Mister Sexy said he would NOT wear tight-fitting shirts and talk in an Irish accent if I didn’t read John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany . It’s a decision I do not regret. And for more reasons than seeing Mister Sexy in a tight-fitting shirt and trilling out a lovely brogue. Well, maybe ‘trilling’ is not the appropriate word.
(Incidentally, as I write this, the cat is *extremely* farty, and is sitting in front of the register, so if I lose consciousness from time to time, please be patient with me. Whoof.)
So I liked this book. But there’s a problem. Sometimes, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this yet, but sometimes, after reading or seeing or experiencing something that makes me think about it a lot, I begin to emulate certain aspects of the thing. F’rinstance, I’m particularly prone to picking up accents. I think that sometimes, when I read something, I pick up phrases or styles, although it’s difficult to tell. As my International Literary Boyfriend Neil Gaiman (whom I, sadly, did *not* get to meet yesterday) said,
It’s one of the scariest things, for a writer, about writing short fiction — the worry that a story shape isn’t yours, but is something you read a long time ago, and forgot.
Isn’t he AMAZING!?
Oh, sorry. Right. Owen Meany.
What John Irving’s done with this book is, in my opinion, Very Difficult. He has created an utterly memorable character. He’s good at that (remember The World According to Garp?). Once you’ve met Owen Meany, you will never, EVER forget him. It’s pretty amazing, I think, the way Irving is able to create an aural experiece using only print and clever prose. Like Garp, Owen Meany has some fairly staunchly-held beliefs, and he is precocious and has, as Joyce would say, the “strength of conviction”. (Yes. I know Jame Joyce doesn’t hold copyright over that particular phrase; it was in The Dubliners, though, I first encountered it. Or maybe it was Finnegan’s Wake.) Unlike Garp, Owen Meany is, I think, less a product of his upbringing. Owen seems much more actualised early on in his life than Garp ever did, and this makes sense when you understand some of the fundamental differences between the two characters (primarily, Faith and religion).
The similarities between the two novels are striking – fatherless children, for example (a topic close to the author’s own heart, as he never knew his own father). Both Garp and John Wheelwright (the narrator of A Prayer for Owen Meany) never knew their fathers; in both instances it is a mystery. In both books, discovering the nature of their own conception is a major driving force for two of the main characters.
Both novels have strong feminist characters who deal with social justice issues – John Wheelwright’s cousin Hester is a feminist “out of necessity”, the narrator implies (if not outright says), owing to having been treated quite differently from her two brothers. She becomes a folk singer, Vietnam war protester, and, ultimately, pop/punk culture icon. In The World According to Garp, TS Garp’s mother, a nurse, is a strong feminist character who goes so far as to open her home to women in need – a shelter/retreat. More striking about Garp’s mother Jenny is that she *vehemently* opposes sharing her life with a man as her husband; with the exception of Garp’s conception (and I’ll not ruin the surprise by talking about it here; if you haven’t read the book, you should do so), she presents a cold, asexual image. This is unlike John Wheelwright’s mother, who is always taken to be a sexual, sensual woman; the same is true of Hester, with whom John has his first few sexual experiences (and about whom he fantasises for most of his adult life).
Owen Meany is obsessed with his own death. So is Garp. Albeit with different motivations, of course…which is to say, one of the primary *differences* between the two books is also the main reason these two characters are so different in their approach to the obsession each one has about death. Garp is a writer (so is Owen Meany) whose novels tend to feature, like Shakespeare, the death of EVERYONE INVOLVED. Owen Meany is only concerned with his *own* death. Owen has a vision, when he is very young, that convinces him he knows when he will die. Garp is more keenly interested in fantasising several ways in which those around him might die.
I have a friend who often says of my writing, “yes, but what do these characters DO? What HAPPENS?” This is a funny thing about Irving – not much really happens. I mean, stuff happens, but reading it is like hearing the stories told around the back yard while drinking beer, or around the fireplace channel while sipping rum ‘n’ nog – both novels are anecdotal. The “plot” as it were, takes place in the characters …well… living. The action is in the development of each segment of each story – what happens to Owen Meany when the boys go swimming at the mine? What happens to Garp when he and his neighbour disrobe in the back yard?
This same friend is a HUGE fan of Hemingway (not that my friend is a Size Large Literature Lover, but he *is* quite fond of Hemingway), and understands about ‘nothing happening’ in short fiction; he often talks about the story where the entire timeline is played out, more or less, in a hotel room in Spain, and most of the action involves a man and a woman having a subtle argument. It is about what is left *unsaid* that makes that story so good, my friend says. At least, I think he says that. I might be making it up.
ANYWAY, my whole point is this: one of the striking things about Owen Meany is the particular way in which he speaks, which Irving represents in part by only presenting Owen Meany’s speech in ALL CAPS. And I noticed my own self doing this on a far more regular basis over the last couple of weeks.
Also, I’ll never forget Owen Meany, weird, kind of creepy little bugger that he was. Thanks for insisting I read the book, Mister Sexy. I did enjoy it.