Delighted & Disappointed by John Irving

In the fall of 2015, I walked into the Housing Works book store and made an impulse buy from the Staff Recommendations table. Lying there was the fat, devastating book that I’d carry around with me for the entire month of November: The World According to Garp. I likened finding that book at that point in time to be fate. Days before, my friend recommended it before our class. He’d told me that The World According to Garp was his favorite novel.

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the cumbersome book itself, whose cover reveals itself in all its gruesome glory once you read the book

“Because it’s true,” he said. High praise for a novel, whose worth is predicated on it being convincing–but also entirely made up. But I knew what he meant. He meant that the characters are people.

I always take friend’s recommendations into account, but rarely so quickly, because usually the friends aren’t people that I’m trying to impress, because I don’t want to date most of my friends. So, perhaps I read Garp under the spell of wanting to like it because I wanted its recommender to like me. Either way, that book ensnared me. I snuck away from Thanksgiving dinner to read it. I began to use its vocabulary (the ominous “Undertoad” coming to get you) in my daily language. I cried when, waiting for a friend to meet me for dinner, I came to a character’s unexpected departure. I had to explain to Rose that I had lost a good friend, well, a character, but a friend nonetheless.

So–that was my experience with Garp. I just believed it. I just loved it.

And then, July came. I needed a book for a Hamptons beach weekend. Why not take the other book I know by Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany? Whereas I had connected with Garp‘s cast of incredible, weird, off-kilter women (including one trans football player named Roberta who beats Caitlyn Jenner in terms of personality any day), I struggled to find one–one!–character in Owen Meany that I liked. The title character, Owen, is dogmatic and loud and I definitely would not be his friend. But even worse is the narrator! I had no idea if Irving was on his side, or hated him as much as I did. The narrator is a snooze. He’s angry, he lives in the past. He’s the opposite of Garp–who bristles with energy, who writes novels to win over Helen, who runs. John Wheeler doesn’t do much at all but sulk and recount his childhood.

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really, why does everyone like this book

This is coming from someone who reads a lot of books. One day, someone might pay me to read books. I have patience for characters, and they tend to grow on me. Literally, there was no one in this book I remotely liked.

Without a doubt, Irving is a great writer. All of his characters have sharp and weird idiosyncrasies. The town in Owen Meany is populated with great, unique characters. There are some incredible scenes–especially the one where they pray for Owen himself. But jeez, it made me angry to read it!

I guess I’ve discovered that I am a fallible reader. I don’t need perfect characters, but I do need ones who I find interesting, and I need ones whose struggles I find compelling, whose flaws I find interesting.

Owen Meany is about war and Christianity, and Garp is about writing and, well, the wildness of life. The one I loved, then, comes as no surprise.

 

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