Monday, March 14, 2011

John Irving and Me

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.


  1. It seems the comment issue is fixed.
    You are right, no kids will suffer through this divorce.
    I wonder if you will fight to keep the book rights, at least for the ones you love, I presume.

    Great post. Loved it.

  2. I'm also an Irving fan, though I've experienced him in a different way than you. Discovered him after I escaped Catholic school so my crush wasn't nearly as hard. I'd also read lots of others authors by the time I picked up one of his books.

    I really enjoyed Setting Free the Bears. But I read it in the context of it being his first novel, published at just 26. It's a really fine debut. Hotel New Hampshire was my favorite by a long stretch.

    Owen Meany disappointed me ... it's meandering and frustrating at times. The movie streamlines the story and is a fine work of fiction in its own right. You should definitely see it if only to evaluate the differences.

    Would also suggest seeing A Door in the Floor ... the first 3rd of A Widow for One Year.

    I enjoyed the Son of the Circus, but it was also the first one I read. It prompted me to go back and read more of his work.

    Oh and I've met him. He's shy, yet engaging, and very good looking despite his diminutive height.

  3. I guess I'm a sister wife, Nic. I'm staying with him. I'm with you on the ones you liked and didn't like, though. You have read more than I. I myself thought that Son of a Circus was specifically written so it could NOT be made into a movie. I think movies are in his head and he isn't sure whether to approve. What do you think?

    Anyway, I'll make the pancakes this weekend. You know, for the sister wives. Ugh.

  4. @ JH - You're too kind. Thank you.

    @ EE: I think I dismissed The Bears too easily - I remember enjoying it at the time, having read it long after Garp, but it didn't bear up to re-reading, and by then my expectations re all-things-Irving were too high for a debut novel to live up to (original and funny though it was). Perhaps I should give it another chance, now that I know how damn hard it is to break in to this bloody business...

    @ Mary - Sugar and lemon, please.

  5. @ EE again - my friend, who shares my taste on many books, feels the same way as you re Owen. Interesting.

  6. Alimony! Must.Get.Alimony.

    Great Post, nic.


  7. @ Elsa: Yes, Damnit. Hadn't thought of that.

    I am officially rich.

  8. Ugh. I actually read A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY right before they announced they were making the film, so I was primed for SIMON BIRCH when it came out. I would have been 14 at the time, so it was an early lesson in Hollywood screwing up a perfectly good source novel. Haven't seen it since but all I remember is that they replaced all the humor with gross saccharine melodrama. Anyway nice article nic, sorry to hear about the divorce.

  9. Thanks Zack. I'm officially torn - I've had one recommendation to see Simon Birch and now you're telling me you wish you never had.

    What to do, what to do...

  10. Your love affair with John Irving is pretty much like my love affair with Stephen King. I still carry a great deal of affection for Stephen, but man, I hated IT. I was thirty pages away from the end when I threw it against the wall. I haven't read a book of his since. He's still one of my most favorite authors....but the thrill is gone.

  11. Oh, PJ. I feel your pain. Did you at least give his memoir / writing book - On Writing - a shot? I truly love that book. Find it quite inspirational. Might be worth pretending it's not written by him, if that takes the sting out.

  12. You were too good for him anyway, Nic. He always thought he was somethin'...too high-falutin' if you ask me.

    Oh, and Stephen King's Full Dark, No Stars is a welcome return from the crap he was writing the last few years.

  13. Yes! Yes! Yes! Brilliant post... meaning, I could have written this myself ;). I was an Irving devotee from about the age of 20, when I discovered Garp. I sat at his feet as he read aloud at the Edinburgh Festival in 1988. I adored HNH, CHR, APFOM- I even enjoyed ASOTC, though all I remember of it now is that enormous dildo. Like you, I found AWFOY 'solid' but really didn't much like TFH. Until I Find You ruined everything for me though- overblown yet underinflated, it rambled on and on and on in serach of an ending, or a good editor. I haven't picked up Twisted River, too scared of getting burnt again. Sigh. Thank you for this blog. Sorrow floats.

  14. Great post, Nic. The only Irving I've read is Owen Meany. I loved it so much I can't bring myself to read anything else of his, for fear of tarnishing the boy with the wrecked voice. I'm aware that that's rather perverse. I'm going to trawl your post and consider my next move very carefully.

  15. Kylie - thank you! It's an amazing thing how personally we all take our John Irving crush. How it lingers still - the memory of the first time, the grief of watching out star fade, the final cruel sting of rejection. (Ours.)

    Gives you a whole new admiration for editors, doesn't it. (JK Rowling, I'm looking at you.)

  16. Meg - I completely understand your hesitation. I'd put at least a decade between Owen and any further ventures into Irving-world.

    When that's done, come back to me.

  17. I think it might be a decade just about now. Hmmm.
    By the way, your ticker said 1000 a minute ago. Do I win your love?

  18. Hello Nic,
    Great article! Your Catholic school experience sounds eerily like mine! I also admire your completist style! I have not read the entire oeuvre of John Irving, only Hotel New Hampshire and A Prayer for Owen Meany and the latter, as does for many people, means so much to me. As I write this, I am typing with one hand as my other hand is involuntarily clutching at my heart just recalling Owen Meany. He gives me such deep pangs…Sigh. Thank you for allowing me to recall him and the novel with such fondness and feeling through your eloquent article. As for the divorce, well you and John were together a mighty long time and you should get something for your loyalty and you know what, just in case he has another opus in him, perhaps you could give yourself permission to cheat with him in the future!

  19. Uncanny - the similarities between our Catholic school experience.

    Whether to go back or not... Hmmmm. Too soon. The ink on the divorce papers is still wet.