Newly revised by the author for this edition, and printed together in one volume for the first time, Updike's four Rabbit novels chronicle the history of a man and a nation from the 1950s to the 1980s. Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom, athlete, is Mr Middle America. Dazzling in style, tender in feeling, often erotic in description and coruscating with realistic details which recreate a world in each novel, these books give a complete picture of their age.
These are, to be sure, rather odd books. They focus entirely on Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, and his life from early adulthood until retirement and the end of his life. Each volume picks up a time slice from successive decades to update us on how Harry is doing, and how he reflects the times in which he lives. They are odd in the sense that Harry is not particularly interesting, and while he finds himself situated in drama, it is strictly domestic. The zeitgeist of each decade is clear in each novel, but only as it intrudes upon Harry's life. He is not a man of the world, and he certainly does not have any adventures.
What's more, one would not expect Harry to be a character capable of drawing us in for 1500 pages, spread over four novels. He is not particularly insightful or reflective (though he comes increasingly reflective with age). Indeed, he is not even particularly likeable. In the latter two novels (Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest), we see his son Nelson as a young adult. He is, to be perfectly blunt, obnoxious. Yet, I think that this suggests the reason that Harry is such a compelling character. If we saw Harry only from the perspectives of other characters, he would probably come across as similarly unsympathetic. Yet, because we are in his head so long, he feels like someone that we know well, and someone whose actions we are more willing to excuse. Harry is not describing things to us, and he is deeply honest. Even when he is not honest, it is because he is not being honest with himself - not because he is deceiving us as readers. We are treated to a character laid bare, honestly and frankly presented to us. It can be a treat. Given the length of our travels with Harry, he becomes one of the most fully realized "everyman" characters in all of literature.
There are two aspects of the novels which I suspect are greater strengths than I am in a position to evaluate. First is that if one were to read the works over one's life, Harry might mirror the reader's experiences more closely. I read all four novels over the course of approximately a year between ages 27 and 28. While Updike gives us an insight into the life and mind of a middle-aged individual pursuing security, or that of a retiree trying to find solace in a new life, I cannot match these narratives to my own experience. I suspect that these novels will only gain in power and force if one reads them again as one ages alongside Harry. Similarly, as someone born in the 1980s, every decade of Harry's lies outside of my adult experience. While I found myself consistently immersed in Updike, and Harry's understanding of each decade and its peculiarities, I only look on each as a foreigner. There are aspects of the novels which seem locked away from me for this reason, I can only discern the force of the decades through their impact on Harry.
The strongest of the four novels is Rabbit Redux, which is driven by the forceful personality of Skeeter. The scenes in the Angstrom home, of Rabbit sitting back in his chair mesmerized by the ferocious mix of intellectualism, religious zeal, and political fervor from Skeeter are equally mesmerizing for the reader. These are among the best scenes in the entire set of books. Despite being longer, the plot moves at a more riveting pace than in Rabbit, Run, the first of the series. Rabbit is Rich is equal to Redux in many ways, and gives a fantastic portrayal of the creeping influence of a mind for money - but it lacks a Skeeter. The ultimate volume of the series, Rabbit at Rest, is probably the weakest, as its slower pace matches Harry's life, but finds itself slowing to a halt during some of Harry's scenes in Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, the final sections of the book echo crucial scenes from the first novel in a rewarding way.
There is little doubt that Updike's prose is fantastic, though I found it at times troubling in these novels. He combines his rich and evocative descriptive style with mundane experience. On one hand, the aim here is clear. By doing this, he brings to mind the details that our minds pass over so easily, despite the fact that they are part of the fabric of our normal experiences (as the focus here is the suburbanite hero, Harry Angstrom). Yet, I consistently found myself preferring this prose style when it came to the more important scenes in the books: Harry's car trips in the first and fourth novels, Skeeter's speeches, etc., and I found myself occasionally frustrated with the prose during daily scenes in the middle. I've struggled with why this is, and whether it is simply a fault of my own. I suspect that the reason is that the richness and cleverness of Updike's prose suggests a disconnect between the factual details of the scenes (which I am not invested in) and their recounting. While this disconnect is likely intended, I could not apply an intellectual understanding of this to an aesthetic appreciation of the scenes. I wanted Updike to get on with it, so that I might relish his prose at other times in other places.
Despite this minor criticism (which may reveal more about the reader than the work), Updike's four novels are absolutely worth the time required to read them. Indeed, I expect to return them throughout my life, to revisit Harry and see how changes in my own life already passed through him.
updike can write really well at times. only characters i wanted to follow after one book.
( 'redux' is the best. )
more of a commentary of the author's views of the changing times than anything else. still, though, decent but not enough to make me really care what happens to rabbit.