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.