense of entitlement. I considered the fact that the quoted passages were without context, and the opinions about them written from the perspective of women’s rights having moved on but misogyny still needing to be called out. I behaved like the historian I am, and decided to read it for myself.
It didn’t take many pages for Rabbit’s attitude to his wife to become clear. It read to me like a frightened man needing reassurance but unable to ask for it, because he’s locked inside the idea of what a man should be, and resenting his wife when she fails to read his mind. It seemed to me to be a depiction of two unhappy people who can’t work out where their first happiness at being together has gone, and a childish man who doesn’t understand that people change, that marriage and parenthood influence that change.
I like John Updike’s writing style, though. He shares the briskness of other US writers whose work I enjoy reading. It’s punchy and to the point, but also has an elliptical quality similar to that found in William Faulkner’s writing. It shares the strange rhythms of thought processes and unconsidered speech.
I saw Rabbit as a caricature of masculinity, someone formed by the ideals of a patriarchal society, and confused when the women in his life persist in being autonomous, challenging the narrative that male society has tried to make universal, refusing to be anything other than individual and imperfect, just like men. It still happens today. There are still men whose egos are too fragile to accept that women are not their servants or their playthings, men who articulate their frustration as hatred. I didn’t like Rabbit’s behaviour, or the language he uses to describe and control women, but I found him an interesting character study. I don’t know Updike’s personal attitude to women, or his motivation in writing Rabbit in the way he did. It might have been a self-pitying attempt to bemoan the lot of man at the hands of tricksy, controlling women, but my reading of it was as a commentary on the impossibility of living by the rules of patriarchy and finding happiness and satisfaction. Rabbit and other men of his era were sold a particular vision of what life should be, and it is an unattainable vision that we are still trying to dismantle 60 years later. It is etched so deeply that it is difficult to erase. Change often comes through understanding and reflecting back the things we see or hear in troubling behaviours, which is why I think it’s important for women to read books like this one. It gives us insight into the entrenched attitudes we need to dismantle. Patriarchy is a prison for everyone. Women need to be free of the expectation that they will be servile, but men also need to be free of its nonsensical ideals. Rabbit is an illustration of that – a man chasing something that cannot exist and made angry by it.
Rabbit isn’t a pleasant character. There was a lot about him that I didn’t like. His petulance, the way he was stuck in the past and held onto the childish beliefs of a teenage boy. He hankers back to his childhood, a time when he feels he was happiest, innocent of how the adult world operates, a time when he had no responsibilities. That’s what I disliked most about him, his unwillingness to take responsibility for his own life, and the way he so easily blames the people closest to him. At times he seems paranoid that other people, both those he knows and complete strangers, have it in for him, that none of the things he feels are bad in his life are anything to do with him. When I think about the way society is still focused on telling boys and girls divisive stories about who they are supposed to be, I see the end result in men as often producing overgrown children. Men like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Clarkson. Rabbit Angstrom is an extreme example in the same mould as these entitled and facilitated man babies who think running the world is their birthright.
There are other forms of ugliness in the book. Racism is expressed with a nonchalance that made my stomach churn. Once, the racism is briefly turned on its head, when a waiter in a Chinese restaurant plays the part of pidgin English foreigner that is expected of him from ignorant, entitled Rabbit. Everyone, it seems, is playing a role. No-one is being true.
We see the world mostly through Rabbit’s filter. It’s a filter that mixes fear with bravado. He reduces others to objects that serve his needs in order to make himself feel better. The way women are portrayed is interesting. Updike writes his female characters incuriously, without trying to understand what their behaviour means in relation to Rabbit. We discover very little about what they think and feel about their lives. The interesting thing for me was that I could see what their behaviour meant. They are all diminished by their dealings with men, wearied by the expectation placed upon them. He occasionally includes more detail about what the women are thinking. This made me wonder whether Updike was doing a clever thing, giving the other women a hidden voice, beneath the main narrative, or whether he was unaware that these women manage to come through as more than objectified creatures, or that they throw into relief the shitty behaviour of his hero. The women who share their feelings – Ruth, the escort Rabbit takes up with; Mrs Angstrom, Rabbit’s mother; Lucy Eccles, the minister’s wife; Janice, Rabbit’s wife – are all women with whom Rabbit has an oppositional relationship. He doesn’t want to like them but he has a need to be noticed and approved of. It made me wonder what the women in Updike’s life were like.
Janice’s story, when it eventually comes, is a sad one. I started the book unable to care about her, because she was absent as a personality, but caring about her in the face of Rabbit’s behaviour built. By the time Updike finally has her acknowledge her feelings, I wanted to tell her that I understood.
There is another key theme in the book, that of religion and living a Christian life. Janice’s family are Episcopalian (Anglican). Eccles is their minister. He’s another conflicted man, more social worker than man of God. He’s reluctant to condemn Rabbit’s behaviour, believing that befriending him will allow him to persuade Rabbit to reflect on his behaviour and choices. Rabbit is too shallow and immature for that, though, and instead takes advantage of having a new golfing buddy to avoid thinking about his life. Eccles’s wife Lucy is a non-believer, frustrated by the way her husband’s job takes priority over his relationship with him. She challenges him on the way he acts out his faith. Rabbit’s family, by contrast, is Lutheran. Eccles has an encounter with their ferocious pastor, who is all fire and brimstone and condemns Eccles for his hypocrisy.
Reading this novel brought back to mind some of the themes Grayson Perry tackles in his book The Descent of Man, particularly the damage done by traditional ideas of masculinity, and the notion that society needs to find a new masculinity. Not because Updike considers such ideas himself, but because the particular character he writes and the attitudes that character embodies bear out Perry’s wish for a different way of being male.
The novel also made me think of the Ben Folds song, The Ascent of Stan. Rabbit thinks he’s unique, a special individual, but in reality he’s no different to anyone else he encounters. He just can’t see it.
Do I think Updike was a misogynist? No. Not on the basis of this book. I think he was a man of his time, with chauvinistic attitudes towards women. I think he didn’t understand women very well. I don’t always understand men very well, but it doesn’t mean I hate them. I think that the character Rabbit Angstrom is possibly a misogynist. He doesn’t seem to like women, but then he also seems to be emotionally arrested at a younger age. There’s a place for passionately opposing attitudes and behaviours that demonise or victimise particular groups of people, but I sometimes find the shouting about perceived injustices in literature, films and games to be posturing rather than heartfelt, and obstructive rather than seeking a dialogue. Particularly when delivered via the echo chamber of social media.
If I were to rearrange my bookshelves by writing style instead of author name, I’d place John Updike with Ernest Hemingway, Richard Ford, Ian McEwan, J G Ballard, and James Ellroy. He’s someone someone with a readable, at times beautifully descriptive, writing style, but he’s a bit too obsessed with being The Great White Male.
I doubt I’ll read any more Updike books. I didn’t like Rabbit and I’m not interested in how he develops as a character. He’s a bit of a twat. I’m glad I read this one, though. I enjoyed it in a social anthropology way, and because Updike’s descriptions of landscape are beautifully crafted.