Thursday, April 30, 2009

Book Blogging Discussion: Rabbit, Run

In Rabbit, Run, John Updike answers one of society’s great questions: What happens to the high school jock when he wakes up one day and realizes he has drifted into mediocrity? Answer: he runs. From everything. Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom decides on his way to pick up his young son from his parents’ house that instead he will just leave his life behind. This after a moment of clarity in which he becomes disdainful of his pregnant wife and the life they share. He leaves her, their son, and a job selling vegetable peelers and hits the road, Jack Kerouac-style. For a night. And then decides to head back to their suburban Pennsylvanian town and shack up with a prostitute introduced to him by his old high school coach until his wife goes into labor.

In my old book group, our mediator never failed to ask one question about a book: Is it character-driven or plot-driven? In other words, is the point of reading it to find out what happens to the characters or to see how they develop and respond to the plot unfolding around them? Your average page-turner is plot-driven. Most books are difficult to classify as one or the other and generally fall in between. This book is one that is easily identifiable as character-driven. This book was all about Rabbit, his choices, how his character influences those choices, how others respond to him and how he himself becomes changed by his circumstances. To me, it is unusual to find such a character-driven book where the main character is so emotionally immature. Catcher in the Rye immediately comes to mind, but not much else. Yet despite his faults - narcissism, immaturity, impulsiveness, short-sightedness, possessiveness – I found it really difficult to dislike Rabbit. There was something tragic about him (besides the sad turn his life takes at the end) that made me feel like wasn’t a bad person per se, he just didn’t get it. And I often feel sorry for characters who cannot just enjoy life for what it is but must instead always be looking at the greener grass on the other side. Did he finally get it at the end? There is evidence for both answers. He honestly felt grief for what happened and grasped the finality of the events. But the outburst at the funeral blaming Janice in front of everybody definitely suggests otherwise.

Since this book is all about Rabbit and recounts a rather odd period in his life, I am still not sure I like the twist that the plot took, throwing a tragic wrench into things. Sure, it was good to see the consequences of Rabbit’s neglect of his marriage and his selfishness in regards to his own needs, but I also thought that to stay true to the point of the book it might have been better if the banality of the plot continued while the fascinating character insights remained the main focus. I’m interested to see if any of you agree or disagree.

I found myself feeling very torn about almost every character. Rabbit most of all, of course. I found Janice almost insufferable, but had to feel bad for her as the victim. I also had to keep reminding myself of the time period of the book. She had to take him back – she was soon to be a mother of two and probably had no work skills whatsoever. But I kept thinking she didn’t have to be so eager to do so. I saw Eccles as well-meaning, but in the context of today’s thinking, I’d say he had a man crush on Rabbit and wanted badly to live vicariously through the ex-basketball star. I think I liked Ruth most of all. I liked that she was confident but struggled with her weight. Unfortunately her independence brought out a mean streak in Rabbit and I think she understood why that relationship wasn’t going to work. And yet faced with the prospect of raising a child without a father without help from her parents she handled it much better than Janice.

But what I liked the best about the book was definitely the prose. I was so intrigued by the dichotomy of describing an average person and an average place with unbelievably beautiful language. And it wasn’t just Updike’s acute sense of detail. He doesn’t just describe what’s in Rabbit and Janice’s apartment, he makes you feel claustrophobic and frustrated by returning several times to the fact that the closet door when opened bumps up against the TV set. And he also describes feelings everyone experiences but in a way I’ve never thought of before. I am still struck by a particular passage where Rabbit wakes up in the bed of his old coach during a poker game. At first, while he is disoriented, his senses are fuzzy. He can’t understand what people are saying, he can only register the noise. And then the noises “crystallize into words” as he becomes fully aware of his surroundings. As a scientist, the metaphor of your surroundings undergoing a phase transformation from amorphous to crystalline as you wake up from sleep delighted me to no end and made me ashamed I never thought of it that way before. The book is full of passages like that. Several parts I read over again just to try to digest the language.

As I wrote before, this is an experiment. I’m not sure if I’ll get much discussion or not. I enjoyed reading the book and putting down my thoughts. I’ll probably continue to do so no matter how much response I get but whether it heads more as a book review feature or a discussion is up to you.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Apology, Teeny Tiny Update and Reminder: Book Blogging

Sorry peeps. I didn't mean to leave you for so long, but things have been insane. What else is new, right? Just when you think life stabilizes, it tosses you a curveball. And then you write about it in mixed metaphors.

Here's the short version: We're moving again. I told real-life family and friends about this a few weeks ago, but didn't feel comfortable posting about it until things were finalized. I was offered another postdoc position. Even though being a postdoc kinda sucks, this one pays much better (and includes moving expenses!), involves doing something that I absolutely love, and comes with the possibility of a permanent position at the end. It is in a suburb of Washington, DC so if it turns out not to lead to a permanent position, there are still plenty of opportunities for me without necessarily having to ask Dean to quit his job and pack up all our belongings again. We are not moving until September which gives us a little time to enjoy New England when it isn't cold as hell which we have already started to do. I fully plan to write about our recent exploring (including a visit from my mom and stepdad) AND the back story behind my new job very shortly.

But first, I haven't forgotten about our book blogging experiment. I am still reading Rabbit, Run in between dodging job offers, apartment hunting and baseball games. I told you I would write about it next week. I'm not sure yet whether it will be early or late in the week depending on when I finish the book. But I am already formulating my thoughts and hope some of you can contribute to the discussion.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Name Game

Lifted from Dianne's place. She posted it a couple weeks ago, but I'm just getting around to it now. The gangsta name doesn't make much sense for me (even though it's funny) and I've never heard of Minneapolis for a last name. But this is still pretty fun. Post it to your blog or put a funny name in the comments section.

1.Your rock star name (first pet, current car) - Cocoa del Sol

2.Your gangsta name (favorite ice cream flavor, favorite type of shoe) – Neopolitan Wedge

3.Your Native American name (favorite color, favorite animal) – Purple Cat

4.Your soap opera name (middle name, city where you were born) – Anne Minneapolis

5.Your Star Wars name (the first 3 letters of your last name, first 2 of your first name) - Hulna

6.Superhero name (2nd favorite color, favorite drink) – Blue Cape Cod

7.NASCAR name (the first names of your grandfathers) – Kenny Ruben

8.Dancer name (the name of your favorite perfume/cologne/scent, favorite candy) - Lilac Truffle

9.TV weather anchor name (your 5th grade teacher’s last name, a major city that starts with the same letter) - Simonson San Diego

10.Spy name (your favorite season/holiday, flower) – Summer Peony

11.Cartoon name:(favorite fruit, article of clothing you’re wearing right now) – Mango Sweater

12.Hippie name (what you ate for breakfast, your favorite tree) – Granola Oak

13.Movie (or porn) star name (first pet, first street where you lived) – Cocoa Logan