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.

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