Monday, March 28, 2011

Rabbit Tetralogy - John Updike - A Life In Words

Last week I was reading an article by John Updike and was struck (as usual) by the simplicity and lucidness of his prose. That got me thinking about his works that I have read and the result is this post on the Rabbit series of novels. The Rabbit tetralogy is a series of 4 novels written by John Updike, tracing the life of 'Harry Rabbit Angstrom',  from his mid 20's to the next 4 decades. The novels were also written over a period of 4 decades with one novel being published in one decade starting from 1960. Updike has been one of the foremost exponents in describing the small town American middle class and his concerns are those of the average middle class American, his marital life, affairs, moving into middle age and coping with it, the final descent into old age. Though there would be disagreements on what his best work was, the Rabbit series consist of, by far his most famous books. Rather than referring one book, it would be better to give information on the whole series so that it offers a clearer view to a prospective reader. So it's going to be a big post.

Rabbit Run  (1960) - This is the first novel in the series. As the novel starts, we encounter Harry (Rabbit), who is in his mid twenties, married  with a pregnant wife (Janice). He already has a son Nelson. He has been a high school basket ball star, but that is all in the past and his 15 minutes of fame has been used up. Now he is a normal, one among many person trying to make ends meet. He sees a some kids playing basket ball and something snaps in him. He leaves his family and town and start driving aimlessly. He changes his mind and meets his old coach. While with him, he meets 'Ruth' a hooker and starts living with her. Janice meanwhile goes to her parents place.  A church minister tries to reconcile Harry to live with his family, but has no success. Later Harry returns home, after his wife gives birth to a girl child. He pressurizes Janice to have sex with her, but she refuses. Harry leaves again to see Ruth. Meanwhile Janice gets drunk due to the fight and their new born daughter drowns. Rabbit returns for the funeral and again loses control and runs into the woods. Returns (again) to Ruth, learns that she is pregnant by him. But he does not take the step to leave Janice, nor is he willing to live with Ruth. Rabbit runs again for the last time (in this novel) and the novel ends here. 
As can be seen from the above lines, Rabbit is always on the run from thing or the other. He seems to be basically a loser, a wimp one who cannot face situations and runs aways from it not thinking about the consequences. So what makes this character and the whole series compelling to continue with the other novels. For once the prose, the exquisite prose of Updike. Updike is referred to as America's man of letters and deservedly so. His preoccupation is with the mundane and everyday life is so rich in its prose and imagery that you cannot help be sucked into it. (He can be too flowery at times). And as the series proceeds, the reader can see the characters evolving so that what you finally see are 3 dimensional characters who have their own smooth and rough edges. The first few pages of this novel where Updike describes a small American town is incredible, there is no description of the people, just the landscapes, buildings, the woods are so evocative that you feel a connect with the story immediately.

Rabbit Redux (1971)- This is the second novel in the series. Harry is his 30's now, approaching middle age and stuck in staid matrimony and job. Janice who was pretty much a minor character in the first part is much evolved here. She is now working in her father's office. She has an affair with her co-worker and leaves him. Rabbit, true to form indulges in his own way of coping with it, but shacking with a afro-american veteran of the Vietnam war (Skeeter) and Jill a runaway white girl. They stay together, with Nelson who is now a young boy. Harry does not seem to care for the impact his lifestyle could have on Nelson (comes in the next novels). They live a decadent sort of life style, debating about race (60's were the period of Martin Luther King, race riots in America), doing drugs without a care. During one such orgy a fire breaks out killing Jill. There is no news of Skeeter. Finally at the end, Harry starts to live with Janice again. The novel ends here. 
One could ask again what is so good about this part of the novel too. Adultery, a decadent life style, so what's there for the reader. Rabbit too does not seem to be a much better person, so why continue with the series. Well, for one, well defined morally right characters is not a pre-requisite for good literature (where would Madame Bovary be if this rule is applied). The other thing is, the detailing that Updike invests in these characters, in their actions which show another light to them. Lets consider what happens when Rabbit comes to know of his wife's affair. There has been some rumors, but he has not thought much of it. When Janice accepts it, what happens? No angry arguments, tears or blame game. He slaps her and they have sex. Nothing erotic in it, just 2 persons probably for whom the tension they have been under the past weeks or months is now over, since the truth is out and sex is just an outlet for the emotions coming out due to it. It is moments like these that elevate the novel. 
The first 2 parts in the series are probably the best in my personal opinion. But the next 2 were the ones that were awarded the Pulitzer prize. Well, there is no accounting for taste right :). BTW, I think Updike is the only person to have got 2 Pulitzers for fiction. (Not 100% sure)

Rabbit is Rich (1981) - Rabbit is rich, well not quite so. Janice has inherited her father's Automobile dealer ship and is now a more mature and confident person. She has also got into drinking habit which worries Harry. Nelson is now grown up and is having his own problems. (It is implied these could be due to what he saw and experienced as a kid, as mentioned in the first a parts). Harry is becoming conscious of middle age and of losing his libido. Rabbit and Janice go to a resort with 3 other couples and indulge in wife swapping. Here too, Updike does not do anything for titillation, but mirrors the sexual freedom that came into being in the 60's and 70's overriding the moral pores of the previous decades. It also serves as attempts by Rabbit to reassert his libido and his desirability to women. We see a man who has come to a position where is well to do (thought it is his wife who owns the dealership), but still not satisfied with what he has, worrying about falling into the morass of middle age. He starts thinking about Ruth (from the first part) and wonders about what happened to her and the kid. Nothing actually gets resolved in this part and personally seems to be the set up for the final part. Updike's prose though is as good as ever and incisive in decoding the mind of the various characters. Rabbit's relation with Ronnie, a former school basket ball classmate comes into focus here. Ronnie is a minor character in the first part, but here he has also done well in life and is part of the circle the Harry moves in. Harry has always been the star the basket team and Ronnie resents him for that and that is understandable. But Harry too seems to have a grouse against him, no more than a grouse, it could be a sneaky feeling that maybe Ronnie was the better player. Harry has an affair with Ronnie's wife, though it is not something he actually wants. (He desires a much younger wife of a person, who is also his club member and is unhappy when he does not get her during the wife swapping).

Rabbit At Rest - 1990
Harry is old, overweight and perennially gloomy. Nelson has married Pru, but has got into drug addiction and substance abuse. Rabbit spends a lot of time with his wife at Florida, with Nelson running the business. But Nelson goofs up due to his addictions and the dealership is lost. This affects Harry more. He has a heart attack. While at hospital,  Rabbit meets a woman who he thinks could be his daughter from Ruth. He travels to the place where the woman lives thinking of meeting her and Ruth, but true to his character, leaves the place without facing up to the facts. He never knows if she was indeed her daughter. This is probably the best part of the novel comes, Harry's thoughts on the woman, his indecision on whether to go to her home, and finally running away from the confrontation. Another poignant moment is the funeral of Ronnie's wife, where Ronnie confronts Harry about having an affair with his wife. At the end, both of them form some sort of reconciliation, not out of affection or respect, but maybe due to the fact that death is a great leveler and beyond that there is no worth in recriminations or ages hold misunderstandings. It is a symbol of the old age they are into where most things that seemed important earlier seem trivial now.  But then Harry goofs up again. In an act of insanity, he has a one night stand with Nelson's wife Pru. Janice and Nelson come to know about it. Harry runs again (for the last time) to Florida. There, in a cyclical turn of events he plays a one-on-one basket ball game with a young man and suffers a heart attack. He is admitted to the hospital where Janice and Nelson see him. The cycle has come full. 

It has always been interesting to me that Updike wrote this novel over 4 decades, so that, while the characters aged, the author too aged. Now, how would the novel have been if it had been say, written as a single volume covering the same period of 40 years. For one, it would need to have been set in the 20s and end in 50s. Updike could not have surely incorporated in each part the essence of the decade that it represents first hand (race relations in the 60's, more sexual freedom in the 70's). Would it have been better it had been written as a single volume or does the changes and evolution in perspective that the author (or anyone for that matter) undergoes enhances what he writes. But whatever the case, this is one heck of a series and best read together. Reading one at a time, would not do justice to its content. However, if you are new to Updike and wary of getting into 4 books of an author upfront, you could start of with this short stories to get an idea of his works, themes and concerns. If you have already some of his works and like them, this series is for you. 
P.S - The novels are available as a single omnibus collection (at least the first 3 are), so buying them like that makes sense both monetarily as well as lessens the hassle of having 4 different books, so if you plan to buy this series go for the omnibus edition.


  1. He kneels to comply. Annoyed at such ready compliance, which implies pleasure, she stiffens her feet and kicks so her toenails stab his cheek, dangerously near his eyes.He pins her ankles to continue his kissing. Slightly doughy, matronly ankles. Green veins on her insteps. Nice remembered locker room taste. Cheap vanilla.

  2. These are more or less the remarks I made at the American Literature Association conference in Boston in May, 2013 with the exception of some improvisation I injected concerning Bosley Crowther, Manny Farber, and Sam Peckinpah and what I believe their works can contribute to understanding DeLillo. I also used graphic examples from the films of Tarnatino and Kubrick to illustrate how auteurs repeat images from film to film.

  3. These are more or less the remarks I made at the American Literature Association conference in Boston in May, 2013 with the exception of some improvisation I injected concerning Bosley Crowther, Manny Farber, and Sam Peckinpah and what I believe their works can contribute to understanding DeLillo. I also used graphic examples from the films of Tarnatino and Kubrick to illustrate how auteurs repeat images from film to film.

  4. In the early twentieth century, in his series of lectures entitled Pragmatism, the philosopher and psychologist William James advanced the thesis that, broadly speaking, people can be separated into two general categories of personality – tough minded and tender minded. Here are these two classes as described by James in his own words: