Monday, 7 January 2013

Week One - Jude

Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)
Recommended by Dan Fordham

If you're going to kick off the New Year with a project like this, then you might as well begin it with a) a hefty section of a trilogy, written in tiny dense type, b) the book that your husband recommended.

For the last two years, him indoors has been working his way through John Updike's novels, in chronological order (it's not just Jeanette who has these organisational tendencies). I'd read one Updike novel, Couples, in my early 20s but my memory of it was hazy; I remember liking it, and that it was fairly filthy. But I'd not read this, which Dan had banged on about for years. And as time went by, the fact I hadn't read it was becoming a bit of an albatross.

What had put me off? Cold, clammy fear, of course. For even though Dan and I, thankfully, do like a lot of the same things (although you can leave those Evan Parker free jazz albums in the racks if you fancy it, m'love) what if I didn't like this book? Worse still, what if I hated it? What would that mean?

And then I started reading.

Rabbit, Run - the first part of the above Rabbit Omnibus - was published in 1960. Rabbit Redux came ten years later, Rabbit Is Rich a decade after that. Each book tracks the life of Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom, who begins the series as a 26-year-old father-of-one (with another on the way), living in a Pennsylvanian suburb with his wife, Janice. He's known as Rabbit because of the way he looks, but the nickname, of course has other meanings...they breed like rabbits, rabbits are timid in the face of real challenges, rabbits are often seen as tricksters in American pop culture, from Br'er Rabbit in those Southern folktales to Bugs Bunny in Warner Brothers' modern ones. It's also no surprise that Updike (seen below in 1960) looked rather Bugsy-like himself.

And rabbits, as the title tells us, also run away from things.

Rabbit - lets make no bones about this here - is a shitbag. Towards the end of the novel, admittedly, I started caring about his fate (his moral compass swings into action on a bus to Mount Judge, for reasons I won't disclose). Nevertheless, he could have fallen under a truck 50 pages in and I would've been bloody delighted. It's funny, really. I've loved lots of American pop culture's archetypal arseholes on TV (Don "mmmm..hello" Draper in Mad Men, Tony Soprano in The Sopranos) but somehow I couldn't give Rabbit any room. It didn't help that Updike's language rams home that his main man is smarmy to a fault, misogynistic beyond belief, possessive, that he objectifies women to a remorseless degree, and does appalling things that made my blood churn...including running out on his "dumb" pregnant wife at the beginning of the novel, shacking up with someone else who he bullies constantly, without consequences...and that's barely the start of it.

Yes, you could say that I was a little concerned.

And then the book went somewhere else. I'd forgotten - or possibly not appreciated in Couples - the degree of detail Updike uses in his descriptions of places and people's inner lives. It's insane, absurd, obsessive, even. Take this description of a club he goes to:

"with its glass-brick windows grinning back from the ridge of its face it looks like a fortress of death; the interior is furnished in the glossy low-lit style of an up-to-date funeral parlor, potted green plants here and there, music piping soothingly, and the same smell of strip rugs and fluorescent tubes
and Venetian-blind slats and, the most inner secretive smell, of alcohol"

It's amazing to read. You can't skim this stuff either, even when it threatens to bore; you have to focus on every word, and as you do, it's like getting lost in a very real, full world.

And then after page 83, the first-person, present-tense voice suddenly inhabits other characters. Here is Ruth, Rabbit's other woman, a real person at last (and a brilliantly-drawn one). Then Eccles the minister, then Eccles' wife, and then Janice...and then a passage so drowsily, woozily, upsettingly, tangibly sad, that I had to go and read it back again straightaway, to check that I actually had. (No spoilers, but I was in the bath at the time.)

At the end of it - thank God - I didn't want to question my husband's sanity after all. Neither I didn't care for Rabbit much, but I did want to read the next volume, and the next one, and the next one, mesmerised. But that'll have to wait for a while. Next week's all about light relief. Ah: she runs. Runs.