I’ve read three or four Updike novels and I can’t recall a damn thing about any of them. Never a good sign. I was fifty pages in before I realised I’d already read this one. That in itself – to spend money on a book I’d already read – was irritating! Updike’s novels seem like misplaced objects in my life. He’s one of those writers I feel I’ve underappreciated and yet every time I give him another go I’m left underwhelmed. This isn’t a bad novel by any means. But I was relieved to finish it because it’s not what I would call an enjoyable novel. It’s rather humourless and lacking in vitality for a novel written by such a young man. In terms of its scope it often felt like a short story or a novella that had been fattened up for consumption.
Updike is writing about the blindfolding tyranny of male vanity but I often felt he himself was guilty of it in the register of this novel’s voice. I couldn’t help thinking of our (English) young literary protégé Martin Amis. Like Updike’s Amis’ first novel was a sexy, cynical affair about a self-centred misogynistic young man. Except Amis gets us to like his hero by not asking us to like him. Updike, on the other hand, I always felt wants us to like Rabbit. He knows he shouldn’t but he can’t help himself. He’s trying to work Rabbit’s (for me inexistent) charm on us the reader as if he is a reflection of the writer himself. I never felt Updike was sufficiently detached from the character he created. Amis is a whole lot more subtle in creating his male monsters. Amis’ women are deliberately male projections. Updike’s are male projections but presented otherwise. When he gives us their perspective we discover they have nothing better to think about than Rabbit, usually in terms that gratify Rabbit’s vanity. When Rabbit’s supposedly irresistible virile charm also has the clergyman’s intelligent wife wobbling at the knees my suspension of disbelief was punctured. It was like Updike’s own vanity couldn’t resist another (gratuitous) female conquest.
Maybe part of the problem is that I’m English and didn’t find any connection to the suburban middle America community he was depicting but I found this hard work. It’s not a misogynist novel but it does have a lot of misogynist undertones, especially in its depiction of women as weak-kneed, gullible concubines (most evident in his patronising depiction of the clergyman’s wife where he had the opportunity to create a woman of some integrity).
Only the quality of the writing made it a 3 star novel instead of 2.