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August 07, 2005

  • The Devil In The Details
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    Back in July, a most anticipated book was released. It was all I could do to contain my excitement as I was eventually able to pick up my own copy of this mammoth tome. I couldn't wait to find out the hidden and secret worlds contained therein. Such are moments worth savouring.

    Moments when a new John Irving book is released.

    Oh, another book was released then, as well?

    I'm sure Harry Potter fans have much to rejoice about. (I'll wait for the film). For me, the real excitement given to me reading fiction comes from a man writing stories about people in some ways more mature, and in other ways just as child-like as Young Mr. Potter. For the past 15 years, my favourite living author has been a man whose world building is on a par with Tolkien and Rowling, and yet his novels have never left the planet earth (albeit the more unlikelier parts of it).

    Make no mistake, John Irving's novels are magical. They don't transport you to fantastic new realms, they bring you into ordinary people's lives. Only they turn out to be absolutely extraordinary.

    I'll never forget my first time with a John Irving novel. It was 1990 and I had been out for lunch with a former professor who recommended a book by an author named John Irwin. Fortunately, I still managed to find a copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany in a Coles bookstore in Hopedale Mall in Oakville. I opened that mammoth tome as I sat down on a bus about 25 minutes from the Oakville GO Train station.

    The next thing I knew I was approaching the Eglinton West subway station in the north end of Toronto. Almost two hours had passed without my noticing. Somehow I managed to switch completely to auto-pilot, so engrossed I was in the what was unfolding in this marvellous novel. A Prayer for Owen Meany begins with one of the most evocative opening sentences of a novel ever, "I am doomed to remember a boy with with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany." With one complex sentence, John Irving set the agenda of his novel and hooked me in immediately.

    A Prayer for Owen Meany tells the story of two friends: Owen Meany, a diminuitive but spooky little boy and his best friend Johnny Wainwright (the narrator). Over the course of the first hundred pages or so, Johnny and Owen's world is brought to life in vivid detail. Johnny is the illegitimate son of a vivacious and unorthodox mother in the stuffy New England town of Gravesend in the 1950s. Owen is the son of stonemasons. Considerably smaller than his peers, he talks in a cartoony falsetto that Irving renders in all caps. Both Johnny and Owen love John's mother but Owen accidentally kills her with the only baseball he ever hit in a Little League game.

    That's just the first chapter. That would be enough for most novels (indeed when Mark Steven Johnson adapted A Prayer For Owen Meany into the 1998 film Simon Birch, he primarily drew from that first chapter). But then, the reader already knew this would be the case; Owen Meany doesn't haunt the adult John Wainwright because of his wrecked voice or his tiny frame or that he killed John's mother. The rest of the novel tells the story of the next thirty years for John Wainwright and shows us how Owen makes John a believer in God. It's a rich tale, and the succeeding eight chapters are just as evocative and detailed as the first. By the end, you have no doubt about the mystery that is spelled out in the opening sentence. You know why John Wainwright is "doomed to remember" Owen Meany and the answer is powerful and sad and a little disturbing in its implications.

    If, as the cliché goes, the devil is in the details, then a John Irving novel is in them as well. It's there in a a sense of place: the Continental and North American hotels that comprise The Hotel New Hampshire; the orphanage and migrant pickers' bunkhouses in The Cider House Rules; The Bollywood India of A Son of the Circus. It's there in showing how things are done: the way writers work (The World According To Garp gets inside a writer's head better than any book I've read); the method by which abortions are performed. You can see it in his current novel, Until I Find You, set in the world of tattoo parlours and 1990s Hollywood. John Irving knows, like any good storyteller, that giving proper attention to the seemingly mundane adds richness and adds verisimilitude.

    In fact, in my more unfair moments I would go so far as to say Irving's later novels seem an amalgam of recurring elements from past elements. There may or may not be (in any particular order): A New Hampshire childhood or adolescence, including an education at an all-male boarding school in said state; a bizarre first sexual encounter; wrestling; excerpts of a short story/novel written by central character; a stern matriarch; a large woman with a sexual appetite who shows the way forward…the list could go on. And yet, if Irving is a novelist who returns to the same ideas he always finds, if not new things to explore, then something additional to say.

    Such is the case with Until I Find You which follows its central character Jack Burns from his tortuous childhood through a popular adolescence and successful adulthood before being confronted with his past. We live in the world of Jack Burns, a world that takes us from the Toronto private girl's school school where he was sexually abused to 1990s Hollywood. There are the familiar elements (wrestling, a stern matriarch, a large woman) but they're just incidental. What's more important is that we live in Jack's past, his present and then his past again as the book confronts the unreliability of childhood memory.

    It's more than just random minutae at work here. What John Irving does is put you in the life of a character and the journey is through that person's life. Such is the case with Jack Burns, and similar journeys have been taken in other works by Irving: There's Homer Wells, the orphan who would not be adopted who becomes the hero of The Cider House Rules. There's Ruth Cole, an author who struggles to make a life for herself in the shadow of a family she never knew in A Widow For One Year. These journeys can be uncomfortable: Jack Burns sexual abuse almost becomes too much to bear in Until I Find You, but that's not nearly as difficult as John and Franny Berry, the brother and sister struggling with their incestuous feelings for each other in The Hotel New Hampshire. However these journeys, like the one Homer Wells takes to manhood in The Cider House Rules can also be incredibly inspiring.

    It's the rich, interior quality to John Irving's books that might explain why the film adaptations of his work have failed so spectacularly. Irving's stories are about people's inner thoughts and feelings and these do not translate to film terribly well. Add to this the task of compressing such mammoth works into a two hour running time and you have a dilemma that would stymie the best screenwriters (and a few of them have tried). It certainly stymied Irving who, frankly, did not deserve the Oscar he received for the film adaptation of The Cider House Rules—a film which, in spite of all of Irving's bluster, soft-pedalled his pro-abortion message considerably, and drained the film of a lot of its book's whimsy (what little there is I think is more due to Lasse Hallstrom's direction).This doesn't really surprise me as Irving's real gift is in prose. His dialogue is little more than a function serving the prose. In movies, good dialogue is so important. It's why Irving himself has said that the film version of The World According to Garp is screenwriter Steve Tesich's invention than his own, and why Irving's dialogue in Cider House Rules is so leaden.

    There's also the problem of capturing the unique voice in John Irving's novels. All of John Irving's novels have an aspect to it that is just one foot off the earth, what Irving himself has described as the ‘what if' question that begs fiction to be made. Irving used such a question to create his 2000 novel The Fourth Hand—where a man who received a transplanted hand had to deal with visitation rights from the donor's widow—but it's there in his other novels as well:  The writer whose mother is the leader of a radical feminist cult (The World According to Garp). The diminutive boy who may be a Christ figure (A Prayer For Owen Meany). This continues today in Irving's latest novel, Until I Find You, with its almost fantastical landscape set in North Sea ports in 1969 and the present day as Jack Burns lives, and re-lives, his mother's pursuit of his father.

    In John Irving's books, all lives are extraordinary really. We see this to its fullest extent in The World According To Garp where every single character that appears in the book have the rest of their lives and deaths told to the reader. But it's everywhere in his novels: John Wainwright, the narrator in A Prayer For Owen Meany lives in the present day as an English teacher at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, and yet in spite of his ordinary existence, he is still touched by his association with Owen Meany. Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules is an ordinary orphan with a special destiny, but so are all the other orphans who are called "Princes of New England"  And if people are quirky in his novels (as there are by the score), well, that's okay because frankly everyone is quirky, when you look at it.

    Until I Find You is a middle-tier Irving to be sure—not nearly as brilliant as A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules but far better than his previous two novels—and yet if someone's so-called ‘middle-tier' work can be so entertaining, fascinating, disturbing and hauntingly wonderful as this then that's not a particularly difficult handicap. But when you're a genius who can create worlds as fanciful and as solid as John Irving does, you don't have much to worry about in the first place.

     

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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