John Irving Irving, John (Winslow) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John (Winslow) Irving 1942–

American novelist.

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.)

Anne Tyler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Michael Priestley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 he has actually had a previous life); in a sense, it is his "selective autobiography." As a person, neither Graff nor Siggy had any control over the greater powers that imposed order upon the world of Vienna; but as the narrator, Graff tries to impose his order on a fictional world that he has created by telling the story.

Irving's third novel, The 158-Pound Marriage (1974), ends on a distressing note of confusion and helplessness, which is similar to the ending of Setting Free the Bears when Graff wishes he had left well enough alone. The unnamed narrator, one of the four major characters, spends the duration of the book trying to understand his world and himself…. (pp. 83-4)

We find out through a series of flashbacks that all four characters lived, for a time, in Vienna—where they met each other. The world within the novel, however, is the world of the relationship between the four. When the structure imposed upon their lives by this relationship becomes untenable, all four characters return to the world of "pre-history that made them and mattered to what they'd become."… As with Graff in Setting Free the Bears, we can see through the attempt by the narrator to impose his own order upon his world by telling his autobiographical story selectively…. His association with a group perspective, so to speak, provides a key to his view of the relationship he shares with Edith, Utch, and Winter. He observes human activities, plagued by what-if questions. Although he pretends to be objective and removed from the influences of human emotion, as historical novelists might like to believe, he is anything but objective about his situation. That we know he is more emotionally involved and more susceptible to emotional pain than he knows himself makes an important statement about the relationship of a writer to his world, about the way he tries to adapt that relationship to the world of fiction he creates.

The narrator's vulnerability and his semiconscious attempt to ignore it give him a distaste for the "new fiction," a type of fiction which involves no risks to the writer and requires no self-exposure. (p. 84)

In The 158-Pound Marriage … the narrator essentially defends his own work because it conveys a sense of time; his writings are sequential, which implies the lives and emotions of human beings. The narrator denies his own vulnerability, which would be exposed if he admitted to writing about human emotions, by calling himself an historical novelist, and he criticizes [another author] because he writes fiction about fiction, not about people. At the end of his story, the narrator admits that "I knew once again that I knew nothing" because he realizes his own failure. He imposed his own order on the story by telling it in his own self-deceiving way; but, once finished, he knew that he was still under the control of the order imposed upon his world by greater forces.

Irving's second and fourth novels, The Water-Method Man (1972) and The World According to Garp (1978), end on more positive, more definite notes. Unlike Siggy and Graff or the characters of The 158-Pound Marriage, Bogus Trumper and T. S. Garp achieve their ultimate goal: to impose a viable structure upon their self-contained worlds. Fred "Bogus" Trumper, protagonist and narrator of [The 158-Pound Marriage], tells his own after-the-fact story of his life as a failure. (pp. 85-6)

The entire story is Trumper's attempt to recount what he had to go through to impose order upon his own world and, consequently, upon the self-contained world of his fiction that he has created to enable him to tell his own story. Although he switches back and forth from first person to third, depending on the situation, Trumper has written a book about himself writing a book. (p. 86)

He has mastered his sentimentality; he has found comic perspective and the complex narrative technique and structure which enable him to write the book…. (p. 87)

In The World According to Garp, Irving's characters become much more individually real, their personalities much deeper and more developed, even though, on the surface, they have passed further beyond the realm of credibility than those in The Water-Method Man…. T. S....

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Eleanor B. Wymard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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"...

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Eliot Fremont-Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 however regrettably, for the advantaged …, and subversive because the sentiment of mercy, of social responsibility beyond family and intimates … is distracting. Our business is the adventure of exploring and getting in tune with fate, and quickly; the stakes are the gemutlich life and survival. (p. 35)

Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Floating Irving" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1981), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVI, No. 35, August 26-September 1, 1981, pp. 35-6.

Scot Haller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robertson Davies

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

James Atlas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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;...

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Gene Lyons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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;...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Eric Korn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 408 words.)

Charles Nicol

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 495 words.)

Francis King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 384 words.)

Joseph Epstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 1187 words.)