“One world: everybody fucks everybody. When he thinks of all the fucking there’s been in the world and all the fucking there’s going to be, and none of it for him, here he sits in this stuffy car dying, his heart just sinks. He’ll never fuck anybody again in his lifetime except poor Janice Springer, he sees this possibility ahead of him straight and grim as the known road.”
In 1974, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow was selected unanimously by that year’s Pulitzer committee to win the big Prize. The powers that be, however, were revolted by the choice due to its pornographic grotesqueness; they were particularly revolted by a passage that details coprophilia. So, they snubbed Pynchon and didn’t award the Prize to any novel that year.
Eight years later, in 1982, John Updike’s third part of his famous “Rabbit Angstrom” tetralogy, Rabbit Is Rich, won the Pulitzer Prize. In my mind, their decision went something like this: “Well we wanted to give the Prize to Gravity’s Rainbow, but it was just too pornographic. But we still feel bad about snubbing him, so we should award the novel that comes closest to Gravity’s Rainbow‘s content without going as far coprophilia. Oh, great—Rabbit Is Rich is exactly what we had in mind!”
And that’s the story of how John Updike won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.
One reviewer on Goodreads puts it best:
Rabbit cracks wise. Rabbit talks about cars. Rabbit scrutinises female anatomy. Rabbit bawls out no-good lowlife son. Rabbit’s actions receive entirely undeserved Harvard-strength descriptive torrent. Rabbit screws his wife. Rabbit fantasises about screwing his friend’s young wife. Rabbit makes racist or sexist remark. Rabbit thinks about daughter or dead Skeeter. Rabbit goes into four/five-page thought-stream with no paragraph breaks. Rabbit wants very much to have sexual intercourse with another lady. Rabbit isn’t really rich. Randomise these sentences for 423pp, that’s Rabbit is Rich.
That’s a really accurate summary of this novel.
The third installment in the Rabbit Angstrom saga, Rabbit Is Rich finds our protagonist, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, approaching his middle ages gracelessly, tactlessly, and without any scruples. Rabbit is a doddering old pervert, entirely obsessed with the female anatomy and constantly fantasizing about sex—sex with his wife, sex with his friends’ wives, sex with his wife’s friends, sex with his son’s girlfriends, sex with the models in his Consumer Reports magazines, sex with his former mistress, and even sex with his own daughter (not an exaggeration—in one scene in the very early stages of the book—within the first 25 pages, I think—he happens upon a young woman whom he believes might be his estranged daughter and can’t stop thinking about her sexually, admiring her legs and breasts and wondering what color her pubic hair is. Yeah—that’s a real thing in this book. Besides the female anatomy, Rabbit has an extremely unusual preoccupation with pubic hair. Or maybe Updike does; I don’t know where the line is drawn between Rabbit the character and Updike the author.). I’m certainly no prude, but Rabbit’s preoccupation with sex was distracting, off putting, and I think it took far more away from the story than added to it.
Besides being a doddering old pervert, Rabbit is an insufferable blowhard. He’s racist, sexist, ageist, misogynistic, sociopathic, aggressive, cranky, entrenched, vane, violent, narcissistic, inflated, and just downright mean. He hates everybody and everything and is bothered by every single aspect of life. I can’t decide if he’s obsessive compulsive, depressed, schizophrenic, or a combination of all three.
When he wasn’t fantasizing about getting blowjobs from every single female character in the book or fantasizing about smashing his wife’s skull in with a rock, he’s droning on and on and on about how awful his kid is, how awful his wife is, how awful his friends are, how awful the government is, how awful the whole world is… He is also Updike’s representative of the Baby Boomer generation, and he hates the generation that came before and he hates the generation that is coming up; he doesn’t like the way world was and he sure as hell doesn’t like what it’s becoming.
Rabbit Angstrom isn’t even remotely a likable character; in fact, he’s the very opposite—he’s deplorable. He’s not a hero, he’s not even a tragic hero—he’s just tragic. A tragic, insufferable, unsympathetic wretch. If you take out all of the sex, all you’re left with is a very short, very sad tale about a lonely, bitter old man. If you leave it in, the story is all the more grim.
And, for me, the content isn’t even the worst part of the book. I’ll patiently read my way through the grotesque if it’s well-written and/or serves a purpose. But in the case of Rabbit Is Rich, it isn’t and doesn’t—it’s just there. For me, this novel’s greatest downfall is that it is a deliberately overweight, exhausting mess, centered almost entirely on Rabbit’s misadventures in opulence. This is not an enjoyable book; hell, this isn’t even a worthwhile book—the reward isn’t worth the effort of slogging through—nay, being forcibly dragged through—its nearly 500 pages of muck and mire. Rabbit Angstrom is a horrible, awful, miserable, small, empty husk of a man and John Updike forces his readers to entertain him in all of his awful misery.
And that’s all fine, if Updike wrote the book in such a way that the book has meaning or purpose; but it doesn’t. And nobody wants to read a book that intentionally stiff-arms and alienates the reader.
The other thing about this book is that it’s not even that well-written. I haven’t read them so I can’t say for certain, but I’ve heard enough praise for the first two novels in the Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy to know that Updike became the quintessential American writer we know him as today with Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux. He was pretty popular for his short stories, but it was those two books that earned him much of his critical success. Words like “brilliant” and “Joycean” have been used to describe Updike’s early Rabbit works.
Again, I can’t speak for the first two books in this series, but I have read many of Updike’s short stories and I can quite confidently say that Rabbit Is Rich is, much like its protagonist, a baggier, saggier, clumsier version of what Updike’s writing once was. The pacing is way off, the stream of consciousness he was once known for is now a jumbled mess of comma-drenched lumps of dullness, his pointedness has lost its edge and is now an exercise in meandering futility, and even his ability to tell a simple story is almost entirely lost (as that same reviewer on Goodreads writes, “If Updike’s only intention was to write a supersize novel to reflect Rabbit’s distending gut and bank account, this is disappointing.”).
This book really could have been something special. It could have redeemed Rabbit or it could have vilified him and, thus, made him a symbol. It did neither. He’s awful in the beginning, throughout, and in the conclusion. No change whatsoever. Instead, it’s just an exercise in futility and self-indulgent drivel.
Instead of giving us a grand payoff at the climax, Updike forces us to endure the most vile, grotesque, pornographic sex scene I’ve ever read. That scene is emblematic of the entire novel; that scene is the one that Updike really wanted to sit with his readers. There are plenty of other things that happen in this book, but Updike mostly glosses over them; but that sex scene… Wow. It just goes on and on and on and on and on. Even the scene that I felt should have been the climax, when Rabbit confronts his former mistress about the daughter he believes he had with her was a flash in the pan compared to that sex scene. That horrible, awful, revolting, disgusting, grotesque sex scene.
I did, however, enjoy its historical significance. All that stuff about the Soviets invading Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter, the oil crisis, the Iranian hostage crisis—ate it right up. If only it weren’t for Rabbit’s constant griping about each of those subjects…