Exeter, New Hampshire, United States, 1942
Novels, stories, essays, memoirs, screenplays
Containing the crazy
John Irving writes big books. Yes, long novels—longer than most contemporary works you find on the bestseller lists. But big in so many other ways. Big characters, big themes of the day, big and sprawling stories.
And, most gloriously, he's got that knack of creating worlds. Give the first fifty pages—sometimes the first five pages—of almost any Irving novel a chance and a small world of people, place and drama takes shape. Read on and the world grows, opening up. Not necessarily with more characters and plots being added (although that is often the case), but in the thickening of the experience, the unfolding of the extraordinary in the everyday. A world of wonders (to coin a phrase from another writer Irving admired).
Not everyone gets this with Irving. I didn't at first.
I first read the The World According to Garp (1978) because everyone said how great it was. It was Irving's fourth novel, after earlier works had won praise but made little impact, and it was a sensation. Both the critics and ordinary readers seemed to adore it.
But I didn't then. It was humorous, all right, and dealt with issues of sexuality that interested me. But I didn't really like it. I was actually offended by it. And I think I know why.
I've always been imbued with the Hemingway-Hammett-Chandler approach to modern American writing, which took so much from the old journalism with its terse sentences, plain words, crisp dialogue, understated emotion, write-what-you-know, show-don't-tell, get-to-the-point-and-get-out-quickly. And its cool, casual, colloquial attitude. Few novelists have escaped being influenced by it to some degree. It's part of our culture, the social air that writers breathe along with everyone else in our era.
Irving, however, is the anti-Hemingway. He often throws in long sentences with subordinate clauses and fussy punctuation (including his beloved semi-colons). He has no qualms about descriptive passages and lengthy exposition in which the author's voice spells out the back story. He introduces colourful (hot, not cool) characters and puts them through bizarre experiences. Plots twist about, characters are maimed or die grotesquely, coincidences fall intermittently like sun, rain and snow in New Hampshire. One narrative shocker, among the many in The World According to Garp, bothered me particularly in that first reading....
And then, some years later, a friend mentioned she liked Irving's work the same way she enjoyed Charles Dickens and others of that long-ago era. I too had been a big fan of those classic English novelists. But, looking back, I realized I had read them with a different mindset than when I approached modern writing. I had expected—and accepted—their more involved, heightened approach to storytelling and I had given them closer, slower readings than I gave new work.
So putting aside my modernistic biases, I gave Garp another chance. And, like most of the world, I found it brilliant.
And that shocking plot twist—in the second reading, even knowing it was coming—it devastated me.
Then it was on to filling in the earlier Irving novels I'd bypassed and onwards through The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), The Cider House Rules (1985), A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), A Widow for One Year (1998) and all the rest. With comparable results. Especially with The Cider House Rules, in some quarters his most controversial novel (it's often referred to as his abortion novel) but, for me, his most moving work. And most especially with A Prayer for Owen Meany, which works on so many levels: political again (it's his so-called Vietnam War novel), outrageously funny, emotionally affecting, grotesquely shocking and ferociously affirming.
The key to his art
By now it's become a cliché of criticism to relate Irving's work to that of Dickens and company. He himself makes the connections in his works, often referencing old novels—more recently in his Last Night in Twisted River (2009), which follows a writer very similar to Irving, though, of course, with a very different, more bizarre and tragic life.
Yet, necessary to understanding Irving's appeal, it's got to be said in certain respects he is also quite a modern writer—certainly in his progressively modern characters, his current subject matter, his contemporary settings (mostly twentieth century America). But also in his willingness to push the boundaries of old-style social realism. It should not be a surprise to find among the writers he has appreciated or emulated are also such contemporaries as the magic realists Günter Grass and Gabriel García Márquez, the American satirist Kurt Vonnegut who once taught him, and the Canadian man of letters Robertson Davies, a sometimes fabulist who became a close friend and was the model for a character in A Prayer for Owen Meany.
If Irving's work has never gone as far afield as these influences, it often bristles with the possibilities of doing so. The universe teases his characters with outrageous synchronicities. Anything could and does happen. But it never seems unreal. And afterwards it always seems somewhat inevitable, as if we should have seen it coming. And, however tragic it is, we ultimately accept it with good humour.
Like many of his contemporaries, Irving embraces the crazy in our world, but unlike many of them—especially those practising or influenced by the "new journalism"—he doesn't let it determine his style. While others run off in all stylistic directions, Irving is the self-controlled author constructing his novels—his characters, his plots, his very sentences—with great care. All the better to give readers a place to stand to view the madness in the worlds he creates, to understand life's ironies and paradoxes to some small degree, rather than to be merely bewildered.
Perhaps his approach comes down to that observation I've quoted elsewhere—from Thomas Hardy, one of the older novelists Irving is sometimes compared to: "The writer who knows exactly how exceptional and how non-exceptional his events should be made, possesses the key to the art."
This takes a lot of self-discipline. Irving is nothing if not a disciplined writer. To write his monumental old-style stories with a modern sensibility—with a new, completely different novel (no sequels!) coming out every few years, with consistently high quality, being consistently interesting and consistently walking that line between ordinary and extraordinary—takes a tremendous, nearly unbelievable, dedication to the craft.
Which is not say every John Irving novel is a masterpiece. Some works—like Garp, Owen Meany and Cider House Rules—seem to win close to universal acclaim. Others like Hotel and Widow have both their avid supporters and their detractors. And others seem to have found considerable audiences of quiet appreciators without stirring up much excitement pro or con among the literati.
I have a list of Irving novels I badly want to experience again and others I have no further interest in. As with Dickens and Hardy novels.
But if I live long enough I'll probably read them all again. I know how second readings of great authors can bring out what was missed the first time around.
— Eric McMillan