SURVIVOR: tree of smoke (denis johnson)*
CHALLENGER: last night in twisted river (john irving)

here's the thing: while research has proven that at any given time there is at least one person reading a prayer for owen meany on every bus in san francisco** and i lived in that city for three years, john irving and i didn't cross paths until 2005, when until i find you rose like a cloud of fruit flies from the book pile at work. i was thrilled: hey, an author i've been meaning to read! also, this one's apparently about tattoos! also also, free book!

it was not good. it wasn't awful, but i was in no danger of needing to venture deeper into the irving oeuvre. however, i happened upon an orphaned copy of last night in twisted river (irving's most recent novel, published last october) a few weeks ago. i'd just finished david mitchell's delirious tokyo novel and was feeling relaxed and big-hearted: what's a second chance for a well-loved novelist in the grand scheme of things?

internet, one should never be relaxed and big-hearted (about john irving novels). this twelfth novel in particular is said to be one of his most personal, as its main character is a writer (who attends, hey hey, the same boarding school, college, and writing program irving did), its omniscient narrator loves to talk about process, and irving says as much in his weirdly defensive afterword; if this shambling thing is what he really is all about, i think i dislike him both as a writer and a person.

objection the first: irving's women are poorly integrated plot devices and/or blank agents of his main character's sexual development, and he generates them with all the panache of a mid-'80s computer role-playing game (i can picture the pull-down menus: build, sexual quirks, alignment). irving's stand-in, daniel baciagalupo, lives in a new hampshire logging town after his mother (slight, polyamorous, True Neutral) gets drunk and drowns in the titular river; a decade later, he finds injun jane (morbidly obese, two-timing, Lawful Neutral) atop his father and, thinking she's a bear, brains her with a frying pan; he then carries on affairs with his aunt (slight, rapacious, Chaotic Neutral) and his female cousins (so lazily described that i can't piece together three characterizations for them), spies on his father's next lover (obese, passive, Lawful Good), fantasizes for decades about "lady sky," a random woman (amazonian, depilated, Chaotic Good) who parachutes nude into pig shit at a party he attends outside iowa city. i think i'd rather read john updike on women; he won't be appearing on the cover of ms. any time soon either, but his creepiness feels downright considerate beside the insult of irving's drive-by descriptions.

objection the second: despite his stated interest in writing about writing, irving doesn't appear especially invested in the details of his fiction writer's development. daniel's primary talent is his ability to churn out "fictional" treatments of his own shortcomings; he makes millions by novelizing injun jane's murder, his cousin's impregnation and subsequent abortion, his neglected infant son's endangerment, and so on ("[a]ll writers must know how to distance themselves, to detach themselves from this and that emotional moment, and [daniel] could do this--even at twelve." congratulations, daniel! you're a sociopath!). we know he's good because...well, because irving's narrator tells us so. a treatment of his abortion novel wins the 2000 academy award for best adapted screenplay and everything (as irving's jack burns does in 1999 in until i find you, and as irving himself did for the cider house rules in 1999, and sometimes i fantasized about putting the book down and standing on my head until consciousness was a memory of a memory).

objection the third: irving's pseudo-homeric epithets (danny's father is always the limping cook, the mother of his child is always the callahan whore, six-pack pam is always, well, six-pack pam), he's not constrained by meter (does he feel constrained by anything at this point?), and he hardly needs a mnemonic to transmit his story (though that would be a great punishment, to force him to chant one of his novels), and epic poetry this isn't:
As for the river, it just kept moving, as rivers do--as rivers do. Under the logs, the body of the young Canadian moved with the river, which jostled him to and fro--to and fro. If, at this moment in time, Twisted River also appeared restless, even impatient, maybe the river itself wanted the boy's body to move on, too--move on, too.
i could have set the book down against the wall, reader, the blood would have rushed to my head with a roar, and sweet darkness would have supplanted the bizarro-heroic couplets - i considered it frequently.

VICTOR: while i'm tempted to say that i'd like to see johnson face irving in person, the latter was a wrestler and the former was a heroin addict; it mightn't be pretty. let's say instead that in thundertome, at least, tree of smoke freckles the arena with last night in twisted river.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 which irving novels, if any, have you read? which, if any, did you like?

02 do you find it annoying that irving can't stop talking about screenplay oscars?

03 what would your homeric epithet be?

04 what am i missing about john irving? i like you, and some of you like him, and - help me.

*previous battle here.

**it's true! right before moving here i saw three at once.


Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

01&04: Otherwise virtuous frugalness might’ve doomed your Irving experience.  Let’s just say there hasn’t been an essential Irving book in twenty-one years (a few pieces from Piggy Sneed are nice, and some might argue in part or for the whole of Widow).  Garp is the best, probably.  It has a shitload of genuine-feeling absurdity to recommend it, and the sorrowful parts are effecting.  Meany is second best, probably, and for similar reasons.  But after Hotel and Rules, that’s the end of essentiality (and the beginning for that matter).  You missed out on all the books that bought Irving the twenty-one years of good will toward pabulum.  Part of me wants to venture a recommendation you abandon Irving entirely and just go watch Brian Cox in Super Troopers to cleanse your palate, but if you read a decent Irving novel now you might be pleased.  Or if his transgressions are too grave, why not pile on and read Tom Wolfe’s petty and highly amusing retort to some GMNs (including a deeply unflattering picture of one John Irving) who didn’t like his new book, and essay entitled My Three Stooges.
02: As Obie Trice once said of Ja Rule, and I paraphrase: He fell off.
03: Thanks to a beloved milk maid, I’m set.
0?: Three ‘tomes™ virtually back to back to back?  I (heart) Thundertome™!

Amanda said...

01 Garp, 158-Pound Marriage, Hotel New Hampshire, Cider House Rules, Owen Meany, A Widow for One Year, The Fourth Hand, and his book of biographical shorts, Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. Half, each, of Setting Free the Bears (the first half) and A Son of the Circus (the last half), and several paragraphs of both The Water-Method Man and Until I Find You. I've since sworn off all pre-Garp and post-Widow-for-One-Year Irving.

02 It's the Vienna references that get to me. And the motorbikes.

03 I fear you might be addressing an Internet full of the epithet-fond, dear Kidchamp; if it weren't for blessed milkmaidery, I'd (ahem) wrestle the grey-eyed goddess for hers.

04 MDF's got it right, I think--earlier Irving is better Irving, mostly--though I've been thinking about this for several days and I'm not sure I wish to sick you on any of the earlier books with a promise that you'll love them any better. Irving can be difficult to love outright; he's more like a complex relationship whose scars one cannot shake. If you care to try again (three summers hence, perhaps or the summer after that--as discussed, it's easy to OD on the fellow), I'd steer you toward Owen Meany or Cider House Rules; I adore A Widow for One Year and The Hotel New Hampshire, but both may require a successful pre-whetting for Irving's brand of bear. Avoid the 158-Pound Marriage and A Son of the Circus as though your life depends on it, for it may. As for Garp...Garp's final line is terrifically satisfying; it's terrible that it takes so long to get there.

05: Like MDF, (a small) part of me wants to tell you to just go get a really good sandwich and skip Irving altogether. Some scars we just needn't (wait for it) bear.

LPC said...

01 Garp. Walt.

02 I would if I experienced said behavior.

03 I have been known to get quite wine-dark, on a random Tuesday afternoon, when I concede the fight too early. And bake chocolate chip cookies with chile powder and paste tissue to hacked piece of foam core and cackle, all by myself.

04 Garp. Walt.

kidchamp said...

super troopers, sandwich, approaching garp again when we've all had time to think about what we've done - i can handle this. 

i should note that i don't disapprove of epithets, not at all - i simply feel like irving is using them as a faux-arty excuse to phone in his descriptors. i knew homer, homer was a friend of mine. irving, you're no homer.

amanda, you'd freckle the arena with athena; LPC, you know i love that tendency. if i have an epithet, it isn't used in my presence, alas. can i be mazy, or labyrinthine? i won't lie, i'll settle for gordian. 

rachel (heart of light) said...

01. Lots and lots but a long time ago, but I'd have to go look them up to remember titles. Is that a bad sign? I just go on reading streaks - I check out one book from the library and then go back and check out everything else they have by the author. Devour. Repeat. I'm a book glutton rather than an epicure, I fear.

02. I am sure I would if I had any awareness of this. Clearly I don't read enough literary interviews.

03. I'd love to have "long fingered" and I don't think it's even taken. I do indeed have crazy long fingers and I feel it's both descriptive and evocative (although it might bring to mind allusions to theft, sounding so similar to light fingered).

04. I would go back a bit and read older stuff. And I usually read them quickly, for plot more than anything else. He's got good stories. I like good stories.

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

“Ursula… I’m naked!” #briancoxsezwhat

metameat said...

I've seen Johnson in person a couple of times and he's pretty muscled up these days. I give him three to two against Irving.

Peonies said...

01.  World According to Garp which is one of my favourite books ever by anyone.  The Cider House Rules,  A Prayer for Owen Meany which I loved but is the only one I haven't re-read and A Widow for One Year.  Almost everything Amanda said is true, you may need to start with the first three (I disagree about Garp, Garp is the best one) before reading A Widow for One Year.  I would avoid anything written in more recent years, especially anything written after Cider House Rules was made into a film, he becomes quite unbearable with success. 

And what you said about disliking Irving as a person?  I detest Irving as a person (judging from interviews I've read and watched with him) but when he is being a good writer, I love him as a writer.  

02. Yes.  And the Vienna stuff bugs me too.  I also tire of statutory rape.  

03.  I had to google Homeric Epithet.  I think that says enough. 

04. He has the ability to make one laugh out loud and sob noisily within the same book.  I like that level of emotional involvement in a book.  Parts of his books will haunt me forever, Garp's undertoad, Widow's Mole Man.  And someone has his penis bitten off while cheating on his wife. Which is really quite affecting.  

LPC said...

Athena - sprung from her father's brow?