Days of the Lepus: Circling around Rabbit, Run by John Updike
In an early review of Rabbit, Run David Boroff of The New York Times wrote, “The author’s style is particularly impressive; artful and supple, its brilliance is belied by its relaxed rhythms. Mr. Updike has a knack of tilting his observations just a little, so that even a commonplace phrase catches the light. The prose is that rarest of achievements — perfectly pitched voice for the subject.” Boroff, 1960). But Updike’s noticing and skewing of details is by far less than the whole of his novel, although this is the aspect upon which many critics dwell. Updike can recognizably follow Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell it slant” but just as frequently his relaxed rhythms and details are neither here — furthering the story along with necessary thoughts by Rabbit, nor there — lapsing into a full stream of consciousness carried by linguistic brilliance as found for example in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.
The tension inherent in allowing passages to hover in a middle space without commitment to one or the other intent is at times frustrating but that said, Updike deserves praise for a masterwork in free indirect discourse of which in my view we can never have enough examples. Then again, flip side, at his blandest, Updike comes off like the Alex Katz of writing, the darling of those who prefer style like warm Cheez Whiz so it oozes down their throats without too much conscious swallowing.
Once into the suburbs of Rabbit criticism, a literary antimony is frequently found and typified by Martin Amis who wrote, “In every sense it constitutes an embarrassment of riches — alert, funny and sensuous, yet also garrulous, mawkish and crank. Like Saul Bellow, Updike often seems wantonly, uncontrollably fertile.” The worst passages appear as gussied up gab. So who’s right, the admirers for whom Updike can do no wrong, or those wondering where Updike is fully situated? I’ll answer it elliptically by heading to Slavoj Žižek and his discussion of Levi-Strauss asking members of the Winnebago tribe to draw a map of the village for the answer. Žižek writes, “Both perceive the village as a circle; but for one subgroup there is within this circle another circle of central houses, so that we have two concentric circles, while for the other subgroup the circle is split into two by a clear dividing line….The two perceptions of the ground-plan are simply mutually exclusive endeavors” (Žižek, 2006, p. 25). Without getting too involved in the analogy, neither view/map is the reality of the village, rather both indicate we are, in Žižek’s words, “dealing with a true Kantian antinomy which cannot be resolved via a higher ‘dialectical synthesis’” (p. 25). This is my sense of critic responses to Rabbit, Run in that two different views are stated as existing, which reflect Updike’s brilliance and Updike’s blandness, both denying synthesis but always apparent. The New Republic in 2014 carried a debate between David Baddiel and Jeffrey Meyers that shows these viewpoints. Meyers starts right out with a critique I’ve stated for a long time, that the cliched, formulaic stylistic bias with its upper middle tone, lack of jarring edge or exploratory boundary pushing, foremost massaging norms and assuaging any anxiety, but always providing the little revelatory moment at the end. There is a blandness to Updike, and Meyers draws upon John W. Aldridge “He does not possess remarkable narrative gifts…” and Christopher Hitchens to back up his view about The Terrorist, “…one of the worst pieces of writing produced by any grown-up….” Harold Bloom called Updike “a minor novelist with a major style.” But that doesn’t fully explain the situation of Updike. The same could be argued about Nabokov with the his domineering style that at times overshadows plot, and I’m thinking of passages in Ada — or not perhaps depending on one’s mood. The criteria will be slippery. But to accept Bloom’s criticism, at least in terms of style, Henry James and Lawrence Durrell are fairly astounding, and either one in comparison pushes Updike to a lower rung.
I have frequently reflected upon my own antimonious relationship with Updike’s works hoping for a synthesis, that the spark will occur where I turn the page and become an unshakable fan, and while I admire much of what he does there’s something about much of his work where I just don’t think the work says much. I’m trying to be careful in not falling into emotions because a lot of my meh is an emotional response for me, and that doesn’t reveal much. On one hand I find his language usage rich and flowing, and I revel in the words and the occasional knife-edged description but on the other hand I often wonder to what end? His stories routinely published by the The New Yorker by the 1980’s began to feel formulaic, almost with a core of ennui, which should be justified as capturing a particular American zeitgeist. I wish to press against this viewpoint — it was a moment, or was it? Certainly a vacuous wind Americanist focus on the social moment swept through the arts and literature, and many younger authors went whole hog on jumping on the bland-wagon but one can only watch The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979) only once, if the desire is to keep down the contents of one’s dinner. And, when the style went more minimal it got exciting as with Donald Barthelme’s nearly postmodern stories, and Carver did a great job both in capturing American tedium and empty personal rebellions against fatalism.
Ultimately, I’m on Amis’ side here in that every time I read Updike my thoughts drift and I think I ought to pull out Bellow for a reread. Words and rhythm flow from Bellow, one sentence moves to the next like liquid literature. Bellow could turn his attention to the most mundane, ridiculous, wearisome thing and turn it into a beautiful moment. Updike, for all his verbal fluidity seems at times to be pumping the literary bellows (sorry for the dad joke) in an attempt get the fire going. Updike’s writing often feels like the successful result of an honest day’s hard work while Bellow just seems to have it, much like Michelangelo talking about how he received his inspiration from the divine. Of course we know that Bellow had an extensive revision process and that his craft didn’t fly down from heaven. But once I’m sure of all this, then the other side begins to creep in and I see the value in Updike’s writing, partly because Updike always seems as though he was so seriously invested in his writing, so I refrain from switching books.
Harry, “Rabbit” Angstrom once had all the right basketball moves, the double clutch, the hesitation, the wraparound, the reverse pivot but that which was once smooth proprioception has now turned to gangly immaturity as he attempts to navigate the world of adults. He transitioned into adulthood by ticking off the adult milestones, a wife, a kid, an apartment, but now the reality of the ongoingness sets in. The game of basketball had predetermined rules, positions, time limits, and an ending point and sure, these existed in life but Rabbit wanted none of them anymore, rules were confining, positions in life were strictures, and suddenly the lack of a time-limit was an unbearable weigh. According to biographer Adam Begley, Updike described Harry Angstrom as a “representative Kierkegaardian man” who existed, separated from God, with fear and trembling. I get what he means, although to be clear Updike is no Dostoyevsky in this arena. Most interestingly, Begley writes that Updike also said Harry Angstrom was “a portrait of the author in straitened circumstances — without a Harvard degree or a marketable talent,” being told by his father about Shillington High athletes who now were “the wrecks of former basketball stars.” Evidently Updike drew upon such memories, and his own self. And this is a true strength of the novel. Updike’s writing of Rabbit, Run according to Begley was fast, a frenzy of excitement, in which the author worked in a small corner room looking out over an intersection. The book was apparently originally envisioned as a novella and Updike spoke of the opening as a movie with action and credits on the visual scene. (CSpan) The book was completed in nine months.
Resonating is the advent of the full on American myth that desire has the potential to be sated; more than ever this desire was created by corporations and their products offered for purchase would provide immediate fulfillment. Everyone knew this circle of offering and consuming was a lie but a placebo was needed for the big lack found in the middle class settling down, with its diminished dreams, evaporating everlasting, and the fading wallpaper in a room called emptiness. This might be summed up speaking about Christopher Lasch’s criticism of the culture of narcissism, and how it “showed that the novel turn towards self-realisation was not without its problems, by the end of the 1960’s it was clear that Freudian conservatism was out of step with the emerging politics of the individual set upon the realisation of desire” (Lasch, 1991). Life in the burgeoning capitalist economy demanded obeisance signified the gesture of handing over cash. The reward was a lower middle class life of unending stability, i.e. the predictability of a closet door nicking a table, the slow progress of a child growing, the day after day quotidian. What bucked against these demands? Rabbit flings himself into this gap without an answer. When he tries to obtain the game again, this time via golf, it no longer complies, good shots are rare and he finds it all immensely frustrating because he’s used to easy conquests, in every arena. Obstacles have always been opponents, opportunities for outshining, stepping stones to the next conquest. Rabbit recognizes that what he was good at no longer matters and what matters he is no longer good at. Now, Begley is a fine writer, totally worth reading, but I’m not following him down the Rabbit/religious path here, whether he’s right or not. I find Updike’s pursuing this theme tedious without much payoff. The entire golf episodes reminded me a good deal more of Caddyshack than some absence of God or belief. Better just to leave it at gunga-galunga.
The opposite of star is alienation, the opposite of belief is uncertainty, and this sums up Rabbit’s mindset, excepting his somewhat age-based monomania for seeing women as self-validating conquests.
When the basketball game ends one goes home; win was a win to be cheered, a loss was a loss to be forgotten. To state the obvious, as Rabbit finds out, the game in life doesn’t end. When one withdraws from one situation in life, one is forced into a new equally problematic situation, although compounding the new situation is all the baggage of the old. But isn’t this one of the higher themes of literature, once one moves beyond the simple secret to be revealed or the simple past coming back to haunt? A protagonist in such a position must then, for example in Conrad, come to some degree of self-reckoning.
Rabbit remains bounded by his physiology and thoughts, and it seems he’s always pushing against their limits to the point where both his physiology and thoughts become obstacles. He runs to escape the bounds, which he cannot, and he knows he cannot, and in the process he loses his grasp on what he took to be the components of his identity. Here is found the plot of many a great work of literature and film. To bastardize from Wittgenstein, the limits of his body and his mind are the limits of his world, they are for all of us perhaps, but Updike has done the masterful job of allowing this truism to work itself out within Rabbit’s narrow frame. I have often said to students, reflecting their recognition of a need to circle back to a theme, “You can’t run from yourself.” Rabbit doesn’t yet know this and so he tries, thinking that just over there, just outside his current position, something exists that will suddenly give everything its proper place and definitive meaning. This seems to stun him into standing in stupidity and awe at the unfolding spectacle of life.
Sixteen years after writing Rabbit, Run, when Bellow gave his Nobel Prize lecture he spoke of the death of character in literature, an odd thing to say as Rabbit, Run is all about the character and spirit and a few true impressions creep through no matter the inadequacy of language and character. I wonder if Updike noticed this. Also online is found a question and answer period with an older Updike and the man is highly articulate, right on point, clear and sharp. This in and of itself shows the rigor of his mind that convinces me of his qualities as a writer.
I conceptualize Joyce’s writing as an ever expanding spiral, especially in Finnegan’s Wake, my conceptualization of Updike in Rabbit, Run is more a series of connected and overlapping doodle 0’s. But I’m not the first to recognize this. Clinton Burhans, Jr. in an early paper wrote, “Rabbit Angstrom runs in tightening circles defined by the complex interactions between the potentialities and the influences indicated by these extremes. Structurally, the novel is built on such circles…” (Burhans, Jr., 1973).
Rabbit repeats to avoid recognizing the fallen star with his name on it. Each attempt to break free of his limitations brings him back to his limitations, for which he projects outward his increasingly validated sense of the futility that life offers. It might be an interesting experiment to deconstruct the novel in terms of Lacan’s mirror stage, the fragmented body, and the symbolic order. Here’s a dissertation topic free for the taking. To pause on this idea briefly I’ll quote Featherstone since he says it so well, “Essentially, Freud turned the human into a machine in search of homeostatic equilibrium. Why is homeostasis impossible to achieve? The reason that we never reach equilibrium is because the dream machine continues to provide symbolic information about what we need to reach a state of systemic balance fuelling the mechanical compulsion to repeat” (Featherstone, 2020).
It is interesting to relate Eccles it to the obvious, Ecclesiastes in the Bible, which according to Fox (2004) “The subjects of Ecclesiastes are the pain and frustration engendered by observing and meditating on the distortions and inequities pervading the world, the uselessness of human deeds, and the limitations of wisdom and righteousness.” p. ix). If “Ecclesiastes” is replaced by “Rabbit, Run” the sentence seems to be a one line synopsis of the novel. Indeed as the biblical book famously says, “Futility of futilities….What does a man gain from all his labor, at which he toils under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1). I urge anyone reading Rabbit, Run to go back to that passage to see the lens it provides, which I believe Updike must have considered in relation to the novel’s subject.
I also think that given Rabbit’s hollow center he has become for many critics a space where they may project their own agendas, and so we find Rabbit as racist, Rabbit as misogynist, Rabbit as saint, Rabbit as religious skeptic, Rabbit as mirror. As an example, Boroff (1960) thought that Updike was “primarily interested in the psychic underside of sexuality,” a case of reading into the book if ever there was one in my view. His providing a trigger warning for readers of The New York Times as follows, “there are some not-easily-ignored footnotes about the erotic sophistication of the post-war generation that will shock the prudish.” This elicits a shrug and the comment, is he talking about this book? The comment only seems to offer a warning to the most prudish who must have lived in a convent and communed only with berries and fawns.
DJ Green Velvet says in his song Voicemail, “What do you desire, love or material things?” By the end of the novel Rabbit tries both with little success. Featherstone says, speaking about a cybernetic turn in Lacan, “Essentially, we want to escape ourselves (our separation) for some kind of peace” (2020). The manner in which Updike turns over these ideas is a difficult enticement for readers lured into the magic of the language, because it reveals itself slowly. I’ve sat on this review for a good three months as I reflected upon the book, wanting to get to the heart of my response.
Circling around what I often have considered the narrow The New Yorker story style of the eighties and nineties Updike always seems to work extra hard to, to be working hard in a way that I keep recognizing, to capture some internal core of a character, without allowing this subject to become the entire subject of the novel. Rather he frames his subjects through hints, the side nod designed to give the lingering aftertaste of “so that’s what was going on.” I was first exposed to his writing the way many of us were, via A&P (originally published in the The New Yorker in 1961) in a high school class in which this discover exactly was the point. If one thinks A&P feels an awful lot like the unresolved remnants of Rabbit, Run, as I do, note the short story was published a year following Rabbit, Run’s publication. Baddiel speaks of Updike’s using the microscopic to articulate the largest mysteries of life. And this begins to get at what I am striving to articulate. It’s as though Updike must make sure he grabs the large ineffable themes, the undefinable Dasein, and that it must come through in every work. His method is inductive, the presentation of specific cases of observed behavior are presented, and we are expected to recognize the manner in which they unify to present the unstated larger theme or conclusion. I have no problem with the method per se, it’s the constant banging upon the method and the reliance of this method that begins to become predictable for me. What saves this method from falling flat, is, as always stated, that the scenes are awash in descriptive detail. Yet isn’t there a feeling that reading Updike is at times akin to sitting through someone’s travel photos. He likes to use the word “waxy.”
One of Updike’s strengths, and here I do agree with Baddiel, is that the characters are free from blame, not fully as blank fiction, but as Updike himself said about his vision of the beginning of Rabbit, Run, imagined as the opening of a movie where a character is doing something, just doing it, without judgement. Updike’s beauty is in sustaining this for as long as possible, to greater or lesser degree, so that in reserving an authorial judgement we fill the space in a way that causes to reflect upon our own judgmental position.
It’s hard to believe they made a movie of the novel in 1970, rated R, with a 30 year old James Caan playing Rabbit. The promotional text of the movie poster proclaimed, ”3 months ago Rabbit Angstrom ran out to buy his wife cigarettes. He hasn’t come home yet.” Not the best hook ever attempting to sell much ado about someone’s angst. The film previewed in Reading, PA and flopped so badly it was never released on a wide scale and it never even reached screens in New York City. (Negley, 2007).
Elevating the mundane is an art, Robbe-Grillet comes to mind or Céline, and then a whole host of stream of consciousness novels flow into this river. Updike never went to these places in Rabbit, Run. When his writing tends toward a stream of consciousness, he engages the damper. When the writing starts getting too internal he brings it back to the detail. He never wants, it seems, to let the writing take him where it might or must take him, instead he continually forces it back to the method, and it’s a strong method, although his reliance on it could earn him the nickname ‘The Stephen King of a Great Literary Modernism.’ I think too of the band Boston, with a groundbreaking first album and a remainder of an oeuvre comprised of pastiche, or of Jackson Pollock who ended up doing parodies of Pollocks where the flame of unadulterated engagement between one’s soul and the world seems cast off for method and form.
Baddiel, D., & Meyers, J. (May 2, 2014). Judging John Updike. New Statesman. Retrieved from https://www.newstatesman.com/2014/04/judging-john-updike
Baddiel, D., & Meyers, J. (May 9, 2014). John Updike: Tedious Suburbanite, Literary Great. The New Republic. Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/117721/john-updikes-new-biography-adam-begley
Boroff, D. (November 6, 1960). You cannot really flee. The New York Times. Secdtion T, p. 4.
Burhans, Jr., C. (1973). Things Falling Apart: Structure and Theme in “Rabbit run”. Studies in the Novel, 5 (3). pp. 336–351.
CSpan interview with Johnson Joyce Carrey. (November 28, 2000). Updike says the original subtitle was Rabbit, Run: A Movie written to be like a movie on the surface of the present. More cinematic than reflective. The opening sequence to be the background for the opening credits. It was liberating in 1959 and is now a cliche, although it remains good advice for novelists to think in terms of visualization.
Featherstone M. (2020). Apocalypse Now!: From Freud, Through Lacan, to Stiegler’s Psychoanalytic ‘Survival Project. International Journal for the Semiotics of law Revue Internationale de Semiotique Juridique.
Lasch, C. (1991). The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York: W. W. Norton and Co.
Negley, E. (March 18, 2007). ‘Rabbit,’ lost. Reading Eagle.
Fox, M. (2004). The JPS Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society.
Žižek, S. (2006). The Parallax View. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.