I want a divorce.
There. I said it.
Before my mother panics, or my in-laws investigate cross-continent custody laws, please be assured, it’s not that kind of divorce. Not one from my actual RL husband, but a divorce from my literary husband. The man I fell in love with at the tender age of 16, when his story about an oddball frustrated writer with initials for a first name and a species of fish for a surname (albeit a fictional hybrid) made me laugh and feel smart and sophisticated while bolstering my budding feminist self — all in a single insightful sentence: “Jenny felt that her education was merely a polite way to bide time, as if she were really a cow, being prepared only for the insertion of the device for artificial insemination.”
The author was John Irving and the book was The World According to Garp. (I made the hybrid bit up, but what else would you call a gar-fish crossed with a carp?) Mr Irving (we were not yet on a first-name basis) had described how I cynically viewed the cohort of students’ ambitions at my Catholic girls’ school, in words both cutting and dry — the very tone I attempted to emulate for the rest of my teen years. (In between writing really bad Don Walker-inspired poetry.)
Thus began a love affair which outlasted a century and crossed several decades, through the good times (Cider House Rules, The 158-Pound Marriage, The Hotel New Hampshire) and the What the Fuck? times (Setting Free the Bears and The Water-Method Man), taking me to the cusp of my literary desire in the form of his 1989 novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany. Newly paroled from my convent school where the “three r’s” weren’t merely taught but canonised, Irving’s blatant disregard for punctuation and capitalisation was as deliciously rebellious to me as sex before marriage and Vodka and Passionfruit UDLs. I wanted to have “UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE” tattooed on my inner thigh, and experienced a giddy delight every time Owen delivered his unrelenting all-caps voice. I decided right there and then that John Irving had to be the most outrageous, experimental, and hilarious author there was. (I mentioned the Catholic convent thing, didn’t I?)
Better yet, the man was handsome — according to the book jacket anyway. (It is only in the process of having watched so many of my friends’ books get published that I’ve learnt the art/ifice of the author photo.) In short, I thought John Irving was creative, inventive, brave and original, and the only man I could ever truly love — literarily speaking, of course.
Did I mention that I didn’t read very widely at the time? Goes hand-in-hand with the Catholic education thing, no doubt. You see, I read voraciously and relentlessly, unforgivingly and repeatedly, but the depth of my reading had little to do with the breadth of it. If I liked an author, I stuck by him or her. I read all their works, from top to bottom, then started again. Anything or anyone I liked, I loved. My teen and early twenties seemed to consist entirely of a series of superlatives and extremes, loves and hates, “discoveries” and obsessions, but sadly, little in the way of range. When I loved an author, or a book, or a series, they loved me back. Soon I was them, and they were me. I wore them like a badge — proudly and ostentatiously, spouting quotations and memorising passages as though my own. Is there anyone better at obsession than a teenager I wonder? I’ve yet to meet one, if there is, and I took that to its monotonous extreme. I was obsession personified.
Along with the obsession, I was also fiercely loyal.
So, it was by drawing on this loyalty that I forgave John Irving A Son of the Circus, and feigned ignorance at his recycling of old stories in Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. My patience was rewarded with the solid A Widow for One Year, and the pending release of the film version of Owen Meany. Finally, I would get to hear Owen’s “wrecked voice”, see what I believed was his vaguely Mr McGoo-like qualities — the ghostly and improbable combination of wispy blonde hair, a cracked and shrieking voice and that permanently dwarf-like height. I faced the prospect of a Hollywood version feeling both eager and tremulous. How difficult to manage! How easy to go wrong! And then my beloved John resolved my dilemma for me, distancing himself — the screenplay having strayed too far from the original story — whereupon I duly cancelled my plans to see what later became known as Simon Birch, and have continued to live in ignorant bliss.
I was delighted by the integrity of this decision — that John Irving wouldn’t allow my beloved Owen to be changed beyond recognition, knowing how dearly we readers cared for him, how loyal and committed we were to our own imaginings.
After this near-disaster, I expected John’s resurgence — a return to the core of what we loved about him. I could not get enough of New England and Vienna, motorbikes, bears, and wrestling; beautiful dead mothers, and oddly innocent yet precocious young boys. Even Canada seemed mildly interesting in an austere and remote sort of way. Surely if I still loved them all, John would too.
I had moved past A Son of the Circus by then, could pretend Piggy Sneed had never happened, and bought The Fourth Hand the same week it was released. This was the moment the cracks truly emerged. Where was his loveable protagonist? The innocent boy, the beautiful dead mother? Even the bears had been replaced with a lion — a hand-eating one, no less — and suddenly all the things I knew and believed about John Irving’s world was being slowly ripped apart.
But worse was yet to come: he shifted from the third person to first in Until I Find You. I have nothing against first person (obviously) — have employed it in my own fiction a lot — but this is not the John Irving I know or love. The self-reflexiveness that seemed both coy and gentle was suddenly brash and loud. Let me explain — and stay with me, if you can: the main character of Until I Find You, Jack Burns, wins an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay the same year that John Irving really did win his Academy Award — 1999 — the same year that Jack loses the Supporting Actor Oscar which, in Real Life, was won by Michael Caine for his role in Irving’s adaptation of Cider House Rules. (Still with me?) And then Jack goes to school at the same place where A Prayer for Owen Meany’s narrator, Johnny Wheelwright, teaches English as an adult.
See what I mean?
Coy it ain’t.
Now, what began as possible separation has shifted irrevocably to grounds for a divorce. And the straw for this blessed, overburdened camel? Last Night in Twisted River.
I had so much hope for this novel when I first picked it up — we are back in “innocent young boy with mysteriously dead beautiful mother” territory; there’s Canada and logging, and New England and icy rivers... All the stuff that made Owen and Garp, Cider House and Hotel New Hampshire such riveting reads.
And yet, there’s no love. No warmth. No humour. And, frankly, too many logs.
The real sadness, though, is that I can’t finish it. I’m sure I will one day — as my father used to say when referencing our family’s refusal to quit our lazy attachment to Catholicism, “You don’t change teams mid-season.” I will make myself finish Last Night in Twisted River because I owe that much to John Irving. And I will continue to revisit Owen and friends whenever I need a literary jolt.
But there is no going back. The divorce papers are in and this party, anyway, has moved on: I am no longer in love with John Irving.
At least in this divorce, there’ll be no the custody battle.