katie heindl

Rabbit, Run by Katie Heindl

Rabbit, Run by John Updike
(Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1960)

Rabbit, Run by John Updike is supposed to be a classic. It’s the book that announced Updike as a writer in American literature, or what most people mean when they talk about American literature, the whole, vague canon of it. It’s also perfectly indicative of the problem with American literature—of that era and stubbornly, still—the whole, vague canon of it, being that it’s a book about a pretty shitty guy who can’t get a handle on the relatively normal problems of his life, and generally as a rule makes things worse for the other people in his life. I tried to read Rabbit, Run on my honeymoon, because the Irish bookstore was quaint as hell, who shouldn’t read more “classics”, and the cover of the version I found had a basketball on it. It marked place and time for me, perhaps more viscerally, because I hated it more every time I picked it back up. On the train from Galway to Dublin, I thought, “Ok, he’s blowing up his marriage and this book is about him abandoning his pregnant wife and young child”. On the plane ride to Spain I figured Rabbit would have a decent reason to come back to town but not tell his wife, his parents or in-laws, and essentially force himself into flopping with the first woman he meets to play at a hostage version of house. On the ferry to Tangier I wanted to throw the book across the cabin, into the small snack bar, when he shames his girlfriend—hostage?—into giving him a blowjob, because he’s so sexually repressed and she used to be a sex worker, that he believes it will both alleviate his negligible guilt and allow some kind of psychic ownership of her. Admittedly, I didn’t finish it. I tried as hard as I could but then I wondered why. I don’t tend to have to try hard to finish books, I move through them like a shark in sunny waters. For some stories, the slog can be a kind of reward, if you’re invested in the characters, the story, anything. But my problem with books like Rabbit, Run, where women exist as slalom poles to be knocked as the male protagonist flails his way to the finish (aside from that obvious analogy) is that eventually that question of why echoes too loudly to process the story. There are many male writers I love, but it seems that the literary gauntlet was sort of tossed to where was convenient when it came to deciding what was canon for a lot of dudes, and is tugged away like a carrot on a string when women writers come close. More specifically, what Updike did in Rabbit, Run would have been considered indulgent, not literary, confessional fiction more than likely if a woman wrote it. I think bad books sometimes stay with you more than the good ones and I think that’s why they can be just as important. If they jar you and yank you out of the story enough times you are getting an experience of dual reading. Reading the words and then reading your reaction to them, rather than coasting to the end in a place that feels familiar. Bad books can also just be shitty, they don’t need to mean something, but good luck forgetting the things you were doing, where you were or the other things you were going through when you were trying to choke them down.

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