Monday, October 26, 2009

Review: Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

Random House, 2009
Compared to his contemporary and fellow novelist Paul Auster (reviewed here last week), John Irving is, for the most part, an open book. Auster’s books are intellectual puzzles; perhaps more than any other widely read literary author, Irving, by contrast, steadfastly maintains that writing fiction is an exercise of craft rather than intellect. Other than the fact that the two authors are roughly the same age and hail from the same northeastern quadrant of the United States, and that they both have magnificent new novels debuting the same day (October 27), there’s little reason to compare them, except for a shared affinity for traditional narrative structure and stylistic transparency—in spite of dense and often-intricate plotting—that distinguishes their work from their more obfuscation-prone peers.
Perhaps the most obvious narrative similarity between the two authors is the one that best underscores their differences: their shared inclination to write about writers and writing, and to populate their books with nested secondary narratives. But their motives are different. Auster, by and large, incorporates these stories-within-the-story to deconstruct some aspect of the storytelling process, to show how one story can usurp or supersede another in a character’s life, or to unsettle the reader through calculated misdirection.
Misdirection is rarely a part of John Irving’s books, even though it figured prominently in Until I Find You. Although his work is fabulously engaging and often surprising (witness Until I Find You’s magical and electrifying climactic scene), Irving doesn’t throw a lot of curve balls. I don’t entirely agree with a friend of mine and fellow Irving fan who says that Irving has essentially spent his career “pouring out his life” in his books, but he has made the most of environments, situations, and pursuits he knows to support the stories he imagines. Without pouring out his life, I do believe his books pour out what he believes. Irving's sense of literary mission is every bit as driven and earnest as that of his hero, Charles Dickens, while his work can also be as inventive and riotously funny as that of his other role model, the titanic Canadian man of letters Robertson Davies.
Until I Find You (with the exception of that last chapter) may have been a book that only Irving fans could love—in fact, I found it so thrilling, I have a hard time imagining Irving fans not loving it. But judging from the reactions of the Irving ingenues on whom I foisted it, the unconverted can only stomach so many semi-colons, and so many italicized instances of the word “penis.” Last Night in Twisted River, another brick-thick, plot-driven novel that really picks up steam after the opening section, seems less concerned with the stuff that tends to annoy some people in Irving’s work, and is the first book he's written in this decade that is likely to bring more new readers into the fold. But it prickles a bit defensively with what seems like a curmudgeonly challenge to those who have habitually misinterpreted his work, daring them to accuse him (yet again) of writing his life and calling it fiction. It’s fascinating, and also a little confounding.
Let’s dispense with the basics now: Last Night in Twisted River is the story of Dominic and Daniel Bociagalupo, a logging camp cook and his son, who leave the northern New Hampshire settlement of Twisted River abruptly one night under horrific and violent circumstances that effectively put them on the lam through most of the book, though more from the threat of backwoods justice than criminal prosecution. With new names and identities, the Bociagalupos go on to become a respected chef (Dominic) and a bestselling literary novelist (Daniel). What follows the Bociagalupos’ last night in Twisted River is a book with much of the emotional resonance, mesmerizing force, and epic sweep of A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules. And as in The World According to Garp, Irving attempts something that usually turns out badly—writing a novel about a novelist that’s meant to appeal to people who are not novelists—and once again he achieves the improbable.
Most of us know the recurring motifs in Irving’s books, which go (roughly) like this: bears, Maine, New Hampshire, single parents, wrestling, deadly car accidents, incest, prep schools, pedophilia, nonpracticing homosexuals, mannish and aggressive big girls, novelists, prostitutes, Vienna, Amsterdam, Toronto. There’s even a table on a wikipedia page that charts the appearance of some of these themes in his books (although it’s not as complete as it might be). What’s somewhat confounding about Last Night in Twisted River is that Irving seems determined to revisit as many of them as possible, as if he’s on a farewell tour or something, which I certainly hope he’s not. What’s more, he re-creates moments from his previous books with squirm-inducing specificity; there’s even a scene where an attacking dog gets his ear bitten off, just like in Garp.
In Twisted River, Irving also seems determined to visit places that we know figure significantly in his own autobiography but have never appeared quite so explicitly in his books, such as the Iowa Writers Workshop in Iowa City and the logging industry in New England (which is not so much part of his life, but part of his ancestors’, and was touched on so intriguingly in The Cider House Rules that you almost felt certain he would get back to it eventually). Exeter even shows up by name for the first time, which may be the first time you suspect that this novel is going to take—dare I say it—an unmistakably (and to me, uncharacteristically) autobiographical turn.
The main character in the book, the novelist Danny Angel, follows almost precisely the arc of Irving’s own writing career (3 novels that critics liked and readers ignored followed by a breakthrough bestseller; a 5th novel dismissed as a retread of the 4th; a 6th novel about an abortionist, called “didactic” by critics, that took 11 years to make into a movie and won Angel a screenwriting Oscar). Angel even defends his work and his life against the same questions Irving has been answering for years (about connections between his work and his life, his apparent stance on Vietnam, his expatriateism, his over-reliance on semicolons and italics), with almost the same answers (verbatim) that Irving has been giving in recent interviews, even those that don’t particularly concern the subject matter of this book.
Most of those interviews, and a great part of his recent work, have been devoted to disquisitions on what writers do and how they do it; it's not insignificant that two of his last four books have been about novelists. Now that we have three John Irving books that are explicitly about novelists—The World According to Garp, A Widow for One Year, and Last Night in Twisted River—it’s more interesting than ever to compare them to his books that, I’d argue, are metaphorically about novelists: The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Son of the Circus, and Until I Find You. Oddly enough, for a man who has insisted for so long that a writer’s work is more about what he imagines than what he has experienced, Garp, Widow, and Twisted River are all preoccupied with how writing is or is not derived from life (and Widow, most poignantly, about the careful and instructive crafting of a true-life story that is never written but often told).
The other 3 books concern themselves with non-writers who find other ways to rewrite life to make it better than it would be otherwise: Larch as an abortionist; Owen Meany in directing his own life to put him in position to save the Vietnamese children he’s seen in his vision; Daruwalla scripting the plan to catch the killer; and Jack Burns’s parents spinning, separately, their contradictory versions of his life. Last Night at Twisted River, though largely a book about a novelist, has a bit of both, in the way Danny Angel’s father, Dominic, rewrites their lives with a few careful deceptions, a late-night getaway, and new names and identities in an attempt to give his son a future—although it feels almost inevitable that the story he has written them out of will eventually pull them back in.
What’s so interesting and peculiar about Danny Angel’s life falling into step with John Irving’s (roughly, at the time Danny goes to Exeter, then UNH, then Iowa City...) is that Daniel Baciagalupo, frightened son of a logging camp cook, is almost the last Irving character that I would have expected to grow up to do so many of the things that the guy who invented him has done, although the narrator, Danny’s father, and his favorite non-uncle uncle—the lifelong logging man Ketchum, who’s one of Irving’s all-time raunchiest and most delightful characters—often reflect on the times that may have foreshadowed Danny’s future as a writer.
Naturally, Irving anticipated all this dots-connecting. As for the predisposition of critics to write, and interviewers to ask, about the parallels between a novelist’s work and a novelist’s life—inferences that he says do nothing but trivialize the work—Irving writes:
Danny Angel’s fiction had been ransacked for every conceivable autobiographical scrap; his novels had been dissected and overanalyzed for whatever could be construed as the virtual memoirs hidden inside them. But what did Danny expect?
In the media, real life was more important than fiction; those elements of a novel that were, at least, based on personal experience were of more interest to the general public than those pieces of the novel-writing process that were “merely” made up. In any work of fiction, weren’t those things that had really happened to the writer—or, perhaps, to someone the writer had intimately known—more authentic, more verifiably true, than anything that anyone could imagine? (This was a common belief, even though a fiction writer’s job was imagining, truly, a whole story—as Danny had subversively said, whenever he was given the opportunity to defend the fiction in fiction writing—because real-life stories were never whole, never complete in the ways that real novels could be.)
The notion of imagined stories, in the hands of people who know how to imagine them, as being more whole or true than real-life stories may be the central concept of Irving’s entire career. In a way, it’s a notion that gives credence to those who would call John Irving a throwback to a time when writers either didn’t acknowledge, or chose not to reflect in their work the fragmentary nature of human consciousness, experience, and interaction, insisting on tying up the loose ends of life in a world where business is never finished, only abandoned. Irving would probably take that assertion as pejorative, but the notion of the novelist or his or her analogue in other walks of life as someone with the power to resolve stories and make them whole in ways they would never be otherwise is almost ubiquitous in his work. A doctor who sees only terminal cases, indeed.
For years, I’ve thought of the things I’d like to write about John Irving’s work (some of which are here) that would somehow compel my writing idol to take notice of them and find me in one of those grand coincidences that make Irving’s books either magical or ridiculous, depending on your point of view. And here I am, essentially, writing all the stuff that seems to piss him off the most. But as mentioned earlier, this book almost comes across as a dare to Irving’s critics, both in its content, and in the imagined arguments Danny Angel has with his critics—which, one suspects, aren’t entirely imagined.
When you break it down, it’s actually pretty fascinating: a bestselling literary novelist, forty years into a career often dogged by critics who've reduced his work to regurgitations of his experience, writing about a novelist who fights the same accusations, in a novel that’s largely about the events in a writer’s life that happen to coincide with the central events in his novels (or, at least, the events that appear to be central to his novels in the glimpses of those novels that we get in this novel). Irving even offers up the idea of autobiographical writing for inspection in the sections of Twisted River that concern the classes Danny teaches at Iowa.
What’s more, there are a number of insights offered about the craft of novel-writing (such as writing the last sentence first) that are, of course, attributed to the writer (and character) Danny Angel, but have often, especially recently, been referenced by John Irving in interviews as elements of the way he writes. There’s even a part in which Danny Angel, the writer, is sitting in his father’s restaurant writing in a notebook as he works on a new novel. After writing a particularly choice line of dialogue, he circles it, and adds a note to himself: “Not now ... Tell the part about the pig roast first.”
Then the chapter ends, and the next chapter begins several years earlier with the “pig roast” incident in Danny Angel’s own life that he’s telling himself to fictionalize next in his novel. This is probably the moment in a Paul Auster book where Auster might toss us headlong into a parallel narrative, in which we’re no longer reading about a writer writing a notebook; we’re reading the contents of the notebook itself. In this case, Irving’s approach is more, well, twisted: We’re never really removed from the captivating arc of the story, but by casually presenting Danny Angel’s ritual efforts to synthesize and transmute his own experiences into fiction, Irving is simultaneously baiting and answering his own critics, daring them to miss the point and accusing them of already having missed it. That point, I suspect, is that there’s a hell of a story unfolding here, and it'll blow right by you if you spend all your time looking for the writer’s own story in it.
Has Irving created a perfect “You’re So Vain” moment, daring his critics not only to look for echoes of the writer's life in this book, but also to find their own reductions of his work repeated, retorted, and perversely validated? Are we guilty as charged, and does the author simply have our number? I suspect this is not so much a case of the Carly Simons as of the Robert Oppenheimers: We’re all bastards now.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Review: Invisible by Paul Auster

Henry Holt, 2009

Invisible, Paul Auster’s new coming-of-age novel—which is thrillingly unlike anything you would expect a coming-of-age novel to be—brings to mind Henry Roth’s Mercy of a Rude Stream, the tortured quartet of autobiographical novels that the almost-famous author of Call It Sleep, decades removed from the publishing world, completed in a grand-scale bloodletting at the very end of his life. Though also monumentally talented, Roth, unlike Paul Auster, was a novelist who could write of nothing but himself, his experiences, and the Yiddish New York of his youth. The one time he tried anything else—a disastrous mid-’30s effort to fictionalize the life of a prominent union leader to please his lefty comrades who had disparaged the apolitical Call It Sleep—it sent him careening into decades of depression and writer’s block.

But it wasn’t just the inability to write about matters other than his own life that ruined Henry Roth. It was also knowing that to write honestly about his life after the age of 12 (that is, a few years older than David Schearl in Call It Sleep) would mean facing the horrors of his adolescence in general and, in particular, the horrors of his adolescent self.

So, in Roth’s case, we’re left with the autobiographical novel-as-deathbed confession, which is very much what we find in the story at the core of Paul Auster’s Invisible, in which a dying man named Adam Walker struggles to recount, forty years later, three seasons of a year that’s cast a dark shadow over his life ever since. As in most of Auster’s novels, Walker's tale isn’t the only narrative in the book. The story is told in multiple narrative voices, and comes wrapped in another story that leads us to a stunning, Heart of Darkness-like parallel concluding narrative. Each of the book's four interlocking sements, in its own way, throws into sharp relief the peculiar projects that autobiographical novels—particularly the end-of-life variety—tend to be.

Roth, likewise, presents the Mercy of a Rude Stream series in two voices: the first-person narrator telling the story of Roth’s fictional alter ego, the adolescent Ira Stigman; and the bracketed interjections of Ira as an old man, complaining to his computer, whom he calls Ecclesias, about his exhaustion, his arthritis, and how deeply conflicted he feels about the work he's undertaken. This narrative device is little more than annoying in the first volume, although it does have the Austerian virtue of metafictional contextualization in an eminently readable narrative: It reminds you that there’s a story being told, with its mechanics exposed, and acknowledges that the man telling it may not be up to the challenge (which is another problem with the first volume of Mercy of a Rude Stream). It also serves notice that the tale of the teller is part of the story too.

In the second installment of the Mercy series, Roth returns, fully in command of his old writing powers (minus the Joycean interior monologue of Call It Sleep, which he'd grown to detest), and with a much more understandable reason to hate himself for what he’s doing. About 100 pages into the book, a younger sister suddenly appears in (young) Ira’s story, telling Ira to check the door of their parents’ bedroom to make sure it’s locked. All of a sudden we have a new family tree, updating the one presented at the beginning of the first two books, with a sister’s name added next to Ira’s. We also get an earful of self-loathing unleashed from old Ira onto Ecclesias. It’s in the next several pages that we're introduced to the ugly truth of Ira’s youth: several years spent sexually abusing his younger sister, and later, a younger cousin.

Just as Paul Auster would have it—not in the sense of exposing or exploiting the private lives of authors, but in terms of complete and compelling stories being the product of intertwined and nested narratives—to know the story of Ira Stigman in Mercy of a Rude Stream, and the story of Henry Roth’s bizarre late-in-life “comeback,” is inevitably to know that the story of Ira and his sister is part of Roth’s own story, and that it absolutely devastated Roth’s sister to see it published. An angry and anguished correspondence bears witness to the rift the books created between the elderly siblings. Roth’s defense—that he wrote the books to validate and preserve the vanished Yiddish world, rather than to purge his own conscience—is unforgivable at worst, and half-true at best. (Roth’s sister replied, in essence, that no one could possibly read a book about a Yiddish-speaking brother and sister having sex with each other and come away with a positive impression of diaspora Jews in early 20th-century New York. There’s much, much more to Mercy of a Rude Stream than incest—and much magnificent storytelling to justify Roth's apologia—but it's hard to imagine a writer choosing a more indefensible road to redemption.)

Auster's Invisible takes on all of this: the deathbed autobiographical novel, the struggle to find the voice to tell the story, the good and bad reasons for writing it, the complex reactions of people that the author knew it would shock and/or hurt, the question of what’s true and what isn’t, and the weird road the book travels to find its way into the world. Roth’s story (like the story within his story) is messier than the stories that drive Invisible. But what’s so amazing about Invisible—and what makes it a triumph of the first order for Auster—is that it so compellingly manages to be a novel about the way guilt, rage, regret, narcissism, unsettled scores, wishful thinking, failed ambitions, flawed best guesses, not knowing when to shut up, and simply running out of time can shape the stories we tell at the end of our lives. And, of course, it also concerns the complex ways in which these stories sometimes become books. Keeping in mind that this is Paul Auster we’re talking about, it should come as no surprise that the "book" in Invisible turns out not to be the book we initially imagine it is—nor the book we imagine it to be the next time we think we know.

Lest I give the impression that Invisible is 90% intellectual exercise and 10% fiction—like Auster’s allegorical Travels in the Scriptorium (2007)—I assure you that it’s anything but. The first section, told in the first person, is a scorcher: tense, weird, sprinkled with sexual intrigue, and culminating in violence that sets up the rest of the book. This violent incident also serves notice for the first time that this probably is not a crypto-autobiographical story about Paul Auster the introverted, awkward, arrogant aspiring poet and French translator at Columbia in 1967, even though young Adam Walker's vital stats seem to jibe with what we know about the author at that age. But in subsequent pages we not only get the sense that Walker isn’t Auster; we also realize that (spoiler alert) the first-person narrative we’ve just read is just the first section of a book in progress that Walker has sent to an old friend who’s in the publishing business. Essentially, it’s a nested storyline in the hands of a guy trying to figure out what to do with it—a task that becomes more and more perplexing to him as the book goes on. And this is precisely the ride Auster wants to take us on.

Maybe this is just the Auster fanboy in me speaking, but my favorite moments in his books often come when he reminds me of his unique ability to upset the apple cart of narrative unity without ever compromising narrative flow. And I doubt I’ve seen a novelist define, so well, exactly what makes him so damn good, as when Jim Freeman, Adam Walker’s old friend in publishing, decides how he’s going to handle (and then presents) the last unfinished manuscript Walker sends him:

Telegraphic. No complete sentences. From beginning to end, written like this. Goes to the store. Falls asleep. Lights a cigarette. In the third person this time. Third person, present tense, and therefore I decide to follow his lead and render his account in exactly that way—third person, present tense. As for the enclosed pages, do with them what you will. He had given me his permission, and I don’t feel that turning his encrypted, Morse-code jottings into full sentences constitutes a betrayal of any kind. Despite my editorial involvement with the text, in the deepest, truest sense of what it means to tell a story, every word of Fall was written by Walker himself.

As it turns out, there’s another delicious layer of narrative recasting to come that requires you to refocus your vision on the story you’re actually reading, and in the best sense of novel-reading revelry, it makes you wish Auster would pile on another and another layer to keep you improbably suspended on the high-wire of his invention. If that's not "the deepest, truest sense of what it means to tell a story," I suppose I'll just have to wait for Paul Auster's next novel to find out what is.

Order Invisible from Powell's Books.