Irving, John (Winslow)
John (Winslow) Irving 1942–
Irving is a straightforward storyteller whose work may be read on several levels. His novels are thought-provoking but are not "difficult" to read in terms of style or structure. His narratives are varied, energetic, and rich with fantasy and humor; but Irving also shares with other "more serious" contemporary writers a concern with the inexorability of fate and the nature of art.
The controversy surrounding Irving's recent novels, The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire, centers on his use of incongruities and black humor. While some critics find the violence and tragedy gratuitous, others feel that it strengthens the irony and enlivens the narrative. They point to an essential optimism in his work in the very survival of his characters.
(See also CLC, Vol. 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)
There's no hiding that I'm a Garp-hater. I was put off by the [casual cruelty of The World According to Garp], by its calculated, unwieldy plot and its staggering long-windedness…. However, this is not to say that I'm a John Irving-hater, by any means. I admire his other writing immensely. He made a wonderful debut with Setting Free the Bears, his first novel…. Three by Irving contains not only [Setting Free the Bears, but also The Water-Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage]….
[Setting Free the Bears is] a gargantuan book, both in length and in scope. It plunges dauntlessly into such diverse subjects as Serbo-Croatian politics, pre-war Vienna, and bee-keeping. There's no doubt it was written by someone young. Who else could sustain such manic high spirits, such jaunty heroics? Who else could be so spendthrift with ideas? (Well, actually, John Irving could at any age, as he's since proved.) There are times when this novel is downright exhausting—as youthful exuberance often is. But the author is clearly no beginner, even here. He writes with confidence and style, and he's obviously comfortable with his material. Setting Free the Bears has some fine humorous passages…. But for sheer irrepressible comedy, try the second novel. The Water-Method Man is consistently hilarious—an involved and richly textured tale about a graduate student whose life is collapsing about...
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A writer subdues the chaos and confusion which is reality by creating order and structure within a world of fiction. In each of his first four novels, John Irving imposes a personal order upon the world within the novel, but his own characters and stories question the tenability of such order. The characters, in their own realm, search independently for their own order.
In his first novel, Setting Free the Bears (1968), the two main characters are Siggy and Graff. Both young men search in vain for an explanation of the order imposed upon the world of Vienna….
In response to what he considers a controlled existence in a confining environment, where he is unable to exercise free will, Siggy plans a symbolic gesture of rebellion against the occupation of his world by more powerful forces: he will let all the animals out of the Vienna Zoo. (p. 82)
Despite, or perhaps because of, his inability to effect order on the real world, the narrator, Graff, attempts to impose his own order upon the world in which the story takes place. He takes liberties in how he presents the story itself, over which he has no control; he "meddles in the unsatisfactory scheme of things." Part Two of Setting Free the Bears contains Siggy's notebook which is read, edited, and presented to us by Graff. (p. 83)
Graff narrates Setting Free the Bears as a story that he has lived through (as if...
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Eleanor B. Wymard
The chilly aesthetic debate about the role of the artist to enlarge human understanding catches fire anew in two recent bestsellers: Daniel Martin by John Fowles and … The World According to Garp by John Irving.
A latent similarily exists in the viewpoints of both writers, who, at the same time, represent very different worlds. From the generous perspective of the comic vision, they achieve a deep level of human insight by focusing on a large region of experience which we all recognize. Irving and Fowles accept and affirm, despite their moments of deep-felt terror, the unexpected joys as well as the terrible vicissitudes of everyday living.
Although the "life-world" of Garp and Daniel Martin is, indeed, very different, both Irving and Fowles, in a current sense, are absorbed in the mission of the artist to extend the range of human sensibility. As a fiction writer, Fowles is a "thinker." Irving describes himself, on the other hand, as a "moralist and a visceralist." Although containing a Dickensian gallery of memorable characters, The World According to Garp is, essentially, the domestic microcosm of T. S. Garp, a struggling novelist; Garp's wife, Helen, an English professor; and their two young sons, Duncan and Walt. This family circle becomes the object of our intense compassion and fear, mainly because Irving's fertile imagination provides experience, not philosophy. (p. 284)...
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Only an oaf or a meanie could not be touched by a novel as eager and bumptious and cuddly as John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire…. It's sheer energy all the way, plus magnetic characters, scenic wonders, horrendous happenings, and raffish, boffo jokes on every next page. It warms the mind, tickles the funnybone, squeezes the heart; it alerts concern, then punctures it with a fart, followed by a hug. This book loves us. And if sometimes you can't tell what's cruel from what's hilarious, or the wisdom from the wind, or a paradox from a poignancy—well, that's life or art, vaudeville or psychodrama, nature or nostalgia, and what do you want for a $15.50 top?…
The book's appeal is both obvious and timely; indeed, except for the barnyard stuff and a cosmic purpose that seems more rutting than divine, Reaganites should feel philosophically right at home. Basically, the appeal is to a persevering me-first innocence, a gutsy bootstrap bravado for the lucky in a rough-and-tumble Darwinian Eden—lots of cuteness but in things that matter no quarter given, every opportunity grabbed, no "happy endings" guaranteed, cynicism and "sophomoric despair" specifically eschewed, the accident of "grace" calling forth an upscale irony and poignancy toward the less fortunate, but nothing more. Anything more, it becomes clear, would be, first, untruthful, and second, subversive. Untruthful because the accommodations of life are mainly, and...
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As usual novelist John Irving is telling a story [in The Hotel New Hampshire]. As usual, it's an episode marked with impending violence, unending hopelessness, offbeat humor, and parental heartache….
John Irving makes his living telling tales that turn on … bizarre, contradictory situations. Fashioning wildly inventive, delightfully intricate narratives out of his sense of humor, sense of dread and sense of duty, Irving blends the madcap, the macabre, and the mundane into sprawling, spiraling comedies of life….
To any suggestion that a popular novel can't possibly be a good one, Irving has some ready answers. "I think, to some degree, entertainment is the responsibility of literature," he says. "I really am looking upon the novel as an art form that was at its best when it was offered as a popular form. By which I probably mean the 19th century." Indeed, like the 19th century books he most admires—Great Expectations, Moby Dick, Tess of the D'Urbervilles—Irving's novels employ devices decidedly out of fashion: epilogues, subplots, and numerous subsidiary characters. Unlike William Gass, Donald Barthelme, and other colleagues who also first received critical attention in the late Sixties, Irving has emphasized story over style, events over experiments. (p. 30)
The Hotel New Hampshire could not be mistaken for the work of any other writer, but unfortunately, it cannot be...
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There is something of Byron about John Irving. Not only is it that he woke after the publication of The World According to Garp to find himself famous, but the extremity of his opinions and the nervous violence of his language recall that intemperate nobleman, and, like Byron, he would certainly say that love is no sinecure. Indeed, nothing in life is easy for Irving's characters, and in his five novels the still, sad music of humanity rises to the orgasmic uproar of a rock band. (p. 1)
Those who admired Garp will find the new novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, very much to their taste. Irving has expressed himself strongly on the subject of reviewers, so I shall not commit the reviewer's sin of spilling the beans about his story. It is enough to say that it is in the powerful, reader-coaxing mode of his earlier books, and recounts the adventures of the Berry family, two parents and five children, as they seek some kind of repose in three hotels, two in New Hampshire and one, named for that state, in Vienna. Repose is not, of course, what they find, but they achieve a rueful fatalism, a stoicism that reconciles the four survivors to life.
The Irving bench-marks are all here: body-building, bears, Viennese whores, rape and the pleasures of sexual intercourse. It would be unjust to call this "the mixture as before," because it is fresh and newly invented. Irving is unusual among modern novelists...
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"The Hotel New Hampshire," the story of an eccentric family that sets up house in various unlikely hotels here and abroad, is a hectic gaudy saga with the verve of a Marx Brothers movie; one can see those old words "antic" and "zany" emblazoned on the marquee. Midgets, dwarfs and performing bears race in and out of the novel with manic haste; the narrator's homosexual brother sleeps with a dressmaker's dummy; toilets explode: Anything for a laugh.
But these warmhearted hijinks are deceptive. Like a fairy tale—and Irving reminds us with tireless zeal that his novel is a fairy tale—"The Hotel New Hampshire" is both fanciful and cruel. The Berry family is oddly susceptible to disaster; suicides, airplane crashes, blindings by terrorist bombs abound. Nor is this feisty crew beyond wreaking havoc among themselves. "To each other, we were as normal and nice as the smell of bread, we were just a family," observes the narrator (named John, in the autobiographical fashion of the day); but sibling incest is a dominant motif, and their incessant colloquys are conducted in a language heavy with insult and innuendo. Behind the Berrys' Katzenjammer Kids manner is an abusive streak redolent of adolescence. Their profanity is incessant and brutally vulgar, and the crude names by which they address one another are as grating as the laugh track on a game show.
This lurking note of cruelty pervades the novel … there is a...
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[There] is no denying that [John Irving] has at least one thing in common with … Twain and Dickens: he can tell stories. Things happen in The Hotel New Hampshire; if one admired Irving for nothing else, one would have to admit that he can keep as many narrative balls in the air without dropping them as anyone in America now writing fiction. Whether or not his books instruct and delight as we critics are supposed to think they should, they are full of characters and events, and suffused with details, surprises, digressions, subplots and asides. They are very much written too, which is to say they are literary constructs as opposed to screenplay outlines in disguise. For all of that, they move; most readers will not fail, having begun The Hotel New Hampshire, to read all the way to the last sad death.
Speaking personally, I cared for only one of the book's many characters, a small boy recognizably doomed and killed off fairly early on. (Despite his penchant for dispatching them, one quality I like in Irving is his ability to create children who act like children.) After the child's demise … my heart went out of the book. But I kept going because I wanted to see what would happen….
Compared with The World According to Garp, Irving's new book is oddly passionless, particularly for one whose plot centers around fortuitous airplane disasters as well as incest, rape, pornography and...
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[John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire is] a family chronicle—a tale of generations of parents coping with children and siblings coping with each other….
Family dailiness—traditional sitcom material—is in nearly constant view throughout the novel. Father and mother tell stories about their youth to their children. Grandfather teaches grandson his special athletic skills. Mother intercedes when older siblings try to force their juniors into premature knowingness. Mother speaks out against slovenliness…. Children tease each other ferociously, engage in fistfights, learn to work together in the family business, learn to drive cars, learn forbearance, find their affection for one another strengthening over time. And toward the end, children are seen taking up parental roles, caring for the elders whose hour as nurturers and protectors has begun to fade. Four of the eight family members with whom this book begins are gone at the end, but the survivors are close-knit, and a new Berry baby is on the way, assuring the continuity of the generations.
Simple, unsadistic stuff. But, as I've hinted, it's conjoined with matter remote from everyday, and the combination creates surprising narrative rhythms and a sharply distinctive tone. The Hotel New Hampshire is structured as a succession of shrewdly prepared explosions of violence, each of which blends the hideous and the comic, and projects a fresh length...
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Again and again The Hotel New Hampshire disappointed me by the perfunctoriness of its situations and their handling. That quality of jokey contrivance which initially put me off in Garp is painfully in evidence throughout the new novel. (p. 12)
[The tone of The Hotel New Hampshire is prevailingly juvenile,] full of the bittersweet wisdom of a late-hour bull session interrupted from time to time by exploding firecrackers.
Events of potentially great impact … are summarily treated, as if the mere statement that they have occurred will stimulate an appropriate (and automatic) response from the reader. Characters are for the most part glibly sketched in or else sentimentalized …; only Franny seems to me successfully realized as a character, made touching by her boldness and vulnerability. A speeded-up, shorthand treatment of character and situation of course works in certain types of comic writing but not in a novel of such length and pretensions.
The "throw-away" attitude toward the material is matched by the slackness of the style. Succumbing to what Henry James saw as a dangerous "looseness" inherent in first-person narration, Irving allows his John Berry to go on and on, dully including quantities of inert and unredeemed detail. (p. 14)
Nowhere in The Hotel New Hampshire does the language have the confidence, the aphoristic precision, and the vivacity...
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Lurching glumly to the end of this joyless romp [through The Hotel New Hampshire] the reviewer finds a surge of pejoratives to hand: narcissistic, ponderous, cute, brutal, relentless, self-adoring, vulgar, popular, American…. At which point alarm bells start to ring in the critical command centre.
It's easy to despise a certain gauche deftness, an un-Englishly energetic ambitiousness. What exactly grates? If Irving seems heartless, so does Waugh; it his characters are robotic, so are Orwell's; if he kills them off with abandon, so did Shakespeare; if he is extravagant, so was Poe; if he is obsessed, so was Melville; if he is long, so is Art; if he is untrue to real life, so is Real Life.
None of which reconciles me to the style Irving adopts here, a diction consistently ungracious, sometimes ungrammatical ("to we children"), slangy and redundant….
Irving has either chosen this style deliberately or is suffering from fatty degeneration of the prose, for he was capable of other styles: The 158-pound Marriage is almost laconic, and The Water-Method Man has a donnish wit….
The moral [of The Hotel New Hampshire] seems to be that if you don't die you survive.
The symbols are jokes, the jokes symbols; and both are hammered into the ground, or should I say screwed to the floor, like the girls' school furniture in the first hotel....
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Success has neither spoiled nor improved Irving, though some have tried to make a case for the former. In truth, Hotel New Hampshire is the fifth in a reasonably straight line of Irving novels….
Death, mutilation, and rape are frequent occurences [in this book], though they are not quite as gruesome as in Garp; Irving seems to enjoy such grotesqueries, sometimes leading the reader to wonder whether his sense of the comic is rather off-key. Yet precisely this harmonizing of bizarre accidents with an authorial assurance that everything will come out all right is Irving's most distinctive music….
All of Irving's previous novels are full of storytellers and their variant versions of believable fiction. Hotel New Hampshire rejects this plethora of tellers in favor of a straightforward narrative, choosing instead to catalogue its variations directly in the linear flow of sequential events….
[The technique of double and tripling events in Hotel New Hampshire] merely replaces Irving's earlier procedure of embedding other stories within his novels, and performs the same function: it implies that any narrative is a choice between possibilities, that the reader's true pleasure lies in becoming aware of the storyteller's confident steering through the maze, and that the sheer unpredictability of the storyteller's decisions forces the reader to lie back and be entertained....
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This exuberant, garrulous American novel [The Hotel New Hampshire] tells the story of a family of eccentrics. To me, eccentricity is seldom more than the acceptable face of egotism; but the eccentricity of Mr. Irving's Berrys is, without exception, intended to be funny, quaint, appealing, endearing and loveable. (p. 26)
Eccentricity has long been the most important ingredient in best-selling American family sagas … and I can only suppose that it is the remorseless eccentricity of all Mr. Irving's characters, young or old, male or female, that has made his novel Number One on the best-selling lists across the Atlantic. Yes, the author acknowledges to his public, people are odd and even crazy, and terrible things can happen to them; but none of it is for real…. This is a fairy-tale or fable and [tragic] events should no more be a cause of lasting sadness than the exploitation of a Cinderella or the 'death' of a Snow-white.
This, I should guess, is the point of Mr. Irving's novel—though many of his millions of readers may not have twigged it. The world is a cruel place, in which only too rarely is a bad German savaged (as here) by a bear and in which only too often is an innocent girl raped….
[Dreams], Mr. Irving seems to be declaring, are what men live by and what they die for.
Thus it is that, in the midst of a lot of alert, muscular writing, one keeps coming on...
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[Irving's] first three novels gave him the reputation of an interesting but minor writer. ("Garp," thinks the hero of Irving's next novel, "hated the reputation of 'small but serious.'") Commercially, he appeared to be one of those novelists who would eventually have to be published by an outfit like the Fiction Collective. Then, in 1978, along came The World According to Garp, a success both critical and commercial. People not only bought this, Irving's fourth novel, they read it; they not only read it, they loved it….
The World According to Garp is not so much salted as drenched in sex and violence, but so is the world drenched in sex and violence, and so, too, in recent years have a large number of novels been drenched. The sex and violence in Garp do not, in any case, go very far toward explaining the novel's immense popularity, for these are to be had in ample supply elsewhere. (p. 62)
No, when a book such as The World According to Garp, a book with serious literary pretensions, catches on so epidemically with the public, something else, something deeper than pat formulas for constructing bestsellers is involved. In the recent book Bestsellers, which investigates the popular fiction of America and England during the 1970's, John Sutherland makes the point that vastly popular novels need to be considered from two points of view, the economic and the ideological. The...
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