Writers try to express their meaning not just by their choice of words, but the way they’re used. Raymond Carver wrote about the simple life using simple words and simple structure. Paul Auster’s fiction tends to contain multiple layers, so his sentences tend to drag on, too. As for John Updike, any sentence that is not longer than a line is useless. A few of these survived, but they’re endangered species in Rabbit, Run. It’s unclear why.
There is a pretty big paragraph which describes the planet in the garden Rabbit works in. It’s a horrible piece of writing. It’s literally a list of the plants and a brief descriptions of them. It’s not writing and it’s not typing. It’s lifting up straight from a Beginner’s Guide to Garden Plants. Updike could have at least put in the end the name of the guide he lifted the descriptions from. After wading through the forest that is Updike’s words, I wanted to have some idea of how these plants look like.
There’s no way Updike actually wrote that paragraph. Early on in the novel, Updike describes a basketball game with big sentences and big paragraphs. The shock that someone used all these words and didn’t stumble wears off quickly. It’s that good. It transmits the energy of a basketball game, and this game is an important character building moment. That’s a good reason to linger on it. What did that description of the garden helped? Why were the roofs of the houses were described over, and over, and over?
Updike tells me a simple story using complex language. He’s the antithesis of Raymond Carver, only writing about the same thing. Updike occasionally writes paragraph that are as good as Carver, but then he quickly falls again. This style of writing is just not suited to the subject matter and the themes. Worse, Updike hints that he says the same empathy and insight that makes Carver’s fiction so engrossing.
Updike wants to transmit the dullness of suburban life, but can dull life be described in such an explosive language? Maybe, and Updike sometimes reads like he can do it. Too often, he lingers on irrelevant details. It makes sense when he lingers on the women’s bodies, and even on the golf game even though it ended up being incomprehensible. He can even make a description of a chair important. The problem is, Updike is not selective in what he describes. He describes everything, both things that are irrelevant to the story and themes and things that are.
Descriptions are more than to tell us what the scene looks like. In fact, ‘what the scene looks like’ is not that important. Whether there’s a picture of Hemingway or Steinbeck in the room is irrelevant – until it tells us more than just that the picture is there. If the author tells me there’s a picture of Hemingway on the wall, it should be because he wants to tell me the character is obsessive over Hemingway, is literary, wants to be macho, or something like that. This is called being selective in what you describe. Updike doesn’t fail because he’s bad at describing, but because he’s not selective in what he describes. Even a talented guitarist would be boring somewhere in a sixty-minute jam session.
The story itself crumbles underneath this weight. Rabbit is an asshole, and that’s great. Updike is willing to explore a character that John Green would have turned into a one-dimensional antagonist. He makes Rabbit human and believable enough, but he forgot to show us what made him appealing to other people. It’s to easy to imagine how a once basketball star would be fun to have around, but there aren’t any examples of that. People say they love him a lot, but that’s it. There’s even an instance when one says they can’t describe why. Was that a moment of self awareness?
The asshole aspects of Rabbit are great. Updike knows how to make understand, if not necessarily agree with Rabbit’s actions. As immoral as he is, every action of his makes sense. He’s also not just an asshole. Bad people don’t want to be bad. They just have a different set of values. Rabbit is capable of being moral just as he is capable of being an asshole. Two great moments show these sides. One moment is where Updike nails what “guys entitled to sex” means. It’s a great portrait of the sexual insecurity of males. Another is a big plot moment where Rabbit’s character turns around. It’s easy to make this an out-of-character moment and make the plot go dumb like E-40. Since Updike is wise enough to portray Rabbit is a human first, this sudden burst of good just makes him more real.
Updike is just as good as portraying the other characters. Every character has its own values and worldviews. It’s most apparent when Rabbit visits his parents-in-law and then his own parents, but morose in two scenes. There is one section that centers on Eccles, and another on Janice. In these scenes, Updike follows them in an ordinary day, but by selectively describing some things he gets into these characters’ head. Eccles is interesting to lead his own novel. Janice is more vague, although her scene is more important. Still, he managed to make the ‘who’s guilty’ question of the novel a never-ending debate. He did it not by being too vague, but by creating real, flawed human beings which are the cause of such tragedies.
These great moments though tend to be buried under heaps of words. Rabbit, Run feels like a language exercise, but it shouldn’t be. It’s a simple story about simple people. Even if these simple people go through an epic quest, writing them in a simple language will give them more respect (As in Grapes of Wrath). It’s worth reading for its story and ideas, but it’s a short book that has about 70 extra pages. Updike probably just wanted to avoid writing a novella.
2 rabbits out of 5