A Prayer for Owen Meany | Critical Review by Wendy Steiner

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of A Prayer for Owen Meany.
This section contains 762 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Wendy Steiner

SOURCE; "The American Wholegrain," in Times Literary Supplement, May 19, 1989, p. 535.

In the following review, Steiner offers a generally unfavorable assessment of A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Suppose that your best friend accidentally killed your mother with a Little League baseball. Suppose he was a near-midget whose voice never changed and whose parents believed he was the product of a virgin birth. Suppose he saw himself as God's instrument, knew the date of his death from a vision of his gravestone that appeared during a production of A Christmas Carol, and died a hero exactly as a dream of his foretold. Would this be enough to cement your faith in Christianity? John Irving's latest blockbuster, A Prayer for Owen Meany, poses this question. Needless to say, the book puts more than a little strain on the reader's ability to keep a straight face.

A Prayer for Owen Meany is the story of John, the outcome of his mother's "little fling" on a trip to Boston. She dies before divulging his father's identity, and only the intrusion of Owen Meany's ghost reveals the truth, Owen, John's best friend, is an undersized genius too good for this world, John's family are New England gentry with Mayflower connections; Owen's are social and psychological cripples. With all his advantages, John turns out a cranky old bachelor; despite all his limitations, Owen emerges a spiritual Horatio Alger. He is the moral voice of his school and ultimately a Christ-figure—he once played baby Jesus in a Christmas pageant. John spends his mature years griping about Reagan from the safe distance of Canada; Owen sacrifices all to rescue some deracinated Vietnamese orphans.

One of Owen's other achievements is to have taught John how to write. He transforms John from an incompetent schoolboy into a successful English major, and it is Owen, presumably, whom we must thank for A Prayer for Owen Meany. But perhaps Owen died before he completed his instruction, for we still have to contend with writing seminar sentences such as "The ungainly boy lived for reaching the legal age for legal slaughter." With more training, John might have been confident that the reader would connect the various armless symbols in the book—a statue, a totem, a dressmaker's dummy, a stuffed armadillo, and finally Owen himself—and so might have spared us his well-meant summaries. Owen might also have done more to protect John's high-school students from the literary advice of their teacher. John recommends Timothy Findley's Famous Last Words as an example of a bold novelistic opening: a father shows his son a panoramic view of Boston and then leaps to his death; "imagine that. That ranks right up there with the opening chapter to The Mayor of Casterbridge, wherein Michael Henchard gets so drunk that he loses his wife and daughter in a bet; imagine that!"

Irving diagnoses America's ills as a matter of gender. He subtly names Owen's murderer "Dick", and enlists half the American literary canon in his support. Like William Carlos Williams in Paterson and In the American Grain, he equates women, the land and the Indians as the spontaneous, passionate victims of male aggression and insensitivity. As a womanly man, Owen is a version of the transsexual football player in The World According to Garp; an armless Indian totem and a statue of Mary Magdalene are his symbols. Irving echoes The Great Gatsby when he reads Marilyn Monroe's death as the desecration of the American land: "It's a beautiful, sexy, breathless country, and powerful men use it to treat themselves to a thrill." He even pilfers The Scarlet Letter to condemn puritanism and hypocrisy: John's mother's secret identity is "The Lady in Red," his unknown father turns out to be a doubting clergyman, and his cousin becomes a rock star called Hester the Molester.

Like all of Irving's novels, A Prayer for Owen Meany seems both more and less than one book. It cannot decide whether to be a folksy Bildungsroman set in New Hampshire, a full-scale Christian/Freudian allegory, or a commentary on American politics. The reminiscences of Owen and John's childhood are so long and so lacking in comic or psychological punch that one would be hard-pressed to tolerate them from a friend. From the unappealing first-person narrator they are unspeakably tedious. And since that narrator is quite obviously Irving's shadow, we might lay a certain self-indulgence at the author's door. But, most irritatingly, the tone of A Prayer for Owen Meany oscillates between 1960s ranting and a sentimentalized Proust; its 543 pages have all the subtlety of a wholegrain madeleine.

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This section contains 762 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Wendy Steiner