Updike and his Rabbit

I’ve been peeved, and I’ve said so, about the high percentage of John Updike memorial articles citing his Rabbit novels (1960’s Rabbit Run, 1971’s Rabbit Redux, 1981’s Rabbit is Rich, 1990’s Rabbit at Rest) as his masterpiece.

I would never deny other readers the right to crow about their favorites, and I do think these books have some value. But I object to the idea that they are his masterpiece because I’m worried people who’ve never read Updike will pick up Rabbit Run and give up on him forever after reading twenty pages of that chewy, stale narrative. In fact, I believe Updike adopted a deliberately dull voice when writing as Rabbit Angstrom. Updike’s gracefully high-minded intellect was his single greatest gift as a writer, but he was deliberately subverting his intellect in these books, and that’s too great a loss.

Updike was famous for his “impersonation” novels — the Bech books, Brazil, Terrorist — and I insist (though I seem to be alone in this opinion) that the Rabbit books were among his impersonation novels. Rabbit Angstrom is a small town basketball former-hotshot, people-smart but not book-smart, with no aspirations that can’t be satisfied in a kitchen or a bedroom. His political views and opinions are earthy, humorous in the same way that Archie Bunker’s were, but ultimately there is always the sense that Updike is studying this Suburban Man, this Joe the Plumber, as a social prototype.

The greatest problem, though, is the absence of Updike’s soaring voice. Updike’s prose will follow his character’s thought patterns in any book, of course, and Rabbit’s thoughts are stubby, ungrammatical, tepid. Updike’s voice flies in other books — when Piet Hanema watches a woman walk by a church, when Richard Maple stares up at a falling Boston skyscraper. But Rabbit is a ground-sniffer. So is John Updike in these four books, and the experiment produces interesting results, but no masterpiece.

If you want to discover John Updike and haven’t yet, I suggest you read Couples first, and then Too Far To Go, followed by any of those bricks of collected criticism, Odd Jobs or Hugging the Shore or any other, it doesn’t matter which, that you can pick up in a used bookstore cheap. For some early Updike, read Of The Farm and a few short stories; for later Updike, try Gertrude and Claudius, and at some point take a break with Nicholson Baker’s U and I. At this point, you’re ready for Rabbit. But the novels should never be the entry point for Updike’s career.

With that said: I got a lot of feedback the last time I wrote something like this, and more than one Updike fan said I shouldn’t judge the Rabbit foursome on the basis of the first two, but must read the third volume, Rabbit is Rich. I’ve now read it and completely agree that this is the best one so far, much better than Rabbit Run or the confused Rabbit Redux. I now understand some of the enthusiasm many feel for the Rabbit series, and I am also starting to see how enjoyable it is to follow a single set of characters — a family, an ever-shifting gang of friends, a very funny son who keeps crashing cars into things — over the course of several decades. This is probably the best thing about the Rabbit books. (However, Too Far To Go does the same thing, though not to the same length.)

As for Rabbit is Rich itself, the voice here has mellowed as the character has matured. Middle-age suits Rabbit well, as it suited Updike well. I loved the scenes with the gold and the silver, and I was amused near the end to discover that the book’s final sequence is a return to Updike’s most classic literary motif — the “swapping party” — the same motif that animated Couples, Marry Me and so many other Updike books, that Rick Moody parodied brilliantly in The Ice Storm, that eventually led to a mediocre TV series called “Swingtown”. That screwy Rabbit, after all these years …

I guess I’ll even read Rabbit At Rest … what the hell, I’ve come this far. These are good books. They’re just not John Updike’s masterpiece.

12 Responses

  1. “but ultimately there is
    “but ultimately there is always the sense that Updike is studying this Suburban Man, this Joe the Plumber, as a social prototype.”

    We’ll never know with certainty, but odds are you’re on to something here: Updike once referred in an interview to Rabbit Angstrom as “an interesting specimen”.

  2. After Updike passed away I
    After Updike passed away I read a blurb you wrote about him…. took your cue and dove into “Gertude and Claudius”. Having never read him before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After getting through the firs pages, paragraphs really, I knew I’d become close to his writing…..

    Secondly picked up a collection of his earlier short stories and while I didn’t love the stories as much, I still felt close to his voice….

  3. Updike was an intellectual
    Updike was an intellectual snob who looked down on the common man as only a person from humble origins can (Kathleen Battle comes to mind). Of course the Rabbit books are impersonations, but he is at the same time studying his subject in the same way a primate researcher studies chimpanzees: Interesting, but beneath me, of course.

    What is perhaps not as obvious is that Updike is also looking down on Bech, who is also a ‘type’ – the New York Jewish Literary Writer.

    Unlike most, apparently, I liked (but didn’t love or reread) the Rabbit and Bech books and find his other work unreadable.

  4. I haven’t been hearing too
    I haven’t been hearing too much about “A & P,” the short story that got me into Updike. Maybe that’s because the story is anthologized in every other short story anthology, but isn’t that more the reason to mention it? Any who, I’d say “A & P” is a good starting point.

  5. You mailed it. To my mind,
    You mailed it. To my mind, the best Updike is “Gertrude and Claudius”, “Too Far to Go”, and all of his short stories. He wrote a lot of other novels I couldn’t appreciate. To my mind, one of the worst was Rabbit Redux, the second of the Rabbit novels. After that, I did not read the last two Rabbit novels.

  6. Thanks for feedback, peeps.
    Thanks for feedback, peeps. Elizabeth, I haven’t read “Centaur” yet but will take your suggestion and try it next. Plato_Dude, when I mentioned early short stories I actually had “A & P” in mind, love that one …

  7. “The Centaur” is a strange
    “The Centaur” is a strange book. Maybe I love it so much because I discovered it in high school. On the other hand, I sat down with it the other day just to read the first few pages and could hardly put it down. I’ll look forward to hearing your opinion.

  8. I’d tell someone to start
    I’d tell someone to start with “Couples” too, though I liked the last two Rabbit books a lot. I think “Pigeon Feathers” and “Too Far to Go,” too, but then I usually prefer stories to novels.

  9. Absolutely — there’s a
    Absolutely — there’s a tendency to believe that a writer’s longest work must be his or her masterpiece. Not so. But Couples?? I remember it as a swampy and tedious tale of adultery — almost a self-parody. I’d recommend Pigeon Feathers, Too Far to Go, The Coup (never mentioned, very good), and Bech: A Book.

  10. Lot of baloney really. The
    Lot of baloney really. The first Updike book I read was Rabbit, Run, at 16; found it alone on a shelf. You may find the language stubby, but it’s a dead ringer for that part of PA, where I grew up, and it was a dead ringer when I read it 30 years after the time of the story’s setting.

    His other stuff is good — well, some of it is — and the early stuff tends to be prettier, but he knew Rabbit and Rabbit’s time and place inside and out, and it showed, esp. in the first two books. That’s what makes them strong. Rabbit’s no experiment, and neither are the rest of the family — Janice, her mother, Harry’s parents and sister, the various priests and coaches and the rest. There’s no impersonation going on there. That’s just how it was.

    Archie lived about three hours north and east, really not the same place at all, or even same kind of place at the time. Brewer is a stand-in for Reading, PA, and Reading at that time was still quite far, culturally, from NY. Janice’s mother is the pole there with her PA Dutch. Which Updike nailed, incidentally. Bad legs and black views and all.

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