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Critical Essay by Edward C. Reilly
SOURCE: "Understanding John Irving," in Understanding John Irving, University of South Carolina Press, 1991, pp. 1-13.
In the following excerpt, Reilly provides an overview of the settings, characters, themes, and literary techniques employed in Irving's fiction.
Except for Setting Free the Bears, his only novel with European settings and characters, John Irving's novels take place in twentieth-century United Slates, especially Maine and New Hampshire. Irving analyzes contemporary problems and issues plaguing his characters' lives. In addition, random violence and sudden death stalk his fictional worlds, a concept that has its inceptions in Setting Free the Bears.
Set primarily in Vienna, Austria, Bears traces Vienna's history from before the Anschluss (Austria's "union" with Nazi Germany in 1938) to after World War II. While admitting that Bears contains a "large" researched "historical center"—"the Yugoslavian resistance in World War II, the Russian occupation of Vienna … the Nazi Anschluss of Austria in '38"—Irving claims that his succeeding novels do not have researched material as a "central part of them. In the novel imagination wins out over research." For Irving, however, the violence, terror, and murders that preceded and followed the Anschluss not only established the precedent for World War II's brutal, chaotic fury, but also for the violence and bizarre deaths lurking in the postmodern world.
Vienna also becomes a secondary but important setting in The Water-Method Man, The 158-Pound Marriage, The World According to Garp, and The Hotel New Hampshire, novels in which his American characters, especially children, travel to Vienna as part of their maturing processes and the novels' bildungsroman motifs. Irving says, for example, "Growing up in a foreign country, you leave home in that sense…. And I attempt in writing … to use the experience of someone else's history, another country's history even, to make somebody painfully aware of his own meager grip on his or her surroundings." Although Irving lived in Vienna during 1963 and 1964 and he and his family later lived in Vienna from 1969 to 1972, he emphasizes that Vienna is a "fairyland, really, more than a real place … a license to dream. And when I get there—when my characters journey there, or when they start there, or when they end up there—it's a place simply where 'something else' can happen." His characters who experience Vienna, however, learn from its history so that they may better understand those forces shaping their lives, or as the narrator says about Garp's return to Vienna with his family, "The streets, the buildings, even the paintings in the museums, were like his old teachers, grown older."
Although alluding to Wally Worthington's experiences in Burma when his plane is shot down during World War II, The Cider House Rules is the only novel in which the characters make no trips to a foreign country. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Irving introduces another secondary but significant setting, Toronto, Canada, where Johnny Wheelwright reflects on the forces, especially the Vietnam War, that changed his and his friends' lives. While Vienna plays a violent role in twentieth-century history, Toronto is a tranquil no-man's-land; however, just as Vienna is the catalyst by which Irving assesses World War II's effects on his characters and their world, Toronto provides the basis for analyzing the Vietnam War's effects on the characters and the United States.
Whether in Vienna, Toronto, or the United States, Irving's settings underscore the violence and death that he sees at the core of life. Yet, in refuting critics who fault his plots for excessive violence, Irving asserts: "How could anyone who reads the newspaper think it excessive? I think events in American social and political life have borne me out. There have been more assassinations than exist in the novel, certainly more radical and terrorist groups. Perhaps I can be accused of having too sweet a disposition or being too optimistic, but not too violent or excessive." Although the violence and death within his plots may emphasize "how perilous and fragile our lives can be," Irving maintains that his literary vision is affirmative, a point emphasized in his wry comment about Garp: "I've written a life-affirming novel in which everybody dies." "There are no happy endings," Irving says, but "that's no cause for some blanket cynicism or sophomoric despair. That's just a strong incentive to live purposefully, to be determined about living well." This maxim often governs his characters' lives, especially the Berry family in Hotel New Hampshire.
Irving praises Charles Dickens, John Cheever, and Kurt Vonnegut, who all write about their characters with "grace and affection." Grace and affection certainly apply to the way Irving writes about his characters. Critics label Irving's characters zany, wacky, or eccentric, yet in their determination to live well and purposefully, their fears, follies, vanities, and virtues are recognizably human. While admitting that he did not especially admire Siggy or Hannes in Bears, Bogus Trumper in Water-Method Man, or the narrator in 158-Pound Marriage, Irving "admired and cared for" the Garp characters, an admiration certainly extending to his succeeding characters.
In developing his characters, Irving subjects them to extreme situations—"sexual situations or violent ones or whatever"—to bring out the "best and the worst aspects of ourselves … the things we admire or despise about people":
Basically I always try to place my characters under the most and least favorable circumstances to see how they will react, to test them. In Garp this strategy was very self-conscious: I wanted to create characters whom I greatly admired and then bless them with incredibly good fortune in the first half of the novel…. But in the second half of the novel, I visit all the worst kinds of extreme things on these people to see how they would deal with extremes of adversity, just as earlier they had to cope with success.
This emotional-extremes technique is most effective in Irving's bildungsroman motifs as children like T. S. Garp, the Berrys, Homer Wells, Johnny Wheelwright, and Owen Meany learn and mature from their experiences with life's extremes. For example, his child characters usually lose either one or both parents. Siggy Javotnik's father, Utch's parents, and Garp's father are World War II victims; the Berrys' mother dies in a plane crash; Homer Wells never knew his father or mother; and a foul ball kills Wheelwright's mother. The bildungsroman motif not only develops these characters' rites-of-passage but also complements the novels' actions, settings, and themes—for example, Garp and the Berrys travel to Vienna to learn more about life, death, love, and happiness.
How his characters live happy, meaningful lives varies from novel to novel, but the bases for their happiness remain constant: accepting responsibility; appreciating life's beauties and gifts; refusing to be intimidated by life's nebulous forces; and especially loving friends and family. The family unit, in fact, becomes the "defense against the abyss" of the contemporary world, and Irving says he "could not state a better or broader opinion of family life" than in Garp. Moreover, in refuting critics who fault him for the bizarre forces plaguing his fictional families, Irving retorts:
But let's take a simple family of four. Those two children will have, say, two children, making eight people. Is it claiming too much that out of the eight, someone is going to hit the wall? In a car crash, a plane crash, a wipeout, a premature tragedy, of course, it will happen! Someone is going off the deep end. They may not jump out a window, they may take drugs until they are useless, but certainly one of those eight isn't going to make it.
To complement the plot twists that carry his characters from fortune to misfortune, Irving juxtaposes the tragic with the comic. The tragic-comic extremes also drive his characters to the edge and determine their worth or worthlessness. Regarding life, Irving declares: "When people are happy—when we're in love, when we have orgasms of one kind or another, when we're proud of our children or high on ourselves—it strikes me that we are happy indeed. And who can say the world isn't comic, especially at those times? But we have pain too. Quite simply, the pain wins." As the narrator in Garp says, "an evening could be hilarious and the next morning murderous."
Despite the pain and tragedy, Irving's novels end affirmatively because his characters have meaningful, happy lives. Indeed, Irving's affirmative vision is evident in some of his concluding chapter titles: "Congratulations to All You Survivors" (Bears); "The Old Friends Assemble For Throgsgafen Day" (Water-Method Man); "Life After Garp" (Garp). His other novels conclude with affirmative images and sentences: "You've got to get obsessed and stay obsessed. You have to keep passing the open windows" (Hotel New Hampshire); "there was no fault to be found in the hearts of either Dr. Stone or Dr. Larch who were—if there ever were—Princes of Maine, Kings of New England" (Cider House); "they were the forces we didn't have the faith to feel, they were the forces we failed to believe in…. Oh God, please give him back" (Owen Meany).
Among Irving's other literary techniques are refrains that Irving defines as those "little litanies … that serve to mark how far you've come, and also forewarn you about where you're going…. In The Hotel New Hampshire there are several refrains: Sorrow floats, keep passing the open windows, everything as a fairy tale." Other such verbal refrains would include the "gale of the world" (Bears); the "whole thing" (158-Pound Marriage); the "rules" and "wait and see" (Cider House); the "voice" and the "dream" (Owen Meany). Refrains also comprise actions—riding motorcycles (Bears); writing a dissertation (Water-Method Man); weight lifting (Hotel New Hampshire); reading from David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and Jane Eyre (Cider House); or slam-dunking basketballs (Owen Meany). Although critics often interpret these refrains as needless repetition, they form the plot threads that augment settings, characterizations, conflicts, and themes; they also illuminate Irving's intricate plotting techniques.
In addition to refrains, Irving's metaphors highlight the novels' themes. While World War II, a clogged urinary tract, writing, and cities may be metaphors, Irving's sport metaphors typify their functions: "To use one of my wrestling metaphors," says Irving, "if you're going to prepare yourself mentally and physically for a tough match on the weekend, the best way to do it is to get the shit kicked out of you by one of your teammates on Tuesday or Wednesday. If you work with something that is brutal and demanding, day-by-day, you'll be better equipped to deal with the real traumas later on." In this sense, wrestling prepares Garp for his writing career; weight lifting gives John Berry the strength to protect his family by squeezing the life out of Arbeiter, a German terrorist; and slam-dunking basketballs enables Meany to consummate his life's quest. Moreover, because of the grueling discipline required for both sports, Garp and John Berry can deal with the personal traumas haunting their lives, and Meany can accept his ultimate fate.
Symbols also underscore the novels' meanings, and Irving believes that symbols should always be clear: "There's not much point in symbols if people don't understand them. If you're going to be symbolic, you'd better let people know you are." Irving's symbols range from wrestling rooms, hotels, a foul ball, an armadillo, bears, to the Under Toad and the Berrys' Labrador retriever, Sorrow. The Under Toad and Sorrow symbolize life's overwhelming forces—e.g., terror, violence, and death. In contrast, in Bears and Hotel New Hampshire bears suggest the characters' bearish tenacity to survive when confronting those forces. As do refrains, Irving's symbols acquire depth and meaning as the plots develop and thus highlight his intricate plotting techniques.
Irving's are action-filled, expansive novels, facts attributable to his appreciation of and love for nineteenth-century fiction. In addition to Turgenev, Tolstoi, and Dostoevsky, he admires Thomas Hardy and especially Charles Dickens, whom he still reads for pleasure. "I was raised," says Irving, "on European novels, particularly British nineteenth century; I like character and storytelling; I like plot." Irving also appreciates Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, and John Hawkes. Irving even refers to his works as "big novels" since they trace "somebody's life in its entirety … I mean to move characters through time, so we can see how they've changed—in their lives and by their lives. I think the novel that interests me now is a novel that shows us how people end up. I feel I am programmed to write big novels, or at least long ones."
Because he admired the nineteenth-century novels, especially Dickens, Irving is fond of epilogues. "I begin with an ending, or an idea of an ending. I begin with a sense of an epilogue, and in that way there is at least an objective ahead of you." While his epilogues recount events and lives after the novel's official close—e.g., the "Life After Garp" section—Irving's epilogues are necessary for his "big novels": "I knew a novel that did not convey the passage and perspective of time did not interest me. I wanted to write about the passing of and perspective of time and the softening of pain. An epilogue inevitably has nostalgia in it—it's a way of saying, 'It's not so bad what happened to that little child.' No one has a 'happy ending.' 'Ending' is by definition not a happy occurrence."
Irving's novels may be about prep school life, writers' lives, wrestling, Vienna, and Toronto, all experiences common to Irving's life, but he adamantly claims that his novels are not solely autobiographical, "I honestly don't think I could have eked out even one novel from the experiences in my own life." He does concede, however, that while he may use autobiography as a "stepping-off point in fiction … something to use up and get over," translating these experiences into fiction comprises the art. "I don't even feel obligated in my fiction to tell the truth. The truth of what's happened to me is mostly irrelevant to what I write about."
Because he focuses on contemporary issues that include homosexuality, transvestism, mate-swapping, equal rights, radical extremism, incest, rape, abortion, and violence, some critics label Irving a "trendy" or "popular" writer; because of his probing insights into and analyses of these issues, other critics label him a "serious" writer. Although in conceding that he writes sentences and paragraphs that keep the reader interested, Irving claims that these "openly seductive" elements are not aspects of "commercialism but part of the writer's responsibility":
Art has an aesthetic responsibility to be entertaining. The writer's responsibility is to take the hard stuff and make it as accessible as the stuff can be made. Art and entertainment aren't contradictions.
It's only been in the last decade, or last twenty years, that there has somehow developed this rubric under which art is expected to be difficult…. By creating a taste for literature that needs interpretation, we, of course, create jobs for reviewers, for critics, for the academy. I like books that can be read without those middlemen.
While Irving's subject matter may be the "stuff" of popular fiction, his analyses of and insights into these contemporary problems are the "stuff" of serious fiction. R. Z. Sheppard establishes Irving's place in contemporary American fiction: "In the 50s J. D. Salinger produced Catcher in the Rye, the Huckleberry Finn of the Silent Generation. Readers in the 60s and early 70s rallied around Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle with its 'karass,' and the casually philosophical 'so it goes' from Slaughterhouse Five. The end of the decade belongs to Irving and Garpomania." The World According to Garp provided Irving the critical accolades he deserved, and The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany have further enhanced John Irving's critical reputation as an "accessible" serious writer.
This section contains 2,602 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)