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Old 20th Jan 2005, 23:39   #1
John Self
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John Irving has been mentioned a few times recently so I thought he should have the dignity of his own thread instead of squatting on others'. I surprised myself by not bothering with his last book, The Fourth Hand. Maybe it was because at just 300-odd pages, it represented relatively poor value for money, or because of the lukewarm reception on Amazon, or just because it followed from his only mature-period novel I didn't like. I've read all his other novels and he still ranks higher than most in my personal pantheon, despite being by far the most traditionally storytelling novelist that I like: no linguistic fireworks and tonguetwisting neologisms, though where imagination and character are concerned he never holds back, it's true. So I offer the following digest for agreement or argument.

Setting Free the Bears - Irving's first novel and one that set the tone for two of his obsessional motifs: bears and Vienna. The book concerns a plot to ... er, set free the bears from Vienna zoo. And that's about all I remember about it. His first three novels are strictly for completists, apprentice works that can only disappoint after reading his good 'uns - but Setting Free the Bears is the best of the minor works.

The Water-Method Man - "Difficult" (and "atrocious") second novel which concerns something or other no doubt considered vaguely left-field and controversial - and therefore worthy of book-length consideration - when it was first published, in the late 60s or early 70s at a guess. What was it again - masturbation? Erectile dysfunction? No: sexually transmitted diseases - that was it. Hence the title: the "water-method" was a way of drinking plenty of fluids to "wash out" the infection through excessive urination. I also recall - I wonder why? - that the book also sincerely guaranteed that drinking lots of water gives you bigger erections. Don't try this at home.

The 158-lb Marriage - Forgettable thin one - slimmer even than The Fourth Hand - about adultery and - ho-hum, here comes another Irving obsession - wrestling. Memorable - well I was a teenager when I read this - for a scene where a boy masturbates while sitting on a truck full of watermelons driving in front of the narrator's car, spilling his seed, so to speak, all over their windscreen. Nice.

The World According to Garp (1976) - Irving's first masterpiece and for a long time his best known book, though that may now have been overtaken by The Cider House Rules (which had a more successful film adaptation) or A Prayer for Owen Meany (which is that rare thing, a genuine word-of-mouth success unencumbered by prizes or multimedia experiences - we're excluding of course the dismal move Simon Birch, 'inspired by' the novel). A rich panoply of writing, feminism, militant mutes, messy death, blowjob mishaps, occasionally doubtful symbolism (the Undertoad, anyone, with apologies to RC?), genuine narrative daring and - oh yeah - wrestling, it deserves its fame and its wide readership. What it didn't deserve was to be made into a film with Robin Williams. I wouldn't wish that on John Grisham.

The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) - The apotheosis of Irving's motif-heavy fiction. Wrestling, writing, bears, Vienna, sex, terrorism, really doubtful symbolism ("Sorrow floats" (Sorrow being the name of the family dog which was stuffed and later was found bobbing in - ... oh, you're ahead of me)), the list quite literally stops there. But it has likeable characters, brilliant plotting and served at least to work out his obsessions listed above, which have not reappeared in his fiction. Best of all, probably from a combination of its 500-page length and the quality of Irving's writing, it leaves you feeling entirely satisfied unlike much character- or story-driven fiction, or for that matter more literary fiction. Irving's brilliance I suppose is in straddling the two camps so successfully.

The Cider House Rules (1985) - My almost favourite Irving book. Whittled down scandalously a year or two ago into a mawkish tripe of a film - popular, though - starring grizzled Michael Caine and twinkle-eyed Tobey Maguire. A vast novel which spans I think six decades and comes out with credibility in every single one of them, going from the youth of Dr. Wilbur Larch (addressing abortion in still the best manner I have seen) in the late 1800s to the coming of age of his favourite orphan Homer in the 1950s, taking in the Korean War, Alzheimer's disease and family sexual abuse along the way. A stunner: an absolute corker: I cannot speak too highly of this book, except to lament that it's not A Prayer for Owen Meany.

A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) - In which Irving ended his "The..." quintet and started on the scary new direction of his "A..." trilogy. The tale of a boy who kills his best friend's mother and subsequently comes to believe he is "GOD'S INSTRUMENT", reading this astonishing masterpiece (and Irving's best book) makes you feel like a cat lying back and having its belly scratched, for 600-odd pages. While I was writing the summaries of the others above, I kept getting things popping into my head that I wanted to say about this book, but now of course they've all fled. Just read the damn thing. Genuinely funny. And will make you cry or your money back.

A Son of the Circus (1994) - After I read A Prayer for Owen Meany in 1990, how very very long it seemed to wait for this one to come out! In between I read all of the above, and finally remember splashing out with the last twenty quid of my student grant on the hardback of this as soon as it came out. Astoundingly, I wasn't disappointed. It is by far Irving's funniest and most purely entertaining novel, pertaining to India, dwarves, homosexual police-actors, giant dildos, politics and probably lots of other things that I can't remember because I haven't read it since. Mental note: re-read A Son of the Circus.

A Widow for One Year (199 - Well it couldn't last. Finally - with a sigh of relief - I was disappointed in a new Irving book. The story of Ruth Cole - and we're back, rather worryingly, to writers as lead characters - the biggest problem was that I found her entirely objectionable and unlikeable. This is not a problem in, say, a Martin Amis novel, but Irving wants you to love his characters. Oh, how he wants you to love them! And I just didn't. Which made it a real drag. Oh, and we're back to prostitutes as well (a la Hotel New Hampshire).

The Fourth Hand (2001) - Your comments here?

Until I Find You (2005) - Who knows?
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Old 21st Jan 2005, 10:35   #2
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I pretty much agree with your comments although I have only read the "big four". I also disliked "A Widow for One Year" to the extent that I gave up about three quarters of the way through. Wasn't there a film recently which was taken from part of this novel?
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Old 21st Jan 2005, 10:47   #3
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I hadn't heard about that. Irving did, however, pull out the children's story that Ruth Cole (or possibly another character in A Widow for One Year) wrote called A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound, and published it himself as a children's picture book last year. Now that's thrifty.
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Old 21st Jan 2005, 11:25   #4
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Owen Meany was my first Irving, and I loved it to bits. I then consumed, in rapid succession, The World According to Garp, in which I was a teeny bit disappointed - probably I didn't really 'get' the wrestling thing, The Hotel New Hampshire whose quirkiness I enjoyed, and The Cider House Rules, which like John, I almost rate on a par with OM.

I think because I adored Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules, I was almost reluctant to pick up another Irving in case it disappointed, but eventually took the plunge with A Son of the Circus, which ended up delighting me.

That's the sum of my Irving experience. I too wasn't going to bother with The Fourth Hand, but a charming German lady whom I know slightly sang its praises to me at length over breakfast one morning, and since then I've had a hankering to give it a go.
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Old 21st Jan 2005, 12:39   #5
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To answer my own question it's called Door in the Floor and stars Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger and is based on the first third of the book where Ruth's mum has a fling with her dad's sixteen year old intern. Lucky kid.
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Old 25th Jan 2005, 4:22   #6
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Hello Al:-

John: I agree 100% with your reviews.

I always consider Garp, Ciderhouse and Owen Meany to be a kind of trilogy, where he begins with Garp in exploring sexuality, feminism and the notion of motherhood; using all of the motifs you mention and I would add using the voice as a metaphoric device- Garp's name comes from the soldier's last sound, the Ellen Jamesian habit of cutting out their tongues.

He expands and elaborates on these central ideas in Cider House (in close competition for one of my favs along with OM) bringing in the ideas of incest, abortion and orphanhood to further explore his ideas of the same. Remember Homer's unforgettable , and un adoptable, screaming as a baby... again the voice metaphor.

Owen Meany is the finale with the death of the perfect mother, again, incest (OM's parents) and finally the Virgin motif (the creche, Nativity reinactment and the scene saving the Nuns ) to develop what I beleive is Irvings exploration into the connections between the notions of feminism, motherhood and sexuality. And again, of course, the use of voice with the incredible, distinctive voice of Owen Meany himself.

I believe that these three books show an evolution, not only in Irvings incredible gift as a writer, but in his exploration of the idea of women within the Christian (or spiritual tradtition if Christianity makes you just a wee bit squeemish) tradition. Why the emphasis or "red flagging" of voice? What is he saying about what women have to say in this world? What do they have to say about fatherhood; reproduction; the right over their own bodies; the right to decisions in raising (or not raising) children; about what a family is?

These are complicated issues, ones with no clear answers. Bravely tackled with no holds barred, but also with good taste (yes, I think taste counts in a great novel).

All of his further work is just tinkering with this stuff, and MHO he has not since risen to the bar he set with these three.

I read Son of A Circus in hot anticipation of something at least as good s Owen Meany and was roundly dissapointed, although on it's own, its quite good. A Widow for One Year was as huge let down and the Fourth Hand even worse... about a guy who has a hand transplant and gains a spiritual and then physical connection to the living wife of the dead hand's donor. Even the premise was too far fetched.

But none of this matters, because he did write his great trilogy... more than most writers can hope to achieve.

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Old 25th Jan 2005, 4:28   #7
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addendum:

I might add that The Hotel New Hampshire was a not half bad attempt at moving forward from what he started with Garp, but I don't think he was philosophically ready (he was just sharpening his pencil). He was too heavy handed with rape and incest in that one bit really improved his style.

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Old 25th Jan 2005, 10:04   #8
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Thanks Oryx - your insights have made me see things in the Big Three that I had never noticed before!
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Old 25th Jan 2005, 16:26   #9
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I started reading John Irving a little over 10 years ago and started off with Garp before ploughing through Hampshire and Marriage. The more I read, the more I enjoyed, I think mainly due to the recurring themes of wrestling, bears, nasty injuries to sensitive body parts etc. which reward returning readers by including them in the Irving club. Now I regret not reading Cider House but I can't go back. Why ?, one simple mistake, in a moment of nostalgic insanity I bought the Fourth Hand while I was on holiday in a bookshop impoverished area. I don't think I'll bruise any toes by saying how poor the characters and plot are since most reviewers seem to agree. Taken on its own it might not be so bad, perhaps just a little odd in a light and trivial way. The problem is that his earlier works were so rich and colourful that they set a high standard for future work.

Disappointment is a bitter pill to swallow and when it's handed to you by an author then you both loose. You admonish yourself for exagerated expectations and the author sells one less of every future title.
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Old 25th Jan 2005, 17:13   #10
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You should still read The Cider House Rules, chilli - as you can see from comments here, most seem to think it's among his very best.

Your avatar seems to have gone AWOL in the recent blips and glitches we have been suffering. You might have to choose another one from the gallery, or PM Wavid if you have a copy of the pic you were using and he can set it up again for you.

Unless, once again, it's only on my computer where the avatar is missing??
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