Finished Rabbit, Run last week with a sure sense that this is among the most important novels ever written - while disliking the contemporary fad for lists and charts as much as the next (grumpy old) man, to me any sort of critical enterprise involves making comparisons and distinctions and I haven't much time for the school of levellers who suggest that Eminem's rhymes should be read as poetry that stands comparison with, say, Wordsworth, Eliot or Muldoon.
Locating Rabbit, Run within the lineage of other 20th Century novelists is intriguing. My reading is that as well as being benched in Joyce Updike is also setting up a dialogue with DH Lawrence and that in fact the whole novel could be read as a complex interplay between (and wasn't it Richard Aldington who originated the antithesis in the Intro to DHL's Collected Poems?) what Joyce represents (both stylistically and epistemologically) and what Lawrence (ditto) does. In some ways Rabbit is like a Lawrence character living off his impulses and the pull of sensual/sensuous pleasure: the familiar rhythm and diction of Lawrence's prose (as well as his questionable gender-politics) burst through in this sentence:
" He knows only this: that underneath everything, under their minds and their situations, he possesses, like an inherited lien on a distant piece of land, a dominance over her, and that in her grain, in the lie of her hair and nerves and fine veins, she is prepared for this dominance." (p. 206, Penguin Modern Classics)
But Updike (although he sees the appeal of this vitality when set against the moral staidness of small-town American society) shows what Rabbit's impetuous individualism can result in within the context of the Joycean priorities of family and social kinship: the tragic denouement is however saved from being the punitive comeuppance of a Victorian novel by an ambivalent ending unfolding (like that of Joyce's A Portrait ) on a future to be returned to in subsequent fiction. As Updike says in his Afterword: "the book ends on an ecstatic, open note that was meant to stay open, as testimony to our hearts' stubborn amoral quest for something once called grace".
One more example of the marvellously-precise, subtly-embedded poetry of Updike's prose. When Rabbit supports his toddler son to use the toilet at night, "wee-wee springs from the child's irritated sleep and jerkily prinkles into the bowl" - surely eliding the s here and converting "sprinkles" to the coinage "prinkles" (with its connotations of smallness and pinkness and its onomatapeic rightness) is an act of genius - it is absolutely the "mot juste".