Sunday, June 25, 2006

Rabbit is Rich by John Updike: Book Review

Nobody describes humanity quite like John Updike. Like a scab picked clean--satisfying, and flinchingly thorough.

Consider the following passage:
"A little touch of the hooker about her looks. The way her soft body wants to spill from these small clothes, the faded denim shorts and purple Paisley halter. The shining faintly freckled flesh of her shoulders and top arms and the busy wanton abundance of her browny-red many-colored hair, carelessly bundled...She has blue eyes in deep sockets and the silence of a girl from the country used to letting men talk while she holds a sweet-and-sour secret in her mouth, sucking it. An incongruous disco touch in her shoes, with their high cork heels and ankle straps. Pink toes, painted nails..He feels she wants to hide from him, but is too big and white, too suddenly womanly, too nearly naked. Her shoes accent the length of her legs; she is taller than average, and not quite fat, though tending towards chunky, especially around the chest. Her upper lip closes over the lower with a puffy bruised look. She is bruisable..."
Rabbit Angstrom, the protagonist of the novel, is describing a woman he fetishistic-ally believes might be his daughter. Greedily incestuous, the passage sets the tone for all of Rabbit's female encounters--lecherous and prurient. Not surprisingly, the often-described sex in the novel is insistent, claustrophobic and pornographic. There's a reoccurring, and strange obsession with female toes. What to make of all this?

On the one hand, Updike is a glorious writer. He describes every physicality to such a minute detail that you are left with searing images branded to your brain...which is unfortunately gross. How do you get past the stunningly vivid descriptions of oral sex, sexual urination, and every time Rabbit comes across a beautiful woman the reader’s gag reflex is triggered. Okay, maybe I am exaggerating a little bit...but it's still *eeww*

Set in the late 1970s, the book tells the story of Rabbit Angstrom, a successful car salesman, who is…well…rich. We meet his needy wife, and a sullen, vapid son, his country club friends, and the economic swirl of his father-in-law's car lot that he has inherited. The characters in Rabbit is Rich resemble John Updike’s Couples in more ways than one—the careless, seemingly banal marital affairs that they have, the greedy selfishness, and half-loathing vision of the upper, white class American social milieu. But unlike Couples, Rabbit is Rich is not pointless and bored with itself. Instead Updike fleshes out key relationships with finesse and style.

There is the ambiguity, shot with loathing between Rabbit and his son which includes Rabbit’s slimy, yet oddly endearing attempts at redemption. When Rabbit clumsily offers his son an “out” from an ill-advised marriage to a pregnant girlfriend, it is clear that Rabbit's predilection to run from his problems are thoughtlessly being passed on to his son.

There’s a whole “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” message that Updike manages to add interesting dimensions to and eek out beyond the cliché. There is also the strange apathy that he has for his dead daughter coupled with an unhealthy fascination with another daughter that he might or might not have.

I didn't realize Rabbit is Rich was the third installment in a series. So I spent much of the book thinking Updike was being uncharacteristically coy with Rabbit's lurid past. We get hints and pieces of his past, which the reader can comfortably piece together without deterring from present story. Once you get past long passages on Rabbit's rambling thoughts, and a needlessly informative sections on cars, this is a pretty good book to bury yourself into for a couple of hours.


Blogger philjohnson said...

The series featuring Rabbit Angstrom (Man of Angst) runs this way:
Rabbit Run
Rabbit Redux
Rabbit is Rich
Rabbit at Rest

And there is 182 page novella the story is called "Rabbit Remembered" and it is published in a collection of short stories by Updike called Licks of Love. Rabbit dies in Rabbit at Rest, and the novella brings together Rabbit's former wife Janice, his son Nelson, various other characters from the tetralogy of novels and his illegitimate daughter (sired in Rabbit Run).

12:31 PM  
Anonymous mk said...

Sonymol: The sex in his books doesn't trouble me, but I think I know what you mean about the women in his books. Some male writers write about women like they are another species altogether. In a manner clinical, detailed and with a detached, indulgent amusement. (Remember an engaging and descriptive piece on an an ant and its antics in some Reader's Digest collection; likewise)Norman Mailer is another writer who starts me bristling(much much more than Updike). But Murakami,I love him, he loves and respects his women. Love Updike too (the form, the form..)

Phil: didnt know about Rabbit Remembered. Thank you.

2:55 AM  
Blogger Sony Pony said...

MK; The sex in his books don't trouble me either. I don't really believe he is deragotory to women or should stop talking so much about sex. However, what I do think is that the sex described in his novels (especially Couples, but Rabbit is Rich also at times) feels unnecessary stylistically. They are also so intensely graphic, that I am often kinda grossed out. For instance, when Rabbit is thinking about prostitutes and what happens to them during a specific sexual act. I say again. Eeww.

He also adds a slimy, and yet interesting flair to Rabbit through his obssession with sexuality. For example, what is he doing admiring this woman's body in this way if he believes she is her daughter? Updike raises some interesting questions.

On the other hand, Couples, I thought was just high-brow, literary porn.

I think I've read Mailer's Mating, but I don't remember too much about it unfortunately. I've heard similar things about Mailer that you have pointed out.

Yes,I love Murakami. Okay, I've only read one book by Murakami. But I'm a convert, more is defintely in the cards! Wonderful stuff.

6:24 AM  
Blogger joe said...

Damn oral sex? detailed description. gotta read this book! heehaw! :-)

11:55 PM  

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