A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

May 31, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews | Leave a comment

There is a type of fiction–I don’t call it a genre, because it is found in all genres–where the author’s aim is to make the reader fall in love with a character. The chief pleasure one is supposed to get from the book is from seeing that character interact with his surroundings. Plot is secondary in all this…if you are too wrapped up in events, motiviations, or even ideas, then you are probably not as enraptured by the character as you are supposed to be. The result tends to be rather lightweight. If the author using this method is trying to write a Serious Novel, the easiest way to give the book some heft, some pathos, is to kill the character at the end.

It’s not a spoiler to identify A Prayer for Owen Meany as one of these books. Irving is in the big leagues when it comes to mainstream fiction, so he doesn’t just generate emotion by killing a loved character, he does it twice, and to make sure he is taken seriously he strews his narrative with symbolism. That the symbolism is, mostly, overt will I’m sure be appreciated by future generations of English students should this book get enough critical traction to be included in reading lists. However, plenty of people who are not English students will love the book. The writing is, after all, very engaging. However, the book is impossible to recommend. I doubt many people will dislike it for the reasons I dislike it, but a great portion will be turned off by the relentlessly preachy tone of the narrator. Others will love Owen Meany enough that they will love the book regardless. Which category you might fall into is impossible to say without first reading it and in my opinion the reward hardly justifies the risk. I won’t go too much into reasons why I personally disliked the book in this non-spoiler section, but personally I wish Irving had been inspired less by Dickens (the book is littered with Dickens references, suggesting the influence was a conscious one) and more by Faulkner. The book shares Dickens’ strengths but also all of Dickens’ many faults, most disastrously Dickens’ tendancy to tell rather than show the reader. Faulkner, who like Irving was writing about a society’s moral disease, understood that if you want to make a sophisticated argument you need to put the disease front and center. Irving does not have the confidence to do so without first deifying his messenger because his argument is not sophisticated in the least. Or perhaps his argument is not sophisticated because there’s no way he can do so in the context of his narrative. Either way, he is doomed to have his message fall on deaf ears…either the ears of those who come in hostile to his message and reject the book because of it, or the ears on the nodding heads of his choir.

Ultimately I think A Prayer for Owen Meany is a hopeless contradiction. It’s full of well-written…even wonderfully written…anecdotes that fail to mean anything when placed together. It’s a book about the effects of war that relegates those effects to about twenty out of five hundred pages. It’s a book full of religious people, settings, and dialog that has absolutely nothing to do with religion. It’s a book that is unapologetic in shamelessly wooing the reader to like its characters but then turns off at least half its audience by including all sorts of political ranting for subtle literary purposes.

A spoiler-laden analysis for those who have read the book is available below the white space:

“I am a Christian because of Owen Meany,” the narrator says in the concluding clause of A Prayer for Owen Meany‘s torturous opening sentence. Five hundred pages later, it seems that Owen Meany’s life has so many “miracles” that the whole thing can safely be termed miraculous. There are so many miracles that neither the narrator nor the reader can doubt that there is in fact a God. But what sort of God? It turns out that pretty much every detail of Owen’s life has been orchestrated by God, and there are absolutely no coincidences, just aspects of the design. In fact, although Owen makes a couple references to choice, it isn’t surprising he believes in fate more strongly than Calvin. Throughout the book I was trying to figure out if Irving himself is a Christian…I certainly hope not, because he has no understanding of what that might mean. The world Owen believes in has little in common with that of Christian theology in which free will plays an all-important role: without free will there is no guilt and no righteousness. This has more to do with the resigned Greek playwrights…even Calvin believed in free will. The universe Owen believes in is actually that of the modern atheist: a clockwork universe governed by static rules from which there is no deviation. Owen differs only in that his world is not one governed by chance and the anthropic principle but one governed by a God who forced events to take place no matter how contrived they end up having to be.

The name of Owen’s God is, of course, not “Yahweh” but “John Irving” and Irving’s ways are even more mysterious than those of the Christian God he does not hesitate to evoke. Owen is intended to be a sort of savior, but who he is saving and from what is not in the least bit clear. Owen is a hindsight prophet, cleverly predicting everything Irving knows has happened from what would go wrong with Vietnam to (in probably the most hilarious anecdote in the book, unintentional though the humor was) the AIDS epidemic. I don’t say this as a slight, since real prophets are supposed to be predicting based on what God tells them, and the present is a sort of hindsight for God as well, right? Yet real prophets are supposed to serve a purpose. Biblical prophets urged repentance and were sent to bring correction to the populace, but Owen’s words rarely serve any purpose. Certainly the narrator doesn’t take advantage of his foreknowledge of AIDS, for example, to help the people who would be afflicted. Even Owen’s criticism of the Vietnam war is oddly muted, I suppose by the requirement to keep him in the Army. His assertion that only someone in Vietnam can judge the war is as noxious as his AIDS prediction is humorous, and the narrator makes some similar remarks about how he can’t hope to understand the news. I got the feeling Irving was including these statements as an olive branch to any right-wing readers, but I would expect someone of his apparent convictions to be less anti-democratic. However, given the immutability of Owen’s world, I suppose there is no point to trying to change people’s minds (and the reason it is immutable because the past is immutable and the book takes place in God’s past–that is, Irving’s past). Just as Owen’s words are impotent, so are most of his actions. He saves the narrator from the draft, but the narrator had many other options for doing this. He kills the narrator’s mother and makes a big deal about how he was God’s instrument, but no attempt is made by either him or the narrator to determine why God wanted the death to occur or what it says about God that he would do so in such a gruesomely personal way (presumably because the answer was not very complimentary of God, namely that the Lord Irving wanted a mentally broken narrator and a loving mother was getting the way).

All this means Owen’s corrective actions as savior are limited to overturning the money changers’ tables at his prep school. His anti-authority crusade against a straw man headmaster would be more interesting if the headmaster showed any inclination for causing any true problems (his sins appear to be limited to not listening to Owen, building himself a house on a nice field, and being a Republican). In the end Owen’s actions in the school have no more effect than his previous positive actions (reworking the two Christmas plays). In both cases nothing substantive really changes, but Irving gets a chance to score points with his audience by being clever.

Perhaps Owen’s problem is there is no one for him to save. Typically, deities send saviors to perform miracles in hopes of changing large populations: Jonah to Ninevah, Jesus to the whole world, Mohammed to Arabia and his followers to the world. Unlike those true religions, which affirm the sanctity of life and God’s love for the people, Owen’s world is one where the masses are not appreciated. The anti-war protesters are idiots afraid of getting drafted, the people not protesting the war are idiots not willing to stand up to the political elite, and the political elite are corrupt, self-serving, and completely incompetent. Unfortunately that pretty much covers the major social groups of Owen’s world, so he is forced to save individuals. Specifically, he saves the narrator from a lack of religion and he saves a dozen Vietnamese children from getting blown up by some misfit’s hand grenade. If Owen is a tragic figure, he is tragic because he was born into a world with such a banal deity. There are easier ways to save a bunch of children, so one is forced to conclude Owen’s life is just some sort of passion play for the benefit of John Wainwright (no one else believes Owen). The narrator also, in a morally execrable scene that seems rational only as an attack on religion, converts his father to the Meany faith, sort of, but that seems to be where the chain stops, unless the narrator’s father becomes a Paul to Owen’s Jesus after the conclusion of the narrative.

Well, God loves all his children, and maybe he just wants to go that extra mile for our narrator. Unfortunately, the narrator is rather pathetic to begin with and in his “saved” state is more piteous still. The only thing Owen and the faith he instills saves the narrator from is a functional life. For most of the book I was under the misapprehension the narrator was intended to be evidence of the deep scarring produced by the moral outrage of Vietnam, but other than a vague idea Irving wouldn’t write all this if it wasn’t about something there’s no textual evidence of this. The narrator is made uncomfortable by Vietnam, but he’s made uncomfortable by all sorts of things, and his distaste for Vietnam has none of the virility of his unexplained hatred of Reagan. Just as Owen is more interested in finding the father than the narrator, Owen also is more interested in keeping him out of Vietnam. The finger scene was intended to be jarring, but what is most jarring about it is the idea that someone with as little strong feeling about the war as the narrator would allow his finger to be cut off to avoid it. Even when he goes to Canada he is apolitical, and only in the unmentioned 70s does he apparently without warning turn into a wholly dysfunctional political junkie. He is socially dysfunctional throughout, but Owen makes this much worse, not better, for the narrator is not broken by Vietnam, he is broken by Owen’s death. What is most inexplicable about the narrator is how early in the text he persuasively cites the argument that faith buttressed by miracles is not faith at all, yet in the end he gets “faith” through the arbitrary actions of God in Owen’s life and even sees nothing wrong with faking a miracle for his father.

So in the end, I must ask the question, what is this book about? It’s not about why the reader should become religious, because the coincidences and precognition orchestrated in the book will never happen to the reader. It doesn’t make a case against religion (though the faked miracle smacks of one) since the religion in the book is real…there is never any doubt that Owen is indeed God’s instrument. So we are left with: 1. Look, isn’t Owen Meany cute and clever? Isn’t it sad he’s doomed? 2. Gosh, Vietnam was pretty stupid. 3. The Iran-Contra scandal was so evil it makes Vietnam look like a good idea by comparison. The first of these will be enough for a lot of people to like the book, and that’s fine, but I don’t think I’m alone in wishing a writer with Irving’s powers would try to make a larger point. Since Irving insisted on dropping all sorts not-quite-relevant Bible verses in his writing, I’ll end with one as well. It’s from Luke chapter 11, on the subject of signs and saviors, and to me underscores how full A Prayer for Owen Meany is with signs and how devoid of saviors. To you it probably won’t mean anything relating to this review, which not coincidentally is how I felt about the random verses in Irving’s book: As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah…The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.”

Castleview by Gene Wolfe

May 14, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Castleview has a certain formulaic tendancy to it that makes it at times feel like a writing exercise. This is not a compliment, but within its formula it is fairly effective. Gene Wolfe is nothing if not an effective author…he communicates exactly what he wants the reader to know. This is a dangerous way to operate since the reader doesn’t always make the same associations and connections as the author, so the surprise with Wolfe is not that in Castleview we have a failure to communicate, but that it hasn’t happened more frequently. For nine tenths of its length, Castleview reads as a very compact, very brisk ghost story, and a good one at that. The breathless pace keeps the reader’s interest through a ruthless tangle of characters and situations that build and build until a revelatory climax.

Anyone familiar with Wolfe’s more famous work will know Wolfe is something of a puzzle writer. His books can be read on many, many levels and frequently at the end of a book the reader won’t know what to think. However, it is just a matter of doing detective work through the narrative to figure out what is going on. While some aspects are amazingly obscure, most of the meaning is not so deeply buried that an observant reader won’t pick it up in less than two read-throughs. In Castleview, it is clear to me that Gene Wolfe has, knowingly or not, written a book that is only understandable to a reader armed with a thorough knowledge of the myths and archetypes Wolfe is exploiting. Just reading the book is not enough, and as much as I like Wolfe, the book should stand alone. In other Wolfe books it is at least comforting that often the main characters are in a similar state of ignorance to the reader…they don’t understand their world either. But by the end of Castleview the protagonist, who does have a knowledge of the myths and archetypes, understands what is taking place, leaving the confused reader behind. Whatever point Wolfe was making about courage or valor is obscured in this confusion. It’s too bad, because Castleview is a fun little book until the end, since no one is better than Wolfe at conjuring the feeling of irreality so important for a ghost or fairy story. I give it three stars, barely, because it is so engaging until the end and because I suppose it is possible there are clues I missed, but I don’t recommend it for anyone besides big fans of Wolfe’s other work.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

May 10, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

This is a very popular book if the holds queue at my library was any indication and it is easy to see why. The book is very long and written very densely yet I never wearied of reading it, a testament to both the talent Susanna Clarke brought to bear as well as the time she spent polishing the narrative. I recommend the book to those interested in fantasy and fairy tales, but I can’t do so wholeheartedly because like so many stylists she has been less exacting in her construction of the story itself. The book is really a character piece, meticulously painting the two title characters, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, the supporting material is so interesting that it cries out for a more thorough explanation. Perhaps because her characters do not need to be in crisis for her to write interesting prose about them, Clarke generally dispenses with any sort of crisis and, when there is one at at all, does not bother to add much dimension to it. While one is reading the book this is fine, because there is no way to know if the avalanche of detail is building something while you stand underneath it, but it is something of a disappointment to finish a book like this and upon reflection not find any real substance to the story. I would also add that it seems odd that after finishing such a long and involved story about two magicians, the reader should have only the haziest of ideas as to how one does magic in her world and why someone is or isn’t magician material, but since story and the mechanics of it is such a distant third to style and character, it is not as sharp a criticism (by itself) as it normally would be. Still, you can do a lot worse than this book, since Clarke really is a great writer. I particularly admire her ability to write very short fairy stories…a more challenging task than it sounds initially, but there must be dozens contained with the narrative proper or as footnotes.

Update (6/16/05): After writing this review it has come to my attention that this is apparently just book one of a three book trilogy. This pretty much invalidates most of my complaints about the narrative structure, or lack thereof. It doesn’t mean I completely buy how a certain argument between two important characters just vanishes, nor does it mean the rest of the trilogy will provide the story and depth I was looking for but didn’t find here, but it is a good sign.

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