Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960) 264 p.

There are hundreds upon hundreds of classic literature novels I need to read, and the reaction I most hate to have when I read them is ambivalence. If they’re amazing, all’s good; if they suck then I can just rant about them and decry their status as icons. When you read the magnum opus of a man considered to be one of the 20th century’s greatest writers and your reaction is “Yeah, it was pretty good, I guess,” it’s not easy to review.

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is a 26-year-old husband, father to a toddler, with another baby on the way. In high school he was a basketball star, a hero, but you get the impression that the big fish in the little pond wasn’t quite talented enough to make it elsewhere, which is why he’s still stuck in his hometown in Pennsylvania working as a kitchen implement salesman. One night his growing anxiety and dissatisfaction with his life reaches breaking point, and he gets in his car and drives away. He finds himself drawn back, though, and the novel covers the next few months of his life as he deals with the consequences of his actions.

I knew before reading this that Rabbit is widely considered one of the most unlikeable protagonists in fiction, and I have to say, I don’t see why. He’s certainly not likeable – he can be self-centred, obnoxious, narcissistic and demanding, not to mention the cowardice of abandoning his wife and child. But the entire point of the book is about human flaws, particularly the flaws of youth – feeling trapped, knowing there could be more out there, wanting to avoid responsibility and run away (though I did find it odd that Rabbit immediately shacks up with another woman). So while he’s not likeable, I didn’t find him unlikeable, either, and I certainly found him sympathetic. I’m actually hard-pressed to think of a fictional protagonist I 100% dislike – or a real-life person, for that matter. Maybe I’m a nice person. Or maybe I’m easily influenced and will throw my sympathies behind whoever the narrator happens to be. David Lurie in Disgrace is also, apparently, a widely disliked figure, but I had no problem sympathising with him. Maybe I’m more capable of analysing a character’s actions and sympathising with their motives than other readers; maybe I’m mature enough to understand why people do things without necessarily condoning them. Or maybe that’s a very condescending thing to say and I’m a narcissist like Rabbit. Who knows? What a world!

Rabbit, Run also feels like a happier book than it should be. Some terrible, terrible things occur – above and beyond what Rabbit does at the beginning – yet Updike’s prose has a way of making every single thing in the universe seem beautiful, from the trees to the flowers down to the clock ticking in a waiting room at a hospital. You know how sometimes you go through your day and feel blah, and other times you’re walking down the street and every puddle, street sign and strange odour seems wonderful and make you happy to be alive? Updike writes a world of the latter, even if it does send him into purple prose territory at times.

I wasn’t blown away by Rabbit, Run the way I was hoping to be, but I did appreciate it and I do think it’s a strong novel that deserves its place in the canon. I’ll be reading Rabbit Redux down the track.

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