Friday, March 2, 2012

Happy Birthday, John Irving (and Garp and Owen Meany)

Today is John Irving's 70th birthday--70th!!!  I remember when John Irving was seen as a young, up-and-coming writer.  It's startling to me to realize how long he's been writing.

I picked up The World According to Garp at a used bookstore in Knoxville, Tennessee when I was in high school.  I remember reading it and being somewhat shocked at the unhappiness of the suburban parents in the novel.  I remember being somewhat shocked by the sex in the novel, but I can't remember what was shocking.  I'd been reading bodice ripper romance novels for years by the time I picked up my first John Irving novel, and so, graphic depictions of lust and sex had lost their capacity to shock just by their graphic nature alone.

I also remember being shocked by some of the strange twists the novel took.  As I continued to read Irving novels, I came to expect a shocking twist, and part of the thrill of reading an Irving novel was in predicting which characters would die a freakish death or be maimed.

I used to read Irving novels the minute they came out--or as soon as I could get them from my public library during my impoverished grad school years.  These days, I have a stack of his recent books awaiting the mythical time in the future that I'll have time to read a big novel.

My favorite John Irving novel--and it's high on the list of my all-time favorite novels--is A Prayer for Owen Meany.  What an amazing book.  My spouse read it first, and then I read it, and then we loaned it to anyone who would take it.  We were Owen Meany evangelists.

I use that word with purpose because each time I've read the book, I've noticed that Owen Meany functions neatly as a Christ figure.  You might say, "Sure.  You're an English major.  You see sex and Christ figures in every work of literature or pop culture."  You'd be right, but Owen Meany works as a Christ figure more neatly than some characters in other works.

Maybe some day I'll write the academic paper that I once sketched out that made the argument.  Maybe some day I'll write a novel that has a main character who functions as a Christ figure.

I remember being struck by the main character, the non-Owen Meany character, and his trajectory through spiritual landscapes.  I remember being struck by the fact that Irving could write about this journey, and I remained interested instead of turned off.  I was similarly being struck by that ability in Gail Godwin.  It's not easy to write a book about characters who go to church and to make that book appealing to believers and non-believers alike.

It may be time to reread A Prayer for Owen Meany again.  I used to reread it on a regular basis.  I used to reread lots of books on a regular basis.  Ah, youth, when I had time to read and less to distract me from it.

I used to read Father Melancholy's Daughter by Gail Godwin regularly as a Holy Week book.  Maybe this year, I'll return to A Prayer for Owen Meany.  Maybe in the same week I'll reread A Wrinkle in Time, the novel by Madeleine L'Engle that moved me as a 5th grader when I first read it, and continued to affect me deeply when I'd reread it throughout adolescence.  I've been wanting to reread it for months now, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of its publication.   Reading the two in close proximity might lead to interesting insights.  I'll let you know.

1 comment:

Hannah Stephenson said...

I love John Irving, too....Widow for One Year is one I reread often. I'm not sure what I love so much about it...maybe how Irving can move between the miniature and epic with such ease.

Oh, Wrinkle in Time....I was just thinking about that book this morning. I want to reread it, too!