Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Summer Reading Update

We’re closing in on Labor Day, and while it’s not the official end of summer, it always marks the close of the season for me. Usually I read more in the summer than at any other time of the year, but this summer has felt so topsy-turvy, I find myself unable to concentrate even when I feel like reading. Sadly, I haven’t even managed to get through the last two books for my real-life book club, and I’m only a little more than halfway through Rabbit Redux. That’s only one-and-a-half Rabbit novels, when I was supposed to have them all read by now…Oh well. The best laid plans and all that.

Back in July when my computer came unplugged and I lost my entire post about Rabbit, Run, I’d planned a follow-up and never got around to it. So, as lame as I feel for not being further down my reading list, I thought I’d go ahead and tell you about Rabbit, Run.

Months ago, when all the hoopla started about The New York Times list of best American fiction of the past 25 years (well, to me it was a lot of hoopla--for some this event may have passed unnoticed), I got the idea to read all of John Updike's Rabbit novels. Michael Cunningham, one on a long, impressive list of talented writers who judged this little "contest," merely mentioned how these books had influenced his own writing, and I knew I had to read them right away. Updike was one of three writers on the list whose books I hadn't read (the other two being Mark Helprin and Norman Rush...and while I haven't read every book on the list, I've read at least one book by all the other authors); I'd only read his short stories in The New Yorker.

I'd tried to read Rabbit, Run many years ago, but having gone through a strange break-up of sorts, I couldn't stay with it. Harry Angstrom reminded me too much of the guy I was working to get over, and so I gave up after about 60 pages. I doubt on my first run (no pun intended) that I even noticed Updike's amazing prose, his unbelievable genius at the sentence level. Take this for instance: "The fair young man with his throat manacled in white lets his car glide diagonally against the curb, yanks on the handbrake, and shuts off the motor, thus parking on the wrong side of the street, cockeyed. Funny how ministers ignore small laws." Or this: "The thing about her is, she's good-natured. He knew it the second he saw her standing by the parking meters. He could just tell from the way her thighs made a lap." Or: "The road twists more and more wildly in its struggle to gain height and then without warning sheds its skin of asphalt and worms on in dirt."

The other remarkable thing about this book is how easily we’re (using the audience “we”) lured into seeing everything through Rabbit’s eyes. Here’s a man who has quit his wife and small child—simply walked out the door one evening and decided never to return—and you actually find yourself identifying with him, hoping he escapes, that he makes it out. Rabbit is not remarkable in any way, but he’s charismatic. Think of someone you know who infuriates you but whom you can’t stay mad at for any serious period of time. Even at the end, when he seems to turn his life around and returns to his wife, you keep hoping he’ll escape again.

Ultimately, he’s charismatic but not entirely likable, as I’m finding in Rabbit Redux. In the second book, much of what happens is temporal, in the sense that it very much reflects competing attitudes about gender, race and war that were prevalent at the time. While it’s interesting and relevant to the story, it feels more dated, where the first novel in the series feels more timeless. But both novels are examples of remarkable prose and character development, and I have to say that I’ve read Beloved, the novel that took the top place, and although that’s a significant book in many ways, I think Rabbit, Run is a better book. Beloved can be cold and a bit tricky, and many people have said (and I agree) that it’s a distant and cerebral novel, where something more emotional may have had more resonance.
I think with Rabbit, Run, anyone could imagine that need to escape sometimes, to wake up one morning and walk out into bright clean light and want to make a break for it, start over, leave everything behind. In so many ways, that’s the ultimate American experience, to leave what you know and move into hardship and adventure. Think of the people who moved West. And today, people constantly remake their identities. I wonder sometimes if we haven’t become more materialistic as a society because we feel we no longer have the physical ability to light out and discover. You go to school, you get a job, you buy a house…We claim to desire stability, but when we’re standing still, perhaps we find we need something else, something more, and if we can’t move, we get a new haircut or a new shirt or a new church, anything to make us feel as though something has changed.

I’ll continue though all four books because I can’t wait to see what happens, and I can’t stay away from Updike’s prose for too long. Part of the reason it’s taken me so long to get through Rabbit Redux (apart from the topsy-turvy summer and the Sex and the City box set I got for my birthday) is that I keep going back and rereading parts of Rabbit, Run. Even as it stands alone, it’s one of the finest books I’ve read. I’ll be back eventually with my final impressions of the other four. In the meantime, stop and smell the perfume!

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