[Guilty aside. Can one really claim to know literature through audio books? Aren't you lying if you say you've "read" a work if you've merely listened to it? If we listen instead of read, do we need to qualify everything we say about the work by continually pointing out that we really haven't read it? I have a huge quantum of guilt that hovers around this issue. But I think there's a case to be made that audio books are actually preferred methods of absorbing literary works. (This assertion is, by the way, reminiscent of my defense of HD broadcasts of operas.) Here's the deal. The readers selected to read these important works are almost always endowed with exceptional voices. They almost always use multiple character voices skillfully, which adds to the coherence of the dialogue: no parsing lengthy stretches of dialogue to figure who is saying what. And in some works, such as the Audible Studios version of Haruki Murakami's "1Q84," which uses three readers, multiple readers can be used to good effect. Another advantage is that you expand and exercise your spoken vocabulary. You learn, for instance, that there's no long "o" in "cacophony," or no long "i" for one meaning of "primer." Beyond that, it's truly pleasurable to have the story move along effortlessly at a proper spoken-word pace. Of course, the big drawback is time. Most of us read to ourselves much faster than the readers read out loud. For me, given that I often have lengthy commutes and some days end up driving a good chunk of the day, it's nice to be able to assuage the self-loathing that comes from not being better read by listening to audio books.]
My first reaction to "Rabbit, Run" was one of abhorrence. The opening basketball scene failed to excite me and foretold boredom, which was replaced by revulsion at receiving an eerily accurate depiction of 1959 in the months after I was born. I felt revulsion when the narrator stopped and described things in percipient but crushing detail. Updike's powers of description, his portrayal of scenes, are impressive, perhaps Nabokovian, but they are also what detracts from his writing, particularly when applied to his descriptions of the female human body.
In this day when elevator eyes can get you sued, the full-on Harry Angstrom perusal of women is difficult to take. Whenever a new female character is introduced and brought into his presence, Harry gives a lengthy and detailed discussion of her assets, no holds barred. He rates every woman and every body part, as if by reflex. Beyond this: brutal objectification, usually without a dash of tenderness; descriptions of body parts and acts that most will find difficult to read; and blunt ignorance and lack of concern for others' feelings. I cringed often.
But despite Harry Angstorm's coarse nature, the question I kept coming back to is whether these obsessive thoughts of Harry's are real and important, but things that we just never talk about. Isn't there an honesty here that penetrates all the dance and all the societal posturing we engage in? Isn't this how we really think? Or, at least, isn't this how some amongst us really think? And are these people really bad people? Despite everything we hate about Harry Angstrom, isn't there also something that we admire, or at least like?
And then there's the Jude-the-Obscure-like tragic scene. And everybody just moves on.
As to the secondary characters, some of these are straight from a Norman Rockwell painting: Eccles, the Springers, perhaps Harry's son, Nelson. Then others, Ruth, the brainy prostitute, and Tothero, the slimy coach, are types that Rockwell would have skipped over.
By the time I reached the end of the work, I kept telling myself that the sins of the characters are not to be visited upon the author. The messenger does not create the bad news and the novelist is not his characters. And of course it is presumptuous and probably wrong to think that we should only read about and study virtue. Even if we should not practice them, don't we need to know evil, dysfunction, selfishness?
But in the end, despite all the top-shelf description and all the interesting psychological study, I had to wonder whether my time with this work was well spent. If the work has a purpose, that purpose is too occult for my taste. But I'm also inclined to see out the full four-book series before passing final judgment.