Monday, November 16, 2009

Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

The first John Irving novel I tried to read was The World According to Garp.  I got to the point where someone (I don’t remember who) had an eye poked out and I stopped.   I didn’t try another John Irving novel for a long time, not until someone whose reading judgment I trust recommended A Prayer for Owen Meany.   I loved it.  (Someday I’m going to re-read it.)   A few years ago one of my reading groups chose A Widow for One Year as  the selection and I enjoyed it too.  I saw the movie Cider House Rules, but I never read the novel.   And that’s been about it for me as far as John Irving goes.

The early reviews of Last Night in Twisted River said that it contained all the “usual” things one could expect from a John Irving novel.   Since I don’t consider myself an Irving expert, I didn’t really know what that meant.   But I was looking for a new book to read and it was there. 

I wonder if someone who was more familiar with all of Irving’s work would have gotten a different level of enjoyment from this novel.  Even from my limited exposure to Irving I could recognize allusions to those earlier works, and enjoy them.  I kept wishing that I had read his entire ouevre so that I could enjoy what I was probably missing.   I think someone could write hundreds of words just about these allusions, but I’m not the person to do it.  

It is an odd story.  I know that isn’t unusual for an Irving novel.  But I think it is odd even compared to the other works I’ve read.   The novel is divided into parts, each of which take place in a different time in the last sixty years.   But that is misleading because the majority of each part consists of flashbacks to earlier times as characters evaluate where they are in life and how they got there. 

A lot of the tension is drained from each part because during the flashbacks the reader is aware that the character has survived the experience more or less intact, physically and psychologically.   The stories are, after all, flashbacks.  That was a problem for me – sometimes I’d get a bit bored and think, just GET ON with the story.

The main characters are a father and son:  Dominic and Daniel.   There is also  a close family friend named Ketchum.  And there are numerous peripheral characters including crazy small town sheriff Carl.    And there are bears (even I know to expect bears from Irving).  

After the end of the first section, Dominic and Daniel are on the run from crazy Carl who wants to kill Dominic for having an affair with Jane, a woman who lives with, and is abused by, Carl.   There is a little more to it, but I won’t give it away.   Dominic and Daniel move around over the course of the next 50 years, on the run from Carl and occasionally changing their names.   While this seems fairly straightforward, it isn’t.  The whole thing seemed (and I think was intended to seem) slightly ludicrous because Daniel becomes a best selling novelist.  So the idea that Carl couldn’t find them if he really wanted to find them means that we have to really suspend disbelief.  And, in fact, the very fact that Carl COULD find them but isn’t finding them leads Daniel and Dominic to a sense of disbelief in Carl’s vendetta, even while they continue to try to elude him.  It is Ketchum and only Ketchum who firmly believes in Carl’s rage.  He is, at once, a voice of reason (move FURTHER away!) while at the same time a bit over the top so that the reader never really takes his advice much more seriously than Dominic and Daniel do.

As a story, it goes on so long (over a lifetime) that it almost doesn’t work.   There is such a meandering quality to it that I found it hard to stay focused and, as I said, I sometimes thought “Oh just get ON with it.”   But by the end I decided that the whole Carl story is meant to be one long extended metaphor.  Dominic and Daniel are running from the past and in the end you can’t run from your past.  It will find you.  The bad and the good. And it will find you when it is meant to find you and not before.

I would only rate Irving as moderately successful with this gambit.   If a reader tries to take the story too literally the reader might be turned off because it is, frankly, unbelievable.   Especially the end, I thought.    And even if a story is a metaphor, it still has to work as a story.   But Irving is such a good writer that he manages to make this unbelievable story just believable enough to work  if you don’t think about it too hard.  Not enough, though, to be a great novel in my opinion.

But, despite what may seem like such a broad criticism, I’m not sorry I read this novel and there were parts of it I enjoyed very much.  The character of Daniel, whom we meet at age 12, grows up to be a novelist.  And part of the novel is an exploration of how the novelist works; how the novelist takes from real life and creates fiction.    At some point in the novel the reader begins to suspect that Daniel is writing this  novel; the novel that the reader is reading.  Or is he?   Maybe he is writing a novel using the same stories from his real life that we have “lived” with him.    Because in the end he is starting to write  a novel about Ketchum and the heroism of Ketchum.  And this novel isn’t about Ketchum as much as it is a novel in which Ketchum is an important character.

The novel is full of opinions about writing.  The question for a novel is:  are these opinions the opinion of Irving?  Or are they fictional opinions – in the sense that some writer might believe this but not Irving. 

At first the references to writing are simple parentheticals within the novel.  For instance, while Daniel is still young he is put into a situation where he is speechless:

(Maybe this moment of speechlessness helped to make Daniel Baciagalupo become a writer. All those moments when you know you should speak, but you can’t think of what to say – as a writer, you can never give enough attention to those moments.)

The parenthetical is the viewpoint of the narrator.  But is the narrator Irving?  Or is it Daniel who is writing this book?  Or is it some fictional narrator that Irving has created because Daniel isn’t writing this book?   

And at a certain moment in young Daniel’s life, Irving tells us that “the near simultaneity of connected but dissimilar events” are what move a story forward but Daniel doesn’t recognize this and only thinks what has happened to him is such a coincidence! 

(He was too young to know that, in any novel, with a reasonable amount of forethought, there were no coincidences.)

Irving uses coincidence abundantly in this novel.   One of the emotional pinnacles of the story just happens to take place on September 11, 2001.   When I first realized that Irving was doing this (which was after the first plane crashed into the tower and a character has the TV on in the kitchen), I was doubtful.  But I think he made it work.    And one reason it works is because the novel isn’t about 9/11, the novel didn’t lead up to 9/11 or away from it.  It just” happened” to happen on the same day as other emotional things happened to the characters.   So the characters had to react to it and they had to react in the context of all the other things that were going on in their lives.

Daniel regularly protests that his novels aren’t autobiographical, but it is clear that he uses his life experiences at least as starting points for his fiction.   But the people in his life recognize that the novels are fiction because they are constantly looking for themselves and, more importantly, him in the novels and not finding anyone they know.  Here Dominic (who is a cook)  and Ketchum are discussing his novels:

While there were these little details of a recognizable kind in [Daniel's] novels, the cook more often noticed things that he was sure his son must have made up.   If Carmella had put in an identifiable bathtub appearance, the character of the stepmother in that novel was definitely not based on Carmella; nor could the cook find any but the most superficial elements of himself in Daniel’s novels, or much of Ketchum.  (A minor character’s broken wrist is mentioned in passing in one novel, and there’s a different character’s penchant for saying “Constipated Christ!” in another.)  Both Ketchum and [Dominic] had talked about the absence of anyone in the novels who revealed to them their quintessential and beloved Daniel.

And later:

Somehow what struck [Dominick] about Daniel’s fiction was that it was both autobiographical and not autobiographical at the same time.  (Danny disagreed, of course.  After his schoolboy attempts at fiction writing, which he’d shown only to Mr. Leary – and those stories were nothing but a confusing mix of memoir and fantasy, both exaggerated, and nearly as “confusing” to Danny as they were to the late Michael Leary – the young novelist had not really  been autobiographical at all, not in his opinion.)

Is Irving saying that all writers deny the autobiographical in their novels?  Or just Daniel?   Or maybe what Dominic thinks (and other non-writers think) is autobiographical really isn’t autobiographical.   It is just a starting point for the fiction.

Irving gets right into this matter later in the novel after Daniel suffers a tragedy and then writes a novel that has a “similar” tragedy.  He is then hounded by the media to talk about the “reality” of his fiction.

In the media, real life was more important than fiction; those elements of a novel that were, at least, based on personal experience were of more interest to the general public than those pieces of the novel-writing process that were “merely” made up. In any work of fiction, weren’t those things that had really happened to the writer – or, perhaps, to someone the writer had intimately known – more authentic, more verifiably true, than anything that anyone could imagine?  (This was a common belief, even though a fiction writer’s job was imagining, truly, a whole story – as Danny had subversively said, whenever he was given the opportunity to defend the fiction in fiction writing – because real- life stories were never whole, never complete in the ways that novels could be.)

I think one of the reasons that the meandering plotline of this novel is slightly unsatisfactory is because Irving is simultaneously showing how real life, dependent on fate and not a writer, can meander along and  be slightly boring, punctuated with moments of comedy and tragedy, but incomplete in a narrative sense.   Even a life on the run can be boring on most days.

And yet, because this is a work of fiction, Irving creates and (eventually) completes a narrative arc.  Narrative arcs don’t necessarily exist in real life and it is the the narrative arc that makes the plot of this novel a bit unbelievable.    Ironic?  Or intentional?

Irving also has Danny (or the narrator) question who the writer is writing for.

Yet who was the audience for Danny Angel, or any other novelist, defending the fiction in fiction writing?  Students of creative writing?  Women of a certain age in book clubs, because weren’t most book club members usually women of a certain age?  Who else was more interested in fiction than in so-called real life?  Not Danny Angel’s interviewers, evidently; the first question they always asked had to do with what was “real” about this or that novel.  Was the main character based on an actual person?  Had the novel’s most memorable (meaning most catastrophic, most devastating) outcome actually happened to anyone the author knew or had known?

At one point in the novel, Daniel scoffs at the advice to write what you know:

… he expected too much from journalists; most of them lacked the imagination to believe that anything credible in a novel had been “wholly imagined.”  And those former journalists who later turned to writing fiction subscribed to that tiresome Hemingway dictum of writing about what you know.  What bullshit was this?  Novels should be about people you know?  How many boring but deadeningly realistic novels can be attributed to this lame and utterly uninspired advice.

And yet in the end, Daniel ignores his own disdain and decides to write a novel about Ketchum.  On the other hand, it is to be a novel.  So how much of it will be the “real” Ketchum (that we know; or do we?) and how much will be fiction?

Although I found parts of this novel a bit slow going I do think it was a well written novel that said some interesting things.  I can imagine myself re-reading it some day.  But only after I re-read A Prayer for Owen Meany.