Realer Than Realism: A Defense of Genre Fiction

This morning I finished Rabbit, Run and while I am glad I read it it will be awhile before I dive into another Realist novel. I found the read taxing and a little boring at times. Reading about the everyday lives of shallow and uninteresting people might be what some consider high literature but I found it lacking any connection to the real world.

What I mean by that is it had nothing to do with the current events of its time period. In a way those events were ever-present by omission but it still left me feeling a disconnect. Some might say that adds to the universal nature of the novel but unless one is a shallow, self-absorbed, entitled jerk there is little connection anyone can have with Rabbit Angstrom.

Take for instance the funeral scene after his running out for the second time causes his wife to fall off the wagon, go on a bender, and accidentally drown their newborn infant daughter trying to clean up a blow-out just a couple days after coming home from the hospital. That is the tragedy of the novel but Rabbit Angstrom’s reaction to it is to stand-up at the funeral and exclaim that it wasn’t his fault. That it was his wife who killed her.

This has predictable results and Rabbit runs yet again back to the woman he was shacking up with before his wife went into labor and he returned to her at the hospital. She no longer wants anything to do with him despite being pregnant with his child now and the novel ends with Rabbit Angstrom running aimlessly through the city.

No one wants him and no one should want him. Rabbit Angstrom’s ignorance of current events and the novels lack of mentioning them is partly the point, but it makes it feel out of place. In other ways it is a novel deeply connected to that time period. Money and the cost of goods is mentioned several times as are road routes and the obvious lack of an interstate system. It is both a novel of its time period and one out of time.

After finishing Rabbit, Run I began reading King’s Ransom by Ed McBain. If you’re unfamiliar with Ed McBain that might be because it is one of the pseudonyms of Evan Hunter who was born Salvatore Lambino. His best known work, under any name, was The Blackboard Jungle. While his McBain works are genre fiction and the Hunter works are social drama and what some would consider his more serious novels there I find just as much of a connection to the real world in his 87th Precinct novels.

The beginning of King’s Ransom sets the scene and it describes an isolated portion of the 87th Precinct, which by this book the reader should know is the poorest precinct in the city, as being full of old mansions bordered by the river on one side and the highway on the other. The further away one gets from this part of the city the poorer it gets.

The 87th Precinct novels do not shy away from issues of racial, religious, or economic injustice, and for me those themes are far more universal than the themes of Rabbit, Run. Like Rabbit Angstrom I am a father and a husband and I do sometimes grow frustrated with my wife, but I am mature enough and caring enough to not run out on my family for weeks at a time. I may sneak away to a coffee shop now and then for a quiet hour of reading but I’m not running across town to shack-up with a prostitute.

Some might say that the impulsive nature of Rabbit Angstrom is the embodiment of our discontent. It is what every father and husband would do if freed of inhibitions. Rabbit Angstrom represents the darkest desires of the male psyche. And that Jungian reading of the text has some validity, but I found Rabbit Angstrom to be an all too familiar type of person. Think of a guy that peaked in high school and is unaware of anyone’s problems but his own and his only problem is he is bored with the very nice life he has for himself. That isn’t a hard person to imagine.

A story about that person would unlikely include any mention of the issues of society at large because that person wouldn’t care one wit about anyone but themselves. In that way Rabbit, Run is social commentary by omission.

Still, I find King’s Ransom (published just one year before Rabbit, Run) and Ed McBain’s willingness and ability to put all of society under the microscope and describe it and dissect it in all its gritty and gory detail to be refreshing. The tale of the 87th Precinct might have more action, mystery, and intrigue than a Realist novel about the everyday lives of plain and boring people but it also contains a far sharper image of the world at that time.

As readers we can picture Isola, Culver Rd, and the rest of the 87th Precinct. We can see ourselves living in that city. Breathing in it. Existing in our daily lives while the action unfolds around us. Mcbain captures the human spirit and human nature in his police procedurals as much, if not more, than Updike does in his Realist novel, but Updike lives on in the Literature section while McBain remains with the dime store genre fiction if he is found at all.

It is our collective distress and our ability to empathize with our fellow man that makes us human. Rabbit, Run contained no emotion for me. I have far more empathy for Meyer Meyer from the brief description of the bullying he received for both having a strange double name and for being Jewish than I do for Rabbit Angstrom and his discontentment with his average suburban life.

Genre fiction should not be ignored. The stories might be plot forward and action packed but there is much humanity in them. For me they are often better than any literary fiction out there and full of the true makings of the world.

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