Mastered Irony and the Mega-Novel
John Updike published Rabbit, Run, the first of his four novels about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, in 1960. Rabbit Redux, the second installment in the series, came out in the fall of 1971. The third and fourth installments, Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, followed in 1981 and 1990, respectively. All totaled, the four-part series—or tetralogy—took John Updike nearly thirty years to complete. This is not to suggest that Updike spent thirty years working only on the Rabbit tetralogy. In fact, between each installment he continued to produce a prolific stream of novels, essays, short stories, and poems. What's more, each Rabbit novel is cast in the present tense and is set in the year or so just prior to its publication date: Rabbit, Run takes place in 1959, Rabbit Redux in 1969, and so on. Updike could only have written each Rabbit novel in the final year of whatever decade that particular installment explores. Indeed, this tidy, decade-by-decade structure has served as one of the tetralogy's most popular features: fans of the series can check their own experiences against that of Updike's gruff, hard-hearted Toyota salesman. In this regard, the Rabbit novels serve as a fictionalized time line of the postwar American experience.
All of which is no less than what Updike always intended. In his Introduction to Rabbit Angstrom, the 1995 Everyman's Library omnibus edition of the completed tetralogy, he describes the novels as “a kind of running commentary on the state of my hero and his nation” whose “ideal reader” is “a fellow-American who had read and remembered the