Getting into the Setting: On Reading Rabbit, Run

Rabbit, Run by John Updike is one of those post-modern realist novels about suburban discontentment. The world was perfect and great and beautiful and this destroyed the soul of people who needed adventure and excitement and a frontier. Being stationary and content among suburban sprawl is un-American when what is American is exploring and expanding.

I’ve never been into this type of novel. Never a fan of Philip Roth, John Updike, Gore Vidal, or Norman Mailer. I am now making that effort. Rabbit, Run is my this is the year I finally read book for 2022, and I am getting it out of the way early. I can’t say I am enjoying it so far but I am not certain it is the type of book one reads for enjoyment. Rabbit Angstrom is a completely detestable and unlikeable fellow. The type of man that runs out on his young child and pregnant wife to shake up with a woman of loose morals across town.

The real enjoyment I am finding in the novel is getting into the late 50’s backdrop. Rabbit, Run was published in 1960. That same year the Billy Wilder film The Apartment was released and Theme From A Summer Place was the number one song in America and John Kennedy was elected president of the United States.

We think of literature too often as existing in some place out of time. We separate it from the era in which it was written. We do this especially with books that have stood the test of time. Rabbit, Run is one of those books that is taught in schools and considered high literature. It is a classic, for the lack of a better term, but that wasn’t what Updike was thinking when he published it. He was probably thinking more along the lines of Stephen King when he published it. This was his job, his career, and he wanted readers, royalties, and that next book deal.

It is my opinion that when we learn books. Really want to learn them. We should get to know the time in which they were written. Rabbit, Run helps us a bit with that by mentioning several times how much Rabbit is spending for food, rent, gas, and other common goods. When Rabbit does his runner he doesn’t get on the interstate because the interstate system didn’t yet exist everywhere (it was started in 1956 and completed in 1991).

While the disenfranchisement of suburban contentment is something that still resonates with modern audiences Rabbit, Run is very much a book of its time, and getting to know that time and getting into that setting can help. The one thing I can’t stop thinking about is how 1960 was also the same year that James Baldwin published Go Tell it On a Mountain highlighting that America was very much not a perfect land of comfortable suburban living for all her residents. Which really might be the exact point of Rabbit, Run. Rabbit Angstrom is a self-centered piece of work lacking in empathy and compassion and that can extend to society at large as easily as his wife and child.

I am only just over one third of the way through the novel at this point but I am looking forward to reading more of it and seeing where it takes me.

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