RABBIT, RUN by John Updike (Penguin Books, First published, 1971)
Powerful works of fiction are not dependent on the nobility or likability of the characters.
Two of my favorite fictional creationd are Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov from Crime And Punishment and Mervyn Peake’s Steerpike from the Gormenghast trilogy. Each are prime examples of men behaving badly motivated by a bitter and twisted ambition. Their ruthless and murderous actions are deplorable but they are both fascinatingly complex characters.
Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom is in a wholly different kettle of fish. There is nothing endearing about him and the very banality of his failings mean that he barely qualifies as an anti-hero. He is not a killer, nor does he crave power but his selfishness, random lustfulness and frustration are ugly traits that infect the lives around him.
A one time basketball star, he is unable to come to terms with a humdrum life with a dead-end job and a dismal marriage. He wants out but has nowhere to run.
Updike’s cynical depiction of the human condition is so absolute that we are pitched into the mire of Rabbit’s squallid affairs without a moral compass. We are not required to condone or condemn his actions nor to sympathize when he hits rock bottom to the point that : “He feels underwater, caught in chains of transparent slime, ghosts of the urgent ejaculations he has spat into the mild bodies of women”.
This brutal description of the sex act tells us a lot about what makes ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom run. He lusts after women but is driven more by an instinctive need for control and possession than any genuine desire. Although he professes to be a Christian, there is nothing sacred or precious about the way he perceives the act of procreation; a new life is brought into being by his “brainlessly sown seed”.
This is a man who regards women merely as repositories for his ‘seed’; a brutal truth made plain when he is in bed with his wife, who has recently given birth to a second child. She cannot meet his demand for intercourse but he seeks relief anyway: “all he wants is to get rid of it so he can move on, on into sleep”.
Although, Updike paints a bleak portrait of human nature, he is not without compassion. The powerful soliloquies of the female characters, which owe an obvious debt to James Joyce, give us a real insight into their fears and anxieties.
In one remarkable 14 page section, he describes with ruthless accuracy the desperation of Janice, Angstrom’s wife, after he leaves her for a second time. She consoles herself with drink while desperately trying to care for her two young children and her failure to keep body and soul togther has terrible consequences.
If you are looking for an uplifting read then this is a novel best avoided. All Updike’s characters, male and female, are portrayed as vulnerable, weak-willed and self-absorbed.
Its strength and integrity lies in the neutrality of the author’s perspective on these sad lives. As Updike warns in his afterword: “Readers who expect novelists to reward and punish and satirize their characters from a superior standpoint will be disappointed”.