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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Rabbit is Rich

As you could probably guess, I've been thinking rather a lot about the economy. Being jobless for as long as I have been and with no idea what to do about it has taken up the larger part of my consciousness of late. In that light then John Updike's pulitzer-prize winner Rabbit is Rich, the third of the four Rabbit novels, serves as a needed reminder that there have been bad economies before. Rabbit himself is prosperous (hence the title) as the front man at a Toyota dealership and an uninformed speculator in precious metals. But the setting is 1979 and inflation is at double digits while gas prices soar, and even the president admits that the nation is suffering from "malaise". There is a sense in the novel that money is losing its value, and that it's better to spend it now than hold on to it while inflation makes it worthless.

Rabbit may be rich but he is not without problems. His son is coming back home against Rabbit's wishes, and he's bringing a girl who is not his girlfriend, but with whom he does sleep with. Rabbit and his wife Janice have finally settled into a quiet mid-life after rocky affairs and several heartbreaking tragedies, but they are stuck living in her mother's house despite their prosperity.

Unlike the first two novels there is no real tragedy or event which focuses the narrative, giving perspective to the story as a whole. Rabbit's life is really calming down, but the sense of struggle is still within him. This is redirected into increasingly nasty conflicts with his son. Rabbit and Nelson engage in psychological warfare which is occasionally brutal and which threatens to explode, but never really does.

Updike hints at potential disasters throughout the novel. Nelson has four separate automobile accidents, but none of them are major. Nelson is somewhat forced into marriage to a girl he impregnates (a different girl than he has been sleeping with in his grandmother's house, as it turns out) but though Rabbit practically encourages him to run off before the wedding he doesn't.

This is the longest of the novels so far, and not to accommodate any excess of plot. Updike is lingering around far more than he did when both Rabbit and he were young men. Unfortunately not all of that lingering is interesting, too much of it focuses on nature and the like. Updike is better when describing in detail the furnishing of the houses of Rabbit's country-club friends, shedding light on the unreality and pretension of suburban get-togethers and middle-age exclusivity. A dinner party where an outsider couple were regrettably invited is wonderfully written.

Ultimately, though the set-up provides much of interest, nothing much happens to Rabbit in this novel, but that seems to be the point. Rabbit works hard to keep himself safe and spends his time trying to induce a fight worth fighting, but it just doesn't present itself. He tries to conceive of another affair, but the result is far different from what Rabbit desires.

I'll give the novel a 7.5 out of 10. Just one more Rabbit novel to go.

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