Literary Review of Rabbit Run by John Updike
John Updike's novel, Rabbit, Run, is about a man named Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Rabbit is a brainless guy whose career as a high school basketball star peaked at age 18. In his wife's view, he was, before their early, hasty marriage, already drifting downhill.
We meet him for the first time in this novel, when he is 22, and a salesman in the local department store. Married to the second best sweetheart of his high school years, he is the father of a preschool son and husband to an alcoholic wife. We are at ground zero watching Rabbit struggle with aging, religion, sexuality (particularly sexuality), nature, and the trade-offs between freedom and attachment, and rebellion and conformity. In witnessing Rabbit wrestle with these big issues in his blundering, but persistent, way, we come to understand the commonality of the human experience.
Reading Updike's sentences is a breathtaking experience. He has a rare ability to transpose ordinary experiences into rarefied grounds without falsely heightening experiences themselves. Each sentence, each event in the novel is carefully considered and calibrated, so that no sentence or description seems wasteful. The technical facility of Updike is truly something to marvel at, even surpassing the lyricism of Cheever. The way he writes about sex, adultery and guilt in this book is unparalleled in 20th century American fiction, and I haven't seen any other writer come close.
Taken as an individual novel, however, it fails to rise to the status of a 'great american novel.' Although the writing is unsurpassingly beautiful, the plot is a bit thin, and ideas it expresses, commonplace. Minus the prose, the story tracks the wanderlust and guilt of Harry Angstrom, a man who still wants to hold on to his glorious boyhood, and seeks to escape his oncoming adulthood and life of ordinariness. It's a well-traveled premise for a novel, but executed and polished to a hilt.
As we see Rabbit Angstrom struggle to keep apace with his given life, we are meant to see the social milieu that he lives in. Readers do get an acute sense of time and place, but what of it? Not that all fiction should strive for the Meaning of Life, but the feeling you get after reading 'Rabbit, Run' is that of caffeine rush which you know will fade. And it does.
I don't mean to slight Updike's legacy - he is one of the best writers we have in the States. And read as a tetralogy, the Rabbit books do encapsulate four decades of Americana with a sprawling and lyrical sweep. It truly is an accomplishment. As an individual novel, 'Rabbit, Run' is emotionally involving and a hell of a good read. But it moves us tantalizingly close to showing us what literary greatness is, then ultimately leaves us short.
Has life ever seemed to much for you? Do you sometimes just want get away from it all? Well, here is a man that does it all for you, Mr. Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. He is the man for...