The Dualistic Nature of Rabbit, Run and Postmodern Games

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“Opinions are like assholes,” my father was famous for quoting. “Everyone has one.” This fact has never been more true than in the case of John Updike’s 1960 novel Rabbit, Run, a Postmodern account of an unlikeable (and to some, totally hateable) twenty-something, a former, basketball star who became a never-was, who leaves his pregnant wife to shack up with a prostitute in the suburbs of Reading, Pennsylvania.

Because it seems like I have nothing better to do, I often read book reviews, whether it’s from the fine people at Goodreads to Bookforum to The New York Times Book Reviews podcast (I cheat a little). Never have I read so many dualistic responses to a text. There, naturally, are always middle-of-the-road people; people who see such texts as part of the modern day canon they have somehow developed into, but ultimately, people who want to argue against this norm and scream out, “For Christ’s sake, get this book away from me.” However, it seems that even people who have read Rabbit, Run and are giving it something mediocre, like three out of five stars, really are subtly leaning towards giving it one star with their explanation in their review.

Overwhelmingly, it seems that Rabbit, Run leaves people loving or hating it; there’s little-to-no room for maybe baby sorts in the middle.

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While I can’t say I hated the text, it is not the worst thing I have ever read (deLillo’s White Noise anyone?), I would be one of those Goodreaders to offer it only one star, maybe two if Updike caught me on a good day.

One of the major reasons I think people do not care for this novel is actually a really poor reason not to like it: the characters are unlikeable. This in turn rubs people the wrong way. Harry Angstrom (Rabbit) is an anti-hero, a villain left in place of the hero, and people have a tendency to hate that. It leaves us as humans in a place that is a psychological struggle; morally, we despise this person, but on some weird level, we need him to succeed.

As a reader, it is particularly difficult to handle Harry because he is so cowardly, so despicable, so childish. But let’s make something clear: there is a major difference in not liking a text because you did not see the value in its functions or its logic and not liking it because the characters left you uncomfortable. Simply browsing through the Goodreads reviews, the latter is the overwhelming response as to why readers do not like Rabbit, Run, and I don’t feel that’s an acceptable answer.

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Reasons as to why I did not care for the text: some critics, particularly those in the defense of the Postmodern American novel, argue that Rabbit, Run is one of the best texts the Postmodern era has to offer. They especially argue this because it is one of the first texts that is written entirely in the first person present day voice, something that was just becoming a literary trend in the early 60s. However, if Rabbit, Run is the best the Postmodernists can do, then, damn, we’re in trouble.

Those who counter the Postmodernist response to texts point exactly to Rabbit, Run as the main reason why TV and film have become the dominant media in the past decades; it is a textbook example of what drives readers away from books and why reading gets a bad reputation.

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Instead of focusing on the dreadful bunch of characters in the text, I was totally distracted by the annoying postmodern elements scattered throughout the novel, elements that are not new to me being born at the tail end of the Postmodern literary era, sometimes an argument against me and my kind as I have trouble understanding that these elements were brand new with the 60s movement with writers like Updike, Bellow, Mailer, and Roth.

The text is a literary version of Chatty Cathy. The internal chatter of Harry and the precocious, nonstop language used by the narrator is enough to drive one to a panic attack. The story also goes nowhere, a major problem for Updike as it encourages readers to give up after the first thirty pages (I was totally guilty of this).

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There is also an enormous focus on language, something that the Russian Formalists are cheering about while six feet under. Though Updike is extremely skilled in controlling the emotions he conveys through his descriptions, the descriptions are so long and so detailed that it becomes nauseating. There is also this reckless abandon of a decent story line for these excessive, magna-like descriptions that seem so endless that only a fellow academic could love. These elements alone are enough to make me consider not reading the rest of the Rabbit quartet.

While Harry Angstrom struggles with understanding that, as my sixteen year old brother often says, “ball is [not always] life,” readers suffer endlessly through another reminder that humans can be terrible creatures, all while having to endure the thought that this text is considered a classic.

I don’t consider myself a Postmodernist reader, though I am sympathetic to their cause. They’re not all bad, but there are much more deserving Postmodernist classics. Save yourself some time and frustration, and check those out instead.

John-Updike

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