Sunday, September 17, 2006

Until I Find You, by John Irving

One day this summer, I was in the Memphis airport, passing time in a bookstore while waiting for my flight. I already had magazines to read on the plane and I had no intention of buying a book. When I saw John Irving's latest, it was a pleasant surprise; I hadn't heard anything about it. I picked it up, fanned through the pages. I reminded myself that I had no plans to buy any books. I put it down and walked away, out of the store. I sat down in the waiting area--for maybe five minutes. Then I went back, as if driven by forces outside my control, and bought it. It's a lovely book, 824 pages long. The cover is flesh colored on the bottom half and the title is "tattooed" on it, "Until I find you," on a banner across a broken heart.

John Irving is one of my favorite authors, although this book didn't do anything to move him higher in my esteem. His place in my writer pantheon is cemented by two things: Cider House Rules, which I think is one of the best novels of the 20th century, and Irving's love and respect for Charles Dickens, which may be even as great as my own. I've read all of Irving's books. They have disappointed me, more often than not, but when he's good, he's really delightful, so I'll continue to read whatever he publishes.

Until I Find You is interesting in its use of point of view: much of the story is told as remembered by the main character, Jack Burns. Over and over the narrator emphasizes the unreliability of the narrative, so that makes everything a mystery all the time. Quite often the reader learns that something presented earlier was not true, and then the correction may be corrected further later on. That could be irritating, but I didn't mind because the story wasn't all that emotionally engaging--possibly because of the repeated warnings, I didn't feel betrayed.

What I will remember about this book is the seediness of it, the creepy way Irving presents the theme of child sexual abuse. He manages to convey the events almost without moral content. Everything is told from Jack's point of view, and he doesn't really know that he's being abused. The psychological repercussions are shown but not really discussed. I was reminded of the theme in A Widow for One Year, when the middle-aged woman who has lost her two teenaged sons in an accident seduces a young man because he reminds her of one of her sons. It's presented as reasonable, but it's not, it's really sick. Similar themes run through Until I Find You--Jack is victimized by a series of older girls and women, all with weird rationalizations that he has no defense against.

The story line rambles--800+ pages is long enough to have the characters tour Canada, Europe, and California, for Jack to go from age four to all grown up, and to finally find his father, after searching for him, literally, spiritually, and metaphorically, throughout the book. I'd say the storyline doesn't merit all those pages. Les Miserables, Don Quixote, War and Peace--some books deserve that much paper. This one should probably spent a little more time in the editing process, and saved some trees.


yellojkt said...

I read Garp and a few others way back in high school, but nothing of his later stuff. Books that thick and rambling can be very daunting.

Yoki said...

I like John Irving, mostly. The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany are excellent novels.
Ciderhouse Rules is an important book, and several others are pretty good.

I think there are at least two major problems with Until I Find You.

The first is that I think (believe) it is autobiographical; the lack of affect is probably because it is Irving's story. It is not really a novel, and it is his true story. That is sad.

The second is that Irving, like some other too successful authors (Stephen King and Margaret Atwood come to mind) needs a fearless editor. They are allowed to indulge themselves, because anything they write will sell. They need to be required to cut and rethink and rewrite and cut; to be required to be writerly. He is (and they are) not held to a proper standard, and so don't meet it.