Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Week Forty-Three - Jeanette

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

So tall, he seems an unlikely rabbit, but the breadth of the white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname.

As I type, I’m on the sofa at the house Dan shares with Jude. I purposefully wanted to read Rabbit, Run this week; having liberated myself from the project’s alphabetical order, I thought it would be fitting to experience John Updike’s work while hanging out with the man whose favourite book it is.

I’ve been staying with Jude and Dan for a week. Here I am with Poppy, who lives with them (she’s my favourite cat! Any excuse for a photo).

As it turned out, Dan and I didn’t get much of a chance to talk on it. At the start of the week, and at the start of my reading, I told him that it was brilliantly written, and that I found it very unforgiving. (‘But that’s okay,’ I added).

I’ve known Dan for a long time, and how I’ve related to him has evolved a lot. In my late teens, he was the friend of a boyfriend; in my twenties, part of the ‘North London set’ of people in bands who were always at the pub; from my later twenties onwards, Jude’s partner and then husband. It’s strange, but until recently I’d seen Dan primarily through the lens of other people. That's changed over the last couple of years. Satisfying, now, to be clear-eyed, and to have my own unique friendship with him.

Dan is a fantastic musician and, like Dave, is in the awesome The Drink; he was also in Fighting Kites, Michaelmas and, many years ago, Adekola Sound. I feel I have a lot to learn from him about experimental music, minimalism, and modern classical. As I’ve pointed out before, I tend to generalise the whole thing as an impenetrable slab of cold marble, yet this week he played me Oren Ambarchi’s ‘Grapes From The Estate’ and the emotional appeal of it was plain as day to me. Maybe next time I look after Poppy I’ll turn off the internet, needle-drop Dan’s records, and binge on the impressive pile of The Wire magazines.

Rabbit, Run seems to be one of the Two Readers books that quite a lot of friends have already read, and most not only had an opinion on it but an opinion on how I might receive it. Most thought I’d admire it, but that I might not like it too much.

Hard-hearted: the word seems to clatter after them as they climb the stairs to the second floor.

Indeed, the word seems to clatter after the whole of the novel. Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom is an unpleasant man who, in his lack of compassion for others, borders on the sociopathic. In the most famous line of the novel, Rabbit declares that if you have the guts to be yourself, other people will pay your price.

Guts to be yourself. Guts. That word in itself asserts what I found so incredibly impressive in Rabbit, Run's characterisation. Rabbit believes that ‘being yourself’ (in his definition, indulging your own drives and damning the consequences) stems from an inner honesty and not from selfishness. He sees the world as rabbit-eat-rabbit, and if others aren’t prepared to cannibalise or be cannibalised, then it’s their own lookout. He has nothing but contempt for them.

            ‘Forgive me. I’m in a very depressed mood.’
There’s nothing exactly wrong with his saying this, but it rubs Harry’s inner hair the wrong way. It kind of clings. It says, Pity me. Love me.

Why is he like this? The psychology in Rabbit, Run is subtly explored. Rabbit was, once, a basketball prodigy, of whom great things were expected. Now he’s demonstrating a kitchen mod-con called the MagiPeel. There comes a point in all our lives where we stop having ‘potential’ and have to actually deliver on it. If we don’t, the feeling is excruciating. Rabbit isn’t one for lengthy oh-poor-me soliloquies; instead, he expresses his frustration at underachievement in a far less sympathetic way. The book is called Rabbit, Run because that’s what he does. Nothing – not a job, friends, home, marriage, fatherhood – is for life. Rabbit is never able to withdraw his foot from its default position, that of wedging open the escape hatch.

Janice, his pregnant wife, is a constant reminder to Rabbit of how he isn’t living the life he wants. She is an alcoholic and a sloth, but with a sadness that is clear to the reader. Rabbit ignores, is ignorant of, or is simply uncaring about the reasons that may underlay Janice’s behaviour. At the start of the book, he leaves her.

            ‘I’m not that interested in her. I was, but I’m not.’

Ouch. When long-term relationships break down, whether we are the dumper, dumpee, or at some more mutual point on the spectrum, we’d like to believe it nobler than the simple dulling effect of monotony. How many of us just think, ‘I’m sick of looking at your face each morning, because all it does it get older and tireder and less attractive?’ Far, far, far more of us than would ever admit it, I’d wager.

And what do we do when we think this? Often, like Rabbit, we run, run to someone new, even if it’s only in our heads. Rabbit runs to Ruth, a more obviously sexual being than Janice. He doesn’t change his behaviour very much.

He repeats, ‘Did I?’ and pinches her arm, hard. He hadn’t meant to do it so hard; something angered him at the touch of her skin. The sullen way it yielded.
                              ‘Ow. You son of a bitch.’
Still she lies there, paying more attention to the sun than him. He gets up on an elbow and looks across her dead body to the lighter figures of two sixteen-year-olds standing sipping orange crush from cardboard cones.

I didn’t like Rabbit (but then I doubt you’re meant to). But I didn’t hate him, either. I both admired and detested his unbridled id and part of me, a very small but very honest part, recognises in him something of my own questionable past behaviour. But, right there, that’s the difference between Rabbit and I: I am, at least, a little bit ashamed of it.

A criticism levelled at Updike is that he was an unapologetic misogynist (this Guardian piece is fairly typical of the arguments). Updike’s treatment of women reminded me of my favourite laugh-a-minute playwright, August Strindberg, who was also frequently labelled as a big ol’ sexist. In Rabbit, Run, as in (e.g.) Miss Julie, women are equally complex and shitty as men, although patriarchal society moulds them into a different complexity and shittiness. This includes affecting the pose of victim, which both Ruth and Janice do, at points. Depressing, yes, sexist… I didn’t experience it as such. It was perfectly in line with Updike’s angry critique of interpersonal relationships and his brutal frankness about how people take advantage of the power handed to them. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the book’s disturbing scene of sexual coercion. I consider Rabbit, Run a depiction of misogyny, while not being misogynist in itself.

The final section of the book was a rather different beast to all this, and absolutely magnificent. If you want to avoid a spoiler, stop reading now, but I feel I can’t discuss Rabbit, Run without revealing and praising the treatment of this plot point. Janice and Rabbit’s baby daughter dies as a result of parental neglect. The guilt, blame, shock, grief, and community response that follows her death drips with profound desolation, while never once threatening melodrama.

The coffin, with handles of painted gold, rests on a platform draped with a deep purple curtain; he thinks the curtain might draw apart and reveal, like a magician’s trick, the living baby underneath.

I would have, I’m sure, applauded Rabbit, Run even had it not taken this very intense turn. However, it is this that really does push it into the realm of great achievement. It is an unflinching, uncensorious, unkind, undeniable, masterpiece.