What I’ve Been Reading – April 2007

Rabbit Angstrom

Books Received:
The Best American Short Stories of the 80’s – Shannon Ravenel (editor)
The Best American Short Stories 2003 – Walter Mosley (editor)
Herzog – Saul Bellow
Amsterdam – Ian McEwan
Love Medicine – Louise Erdrich
The Van – Roddy Doyle
The Snapper – Roddy Doyle
Cover Her Face – P.D. James
The Lighthouse – P.D. James
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue 23 – McSweeney’s Press

Books Read:
Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels – John Updike
Rabbit, Run
Rabbit Redux
Rabbit is Rich
Rabbit at Rest

So, I managed to read a 1,500-page book this month.

Let me repeat myself.

I managed to read a 1,500-page book last month. And, technically, some of month before that. And this month. And, also technically, it was four books bound together as one. So really, I read four books over a five and a half week period. When counting my reading output at the end of the year, I will definitely count this as four books. But for the sake of this post, I read one book – 1,500 pages long – this month.

How I reached the decision to tackle this tome came over a convoluted series of events. I had finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – which, coincidentally or not, I purchased this month (good luck trying to check THAT book out at the library now – thanks, Oprah.) I read a few reviews of The Road. There was mention, for whatever reason, of John Updike. I remembered that Updike was on my list of The Essentials, just as Cormac McCarthy was.

I thought to myself, “I want to see what these Rabbit books are all about.” So I did.

Now, I’ve already written about this on another website (Yeah, I’m late this month for What I’ve Been Reading, sorry.) So I’ll quote from my Millions post how I decided to read all four instead of just one:

I had heard from several people that Rabbit Redux was the best of the four. I found out that the final two books won the Pulitzer. That left three of the four books with a decent pedigree. Then, I thought, “Well, if I was going to read the last three, shouldn’t I start with the first one?” In days, I had created a viable argument for reading each one of the four books.

And with that, I set off on my task.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t difficult. I’ve read long books before – Stephen King’s The Stand (uncut, baby!) in high school, Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame – so I was prepared for a grueling marathon. Instead, because it was really four books and not just one – I found myself getting a break, like reading a book of short stories, only with stories that were 400 pages long, all containing the same characters with the same storyline.

That’s not to say I wasn’t distracted at times – the Augustana Library Book Sale threw some more of The Essentials on my bookshelf in Herzog and Love Medicine. Herzog I’m actually quite interested in, I think, more than usual. Or maybe that’s Babbitt. I get the two mixed up all the time. One’s about newspapers, the other’s about something else. Love Medicine, of course, is Louise Erdrich, and was highly regarded by a co-worker who is no longer a co-worker. I tried to buy it in Minneapolis and couldn’t find it. Weird – Erdrich has a bookstore in Minneapolis that we didn’t go to, so maybe she had snatched up all the copies for her own sales.

I also continued my trend of purchasing an Ian McEwan book on yearly basis. Once a year, at least, I find a stray McEwan book at these used book library sales, and I always buy them, and I always put them on the shelf and stare at them, knowing full well that I enjoy McEwan’s writing but also knowing full well that I’ll never get around to reading the book.

Roddy Doyle was a favorite this year – I found a ton of Doyle books, and even bought two of three books out of a trilogy, which is somehow maddening to my completist mind. I’m not sure how much of this is someone unloading their collection of Roddy Doyle and how much of it is opportunity thinking – I’ve read two Doyle books in the past year and now my eyes pick his books out of a crowd much easier. P.D. James falls into the same boat – lots of her books, all guilty pleasures: mysteries, the forbidden love of many a “serious literature” reader.

Allow me to get even more off track, please. Why don’t mysteries get a fairer shake? Why are they thrown into the mix with science fiction and horror, never classified as truly literary, condemned to be tut-tutted by Philip Roth fans around the world. I understand that a good majority of popular mystery writers follow a crustily formulaic plan every time – Grafton, Braun, Wittig Albert – but those can be comfortable getaways, a reprieve from the seriousness of modern literary masterpieces. Listen, we watch television shows that follow the same path every time, why can’t we accept that books can do the same thing as well – filled with a familiar warmth of convenience.

So yeah, back to the task at hand – Rabbit Angstrom. Like I said, I’ve covered the ideal of reading a series all in a row already at Millions, so you’ll need to go over there to read the post. It’s rather good. I suggest it highly. For those who don’t, I’ll sum it up. In short, reading a series – or even a book and its sequel – back to back (to back to back in this case) allows you to truly become accustomed to the characters. It keeps all of the smaller parallels intact. When you spread them out, your mind starts to get rid of the minute details. You have to reacquaint yourself with the story. You’re forced to get back up to speed. So reading these four books at once made everyone more complete. It was a grand experiment, and I highly encourage it to be repeated.

I understand the idea of letting a good thing drag on – spreading it out and making it last. That’s fine. I’ll probably do that more often, really, because I don’t have the attention span to cover four books in a row too often. I wouldn’t have done it with Rabbit’s books, except that they were bound together. It was a mind game. And the binding won. Because of that, I was able to really enjoy a complete, long narrative where everything stayed fresh, I understood the smallest back reference and nothing was jumbled up in the mess of remembered literature.

The story itself is basic, at best – a man grows old, and here is his life! Marvel in his extra-marital affairs, his stupid decisions and his impossible relationship with his son! Feel the strain as Rabbit’s acquaintances, lovers and – yes! – family die around him! Witness the struggle of a man that peaks in high school – a basketball star that slums around, becomes rich off of his wife’s family business, and never feels comfortable in his own skin!

Rabbit’s greatest skill, really, is running – mostly, running away from his problems. The first book – Rabbit, Run (which, according to the forward, was designed to be a short story – and look how far that short story got him) is about Rabbit running away from an annoying marriage. Rabbit Redux finds him running away into the arms of a couple of crazy people. Rabbit is Rich allows Rabbit to run straight into himself, into his newfound wealth. Rabbit at Rest, he runs again, full circle, away from his wife (the same one!) and his problems.

The time capsule element is great – I love that each book was written at the end of the decade, so Rabbit’s life parallels the average life of 60s, 70s and 80s suburbia. And I love how Rabbit’s son Nelson slowly parallels Rabbit’s own life, running, seeking solace elsewhere.

Most of all, I love how Updike writes. He writes like I try to write. I felt comfortable winding my way through his sentences, filled with commas and sprouting with asides, driving each thought a thousand ways until coming back to rest at the original thought. He gives me a sense of hope – that somehow, I can ramble my way to two Pulitzers and serious accolades.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though, setting the path for the fourth book of my own life. Until then, I should just let this life spread out – there’s no need to rush into the entire series if I can still enjoy everything in its present state. That’s the difference between fiction and life – I don’t have any choice in the matter. I’ve got to let it spread out over time. And really, that’s the only way to do it.

This was lovingly handwritten on May 5th, 2007