Saturday, February 05, 2011

the last book I read

Until I Find You by John Irving.

There are certain things you know you're going to get with a John Irving novel: one of them (usually anyway) is a good solid doorstop-style thickness - at 924 pages this is comfortably the longest book in this series, beating the previous holder (The Corrections) by a whopping 271 pages; that in itself is longer than some novels. There are also many constantly-worked and reworked themes, a list of which (and the novels in which they feature) can be found here.

One of the more general common features of Irving's books which isn't listed there is that they're almost all, broadly speaking, Bildungsroman-style tales spanning the whole life of the major character from childhood to adulthood, and in some cases (most notably The World According To Garp and A Prayer For Owen Meany, of which more later) death.

So as we pick up proceedings here it's no surprise to meet a four-year-old Jack Burns. His mother, Alice, is bringing him up single-handed after her brief dalliance with his father, William, in Edinburgh, ends with him abandoning her. Alice is a tattoo artist, and William, as well as being an inveterate womaniser, is a church organist and tattoo addict gradually building up a full-body set of tattoos.

Having pursued a fleeing William to Canada, and, after failing to find him, settling there with Jack for a few years, Alice decides on a more concerted effort to track William down and embarks on a dizzying trip around various European cities - most notably Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki and Amsterdam - paying their way by setting up as a travelling tattooist in each location. Inevitably they turn up in each city only to find that William has moved on to the next and they've missed him. After a more lengthy stay in Amsterdam, where William has been playing the organ at the Oude Kerk and, as everywhere, leaving a trail of abandoned women behind him, they return to Canada for Jack to enrol at school.

It's at school that some key events in Jack's life take place - under the guidance of Miss Wurtz he discovers his love of, and talent for, acting, and he also meets Emma Oastler, who is seven years older than him but takes him under her wing. Things start to get weird, though, as Emma takes a personal interest in Jack's sexual awakening and monitors his "little guy" carefully for signs of life, as do certain of her friends, Jack being even at this tender age seemingly irresistible to the opposite sex, just like his father. Jack also takes up wrestling (one of Irving's perennial themes) and (aged 10) is eventually relieved of his virginity by his occasional wrestling partner Mrs. Machado.

His schoolyears having instilled in him a love of acting and a bit of a thing for older women, Jack heads off to Los Angeles to pursue a career in movies. Emma Oastler follows him and they (platonically) set up house together. When Emma, who, in a mirroring of Jack's fetish, has a penchant for younger men, dies of a previously-undiagnosed heart condition during a strenuous bout of sex with one of them, Jack takes on the writing of a screenplay of one of her novels, and eventually wins an Oscar for it.

Meanwhile Jack's mother Alice and Emma's mother Leslie have (non-platonically) set up house together back in Toronto. When Alice eventually contracts breast cancer and dies, Jack decides on a nostalgic re-run of their European tour of thirty-odd years earlier. Through his various reunions with the tattoo artists and prostitutes (another Irving trope) from that trip it becomes clear that Alice had not given Jack the full story about any of it. For starters, she wasn't working as a tattoo artist in Amsterdam, but as a prostitute. Furthermore, William wasn't constantly eluding them, he was regularly in town at the same time as them, and Jack even unknowingly met him once. It seems William and Alice were conducting a protracted battle of wills over custody and viewing rights for Jack, and Alice was leading William on this wild-goose chase and tormenting him with the prospect of never seeing Jack again as a ruse to win him back - unsuccessfully, needless to say.

Eventually Jack learns (via Miss Wurtz, with whom he has remained in contact) that he has a half-sister, Heather. On visiting her in Edinburgh it transpires that William is still alive, but being cared for in a clinic in Switzerland for various ill-defined psychiatric disorders. Jack travels to Zurich, and, after a bizarre meeting with the motley crew of medical staff entrusted with William's care, finally gets to meet him.

It turns out that William is generally sensible and coherent, but suffers from various obsessive disorders that result in him doing odd things in response to certain triggers - mostly involving taking all his clothes off in inappropriate circumstances to display his tattoos, which now cover most of his body. Nevertheless Jack undertakes to cover the clinic's fees for the rest of William's life and devote himself to his father's care.

And there, 924 pages later, you have it. That's a long book by anyone's standards, and Irving is one of the few authors who can make getting through a book of that length easy and painless. That said, this won't be heading to the top of my list of Favourite John Irving Books any time soon, nor indeed making the top three or four. Partly this is down to the central character - Jack Burns is a bit of a cipher who we never really get to know, still less understand why he's supposedly so irresistible to women (even at the age of five). His motivations for doing any of the things he does during the book are unclear - indeed he's oddly passive, certainly with women, many of his encounters involving him acquiescing to their advances rather than vigorously pursuing them. Then again if women are ravenously throwing themselves at you constantly maybe you do become a bit blasé about the whole thing. Needless to say I wouldn't know about that.

The handling of the sensitive subject of Jack's early sexual experiences is odd, as well - clearly all of these are unequivocally child abuse, but while the attentions of Emma and her contemporaries is portrayed as cuddly and harmless, those of Mrs. Machado are portrayed as exploitative and sinister, despite not being much different.

I suppose a large part of it is over-familiarity - if you came to this as the first Irving you'd read, you probably wouldn't find the lengthy segments dealing with Jack's school wrestling career or the prostitutes Jack and Alice hang out with in Amsterdam slightly tedious after similar sections in many other books (The World According To Garp for the wrestling and The Hotel New Hampshire for the prostitutes, for instance). Equally you wouldn't reflect on the relationship between Jack and Emma Oastler and think: hey, this is awfully similar - small, younger guy, big, older woman - to the relationship between Owen and Hester in A Prayer For Owen Meany? That might partly explain why Garp, being the first Irving I read 20-odd years ago, remains my favourite. So, all right, I've talked myself into it - here's my list of Irvings in order of preference - suffixed in each case by their last line, which Irving claims always to write first:
  1. The World According To Garp - But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.
  2. The Cider House Rules - To Nurse Edna, who was in love, and to Nurse Angela, who wasn't (but who had in her wisdom named both Homer Wells and Fuzzy Stone), 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.
  3. The Water-Method Man - Mindful of his scars, his old harpoons and things, Bogus Trumper smiled cautiously at all the good flesh around him.
  4. A Widow For One Year - "Don't cry, honey," Marion told her only daughter. "It's just Eddie and me".
  5. The Hotel New Hampshire - You have to keep passing the open windows.
  6. Until I Find You - In fact, Jack couldn't wait to tell Miss Wurtz that he had found him.
  7. A Prayer For Owen Meany - O God - please give him back! I shall keep asking You.
  8. The Fourth Hand - Like other lovers, they were oblivious to the swirling wind, which blew on and on in the wild, uncaring Wisconsin night.
Looking at this the only further observation I'd make is that one of the things that separates the higher ones on the list from the lower ones is that they have a greater focus on the adult life of the central character, the lower ones (Until I Find You and A Prayer For Owen Meany in particular) spending, in my view, far too much time in the company of the central character as a child. Kids are great and all, but adults are just fundamentally more interesting.

Just another quick footnote: this book and its immediate predecessor provide the second instance in this series of two consecutive books which could plausibly be found next to each other on a bookshelf - a reasonably well-stocked one, I mean, as obviously Albert Aardvark amd Zebedee Zebra could be next to each other if they were the only two books you owned - that bookshelf being ordered alphabetically by author's surname, obviously, as everyone's bookshelves presumably are; to do otherwise would literally be madness, after all. Anyway, the other two are the Boyle/Boyd pair from June 2007.

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