This book has so far failed to grab me. It has not lost me either but as it starts to catalogue the history of infidelity between the first couple of couples it is establishing not just the experience of adultery but a context where it’s almost expected.
Against that background of course the new couple become playthings to amuse those that have become bored of each other and stuck in their ruts. The pressure for one or both of them to stray seems to be building with the husband ken the initial most likely suspect.
I will go back to this but need something that is slightly more instant in its delivery of gratification.
This is slow going. The pages feel dense and the way Updike writes forces you to concentrate. Through his descriptions of the landscape, buildings and interiors he is making a statement about the state of Kennedy’s America compared to the past.
As the new couple, Foxy and Ken, start to get dragged into the world of the couples an attitude to life where people try to get away with pleasing themselves as much as possible starts to be detailed in greater depth. The central character Piet seems to have time to see his mistress, construct hamster cages and plan his social life as well as keep down a job as a builder/developer.
his inability to see how fortunate he is feels like a point being made by Updike and presumably Piet’s life seemed as self-indulgent when this was first written as it does now, particularly in a time of recession.
One of the main struggles you suspect as the first 100 pages gets passed is trying to attach any likeability to any of the couples. So far none of them appear to be the sort of people you would go out of your way to meet. Again that is the point but it is going to be a challenge.
Updike is very good at using a small cast of characters to describe the state of a nation. Through the social club that is the husbands and wives that meet at weekends and sleep with one another the attention to detail on the background and landscape is telling you something about America.
The majority of the group are anti-Kennedy republicans who have no idea what awaits them in the form of the assassination, Vietnam and the social upheaval of the 1960s. So in that respect this is a snapshot into the calm before the storm.
But these people seem to be inspiring anger rather than pity with their lives full of holes that affairs and the intrigue around them are used to try to fill. As a result this is not an easy book to read. The 450 pages lie before you as a long road. But just as with Rabbit Run you know that in those pages you will learn something about America, about the view of that time that Updike wants to recollect and produce and that keeps you going.
If it wasn’t for the postscript that John Updike follows the end of the novel with this would have been a slightly more difficult reading experience.
The central character, Rabbit, is in a harsh light a selfish underachieving loser who is chasing after a moment that he once had as a winner on the high school basketball team but is now gone for ever. He drags down with him his wife and his mistress and his parents and in-laws. He also managed to impact a local preacher who decides he is a worthy cause to help. When he is needed most he turns on his heels and runs, hence the title.
But in a more sympathetic light he is a man that has known the adulation of the crowds and tasted the success of victory and now struggles to find meaning in a relatively hollow existence.
His struggle is the same as his country with a nation that had tasted victory in the second world war and known the joys of mass production now starting to lose its way in the 1950s. This is a world that is frayed at the edges and tired. Characters like Rabbit’s former basketball coach, his mother-in-law and the preacher’s wife are all either physically suffering from ailments or just bitter with life.
As Rabbit wanders out of his marriage into a relationship with a woman he also gets pregnant before going back to be by his wife’s side during the birth of their second child he is never totally convincing. He has run once before and it always feels as if he might do so again. Perhaps this is stretching it too far but this sense of running off and looking for a way of attaining a sense of former glory is an allusion to things like the Korean War and of course late on Vietnam.
There is also a sense with the death of his baby daughter and the way Rabbit treats his marriage and relationships with most people that this is a society that doesn’t value much.
But there is also the question of religion. Rabbit seems to hold the Lutheran preacher in high regard and there is a certain tradition about the role of the church in life that doesn’t necessarily mean that it makes a difference but is something almost automatic. What is interesting is the way that Rabbit is hardly condemned by anyone of his own age but is criticised by his parents but it is perhaps a different generation with different values that is prepared to make that judgement.
When I told my father I was reading Updike he commented that he never liked his style and there is perhaps something to be said for that. There is a slightly detached narrative perspective that keeps neutral when perhaps other author’s might have voiced more condemnation.
As a metaphor for a period of American history Rabbit is of course just starting and the success of the character is something that will be established more I suspect by reading the other Rabbit novels. Right now as he ends by running off he is not necessarily a character you want to spend more time with, but I’m prepared to change my view of that.
In some respects you finish this book with your own ideas about Rabbit but you are grateful for an afterword by Updike that helps clarify some points. He is using a character as a way of challenging American attitudes and working out what some of the big questions are.
The problem is that you come to the end of the book and you are still left wondering what some of those answers are and questioning the response of running away from trying to figure them out.
After his daughter dies and his wife falls apart Rabbit returns from his fateful night away and starts to pick up the pieces but at the graveside he cannot resist asking out loud why everyone is treating him like a murderer when it was his wife’s fault. He then heads off at speed running through the woods rather than facing the fallout from that one.
He blusters back into Ruth’s flat and she shouts and screams at him for being selfish and useless and rather than take in what she has said he walks out the door and starts running.
The sense of failure is reinforced by the appearance at a couple of points of his old basketball coach who has had a stroke. In the afterward Updike points out that he lived in towns packed full of failed high school basketball players so finding the inspiration for Rabbit was not that difficult.
Will have to get together my thoughts for a review to be posted soon…
This is a hard book to get on with. Maybe Rabbit is a metaphor for a period of American history where maybe the country felt after the success of the Second World War that it was now a loser.
Rabbit is a selfish character that is driven not just by a yearning for a repeat of the success and adoration he had on the basketball court but also by a primitive sexual urge. Having returned to his wife believing on the way that the preacher’s wife is also after him he leaves her at a critical stage.
Having encouraged her to get drunk so he can have sex with her she goes on a bender that results in the tragic death of their newborn baby daughter. The bath-drowning scene is written with pace and through the perception of a drunken woman in a world of pain that is also something rather selfish.
With Rabbit now handed the reason to leave Janice and partly to blame because of his absence will he again try to run? Problem is that he can’t run away from himself and his own immaturity.
The irony is that although children don’t seem to matter much to Rabbit the arrival of a baby daughter pulls him back to his wife. It is the minister Eccles who ends up watching Rabbit’s son Nelson playing in his grandmother’s yard fighting for toys and angering the neighbours dog. Rabbit seems to care about nothing other than trying to recapture former glories.
His relationship with Ruth seems to be built on possession and control. Those two factors make him feel successful and in the sense of being a competitor he has managed to beat her opposition. But ironically it is her previous independence that drives his jealousy.
He leaves her not knowing she is pregnant to head over to the hospital to see his new child arrive into the world. Ruth is left behind crying bitter tears sensing that she has lost Rabbit to the pull of his wife. It certainly appears that way as Rabbit leaves the maternity ward to stay with the minister rather than go back to Ruth’s apartment.
But for a man without much paternal pride will the thought of a daughter and another child on the way cause him to run off again. Probably.
Someone I once met had her husband walk out on four days after the birth of his son saying, “It wasn’t for him” the whole fatherhood idea. That real-life story reminds me very much of the fictional Rabbit.