The Novels of John Irving
The novels of John Irving are utterly unique in the current American popular literature. While the trend is for writers to pen shorter and shorter novels and to emulate the style of film and television by ignoring prose style in favor of fast moving plots and snappy dialogue, Irving writes long sprawling novels that span decades in characters lives. His work is essentially Dickensian but he also draws influence from magical realist writers such as Gunter Grass and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The result is novels that feel epic in scope and emotionally intimate, are blackly comic and also deeply moving, are surreal but also with characters we feel we have known all our lives. Irving manages to create these seemingly contradictory elements all at once in his masterful and often autobiographical works.
The reoccurring elements of Irving’s work seem a bit odd. Inexplicably there are often bears somewhere to be found. Many of his novels often involve wrestling, a sport that Irving was active in during high school and college. Characters who are inflicted with dwarfism pop up a lot. Most notably there is an element of “sexual anarchy” that can be found in his stories. What I mean by this is characters often embark on ill-advised and socially inappropriate relationships. Incest is common in Irving’s work as is sex between women and underage boys. It wasn’t a surprise to many that had made a close study of his work that Irving came out that he had a sexual relationship with a woman at the age of eleven and the event had affected him all his life.
What follows is my personal reflections on Irving’s work. I first read him at the age of seventeen when his new book A Widow for One Year had just come out and I have since read all his works, some of them several times.
Setting Free the Bears, The Water Method Man and The 158 Pound Marriage
I had already read all of Irving’s later works before I went back and read his first three novels before he became famous with his fourth book The World According to Garp. It is safe to say that at this point he was still developing as a writer. While his later books routinely exceed 500 pages of dense prose these early books are much shorter. They are also more stylistically experimental then you would see in later works. Irving was still trying to figure out what works best for him and as a result none of these three early works is a great novel but they do show a hint of the greatness that their author would one day achieve.
Setting Free the Bears has the naiveté of a novel written by somebody who was very young. Irving wrote it between the ages of 24 and 26 but perhaps because his characters are younger he latched himself onto the worldview of a precocious 18 year old. It is about two boys who take a motorcycle trip through Austria in the early 60s. It has a number of interesting themes, the loss of innocence of post-World War II Europe being the most prominent one in the text, but it is basically a comedy about youthful rebellion. The first half of the novel is written in the first person by Graff, a college student and the more responsible of the boys, and the second half is mostly made of the notebook of Siggy, the wilder and more iconoclastic of the two.
This schizophrenia accentuates one of the books flaws, and that is that Irving doesn’t know quite what kind of novel he wants to write. The book is funny but flimsy. Because it is the work of a writer who would go on to greatness it is interesting but if I had read it without having read other works by Irving I might have found it only mildly diverting.
His second novel, The Water Method Man, is a big improvement. The title refers to the preferred method by the protagonist, Fred Trumper, of treating his frequent urinary tract infections. A doctor tells him that surgery or celibacy are his best options but condescendingly tells him that he knows he will pick “the water method.”
This decision is a metaphor for Trumper’s main dilemma, his inability to grow up and make an adult decision. He is a doctoral student who has forged his entire dissertation, a translation of an obscure Norse text, has left his first wife and son because of his inability to be monogamous and is such a screw up in general that his friend is making a documentary about his inability to accept responsibility for his own life. Irving’s novels are often concerned with men who can’t grow up and this is his first real stab at that theme.
As a piece of entertainment The Water Method Man is uproariously funny and stylistically inventive. Irving jumps between first and third person narration, tells the story completely nonlinear and because the plot involves the making of a documentary film, he even uses screenplay style to write some scenes. This is Irving’s flirtation with the style of post-modernism and though future novels would still include meta-fictional devices he would not ever return to it again. This is ultimately for the better but it also makes The Water Method Man the most readable and fun of his early works.
The third of his early novels, The 158 Pound Marriage, is in the middle of the pack in terms of quality of these three early books. The plot concerns itself with spouse swapping between two couples. The narrator is a college professor and failed fiction writer who along with his wife, an Austrian ex-patriot, meet a German professor and wrestling coach and his aspiring writer wife at a faculty party. The conflict arises between the fact that the narrator and his wife each become infatuated with their lovers and when the other couple breaks it off they struggle to keep their marriage from falling apart.
Though it is a well written novel it also seems to be a fairly thin one and it seems even more so when you consider that Irving would recycle most of the themes and material of this book in later novels. It could be argued though that this novel was an essential part of Irving’s evolution and he would immediately follow it with his first masterpiece.
The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire
The World According to Garp became a huge best seller and cultural phenomenon, a rare thing for a literary novel. The book itself is the culmination of everything Irving has been working up to until then. T. S. Garp is born the only child of Jenny Fields, a nurse who conceived him by having sex with a soldier who was incontinent and under her care. His mother writes a best-selling book that makes her a central figure of the feminist movement and Garp himself grows up wanting to be a novelist but being constantly in the shadow of his famous and controversial mother. Garp marries an English professor and has children but success as a writer eludes him for many years. He and his wife both struggle with infidelity and Garp struggles with his pervasive fear of death and that horrible things will happen to his loved ones.
Death is the central theme of the novel and the inability to predict and control death is Garp’s biggest fear. Throughout the novel people around him often die in unexpected, gruesome and sometimes darkly comic ways. This would become a reoccurring theme in Irving’s work as well but this is the only novel that makes the struggle to come to terms with mortality the central theme of the book. This theme is highlighted in the books final line, “In the world according to Garp we are all terminal cases.” Irving most deftly balances the dark humor of his story with the emotional investment he gives us for his characters in this work. In previous novels his attempts to blend comic and tragic elements could seem awkward at times but here it blends seamlessly.
The novel’s second big theme is gender roles in society. Garp loves his mother dearly but resents her involvement with the feminist movement and some of her attitudes toward men and sex. He does become close to one of his mother’s associates, Roberta Muldoon, a former NFL player who became a woman through sex reassignment surgery. Garp himself struggles with his perception of women and both he and his wife have problems with fidelity. This mirrors a lot of the themes in Irving’s previous novel The 158 Pound Marriage and one of Garp’s novels has a plot very similar to that novel and a title that directly references a line from this previous work.
While The World According to Garp is Irving’s first truly great novel, his follow up The Hotel New Hampshire produces more mixed results. The story is a fable about a family that runs three different hotels, the first and third in the United States while the second one is in Vienna. These three stages are meant to represent childhood, adolescence and adulthood to Irving. The novel is narrated by Johnny who has two brothers, the older Frank who is a repressed homosexual and the younger Egg with a hearing problem and two sisters, the older Frannie who he has incestuous feelings for and younger Lily, a dwarf who is an aspiring writer. The eccentric children of the family are the focus of the novel though the characters of the parents, Win and Mary Berry, are also explored a bit within the narrative.
The outrageousness of the plot and surreal elements seem to be Irving’s attempt to top his previous work in terms of quirkiness. The result is a novel that often feels a bit forced in its attempt to blend black humor and tragedy as Irving’s early novels were. The relationship between John and Frannie is especially problematic. Their incestuous love for each other seems out of place with the relatively normal and healthy upbringing their parents provided for them. The novel also deals with sexual violence when Frannie is raped by a boy she had a crush on and continues to write her rapist letters for years after the incident. Another character the family meets in Vienna, Susie the bear, is a young woman who wears a bear suit at all times because she has been unable to cope with the sexual violence inflicted on her.
The novel is consistently fascinating but jarringly uneven. This isn’t to say that parts of the novel are not brilliant, because much of it is, but it is a definite step down from Irving’s finest work. If a reader approaches the book as a kind of contemporary fairy tale they will likely get a lot of enjoyment out of it but ultimately it lacks depth beyond the usual Irving themes. The theme of death remains a holdover from the previous book as well and the family often say a phrase to each other, “keep passing the open windows,” an obvious reference to possible suicide. Now that Irving has developed a unique style he is still in need of something to say and this novel has little new to add to his development being only a minor work that is still mildly enjoyable.
The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany
Irving’s next two novels are both philosophical and overtly political. The Cider House Rules is Irving’s most Dickensian work and follows the life of a young man, Homer Wells, who grows up in a New England orphanage in the early twentieth century. He is never adopted but is returned a number of times leading Dr. Wilber Larch who runs the orphanage to raise him as if he is his own son. In addition to running the orphanage Dr. Larch also performs abortions secretly despite the fact that they are illegal. Homer strongly finds abortion immoral and though Larch trains him as a doctor he refuses to perform abortions. When he meets a young couple who come for an abortion, Wally and Candy, he leaves the orphanage despite having been groomed by Dr. Larch as his replacement. He and Wally become best friends but when Wally goes off to war he and Candy have an affair in which they have a secret child named Angel who Homer claims to have adopted from the orphanage. When Wally returns the three live in a ménage á trois and because Wally cannot have children of his own he ignores the fact that he sees through Homer and Candy’s claim of being adopted to help raise the boy.
The Cider House Rules is emotionally powerful and elegantly written. There are outrageous comic scenes but Irving avoids the self-conscious attempts at farce that he sometimes exhibits. Instead he focuses on the philosophical and emotional issues linked to the debate about abortion and manages to create a truly brilliant critique of the issue. Dr. Larch performs abortions because he refused to perform one for a woman when he was a young man and she sought one elsewhere leading to her gruesome death. He says to Homer, “I do not make the choice for the women. I give them what they want. Either I give them an abortion or I give them an orphan.” Homer takes the issue seriously because he sees that he could just as easily have been aborted and he sees Dr. Larch’s performing abortions as an affront to the close father / son relationship that the two share.
The issue becomes grayer when we look at the situation of Candy and Wally. They have an abortion under the assumption that they can have children later. This turns out not to be the case and when Wally returns from war he loves Angel as much as he would his own child but at the same time resents his presence since he is a walking representation of Candy’s infidelity and his best friend’s betrayal. Homer remains against abortion throughout most of the novel but is forced to confront his view when he discovers a case of incest between a father and daughter among the worker’s in the orchard he runs. Irving is obviously responding to the increased debate over the issue caused by the rise of the “moral majority” in the 80s and he leaves the issue ambiguous until almost the end. The resolution seems a bit too clean but Irving proves with this book that The World According to Garp was not a fluke and that he could produce more than one great novel.
A Prayer for Owen Meany shows just as high a level of quality. The narrator of this novel is John Wheelwright, an English teacher at a private girl’s school in Canada who has fled the United States for political reasons. He begins the novel by talking about his childhood friend Owen Meany and stating that Owen is the reason that he now believes in God. As the novel progresses however, we find the story is not simply an inspiring one of faith but a tragic one that has left John with a renewed sense of faith but with also anger and confusion at what he sees as the incomprehensible nature of God. The novel seems to be directly influenced by the work of Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher who believes that God was by definition beyond reason and above the ethical sphere of human reason in particular. The result is an uneasy relationship with faith in which John is in constant doubt even as he continues to believe.
The character of Owen Meany himself is an accurate representation of what Kierkegaard called a “knight of faith.” Owen is a dwarf who believes that he is an instrument of God. In a typically Irving touch he accidentally kills the narrator’s mother when she is hit with a baseball he smashes during a little league game. This gives the character a strong sense of atonement and when he says he sees a vision from God of his own death in which he sacrifices himself during an act of heroism he accepts it without hesitation. Owen believes that he is an instrument of God and he dedicates himself to that belief no matter how strange it may seem to others. The result is a story that is tragic and disturbing, yet inspiring and funny all at the same time and one of Irving’s finest works.
A Son of the Circus and A Widow for One Year
A Son of the Circus is often underrated because it is the most atypical of all of Irving’s novels. The protagonist is a doctor named Farrokh Daruwalla who is originally from India who now practices medicine in Canada. Unknown to everybody but a few he also writes a series of Bollywood detective films starring a popular character named Inspector Dhar and he often returns to India to write the script for the newest installment in the series. While the novel has as many subplots and quirky characters as any other Irving novel its main concern is a series of murders that the characters get involved with and these murders have a connection to events in Dr. Daruwalla’s life from twenty years previous.
While it sounds like a typical crime novel in some ways it is far from it. There is the usual mix of black humor and tragedy and Irving uses the fact that his protagonist is a writer of detective films to deploy a number of meta-fiction devices. The novel may be considered by many to not be as deep as other Irving novels but it can never be accused of being less fun or for not using Irving’s talents to their fullest. Another theme that is addressed is Daruwalla’s feelings that he does not really belong in either India or Canada and his disconnection from both places gives the novel both its title and a surprisingly moving ending for a novel concerned mostly with murder.
A Widow for One Year continues Irving’s fascination with meta-fiction and exploring the process of writing through his characters. It is also worth noting that it is the only one of his novels where the protagonist is a woman, though the first third of the novel occurs when Ruth Cole is four years old she is the character whose story the novel is most concerned with. Both Ruth’s parents are writers and Eddie O’Hare, her mother’s lover when he was a teenager, is also a writer as well as Ruth when she becomes an adult. The novel’s three sections are divided in such a way as they emulate the themes and style of one of the writers in the story. Section one is an Eddie O’Hare coming of age novel, section two is a Ruth Cole female friendship novel and section three is a Marion Cole murder mystery. Ruth’s father, Ted Cole, writes children’s books and his work is sprinkled throughout the novel.
But while some will be turned off by a novel about writers there is considerable depth in the work. The Cole’s had lost two teenage sons in an automobile accident before Ruth was born and this grief along with Ted’s infidelities starts to eat away at the marriage. After Marion has an affair with Eddie, her husband’s teenage assistant, she leaves and is not heard from again. The novel then jumps forward over thirty years to Eddie and Ruth meeting as adults and the rest of the novel involves Ruth’s attempts to discover who her mother truly was and trying to figure out where she went when she left her behind. The reuniting of Eddie and Ruth and their reenacting of an event where Ruth got a scare during the summer that she was four is one of the most moving and powerful Irving has ever penned and this is one of his finest works.
The Fourth Hand, Until I Find You and Last Night on Twisted River
Over the past decade Irving’s novels have sadly become more uneven. The Fourth Hand is considered by many to be his worst novel and while it is far from the worst novel I have ever read it is surprisingly bland for an Irving novel. The plot involves a television news reporter named Patrick Wallington who has one of his hands bitten off by a lion while covering a story in India. He receives a hand transplant from a man who died under a strangely both absurd and tragic accident but finds himself falling in love with the man’s widow. With this premise you’d expect Irving to go full tilt but he doesn’t, instead telling a rather straight forward and leisurely paced story of a man who needs to learn to grow up in order to have the woman he loves. The novel is short and almost seems like it must be a “trunk novel” that Irving pulled out and updated because it has much more in common with the novels he wrote at the beginning of his career than his most recent works. Only hardcore Irving fans will feel the need to read it.
Until I Find You by contrast is a mangled thing of greatness. It is Irving’s longest novel (at over eight hundred pages) and is the first of his works to deal directly with the sexual abuse he experienced as a child. The narrative follows Jack Burns from childhood to his adulthood where he becomes a big Hollywood movie star. Jack is raised by his mother, Alice, who is a tattoo artist. Throughout his early childhood his mother drags him around Europe in search of his father who he is told is a chronic womanizer. After finally giving up they settle down at an all-girl’s school for the majority of Jack’s childhood and this assures that he is constantly surrounded by women. His mother enters a lesbian relationship and as a result he gets a “sister” in Emma, the daughter of his mother’s lover. The two casually experiment with each other in sexual ways but never have intercourse. Jack is sexually abused by a middle aged woman at the age of eleven and he spends the rest of his life dealing with this abuse, his tumultuous relationships with women and the fear he would become like his father.
Perhaps too long and maybe too personal for some readers to stomach, this is nonetheless a must read for any Irving fan. I wouldn’t recommend that a newcomer start here but this may be the quintessential Irving novel even if it is not the best. The theme of missing parental figures is explored here more nakedly and perhaps with more complexity then any of his previous novels had. The sexual violence that has been in the background of his previous work is now pushed to the forefront and dealt with directly. Irving is aware that many people have a double standard when it comes to the early sexual indoctrination of children based on gender but here he forces you to confront this issue head on and think about what kind of effect early indoctrination could have on a man.
Irving’s latest novel Last Night on Twisted River is seen as some to be such a sloppily stitched together melding of elements from previous books that it is questioned whether Irving is indulging in self-parody. The book is essentially a chase narrative, where a father and son flee the logging camp they have lived after a tragic accident makes them suspects of murder. Once again we have a protagonist who is a writer. Once again we have older woman and younger man relationships, incest, absurd accidents, bizarre coincidences and quirky comic characters. While we have come to expect these things from Irving we have also come to expect him to introduce something new with each book and with this one we don’t get very many new themes to chew on.
Not to say Last Night on Twisted River is a bad novel. It just seems half baked and unfocused. There are still characters that feel real and lovable, hilarious comic scenes, heartbreakingly tragic moments and a sense that anything might happen next. But there is also the feeling that Irving has exhausted what he has to say. I for one hope this is not true and that he has somewhere from which to go from here. Still, even if Irving were to stop writing today he has produced one of the most original bodies of work in American literature and is worth the time for any lover of literature to try and appreciate.