Friday, February 23, 2007

today : I re-read some books

John Irving is not feted as a novelist as much as Roth, Updike, deLillo, Heller or Pynchon, or any of the other 'giants' of American literature for several reasons. Firstly, he didn't burst onto the scene. His first novel - The Watermethod Man - was pretty rubbish. Well, not rubbish, but just not brilliant. Secondly, he also is not from WASP or Jewish stock, which counts if you are to become part of the literary establishment. He is a rustic New Englander rather than a Metropolitan New Englander. Thirdly, he is popular and on top of that he is seen (even by himself) as a craftsman. Solid, reliable, even arguably predictable. An artisan rather than an artist. Perhaps this is because he sems to have failed to take any of his cues from Modernism, instead preferring sweeping, nineteenth century-ish chunky stories about characters, places and events. Just a look at his prefferred settings reveals an old-fashionedness: woodyards, stoneyards, schools, an old hotel, Vienna, lakesides, apple orchards, orphanages, the baseball field, small rustic towns, woods and swimming holes.

Butf these qualities are why his novels are so entertaining and re-readable. The four novels that saw him soar onto and stay on the bestseller lists: The World According to Garp, Hotel New Hampshire, Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules are the very definition of thumping reads, whereas The Crying of Lot 49, for example, isn't really. As a craftsman, Irving chisels his world carefully, sticking to landscapes made from realism and nostalgia. As a craftsman, he hews each of his characters with a defined personality and a recognisable story arc that is satisfying believable. His characters change in such a way as we can easily follow the logic of their changes and go along with it. He also almost never peoples his novels with unsympathetic characters. Even the baddies (of which there are actually few) have enough dimensions that we can understand their badness.

In some ways, Irving avoids themes. Yes, there is some early seventies feminism in The World According to Garp, religious faith in Owen Meany, incest, racism and abortion in Cider House. But his novels are not critical commentaries, or allegorical treatises. They exist outside of modern American politics. By that I mean that peculiar brand of febrile political 'thought' and debate that powers swathes of the American Academe, and informs 'literature' as defined by the Eastern intelligentsia and power elites. He is no Gore Vidal; his conservative and liberal tendencies are spelled with small c and small l.

In fact, I'm not going to use the word novels from now on when talking about Irving. He actual writes stories. These stories, even when they do display complexity are based on very basic old-as-the-hills topics. Love, tragedy, redemption, and fate.

Irving writes in a straightforward way, which is where he gets his reputation as a craftsman. I could not quote you a sentence of his and delight in the construction and the poesy therein. In fact I could not quite you a sentence of his at all. This is because all the words in his stories are there to serve the story and not make a show of what a master of words he is; even though he is.

I can only think of one stylistic point worth commenting on in all of his stories. And that is his choice to have Owen Meany speak in capitals. It is a deviously plain and rather obvious trick, to manipulate the reader into creating a different voice when reading Owen's speech. Yet it is a piece of terrific literary engineering. A simple device that does its job perfectly.

In praising Irving as a rereadable writer I am, of course, revealing my own taste. Previously, when I wrote about Clive James, it was his affection and enthusiasm for his subjects that shines through his writing. Irving has a similar quality. If any of his stories does have a theme, it is the theme of growing up. People finding out how they fit into the real world. It's a pretty unexperimental and uncynical seam to mine, and not the preserve of 'clever' people, who know everything anyway.

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