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