Monday, August 30, 2021

Three Books

Much earlier this year, I read John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). As I wrote when I was part-way through the book, Irving's casual sexism was making me wonder if the book was worth it.

Well, I did finish it, and the payoff was still not there. The heavy mysticism around Owen's visions and the mystery of the narrator's parentage felt more manipulative than anything else.

It's such a white guy book, so full of itself and not aware at all of that fact. I guess that makes Irving a "white guy" writer: sometimes making good points, sometimes writing beautifully, sometimes making you laugh, but at other times trampling all over anyone who isn't a white guy with no awareness that he's even done it. From the get-go, for instance, the narrator speaks as a character descended from the Puritans of New England who clearly thinks of the class privilege he has relative to his friend Owen, but with no awareness of the settler colonialism that created his town. (The original inhabitants are dismissed on page 10, then used as a comic relief reference a few times later.) Women are aliens instead of humans, who are either too sexual or not sexual enough.* And so on.

As I said in that earlier post, the part I liked best was the narrator's rage about government dishonesty over the Iran-Contra weapons deal. By the time I was done with the book, though, I was thinking about other late 20th century fiction that does a better job of complicating war and foreign policy, and the book that came to mind was Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (1990).

It's been about 10 years since I read that book, but my recollection is incandescently clear, in contrast with the mess of Owen Meany. That's not to say that O'Brien's book is simple or didactic, because it's not at all. But it's not purposely obtuse either, which is part of what I didn't like about Owen Meany: the way it structurally withholds in really obvious ways for 627 verbose pages.

Then there's the question of whether Irving's book does a worthy job of representing mid-century America. I would say it's not much more than two-dimensional, trapped as it is in his version of small-town New England and private-school Toronto. Immediately after finishing Owen Meany, I picked up another older book I had never read, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970).

I realize this is a completely different kind of story, which takes place earlier in the century, but the breadth of Morrison's view of an American place was startling in comparison to Irving's narrowness. Her tragedy is both smaller, at its human scale, and larger because it encompasses the realities of racism and patriarchy, both of which Irving ignores. And it's hard not to ignore the contrast in length of the two books while I'm at it (just 160 dense pages for Morrison's novel).

I wish I had written these thoughts down right after I finished reading The Bluest Eye back in March; it would have been more thorough, if nothing else. And now in the midst of *gestures vaguely* I don't have the energy to dig back into them thoroughly, or reread O'Brien as I had meant to.

But at least I got the basic ideas down.


* The fact that the narrator, who teaches English at a private girls' high school in Toronto, loves Thomas Hardy and wrote his master's thesis on Tess of the d'Urbervilles, makes perfect sense to me. He's almost like a 20th century version of Hardy's worldview, from what I can tell.

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