Monday, July 30, 2007

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

I finally understand all the fuss over Updike. My encounters with Updike have been in this order: The Witches of Eastwick, Rabbit is Rich (#3), Rabbit at Rest (#4), the occasional short story, and then finally Rabbit, Run--the novel that generated the fuss in the first place. And that's where I should have started. Maybe it's always best--or most fair--to read the book that made an author famous before you read their later efforts.

Now the things that bothered me about the third and fourth Rabbit novels are still present--there is a misogynism to Rabbit that bleeds over into the narrator that makes me very uncomfortable--but I found myself much more forgiving of the young Rabbit than the older Rabbit, and much more engaged by the plot of this novel, which feels amazingly complete given that it spawned three sequels. This raised the question for me of the likeable-unlikeable protagonist. I liked Rabbit better in this book (I felt I understood his behavior better and could imagine why a decent person might do some of the things he did--running out on pregnant wife, etc) than in the others, and I liked this book better than the others. Does that mean I'll always like a book with a sympathetic protagonist better than I like a book with an unsympathetic protagonist? I know the writerly-artistic answer is no--that unsympathetic protagonists can be quite interesting and that a good writer ought to be able to write a compelling, engaging book despite (because of?) the inherent unlikeablility of the main character. But my honest answer is Yes. I will always like a book with a likeable protagonist better than a book with an unlikeable protagonist. I can't think of one truly great book--a book that I loved--that doesn't have at its heart a character that I feel sympathy for. Which makes me want to keep the unsympathetic to the margins--secondary characters at most--or to not have them all together (to always aim for some sympathy even amongst the wrongdoers--young Rabbit as opposed to middle-aged Rabbit). Convince me I'm wrong.. please.

With that said, Updike always shows a great ability with description: "He is asleep when like a faun in moonlight Ruth, washed, creeps back to his side , holding a glass of water." It's that "Ruth, washed" that really gets me.