Rabbits are stupid creatures. They’re grazers, chewing on pasture; their huge eyes scan the sky for danger (just about any predator is bigger than them and far more imposing). They run fast but not far, dashing away when threatened yet incapable of aiming at any lasting end: they don’t roam far. Rabbits don’t just run; they breed incessantly, fucking furiously is their path to immortality. Maybe it’s this oblivious helplessness, the gentle hedonism, that makes them so appealing. Maybe it’s that they’re just puffs of white fur with cute ears. Either way, they’re just so darn cute and we can’t help but love them.
The rabbit is a rather unheroic beast, yet that’s the spirit animal John Updike chose for Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the main character of Rabbit, Run. Harry was once a high school basketball star. He set his school’s scoring record as a junior and then broke it again as a senior. It took four years for someone else to break it in turn. Now (as of 1960 in Rabbit, Run) he’s a twenty-five year old father of one and husband to a pregnant wife. He’s a salesman of the Magi-Peeler kitchen appliance. He’s also basically a rabbit.
Ok, not really. This isn’t Watership Down (or Redwall: funny, the continued anthropomorphism of rodents in fiction). Harry’s just a person with strangely-rabbit like qualities. Updike revels in the sheer wit ofmatching Harry’s characteristics to his rodent namesake’s special traits, delighting in rabbit-like mannerisms (“Now, Harry, don’t wrinkle your nose.”) as well as his rabbit’s soul. Harry, you see, shares all of those qualities I wrote about above. He’s obsessed with sex; he instinctively runs from adversity. He shares the rabbit’s wide-eyed appreciation of nature, is a grazer rather than a predator, his inner gaze somehow always half-turned towards the sky, towards finding the deeper meaning in the brutal ordinariness of life around him. He’s a sensitive creature but not a strong or imaginative one. When he feels the oppressive ordinariness hemming him in, the only thing he can think to do is run away. Ignorant of destination, he never wanders far. He’s a domestic animal at heart.
Rabbit’s qualities are, in many ways, his author’s. Updike was a tremendous success at a young age: valedictorian and president of his high school class, full scholarship to Harvard, President of the Lampoon, writer for The New Yorker, graduate of Oxford, published author of an award-winning first novel, The Poorhouse Fair. All of this (as well as a published book of stories and another of poetry), before the age of 28, when he wrote Rabbit, Run, one of the great American novels. In a field where greats like Bellow, DeLillo, Franzen, and McCarthy found their first success around the age of forty or later, it’s hard to think of another writer who shared Updike’s prodigious path.
The parallels between author and character go deeper. Like Rabbit, Updike is obsessed with sex; few writers give it so much loving attention and embed its appeal so regularly and deeply into their stories. Updike too is an irrepressible observer of the world around him: totally unable to look away, he marvels at momentary experience with almost sacramental attention. Like Rabbit and unlike most of his novelist contemporaries, Updike believes in God. Unlike Rabbit, though, there’s not really any part of Updike caught up in the clouds, searching for meaning. His gaze stays level and calm, his eyes, kind but sad, focused entirely on the world before him. Though God is an important part of the novel, the bare shadow of his presence is glimpsed only in the cracks of daily life, majestic and terrible even when hidden. He’s a Father and predator all at once; He brings us into life only to extinguish us from it. To Updike, beauty is not heavenly, but merely earthbound. What we see is all we have, so we must look harder.
This perspective fits Updike’s talents. His brilliance as a prose stylist illuminates the very concept of good writing as a form of sculpture. The blank page an unformed rock, one lathes away with words at its empty possibility. These words create the form the sculpture is to take: if they are only close to right, its visage will be hazy and unformed – a cloudy imitation of life. Pick those words more perfectly and you shape exact features. Spark the perfect phrase and for a moment you can imbue your dead rock with the fires of life. Rabbit Angstrom feels very lifelike, warm if not fiery.
Few writers so precisely recount the momentary experience of life as John Updike. Take a moment with this depiction of sex, an example which I pulled from the book essentially at random:
“Her thighs throw open wide and clamp his sides and throw open again so wide it frightens him, she wants, impossible, to turn inside out; the muscles and lips and bones of her expanded underside press against him as a new anatomy, of another animal. She feels transparent; he sees her heart. She suspends him, subsides, and in the folds of her withering his love and pride revive. So she is first, and waits for him while at a trembling extremity of tenderness he traces again and again the arc of her eyebrow with his thumb. his sea of seed buckles, and sobs into a still channel. At each shudder her mouth smiles in his and her legs, locked at his back, bear down.
She asks, in time ‘OK?’
That scene wouldn’t work nearly as well on a movie screen. Our eyes can provide us a certain quantum of empathy, but it’s the internal monologue that captures from the inside. How could any picture paint the buckle and sob that Updike describes? We know others by watching, but we think ourselves into being, feeling out the surface of experience with words. Images on a screen shuttle at inexorable pace, but writing can stop and start at will, can linger for pages on a breath here, skip forward through a year there. Writing draws our attentions more precisely than cinema can ever achieve. Updike is a master at this. He does so with such consistent aplomb that we miss each perfectly painted moment in the stream of his neverending virtuosity. Distract yourself towards Updike’s themes, towards what happens next, and you’ll miss the moment Updike’s brought into the world, painstakingly, from words. The keen, patient observation of these moments one-after-another is the essence of Updike’s quiet genius.
Updike’s focus on being present, on settling in to experience, contrasts with Rabbit’s timid instinct to dash away from the burdened reality of life. Rabbit runs from his obligations, from his troubles, from any life that seems too shoddily permanent. Updike himself is a stoic establishmentarian; he’s described Rabbit, Run as his response to the Beat Generation and On the Road. Rabbit’s pained, pathetic, journey is what Updike thinks happens to the young men who try and set out for the open trail: fast driving leaves wreckage behind and only a blank horizon ahead. There is little freedom in Updike’s universe — it’s cost is great, its value not so much. Updike’s moral message is the same as his aesthetic one: stay in one place; be present; stick with the people around you, the life you’ve built.
Yet despite Updike’s quiet condemnation of what Rabbit represents, he has real affection for his protagonist, an affection he gifts to the reader. Perhaps part of this comes from Updike’s subtle condescension; he’s smarter than Rabbit, and he can’t help but make the reader feel ever-so-slightly superior as well. Updike’s superiority registers, though, as fondness rather than contempt. He finds delight in watching Rabbit up close, the way one might feel about a precocious child. There’s additionally an appealing quality to Rabbit that the other characters in the book find hard to describe, an American optimism, perhaps. He can be cruel when frustrated, but he always apologizes; he means to do better. Rabbit expects much from the world and he begrudges it only for not giving him more.
I think some readers also begrudge Updike for not giving more, for not being greater than he is. John Updike is a master of expression, his writing clean and pure enough to say exactly what he wanted said. What is less clear is whether he has a similar capacity for empathy and understanding, whether his creations ring psychologically true as people rather than just as Updike characters. In the negative view, Updike’s facility with the moment obscures his infelicity with motivation. There are certainly grounds for thinking this: the easy way Rabbit is accepted back into his old life, the incredible persistence of his worst traits at times that strain credulity. Just like Rabbit’s high school stardom left him unprepared as an adult for strife, Updike’s dazzling talent might have sheltered him from an adversity that could have deepened his own work.
But perhaps this is just unfair skepticism. Who cares if Updike’s writing hides his characters’ flaws? How, after all, are we to judge fiction? To read a novel with a skeptical background voice on your shoulder asking “is this realistic? Is it good?” is clinical, not critical: you miss out on the magic of the work. I’ve prevaricated on the question of whether I think Updike’s characters are realistic because I don’t really know. He was too good a writer; I was too caught up in the story to really tell. Sometimes we read to see into the mind of the character on the page, and perhaps Updike does not provide that truly, but if Rabbit, Run only tells us about John Updike, the gorgeous expression of his perspective, right or wrong, that’s not really so bad, is it? What more, after all, can we ask?