Monday, June 25, 2012

He liked her best when she was unconscious

A few weeks ago, Terry Gross reprised some interviews she'd had with John Updike, in celebration of the 80th birthday of the author, who died in 2009. He was very, very funny, and it made me think of my senior AP English class where we read -- in 1974 -- Rabbit, Run.  At 17, I absolutely hated this book -- it totally riled all my naive and unformed feminism -- but nearly 40 (eek!) years later, I find myself utterly bewildered what my teacher -- a woman I liked and admired -- could have possibly thought we'd get out of a book about a man who has found that nothing about his adult life measures up against the freedom and success he knew in high school.  We could not wait to shake the dust of high school from our platform shoes.  What do you mean it gets no better than this?

So, reader, I fired up the Interlibrary Loan machine (thank you Aurora Public Library), and obtained an audio copy.  Not the revelation I thought it would be -- have I not changed much? -- but at least I understood Rabbit a little better.  I still don't like him, but it's hard to like anyone in this novel so at least he has company.

Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is 26 years old.  When we meet him, he is revisiting his youthful (and he is so very old) self as he horns in on a bunch of teenagers playing pick-up basketball.  He lives with his wife, Janice, and their toddler son (conceived before their marriage) in semi-domestic squalor in fictional Mount Judge, Pennsylvania.  Janice is expecting a second child, but can't seem to muster the energy to do anything except drink heavily and watch television.  Rabbit, who declined to work for his used-car-salesman father-in-law, demonstrates a vegetable peeler at the local department store.  But coming home after the game, he finds Janice barely sober and is sent off to pick up their son (at his parents' house) and his car (at her parents'); instead he gets in the car and just drives away, getting all the way to West Virginia before turning around and heading home.

He calls up his old basketball coach, Mr. Tothero, in the hopes of a place to sleep.  Tothero encourages him to come on a double date with his questionable girlfriend and her equally questionable friend, Ruth Leonard.  In the course of the evening, Ruth tells Rabbit she's having a little trouble making the rent and Rabbit gives her some money.  She takes him back to her apartment where they have sex, although Rabbit insists that no birth control be used.  He lives there with Ruth for the next few months, despite ongoing counseling (in the form of golf games) from Janice's family's priest, Jack Eccles.  But when Eccles tells him that Janice is having the baby, Rabbit returns to her -- not knowing that Ruth is now pregnant as well (duh!) -- setting in motion the novel's final, tragic actions.

So maybe Mrs. McCarthy had us read this because she wanted us to appreciate the inventively descriptive language Updike uses.  It's extremely vivid and is actually quite pleasurable to listen to since you have no trouble mustering up the images so lyrically described here. A couple striding out of a West Virginia diner, or a rhododendron garden lovingly preserved by an elderly widow, or a coffin being lowered into a grave.

Unfortunately, this descriptive language extends to the characters who populate this novel -- Updike spares no one in his exposés of their flawed bodies, their ugly clothing, the mostly unhappy expressions on their faces.  Every time he would describe a woman, he was utterly cruel in his appraisal.  Call me oversensitive, but did he have to keep harping on thighs, lines and the nastiness in their voices (mostly when they were challenging Rabbit on one bit of behavior or another)?  And when they didn't want to have sex, ooh boy ... this really sent Rabbit into paroxysms of plaintive self-pity.  The icing on the cake was my post's title, something Rabbit thinks towards the end of the novel as he looks down at his sleeping wife, but I think I'm safe in saying that he feels that way about most women.

But what does all that fancy language add up to? Fancy language for the sake of literariness, or does it give me deeper insight into the drama unfolding in Rabbit Angstrom's life?  To me, it felt like two different novels -- the story of the self-absorbed manchild whose reprehensible response to problems is to run away and the vivid depiction of an insular middle class community who -- for some reason -- wish to save Rabbit from himself.  Yes, it's incisive social commentary on post-war manhood facing the upheavals to come, but he's so unappealing to my female brain (both teen- and middle-aged) that I just don't care.  Few books are a waste of time, but the only reason I'm glad I read this is to say I have.

Arthur Morey reads the book.  I've heard him read just once before and it was a book that totally stayed with me (I actually listened to it twice).  He's a subtle narrator, there's not a lot of drama in his reading and he lingers over Updike's mellifluous prose to make sure we hear every word.  As a listener, I felt confident that Morey was going to see me through this annoying novel, so I was content to keep listening.  When Rabbit, Run inevitably hurtles towards tragedy, there was palpable tension as he set that scene.   He makes an interesting choice in voicing Rabbit -- his register is quite high for a male character (and often seems higher than the women he is conversing with) and it's edged with panic, even when Rabbit is at his most cocky.

I wonder what else is worth revisiting from high school and college reading.  Huck Finn?  I should (but I've never heard of any of these narrators!)  The Water-Method Man? Another book I hadn't a prayer of understanding when I read it, but I'm pretty sure there's better John Irving out there. The odd 19th century novel, Coningsby? There's always Middlemarch (31 hours).

[I'm sure that the 1955 Ford in which Rabbit makes his initial escape didn't look as nice as this Fairlane taken by Lars-Göran Lindgren and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Narrated by Arthur Morey
Books on Tape, 2008.  12:06

1 comment:

Jen (Devourer of Books) said...

Huh. So, guess I won't be rushing to read Updike anytime soon.