Rabbit Angstrom

4 Nov

A couple weeks ago I finished reading John Updike’s series of books about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. That would be: Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990), and Rabbit Remembered (2001).* I highly recommend this series of books.

*Rabbit Remembered is more of a novella. Although it’s still almost 200 pages long. As you may have guessed, the main character is already dead when it takes place. It’s like an epilogue to the series.

I’m not going to write some kind of literary review or criticism. I don’t think I could do that very well. Suffice it to say that the books are all very good. (Two of them won the Pulitzer Prize.) I want to talk about the larger idea of the series. Rabbit is more or less the same age as John Updike. He ages in real time; each book checks up on him at ten-year intervals. Updike uses the books not just to tell us about the Angstroms, but to use his life as a backdrop to talk about society. The fact that Updike did this over fifty years in real time and not retrospectively makes it an interesting primary source. Rabbit goes from calling his khaki pants “suntans” and driving a ‘55 Ford in the first installment to ruminating about Deion Sanders in the last.

I wonder about Mr. Updike’s thought process throughout the series. Did he plan to write a whole series from the start, or did things just unfold that way? The first book stands on its own–and literary sequels aren’t exactly common. I have to think that at least by the time he sat down to write the second book, he had it in mind to keep doing a new book every ten years.

My only criticism is that starting with the second book, sometimes things felt a little too on the nose. Rabbit takes in a hippie teenager and a black revolutionary in 1969, and his son develops a coke problem in 1988, for example. A lot of smaller details also feel like they were put in to indicate “this is what 1980 is like” or something. Although maybe that’s something I only noticed with the sequels. A lot of books set in the present tense contain details like that, but maybe the purpose of the Rabbit series makes them jump out more. Was Updike trying extra hard to write more than just a story in these books? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about.

Maybe the best thing about the series its uniqueness. Updike wrote the first book at age 28. He wrote the last at age 78. I can’t think of anything similar anywhere in the arts. A lot of other writers have a character or a fictional world they return to (Philip Roth with Nathan Zuckerman comes to mind), but none over such a long period of time, and none so methodical in purpose. The ego involved in undertaking this project must be quite large. The fact that the whole thing was so successful indicated how justified that large ego was. I can’t imagine there are many young writers around today who have the foresight and audacity to even start something like this.

I guess my point is that I wish there were more things like this. Every good writer should do it. Imagine if Faulkner or Hemingway had written series like this in their times and places like Updike did in his. Our literary world would be so much richer.

This wasn’t very good. Or long. I didn’t have as much to say as I thought. They can’t all be gems, dear reader.

2 Responses to “Rabbit Angstrom”

  1. Vito November 6, 2012 at 5:42 am #

    I would recommend a couple of books with a somewhat similarly interesting relationship. Both books written by Al Stump. the first book written in 1960 “My Life in Baseball by Ty Cobb” was a autobiography written by Stump with Cobb largely dictating the narrative and content. The second book written in 1994 “Cobb: A Biography” was essentially Stump saying, “Ok, here’s how I would have written this thing…”. I found the contrast between the books fascinating and the picture painted in my head after reading the two is far more compelling than if I had just read either one by itself.

    Also, for my money, Cobb is the best there ever was.


  1. The New Yorker: May 13, 2013 | The Pensive Years - May 16, 2013

    […] of a possibility to continue revisiting the two main characters every decade or so going forward. I wrote about that very idea vis à vis John Updike and Rabbit Angstrom a while back. I wholeheartedly encourage that idea and […]

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