The Hotel New Hampshire | Critical Review by Jack Beatty

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Hotel New Hampshire.
This section contains 942 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Jack Beatty

SOURCE: "A Family Fable," in The New Republic, September 23, 1981, pp. 37-8.

In the following review, Beatty contrasts The Hotel New Hampshire with The World According to Garp.

It's extraordinary what a little feeling can do for a novel. To prepare for The Hotel New Hampshire, I read The World According to Garp, and disliked it intensely, not for its slapstick sex or for its "comic and ugly and bizarre" preoccupation with mutilation and death, but for its shallowness, its quality of energy without feeling. The novel conveyed only one emotion—self-love. Garp, Irving's writer-hero, was so taken with himself that the title of the last chapter jarred: how could there possibly be "Life After Garp"? Who would want to go on living without that paragon? I frankly hated Garp, and picked up the new novel expecting to hate it too. Instead I liked it. Feeling made the difference. In Garp, it all flows back on Irving's alter ego; in The Hotel New Hampshire, it flows out, bringing a whole family to life on a wide current of care.

John Irving is a talented but facile writer. His prose never encounters those resistances—emotional, moral, epistemological—that energize memorable statement. It never strains at meaning, it just sweeps you along, its easy momentum lulling your critical faculty and rocking you back to a childlike state of wonder. In this 400-page book, for example, I can find only one moment of verbal felicity: "Harold Swallow, darting through the trees, guiding us like a hush up the path…." One pauses over that "like a hush up a path," to admire it. But that is just what Irving doesn't want, for if we stop we might start asking questions that would undermine our pleasure in a novel so willfully unrealistic. So Irving keeps us moving, sacrificing rhetoric to pace, as in the most primitive narrative forms, the fable and the fairy tale. In fiction like this, meaning lies near the surface of the story and in the voice of the storyteller.

The Hotel New Hampshire is a family saga; the storyteller is John Berry, the middle child, a brother and sister fore and aft. Not a novelist like Garp, he is the family annalist, the compiler of its collective story. It begins at a hotel on the Maine coast in 1939, and ends there many years and many adventures later. Along the way, two members of the family die in a plane crash; John's older sister is raped by the backfield of a prep school football team; his older brother grows into a homosexual; his little sister stops growing ("'You're no dwarf, dear,' Mother whispered to Lilly, but Lilly just shrugged. 'So what if I am?' she said, bravely. 'I'm a good kid.'"); and, in a moment of extreme if improbable peril for the whole Berry tribe, his father makes a heroic gesture that costs him his eyes. The two props of the plot are the father's attempts to make his dream of running a successful hotel come true, first in New Hampshire, then in Vienna. The Vienna hotel is occupied by whores, with whom young John investigates the holy mysteries, and by a cell of terrorists who plan to blow up the Vienna State Opera and then take the Berrys hostage. A subplot has John falling in love with his sister, Franny; and oh, there is so much more; for sheer quantity of astonishing happenings and eccentric characters, Hotel beats Raiders of the Lost Ark cold.

The novel has the manic rhythm of a cartoon; crisis follows crisis in a spiral of woe; and, at each crisis, the Berry family comes together in a moving tableau of solidarity. Family is one of the novel's values; imagination is the other. That faculty is seen in a double light. On the one hand, it is a defense, a way of coping with troubles. The lack of it can be disabling, and one character commits suicide when her imagination fails. On the other hand, the attempt to realize everything you imagine can be dangerous. Father Berry's lavish efforts to live out his dreams result in several deaths; and the price he ultimately pays himself, being blinded, is a fitting emblem of his benighted condition all along. Moreover, throughout the novel imaginative pranks backfire, leading to tragic unintended consequences. Irving's double view of the imagination, I suspect, is even behind his preoccupation with the Nazis. They, after all, tried to do everything they imagined, with what terrible results we know.

John Berry's voice, however, returns us to a warmer idea of the imagination: its power of sympathy. "You've got to get obsessed and stay obsessed," John's grandfather, a football coach, urges him. Coach Bob's advice is about weight-lifting, and John follows it fanatically. But his deeper obsession is with his family. How can I make father happy? How will grim Frank turn out? How I miss Mother and Egg! How I long for Franny! This anxious love is the pulse of his mind.

Someone calls John "a weight lifting maiden aunt"; in another vocabulary, he would be a mensch. His moments of caring, together with the larger set-pieces of family solidarity, make the human element in a novel otherwise unbearably farcical. John Berry and John Irving remind us that the imagination is not simply a Rube Golberg faculty of invention; it is also a moral force, a way of sharing others' lives, others' burdens. We all want to check in to the Hotel New Hampshire. It is "the sympathy space" where we can be fully known and yet fully loved, and where a powerful imagination holds us fast and won't let us die.

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This section contains 942 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Jack Beatty