So far, I have not hated any book on The List as much as I hated Rabbit, Run. Runners up include The Grapes of Wrath and Things Fall Apart—but even they fell short of provoking the kind of thorough and profound hatred I feel for this unintentional horror story.
Here’s a sneak peek at John Updike’s most famous novel, featuring Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom in the role of Dude. It’s filled with spoilers, which should save you the trouble of actually reading the book:
- Dude quits his pregnant wife, Janice, and two-year-old son, for the same reason he quits smoking: just because he felt like it.
- Dude tries to cope with the fact that he peaked in high school as the star of the basketball team.
- Dude solicits sometimes-prostitute/soon-to-be-girlfriend Ruth and whines about using contraception.
- Dude spends Ruth’s money.
- Dude hits on minister’s wife.
- Dude interrogates Ruth about her sexual history and, upon discovering she once gave an ex-boyfriend a blow job, demands one for himself.
- Dude leaves Ruth (now also pregnant) and goes back to his wife, just in time for her to give birth.
- Dude tries to ply Janice, a former alcoholic, with whisky so that she’ll sleep with him.
- When she doesn’t—mostly because she just had an episiotomy, gave birth, and put up with Dude’s abandonment—Dude gets mad and leaves.
- Janice starts drinking, hits their two-year-old, and accidentally drowns their infant.
- FINALLY feeling some remorse does not stop Dude from loudly accusing his wife of murdering their baby at the burial service.
- Dude goes back to Ruth, who threatens to get an abortion if he doesn’t divorce Janice and marry her instead.
- Dude agrees, then walks out “to the deli”… and breaks into a run.
Most of my animosity probably stems from finding this entire plot personally offensive, but even that could be saved by exceptionally beautiful writing. The Great Gatsby is a gorgeous book about marital infidelity. So is Anna Karenina. The Golden Notebook shares several perverse themes with Rabbit, Run, as well as its bleak perspective—but I loved reading it. Dean Moriarty in On the Road walks out on multiple families and still manages to be a sympathetic character.
But for me, Updike’s style was no redemption. I am not one of those critics who will recognize his exhaustive genius just before I delicately call his more troublesome themes into question. I hated his writing style on top of hating everything else.
I didn’t even get the impression that he tried to write a good book—not even once, not at any turn of this inane plot line. But hey, if you like over-the-top descriptive language, tedious interior monologues, and zero character development, Updike might be just your size.
Maybe I’m conflating writing about a character like Rabbit with glorifying a character like Rabbit. Maybe I’m annoyed that Updike received near-unanimous praise for his work (Updike won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice—one of only three authors ever to do so—for his 1982 and 1990 Rabbit, Run sequels), while writers like Jane Austen and Zora Neale Hurston were and still are frequently dismissed. Maybe I’m vexed at being given one predominant perspective on Rabbit (his own), and it being a subhuman one. Because surely he is not quite human, this “realist” character creation of Updike’s tepid imagination?
For the record, I enjoy realist work and support Updike’s intention to “give the mundane its beautiful due.” What bothers me, then, perhaps, is the idea that a character as reprehensible as Rabbit Angstrom is realistic. (Homer Simpson, for his part, is at least satirical.) I give men, and people in general, more credit than Updike does. I believe men can feel compassion and empathy and guilt. I believe their motivations lie, sometimes, outside of self-interest. I believe they’re not pathetic, childish tantrum-throwers. I believe that, somewhere in America’s suburbs, there live men who don’t rely on their own blissful ignorance to be “let off the hook” of life.
I don’t expect every author to share my values or my point of view, but I reserve the right to hate his book if it violates my own personhood. I read Rabbit, Run as quickly as possible, because every passage left me fuming. There has been a mere 48-hour span between finishing the book and posting this review (a new record, and then some; I’m usually, er, two years behind)—all because I never want to think about Updike, and the words that came out of his fingers, ever again.
Let’s get started, shall we?
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
Rabbit, Run is the literary equivalent of a long, loud belch. And I, for one, would like to pretend it never happened.
NONE. NONE FAVORITE QUOTES.
Instead, let’s look at some of my least favorite quotes:
The ball wobbles up and with a glottal rattle bobbles in.
Ugh, it’s called EDITING, Updike.
Words come from this monumental Ruth in the same scale, as massive wheels rolling to the porches of his ears, as mute coins spinning in the light.
THIS IS DUMB.
His sea of seed buckles, and sobs into a still channel.
But it is just two lovers, holding hands and in a hurry to reach their car, their locked hands a starfish leaping through the dark.