A house, having been willfully purchased and furnished, tells us more than a body, and its description is a foremost resource of the art of fiction. Every novelist becomes, to a degree, an architect—castles in air!—and a novel itself is, of course, a kind of dwelling, whose spaces open and constrict, foster display or concealment, and resonate from room to room. –John Updike
As part of my effort to understand the state where I’ve been living for the past two years, I’m reading John Updike. I’ve taught his short stories from time to time, but I have never tackled his novels. So, I’m making my way slowly through Rabbit, Run. Set in Brewer, PA--a fictionalized Reading, PA--the book is full of domestic spaces—thickly described.
I find myself astounded by his detailed descriptions. The particular architectural details of the houses and apartments that belong to the characters seem as important as the characters themselves. The twin houses where neighbors refuse to mow a strip of grass, the sober house of the Lutheran minister where visitors feel compelled to kneel and pray. Rabbit runs from his pregnant wife and child, it seems, because the house where they live together is cluttered, chaotic, and full of the noise of television. I want to drive to Reading and find the block where Rabbit, his parents, in-laws, and his high-school football coach all survive in twins and row houses built sharply and claustrophobically into the hillside (except, of course, it doesn't exist except in the novel). It’s not a wonder that Rabbit’s run takes him to a girlfriend, who lives in a simple flat on the other side of town with few distractions and a view of church goers lining up for Sunday services.
As Updike put it:
In my second novel, Rabbit, Run, an entire street—a steep street of row houses, “covered with composition shingling varying in color from bruise to dung”—had to be constructed to give my young couple housing, and then the fleeing husband had to be followed through the labyrinth of Brewer... Truly, the hollowing-out of these habitable burrows, assigning wall tint and texture, visualizing fanlight and doorbell, shag rug and windowsill, constitutes a primary adventure of the fiction-generalizing mind.
Many writers have written about domestic architecture--from Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton to Mark Twain and John Updike. I’m going to begin re-collecting and reflecting on these pieces here for a larger project on the architecture of fiction, the fiction of architecture, and an exploration the Pennsylvania literary landscape.
To read more of Updike’s essays for Architectural Digest see this page.