If you haven’t heard of Benjamin Percy or his new book, Red Moon — hailed as “an ambitious, epic novel” by Publishers Weekly — chances are good you’ve come across one of his articles or reviews in a myriad of popular magazines. Last year, he spent a few days with John Irving and (literally) wrestled the 70-year-old author of A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules for a profile in Time magazine. Esquire published his compelling, intensely personal essay, “How a Percy Gets Old: Lessons from Four Generations of Men,” earlier this year. And in March, GQ published an article about his experience wearing a pregnancy-simulation suit (called the “Empathy Belly”) designed by Japanese scientists, which led to a strange appearance on the Today show.
That’s a lot of exposure for the author of Refresh, Refresh and The Wilding, two well-received books published by Graywolf Press, and The Language of Elk, his debut story collection originally published by a university press. As of this writing, Red Moon is in the top 20 of several Amazon.com categories, including “Literary Fiction” and “Fantasy,” so that exposure, backed up by a national book tour and Grand Central’s hardworking publicity department, seems to be working.
Percy, whose fiction has appeared in the Paris Review and Best American Short Stories, is among a select group of critically-acclaimed writers — among them Justin Cronin (The Passage) and Colson Whitehead (Zone One) — who are now finding large audiences with horror fiction. He took time at the end of his recent national book tour to answer my questions about this stage in his life as a writer.<
The Millions: Red Moon, like the werewolves at the heart of its story, is a shapeshifting hybrid — a literary horror novel. In what tradition do you place this book?
Benjamin Percy: If people want to call it a literary horror novel, that’s fine. I know it makes them feel better in a neat-freaky sort of way. Like balling their socks and organizing them in a drawer according to color. And I know it’s a talking point, a frame for discussion. But really, people, it doesn’t matter. These are phantom barricades. What is Margaret Atwood? Or Kate Atkinson? Or Cormac McCarthy? You could argue them into several different corners of the bookstore. If I’m going to align myself with anyone, it’s them. And Peter Straub and Dan Chaon and Larry McMurtry and Ursula K. LeGuin and Tom Franklin and Susanna Clarke and anyone else who makes an effort to be both a writer and a storyteller, someone who puts their muscle into artful technique and compulsive readability.
TM: A few prominent literary writers have published horror-related or –themed novels in the last few years. Like them, you received much praise for your earliest work, but this novel will reach the largest audience. Do you worry that readers will tire of the literary crossover novel?
BP: Realism is the trend. That’s what people seem to forget. Look back on the long hoof-marked trail of literature. The beastly majority of stories contain elements of the fantastic. It’s only very recently that realism has become the dominant mode. And that’s changing. Thanks to people like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, who have been cheerleaders for the Avengerization of literature, and thanks to writers like George Saunders and Karen Russell and Kevin Brockemeier and Matt Bell and Kate Bernheimer, who have a kind of hybridized vigor and playfulness to their work that makes them neither fish nor fowl, both literary and genre.
Some people have referred to Red Moon as a departure for me. It’s no departure except stylistically: I have written an epic, sweeping novel (whereas my previous work has been compact). I grew up on genre and even my so-called literary work is plotted and employs the tropes of horror. “Crash” is a ghost story. So is “Unearthed.” “The Caves in Oregon” is a haunted house story. “The Killing” is a pulpy tale of revenge. “When the Bear Came” and “The Woods” are creature-in-the-forest stories. My short story “Refresh, Refresh” was originally a fantasy in which the boys transformed into their fathers by the end. My novel The Wilding originally contained an ending that revealed a supernatural monster. Both were edited into realism.
There is no crossover. Red Moon isn’t some dalliance. This is the kind of book I’ve been working toward writing my whole life and this is the kind of book you’ll be seeing from me from here on out.
TM: You’ve had a lot of new experiences related to the publication of Red Moon — meetings at Amazon headquarters, a trip to the United Kingdom to promote the book, and an appearance at the Texas International Comic Con (Comicpalooza). What has surprised you most about this stage of your career?
BP: I’m in a constant state of surprise. I don’t take anything for granted. In part that’s because of the way I was raised. And in part that’s because I faced a steady stream of rejection for years before finding any sort of success. Every publication, every award, every event is gravy. There is no point in my life when I have thought, “I’ve made it.” I don’t think there ever will be. I’m constantly amazed (and almost embarrassed) by good news. And I’m constantly certain that something terrible will befall me. On a daily basis, I think about back-up jobs. Like, postal carrier. I think that would be a killer job. Just walk around, whistling, tucking letters into mailboxes, thinking up stories. And I might be considering something like this — how I’m going to pay the bills, how I’m going to get my kids through college — right after I walk out of Amazon’s offices or off a stage at Comicpalooza.
Because that’s the way my mind works, I have to remind myself to enjoy the moment. My buddy Jess Walter — novelist and zenmaster — is really good at this. I get on the phone with him and he tells me to chill out, look around, appreciate how the hard work has paid off. And for a few minutes I’m like, “Yeah! You’re right, Jess Walter!” And then I go back to grinding my teeth down to nubs.
TM: Is it true that your agent, Katherine Fausset, sold the novel before it was written? She’s also thanked in the back of your first book, a story collection published by a university press. At what point did you start to work with her? Has working with her affected or influenced how you approach writing fiction?
BP: Katherine sold Red Moon based on seventy pages, accompanied by a twenty-page outline. Same goes for the next novel, The Dead Lands, which releases in June 2014, a post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark passage. She’s the perfect combination of tough, smart, witty, and sweet — as an editor, advisor, champion, friend. We began working together in 2004. At the time, I had “sold” my first book on my own to Carnegie Mellon University Press, after soliciting many agents and editors and hearing the same thing from all of them: “Get in touch when you have a novel.” After I signed the contract, I made a ballsy move, posting the deal on Publishers Marketplace, describing it in the most flattering terms possible. My inbox flooded with emails from Warner Brothers, the Paris Review, Albin Michel (who remain my French publisher), and a long list of agents who noticed I wasn’t represented. I was in the fortunate position to get on the phone and talk to all of them before deciding that Katherine was the best match. She’s my first line of defense, the person I send my manuscripts to before they head off into the wild world, and she always has an insightful response, editorial and business savvy.
TM: What is your work day like when you’re at home? Are you able to write while you travel?
BP: On an ideal day, I wake up at six, box up some lunches, ship the kids off to school, then brew a pot of coffee and head downstairs to the cobwebby dungeon where I work. I’ll spend six to eight hours hammering the keyboard and then — come mid-afternoon — I’ll climb out of the dark to play with my kids, hang with my wife, catch up on chores, help cook dinner. When I travel, I’m reading on planes, writing in hotel rooms, which doesn’t suit me, but I make it work. A quiet routine is the best friend of a writer.
TM: Grand Central just reissued your first book, The Language of Elk, as an eBook. What will readers of Red Moon think of that book or Refresh, Refresh, your second story collection?
BP: I wrote the stories in The Language of Elk when I was twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four. This was my time in grad school. Once I “sold” the collection, it took another two years to come out. People might be interested in them archaeologically — to see how far I’ve come stylistically, thematically. Of the stories in there, “Swans” and “Unearthed” are the ones I’m most proud of, but even they make me cringe. I wish I could go back in time and workshop myself violently. But that’s how I am with all of my writing. I’m immediately dissatisfied with it. I’ll edit myself even when standing behind a lectern, reading to a room full of people. I’m glad for that — it means I’m always chasing something better, never plateauing.
TM: Aside from length, what do you perceive to be the essential differences between the short story and novel forms? Do you see yourself continuing to write short stories?
BP: I have another collection ready, but Katherine wants to wait and shop it after I have a few more novels out. I love short stories — writing them, reading them — but over the past few years my mind has rewired and I think almost exclusively in the long form. The differences between novels and short stories are legion, but to break it down as simply and generally as possible: a short story is a stylistically vigorous glimpse of a life.
TM: The Wilding, your first novel, is about a son, father, and grandfather who find trouble during a hunting and fishing trip into the mountains. The role of Karen, the wife/mother back at home, is less important — it’s a subplot. The majority of your short stories are about men or boys. At what point did you decide to make Red Moon’s protagonist a teenage girl?
BP: Red Moon has a huge cast — and I’d say six of them are identifiable as protagonists. They are men and women, young and old, the infected and the uninfected — from all different geographic and cultural and political backgrounds. I wanted these myriad perspectives to tangle together, contradict each other, supply a complicated vision of complicated subjects: xenophobia, terrorism.
With that said, Claire and Miriam are my two favorite characters in the novel. Red Moon has more in common with X-Men than it does Twilight, but I did have Bella in the back of my mind when writing. I’m disturbed by how she — emotionally and physically abused by the man/vampire she falls in love with and sacrifices herself to — became a role model for so many. I’m surrounded by fiercely strong women. My mother is a warrior. My wife is a force, and our daughter is like a miniature version of her. All of my bosses (department chair, editors, agent) are tough as hell, smart as hell. So I was thinking more about them when building the characters of Claire and Miriam, who are stronger than any of the men in the novel.
TM: In an interview several years ago, you mentioned having abandoned earlier novels, but that The Wilding played to your strengths. What do you see as your strengths now?
BP: I didn’t abandon any novels. I completed four — all failures — and buried them. Most writers have a similar arc: you get the bad writing out of your system. Throw away a few thousand pages. The Wilding, my first published novel, was a negotiation between the short and long form — in that it has a small time frame, follows a small cast, takes place on a small stage. It was a gateway to the epic sweep of Red Moon (which is a novel that follows many characters over many years in many different places). I’ve always loved the epic — the immersive reading experience provided by T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Stephen King’s The Stand — and I’m excited to have conquered something of this scope. It’s the same exhausted satisfaction that comes from completing a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. With that said, I know I can do better — and plan to in the next novel.
TM: You’ve published a number of articles about the craft of fiction writing, including several for Poets & Writers, and a craft book, Thrill Me, is on the way. How do you answer critics who say it’s too soon for you to publish a book of writing advice? That it’s too early in your career to assume that role? Stephen King, a writer you admire, had been publishing novels for twenty years before On Writing.
BP: Writing a craft book is such a small pebble tossed in the big lake of letters, I can’t imagine anyone even noticing or caring. Dozens of people will be outraged by the dozens of people who read my writing advice!
I’ve been teaching writing for over a decade — including time served in MFA programs, among them the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — and I’m a regular on the conference and festival circuit. And people use my Poets & Writers columns regularly in classes, so I guess I must have at least a few nuggets of half-assed wisdom to share.
What distinguishes the book is this: I’m not going through the standard motions, talking about character, setting, point of view, and blah blah blah. I’m looking at genre through a literary lens and focusing especially on how to ramp up suspense and momentum. Hopefully it will be helpful.
TM: Young writers are often told that teaching will take time away from their writing, but it doesn’t seem to have hindered you much.
BP: I’ve had some killer teaching loads. The 4/4, with four different preps a semester. All writing classes of thirty students or more, so that I was grading what amounted to two thousand pages a semester. And doing service. And raising kids. And renovating a house. But if you know me — like, live near me, see me regularly — you know that I’m no fun. All I do is work. I’m obsessed. Writing is my obsession. And when I had those heavy teaching loads, I would sleep four hours a night in order to get the writing done. The writing has always been the priority. Everything else is what I need to do, but writing is what I must do. If you don’t have that mindset, then you’re always going to be prepping class or grading papers before you’re building worlds, pushing sentences around.
TM: You’re adapting The Wilding for the screen, working with producer Shana Eddy and director Guillermo Arriaga (Babel, 21 Grams). To my knowledge, this is your first screenwriting job. How did this opportunity unfold, and what have you learned during the process?
BP: I’ve written a few original screenplays that didn’t go the distance, but taught me quite a lot. But yeah, this is my first job as a screenwriter. If you look at Arriaga’s Twitter bio, you’ll see that he describes himself first as a hunter, then a storyteller. When Shana read about the book, she thought it would match his sensibility.
It’s been fun, getting a second chance on a novel. And playing around with the form. Arriaga always employs a non-linear design and he wants me to do the same. So I’ve rearranged the narrative in a way that contributes to suspense and gives the viewer the sense of being lost in the woods.
TM: The magazine writers I know work hard — they’re word hustlers — but they don’t have major book contracts and movie deals and a university position. Maybe one of those, sometimes two, but not all three. Why do you write for magazines? What do you get out of it?
BP: I’ve never had writer’s block because I keep a lot of irons in the fire. When I get sick of the novel, I write a short story, fiddle with a screenplay or comic script, hammer out a craft essay, pitch an article. Then I return to the novel, which is always my central concern, with renewed energy and a fresh perspective. So there’s that — this compulsion I feel to dabble in all different forms of storytelling — and there’s this: magazine writing is fun. I typically take on some sort of challenge (like, jump out of a plane, raft a river, hang-glide off a mountain, climb a 250-foot old-growth tree and spend the night in it, go on a crazy detox diet in which I drink only water and eat only fruits and veggies for 21 days). Usually it’s something I want to do or need to do, and then I scam an article out of it. When writing fiction, I’m visiting faraway places and meeting new people, but only in my mind. Magazine writing puts me in new and uncomfortable situations, introduces me to interesting people, exposes me to danger—all of which I’ll probably find a way to channel into my fiction as well.
TM: “Refresh, Refresh” was adapted into a graphic novel by the talented Danica Novdorgoff. Do you have plans to write an original graphic novel or comic book series?
BP: I’ve talked to Vertigo [an imprint of DC Comics] several times — we’ll see if something flies there — and I’ve just finished a graphic novel that M.K. Perker will be illustrating.
TM: What would you go back and tell young Ben Percy, the boy just beginning to dream of becoming a writer?
BP: I was going to say something like, “This is going to be a long painful apprenticeship. Be ready to put in your 10,000 hours at the keyboard before you produce anything of note,” or “Read your brains out and write your brains out,” or “If you want to go the distance, you’ll need the right balance of ego and humility,” but I learned all of that without anyone whispering Yoda-esque platitudes in my ear. So I guess I’d say what Jess Walter is always saying to me, “Don’t forget to enjoy yourself.” Not that I’d listen.
It’s been fifteen years since I’ve been able to stomach John Irving’s novels, and yet I keep buying his new books. His most recent novel, In One Person, sat on my nightstand for six months before I finally cleared it off in a fit of New Year’s resolutions. I felt guilty as I placed it on my bookshelf near Last Night In Twisted River, Irving’s previous novel, also abandoned. I had gotten both in hardcover, unable to wait for the paperback editions — unable to wait even as I knew I would be unlikely to finish them. The last Irving novel I finished (and enjoyed) was 1998’s A Widow For One Year.
My reading of In One Person followed a typical pattern. First, there was a period of comfort as I settled into Irving’s slightly askew fictional world, happily noting familiar milieus (New England, private boarding schools, wrestling teams), and subjects (sexual outsiders, small town politics, literary awakening). But boredom crept in as the plot began to take shape. It wasn’t so much that I could predict what was going to happen. (Even a mediocre Irving novel delivers when it comes to plot twists and secret revelations.) It was more that I felt trapped, as if I were seated next to a dinner party bore, the kind who has to tell his anecdotes just so, and won’t stand for questions or interruptions. In One Person is told in the first person, a point of view that allows for ambiguity, but Irving doesn’t like to leave anything open to interpretation. From the beginning of In One Person it’s clear who is good and who is hiding something; who is going to meet a bad end and who is going to be saved. Irving even alerts readers to his jokes, using italics and exclamation points on every page. Much of In One Person concerns the theater, and as I read Irving’s highly punctuated dialogue, I began to think of him as a director who gives line readings.
As I put In One Person aside, I wondered if I was just too old for John Irving. Maybe his books had always been this didactic, but when I was younger, I didn’t mind as much. Or maybe I had outgrown Irving’s old-fashioned storytelling techniques; maybe, as the author David Shields has suggested, we’re all getting sick of the narrative grunt work that fills the traditional novel, the acres of backstory and scene-setting that authors like Irving must deploy at the beginning of their epics — what Shields calls “the furniture-moving, the table-setting.” Or maybe my boredom with Irving had to do with television: maybe I’d been getting my nineteenth-century novel fix from soapy serials like Mad Men and Downton Abbey.
Or maybe John Irving’s books just weren’t as good as they used to be.
I decided to find out, taking all my Irving novels down from my shelves and getting the rest from the library — an errand that required a special trip to my library’s Central Branch. As I carried my Irving novels home, I felt the glimmer of the anticipation I used get as a teenager, when I checked out one of his books. I could see those old Irving covers in my mind’s eye, the ones with just his name and the title in a large font, because that was all you needed to know; there was no need for cover art, hinting at what the novel was “about.” Irving would let you know what it was about in due time. All you had to do was read.
I started reading John Irving when I was thirteen. My mother recommended The World According to Garp in a moment of exasperation. I was at a difficult age, reading-wise — too old for children’s books, but too unseasoned a reader to navigate the adult section of the library. My mother gave me novels from her own library, classics she thought appropriate for a young girl: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, and Ethan Frome. The only one I liked was Ethan Frome — a novel about a terrible accident, set in New England. Maybe that’s why my mother thought I would like The World According to Garp.
“This book is probably not appropriate for someone your age,” she said. And then she added, cryptically. “It’s about castration anxiety. So don’t be alarmed.”
It was summer, and I remember I read the book in two afternoons, sitting underneath the locust tree in our backyard. I had never read anything so funny or with such vivid characters. The settings, too, were fascinating to me, especially the scenes that took place in the fictional New Hampshire boarding school of Steering Academy. My family had lived in Exeter, New Hampshire, for several years, and so I recognized that Steering was based on Exeter Academy. The recognition thrilled me. Even though I knew that authors often incorporated real-life people and places into their work, it was the first time I’d made the connection myself.
Looking back, I am surprised by how little I knew of writers’ lives — or maybe, how little I conceived of them. Even though I knew by then that I wanted to become a writer, I still thought of books in terms of their titles and their subject matter, not their authorship. Reading John Irving changed that. Maybe because Irving had written about a place where I had actually lived, it was easier to imagine him as a real person, living in the same world as me and writing about it. Or maybe it was because so many of Irving’s books contained writer characters and descriptions of the writing process. Whatever the reason, I began to pay attention to the contemporary literary world, noticing what books were being published and what other people thought of them. For the first time it occurred to me to care about the order in which books were written and to think about a writer’s output holistically. I did this with Irving, working backwards through his early “literary” novels, and then reading the bestsellers that followed Garp: The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany. (Owen Meany was my introduction to the library’s waitlist.)
When his eighth novel, A Son of the Circus, was published, I was surprised to find that I didn’t like it enough to finish it. Still, when A Widow For One Year came out four years later, I asked my parents to buy it for me in hardcover as a twentieth birthday present. The book was published in May, the same month as my birthday, and I read it as a reward at the end of my semester. And what a reward! It was a long, absorbing reading experience, especially the book’s first section, a novella-like passage that unfolds over the course of one summer, and tells the story of a grieving couple who have given up on their marriage, but not on the memory of their dead teenage sons. The custody battle over their remaining child, a young girl — who in later sections becomes the novel’s writer-protagonist — is understandably complex, but in a completely unexpected and heartbreaking way. I thought it was one of Irving’s best books, maybe even better than Garp.
By then I was in college, an English major, and I had learned, among other things, that academia did not smile upon John Irving. It was a snobbery I didn’t understand until I pressed Garp into the hands of a new boyfriend. I don’t know what I was thinking. His favorite novel was The Remains of the Day. Upon finishing Garp, all he said was, “It’s not very subtle, is it?”
My boyfriend was one of those young men to whom taste is everything, and his opinion meant more to me than it should have. When he said “not very subtle”, I heard “trashy.” Crushed, I decided to stop by the office of a professor who had given A Widow For One Year a favorable review in The New York Times. I don’t know what I expected this professor to tell me; I suppose I wanted him to legitimize my love for Irving. He ended up elaborating upon what he had written in his review, praising Irving’s ability to write good action sequences, particularly violent ones. Walking back to my dorm, I thought about the many violent scenes in Irving’s fiction, how they are always a little bit slapstick — never choreographed and slick, like in the movies, or poetic, as in “grittily realistic” literary novels. It was this comic element, I thought, that made Irving seem crude, and maybe even trashy; but to me, the injection of humor — however broad — was what made Irving an honest and humane writer, one who was not writing “unsubtle” scenes to arouse or provoke, but to represent the absurd sloppiness of life.
Later that year, I took my first fiction-writing class, where I tried to write a story in the vein of Irving, about a gentleman farmer who flies planes for fun. One day the farmer crashes his hobby-plane into his hobby-field and dies upon impact. Instead of feeling sorry for his widow, everyone says she and the children are better off without such a stupid dilettante father. The widow moves to Baltimore and something happens there, I can’t remember what. The point is, it was supposed to be a funny story, but it came out very bleak and sad. I tried to use an all-knowing and transparently authorial narrator, as Irving often does, but this only irritated my classmates, who were accustomed to narration in the close third person and wrote things in the margins like “Who is narrating this story?? It should be one of the characters.” In short, I learned first hand just how hard it is to write like John Irving. You would think that would have made me respect him even more. Instead I began to think of him as a bad influence.
In the years that followed, I approached Irving’s new novels with caution and was almost relieved when I didn’t like them. It’s only recently that I’ve wanted to return to his work, and I’m not sure if it’s out of loyalty to him, or to my younger self.
It’s always humbling to admit to changes in your own taste. Over Christmas, I found myself cringing with the release of Les Miserables, as snippets of the soundtrack played during television commercials and trailers. Why, out of all the music I could have burned onto my adolescent brain, had I picked Les Miserables? I thought I would feel the same annoyed regret as I skimmed old Irving novels, but the experience was more like getting back in touch with an ex-boyfriend — there was irritation, yes, but a lot of affection, too.
In my rereading, I was struck, first of all, by how cozy and self-contained Irving’s novels are. It was easy to peer into old favorites, to smile at the inside-joke chapter headings and emblematic sayings like “Keep passing the open windows,” (The Hotel New Hampshire) and “Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England,” (The Cider House Rules). I’ve read Garp a half dozen times, so I wasn’t surprised that I could dip in and out of it at will, but I found that I could also make myself at home in novels of Irving’s that I knew less well. Opening A Prayer for Owen Meany, I read a passage in which the narrator describes his grandmother’s love of Liberace. This was not a part of the book I remembered, but after just reading those few pages — which included some of Owen Meany’s infamous all-caps opining — I was able to recall a whole universe of characters and situations. The best Irving novels work like that; they create their own parallel worlds, underpinned by repetition — repetition of phrases, situations, descriptions, and motifs. And, as Irving fans love to note, the repetitions often continue across books; he doesn’t hesitate to recycle milieus and symbols that work for him, even if they’re quite specific. (Vienna, bears, wrestling…) Every writer does this to some degree, but with Irving it’s more noticeable, because the atmosphere of a John Irving novel is such a key part of its appeal.
Another thing I noticed while rereading was how clear Irving’s writing is, sentence by sentence. Critics don’t give Irving much credit for his prose style, maybe because his zany plots and characters overshadow it. (Or maybe it’s his enthusiastic use of italics and exclamation points.) But I was impressed by how gracefully he writes, even when he’s being “unsubtle.” There is a transparency to his exposition that is not easy to achieve, but Irving does nothing to draw attention to his effort. In contemporary fiction, this lack of preciousness is rare. Irving’s style has only become simpler over the years. It’s almost as if he decided to keep his prose straightforward so that his plotting could become more elaborate.
Which brings us to plot. If there’s one thing John Irving wants you to know about his literary technique, it’s that he plans his storylines in advance, and that he always knows the ending of the book before he starts writing. In every interview, going back at least twenty years, he hammers this point home, going so far as to reveal the last sentence of his novels-in-progress. In 1986, while he was working on A Prayer For Owen Meany, he told The Paris Review, “The authority of the storyteller’s voice — of mine, anyway — comes from knowing how it all comes out before you begin. It’s very plodding work, really.”
I find Irving’s choice of the word “plodding” interesting, because that’s exactly how I would describe parts of Owen Meany, a novel whose narrator is so prone to woebegone foreshadowing that the plot sometimes feels soggy. Plodding might also be the word I would use to describe the experience of reading (or rather, trying to read) Irving’s last three novels. Even though the prose was as easygoing as ever, and the settings and characters as richly imagined, the storytelling felt overdetermined, with all the plot elements neatly arranged, all the coincidences pointing in the same direction. This seems to be Irving’s artistic aim, though. In a recent interview with Portland Monthly, Irving explained his method this way: “My novels are predetermined collision courses; the reader always anticipates what’s coming — you just don’t know the how and the when, and the small details”. In another interview, Irving revealed the last sentence of his next novel: “Not every collision course comes as a surprise.”
If only there were more surprises in Irving’s fiction! It’s a writing workshop cliché to say, “if there’s no surprise for the writer, then there’s no surprise for the reader,” but in Irving’s case, that diagnosis seems apt. The irony is that Irving sees his tightly controlled plotting as evidence of his advanced skill. At a reading I attended, shortly after the publication of In One Person, he addressed fans who prefer his earlier works to his later ones, saying that they were welcome to choose favorites, but from his point of view, his later works were superior, because he was so much better at crafting stories. He compared his recent novels to well-tailored suits, explaining that they were just better-fitting, that he was the tailor, and he should know.
As a reader who prefers his earlier novels, I found this comparison annoying, the implication being that I preferred shiny off-the-rack suits. The more I thought about it, however, I realized it was an apt metaphor. Irving’s late novels are perfectly tailored, they do fit better — in fact they fit like straightjackets. There is no room for the reader to move around, to get comfortable.
A funny thing happened while I was writing this essay: I got sucked into a John Irving novel in the old way. The novel was The Fourth Hand, a book I attempted when it was first published in 2002, but abandoned halfway through, irritated by its depiction of women. Rereading it now, I can guess what was offensive to me in its opening chapters, which include a female character whose salient quality is her bralessness, and a scene at a feminist convention where the participants are described mostly in terms of their looks. I almost gave up on the book a second time, but I could see that at least some of Irving’s misogyny was intentional, that he was trying to illustrate the crass mindset of his thoughtless protagonist, Patrick Wallingford. The Fourth Hand is about Wallingford’s transformation from a superficial, vain, person to a kind, loving one. Naturally, it’s a love story, with the bizarre coincidences and twists of fate you would expect from any romantic comedy (or John Irving novel). It’s also a newsroom satire: Patrick Wallingford is a TV anchorman whose career, as well as his soul, is at stake. It’s a funny, messy, uneven book, with a convoluted-borderline-nonsensical storyline, and a lot of recycling from Irving’s previous novels. Oh, and did I mention that Wallingford is missing his left hand? (In the words of my mother, it’s about castration anxiety, so don’t be alarmed.) The Fourth Hand is definitely not a “tailored suit” novel and that’s probably why I ended up liking it — it had some of that old Irving sloppiness.
The ending of The Fourth Hand is subdued and melancholy, and includes an unexpected discussion of Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient. Wallingford reads the novel when he’s trying to impress the woman he’s fallen in love with. But whenever he tries to discuss the book with her, he chooses the wrong parts to admire. He can’t seem to figure out what she likes about the book, or what it means to her, and finally decides that reading experiences are not something that can be easily shared, observing that good novels “are comprised of a range of moods you are in when you read them or see them. You can never exactly imitate someone else’s love of a movie or a book.”
To Wallingford’s observation, I might add that you can never exactly replicate your own reading experiences, and that books and authors are colored by age and experience, for good and for ill. As I was rereading Irving, I was aware that my formative experience of reading his novels made it hard for me to be objective about his later work. John Irving could write his best book next year, and it probably wouldn’t be as good as Garp was, the first time I read it. Sometimes you just have to be grateful for the time you had with an author, and then move on.
Illustration by Bill Morris