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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.)
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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 his ears. It contains what must surely be the funniest skiing scene in literature, and a ridiculous, totally plausible Old Low Norse Ballad called "Akthelt and Gunnel." (p. 32)
And something about the hero—his ramshackle, helpless style of living—makes him endearingly comical…. The Water-Method Man is a pure joy.
The 158-Pound Marriage describes the ménage à quatre of two married couples. It's recognizably an Irving work—many Austrian references, a wrestling motif, a zoo, a 1954 Zorn-Witwer automobile—but it lacks the expansiveness and the zest of the earlier novels. The two couples' arrangement seems narrow and unhappy; the arrangement itself is the central character, at the expense of the four separate individuals involved in it, who are never clearly visible to us. Possibly, this book represents a kind of catching of the breath. The author may have been reassembling all the energy he so recklessly lavished on the first two novels, and at the same time unconsciously gathering his forces for The World According to Garp (which, as even a Garp-hater will admit, must have required prodigious vitality). It does not, therefore, have the all-out, shoot-the-works profligacy that the other had, but it is still a solid story, with flashes of the Irving wit and cockeyed vision….
[Irving] is one of our most original writers: not so very kind, perhaps, but infinitely inventive, and given to spectacular leaps...
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of the imagination. (p. 33)
Anne Tyler, "Three by Irving," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 182, No. 17, April 26, 1980, pp. 32-3.
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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 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. Garp's world is not the self-contained world created by Irving, but a world within the novel, created by Garp himself. In The World According to Garp, the narrator, whose omniscience could bring doubts to the most faithful reader, describes Garp's world in the third person. While Garp, a young writer, searches for a way to write his stories with his imagination and not from his memory, the narrator of the novel has already found the necessary perspective. Garp is a writer whose own world exists only in what he writes, just as the world that Garp tries to survive exists only in what Irving writes. (pp. 88-9)
Throughout his life, Garp struggles between the power of his imagination and that of his memory. When his imagination is in control, he can draw on his own experiences and write brilliantly; when his memory dominates, he can write only "x-rated soap operas" … which too closely resemble his own life….
By fictionalizing autobiographical material and then justifying his perspective within the fictionalization, Irving proffers an explanatory defense of his own work, particularly through his study of Garp's development as a writer. (p. 90)
The World According to Garp is peopled by an extraordinary cast of characters…. [And the] book is filled with carefully plotted stories, which become more and more bizarre as the novel progresses. To be a writer in such a world, Garp must find a perspective from which he can create his own world. The world he creates must exist beyond the realm of reality in the realm of imagination; the reader who enters Garp's world must be astounded by its grotesquerie and exaggeration but must also accept the world as a reality in order to find the beauty and truth that lie within. (p. 91)
Garp knew that if his passion or his emotion (kept alive through his memory) gained control of his reason and his sensibility (brought to life by his imagination in the creation of the world according to Garp), he would not only be unable to write, he would be unable to live. Through his imagined creations, Garp could impose the reason and order on an imaginary world that he could not impose on his own very real one. (p. 92)
In several ways, Irving seems to invite a comparison of Garp and himself, despite Garp's frequent reminders of the danger of such a comparison…. Garp's lifelong conflict with art and social responsibility is inseparable from his conflict between imagination and memory. If his memory prevails, his art becomes more "basic"—he writes about himself, which he cannot bear. If his imagination prevails, his art becomes a luxury to him; he creates a world in which everything lives according to him. The degree to which The World According to Garp is autobiographical fiction, characters and events coming directly from Irving's life, matters very little. Of greatest import according to Irving or the narrator is the degree to which The World According to Garp is a product of imagination. Irving draws on the things he knows and the places he has been to create a fantastic, bizarre world in which all the characters are still infrangibly human: their feelings, actions, and basic personalities are not warped, twisted aspects of the superficies—they speak truth from the heart. We cannot accept the outrageous absurdities of Garp's world only because Garp himself cannot: he must create his own personal imaginary world of escape to enable him to survive in a world that he cannot control. (pp. 92-3)
John Irving's first four novels suggest that to him structure is nearly everything. All his novels are structurally complex, and they all incorporate remarkably similar settings and experiences, somewhat like those in Irving's own life…. Yet these novels are worlds apart, as different from each other as their main characters are from the author. Irving uses his own experiences ruthlessly to create self-contained worlds within each novel—worlds of exaggeration populated with bizarre, sometimes absurd characters—in order to compel us to recognize the truths that underlie human existence. Regardless of the world in which we find them, the truths Irving magnifies are unchanging.
Certain aspects of his works suggest that Irving has not yet achieved his goal of writing a novel whose structure does not to some degree obfuscate his stories, and a story whose exaggerated effects do not to some degree negate the validity of the truths he wishes to expound. Irving has imposed an order upon the world in each of his novels which enables the character to live. Graff and the narrator of The 158-Pound Marriage attempted to impose their own order upon their worlds; by the end of their stories, both realized that such order was artificial and temporary and would not hold. Trumper and Garp both found peace; with it they found a perspective that enabled them not only to survive a "world that was too strong" but to create their own worlds by finding a way to write fiction about themselves. Like Garp, Irving has been trying to find a personal vision, a way to tell his stories with his imagination and not his memory. In a large sense, the narrative techniques and perspectives that Irving employs in his first three books are all included in The World According to Garp, but the narrator in that novel is omniscient, unlike the others who are involved in the stories they narrate. Each of the earlier narrators presents a "selective autobiography," a story told through his own perspective, while the narrator of The World According to Garp presents a "selective biography," a story about a world and its inhabitants to which the narrator is virtually unrelated and about which he presumably has learned through such sources as Garp's unpublished writing.
The World According to Garp is the closest that Irving has come to writing a selective autobiography—which is important in one very strong sense. By exaggerating events and characters from his life, Irving has made them more interesting and better adapted to his own needs. He has found both his personal vision and celebrated its arrival in The World According to Garp. Through an omniscient narrator, Irving has imposed order and structure upon the "lunacy and sorrow" of the world within the novel…. Irving explains his relation to his work through a detailed study of Garp as a writer, through the progressive development of a writer whose works are not, at least conceptually, unlike his own, and through all of the detailed justifications for how and why he turns events and persons from his own life into fiction.
A fine line can be drawn between writing fiction about fiction and writing fiction about writing fiction. In each of his works, Irving examines the relationship of a writer to his work, but he does it principally through describing the writer's life, not his work. Irving's fiction is obviously not the fiction … associated with the French "new novelists," such as Robbe-Grillet, Duras, and even Beckett. Despite his remonstrations and attempts to espouse traditional literary values, Irving has up to now written a combination of modern and traditional fiction. In The World According to Garp he combines traditional story-telling and literary modes (chronological sequence, omniscient narration, and the epilogue) with modern techniques (writing-within-writing and self-reflexive narration). All four of his works contain writing which Irving uses to explain his own intentions and explicate his own text.
Like the village explainer, Irving seems to feel a need to justify his own narrative perspective in telling a story. He has not quite been able to divorce himself from the academic world—in which the didact who tells a story to make a point then explains his point to make sure no one has missed it. In explaining himself, Irving resembles both the Victorian novelist ("dear reader") and the "new novelist" who writes fiction about fiction. In each of his novels, he has imposed a structure upon his fictional world; his characters, then, explain the structure, question its validity, and proceed to search for a new structure, a personal vision of their own. John Irving is perhaps still not satisfied with the perspective he has attained; he has stated that his next work, Hotel New Hampshire, will be a linear story—without any writer-characters. The World According to Garp may be the end of only the first leg in his journey towards finding his own personal vision, in a life where "his time is but a moment." (pp. 94-6)
Michael Priestley, "Structure in the Worlds of John Irving," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1981), Vol. XXIII, No. 1, 1981, pp. 82-96.
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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)
The World According to Garp has little capacity for abstract thought, but Fowles and Irving share a fundamental thematic similarity: both accept life as it is, agreeing that human beings must make their own way and find their own freedom. Although having no answer for the nothingness and death they witness, neither Garp nor Dan Martin offers any gesture of disgust toward what he cannot change. For them, the problem of human life—its meaning and significance—is not solved. Everyone must die. Even to the grave, Irving follows each of his characters.
Like Garp, Daniel Martin also confesses his complicity in destruction and death. Neither Irving nor Fowles is interested, however, in redesigning the human lot. Rather, both novels encourage belief in love and celebrate the glories of the natural world. Completely aware of the negation of modern existentialism, for example, Fowles braves its current darkness through the heart and mind of Daniel Martin, an artist protagonist, who, like T. S. Garp, manages to live with an eye to life—past, present, and future. (p. 285)
Although Fowles and Irving are writers in the old-fashioned sense, Austen, Trollope, and Dickens seem amazingly innocent by comparison. But, as artist protagonists, T. S. Garp and Daniel Martin also forsake the bold posturings of the Joycean artists who strut their superiority to the rest of creation. For Daniel Martin, "all artists, at least in the process of creation, are 'divine' [only because] of the immense forest constituted by the imagined, because of the permission Western society grants them to roam in it."… The fictional Garp is equally as humble: "A writer's job is to imagine everything so personally that the fiction is as vivid as personal memories."… The scene and its emotion—not ideas—are crucial to Irving if the reader is to become involved with the life-world of fiction.
Very fond of their characters and more compassionate than visionary, Irving and Fowles return us to the wellspring of the novel tradition. But different from the secure world of the Victorian narrator, the planet of Garp and Dan Martin is, indeed, fragile and threatened. Because death is the only conclusion, Fowles and Irving are concerned that we open our eyes—here and now—not only to the ironies of daily living but also to the terrible profundities of loss and love…. [By imagining] the best and worst situations which husbands and wives hope and fear for each other and their children, The World According to Garp achieves the rare effect of catharsis. Moreover, Irving's characters forgive, heal, love, and even bless each other.
The literary triumph of Garp and Daniel Martin is not, simply, that they are bestsellers. Rather, these two novels from very different places—a New England college town and the Devon countryside—reveal the complexity of human existence from the generous perspective of comedy. For T. S. Garp, the comic spirit is the courage to endure, in the middle of spring, the experience of pain and tragedy. For Daniel Martin, comedy is the natural expression of an artist committed to the reality that a character in crises has the freedom to experience not only despair but also new strength. In neither novel does the comic rhythm nullify the terror of living or blot out of consciousness the fact of dying. Although Fowles and Irving do not step beyond the fact of physical death, each challenges readers to a sacred appreciation of this time and space. As antidotes for existentialist nausea, Daniel Martin and The World According to Garp allow hope, indeed, that the comic spirit need not die of irrelevancy. (pp. 285-86)
Eleanor B. Wymard, "'A New Version of the Midas Touch': 'Daniel Martin' and 'The World According to Garp'," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1981 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907, U.S.A.), Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 284-86.∗
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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 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.
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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 mistaken for Irving's best novel, either. It lacks the urgency of Setting Free the Bears, the bittersweet wit of The 158-Pound Marriage, the sly set-ups of Garp. The haphazardness that afflicts [the characters' lives in The Hotel New Hampshire] has seeped into the storytelling, too. As a teenager, the narrator loses his virginity to a maid named Ronda Ray, but he barely bothers to comment on the repercussions of the act. The family saves the Vienna State Opera House, but the incident (and its subsequent effects) is hardly mentioned again. John finally sleeps with Franny, but he never reveals to us the incipient causes or emotional consequences of his incest. What's the purpose of a first-person narrator if he's not going to ponder and analyze the action with a one-of-a-kind perspective?
With its unconsidered events, unexplained behavior, and anachronisms, The Hotel New Hampshire forsakes what no story can afford to forfeit: our willing suspension of disbelief. Even on its own terms—as a modern-day fairy tale—the novel misfires: The fairy tale is a form that relies upon cause and effect, that prizes action and consequences. Missing the resonances that elevated Garp above "X-rated soap opera," as Irving called it, The Hotel New Hampshire remains a perverse Life With Father, a savage situation comedy. (pp. 31-2)
Scot Haller, "John Irving's Bizarre World," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1981 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 8, No. 9, September, 1981, pp. 30-2, 34.
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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 because his mind has a determined color, and he writes of certain themes in all his novels not because he cannot think of anything else, but because these themes seem to him to have overmastering importance. To the present reviewer they seem to boil down to a romantic insistence on the supremacy of passion and a desire for poetic justice. (pp. 1-2)
[As] Irving employs it, poetic justice takes on an unmistakable Old Testament character. Let them suffer as they made others suffer. Not a pretty doctrine, but it gives a warm glow in those dark caves of the spirit to which humanitarianism has not penetrated.
John Irving has obviously not achieved his position by dealing in trivialities. He has said his say about "new fiction" and does not seek to do anything new with language or form. Indeed, in some respects he appears to have retreated, and the wrap-ups which finish Garp and the new novel, in which the fate of every character is revealed, are reminiscent of some of the Victorians. (p. 2)
Robertson Davies, "John Irving and His Traveling Menagerie," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), September 6, 1981, pp. 1-2.
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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 motiveless malignity in these episodes, a prankster's vindictive glee. (pp. 1, 36)
Still, Irving has always been inventive, and "The Hotel New Hampshire" is crammed with the exotic characters and fantastic events that spill from the pages of his other novels. For all their foul-mouthed banter, the Berrys are a picturesque crowd; their childhood in a seedy New England hotel converted by their father from a defunct girls' school is vividly evoked, and Irving's account of the parents' courtship at a seaside resort in Maine just before World War II has a certain elegiac lilt. And he is a lively storyteller; the narrative leaps from one frantic episode to another with impressive velocity. When the hotel in New Hampshire fails, the family decamps to Vienna and starts over again with a shabby pension occupied by terrorists and prostitutes whom they haven't the heart to evict (the Viennese milieu will be familiar to readers of "Garp" and "Setting Free the Bears"); they foil a plot to blow up the Vienna opera house and find themselves celebrities. One becomes a famous actress, another a famous writer, a third a famous literary agent. The narrator moves to Maine and restores the hotel that was the scene of his parents' courtship—as a rape-crisis center. This novel captures one's attention the way a circus does: through sheer exertion.
But Irving isn't here just to entertain. There are a number of serious messages in "The Hotel New Hampshire," among them the conviction that life is a pretty dreary affair. Doom is "altogether common," John insists, quoting the poet Donald Justice (who becomes a sort of guru to the Berry family)…. All the noisy slapstick, then, is Irving's way of domesticating the malevolent vicissitudes of life.
The import of Justice's lines, it seems to me, is very different…. For Justice, it is in the ordinary, not the freakish or bizarre, that the pathos of our fate manifests itself. But Irving, unwilling to entrust himself to the tragedy inherent in our common lot, brings in doom with all the subtlety of a set change on an opera stage. His obsession with grotesque and violent death is so persistent that after a while it begins to seem hostile, punitive—another form of authorial aggression. (p. 36)
Eager to reassure us that his novel is all in good fun despite the bloody goings-on, Irving resorts to a gee-whiz idiom right out of "Leave It to Beaver." His favorite adjectives are "nice," "awful," "crazy," "dumb," and his characters are always saying things like "Yuck!" or "Holy Cow!" Snarling one moment, he is full of saccharine beneficence the next…. (p. 38)
The danger of such a style is that it can become too simple, too monotonous, too bland…. The suspicion that Irving's haphazard, sprawling narrative and poverty of language are simply the result of carelessness is difficult to suppress. The writing is awkward, stiff and hopelessly digressive, like a postcard from a child at summer camp…. And the dialogue is wooden, flat, repetitive…. Just like Beaver and Wally at the dinner table.
That Irving is capable of writing with great concentration is evident not only from "Garp" and his earlier novels, but on occasion even in this confused production. The Vienna chapters evoke the city with impressive clarity (I was glad to have someone finally account for the distinctive odor pervasive on the Continent; it is "the diesel rankness of Europe"). And the father's poignant decline is recorded with the sort of detail that reveals character through indirection: He doesn't have a belt of his own, and is wearing one the narrator recognizes has been borrowed from his brother.
All the same, one senses a vague uneasiness in Irving's voice, a fear of triviality. To remind us that he's not just fooling around, he supplies a number of enigmatic axioms and recurrent motifs designed to convince us that matters of great import are being treated. "Keep on passing the open windows" and "Life is serious but art is fun!" are two prominent refrains. A mysterious apparition in a white dinner jacket appears now and then. Sorrow, the stuffed family dog, shows up in one implausible guise after another, despite the Berrys' efforts to get rid of him. After all, Irving observes, "Sorrow can take any shape in the world." What are we to make of these portentous homilies? (pp. 38, 40)
Perhaps it is Irving's wish to have it both ways, to dwell on the rude shocks of adulthood while charming his readers with a kind of coy innocence, that accounts for the bears in his fiction. The two that figure in this novel—a genuine bear who travels about on a motorcycle with a sidecar and the lesbian in the bear suit—are at once murderous and cuddly; they attack on command, possess a vicious energy, yet are the very symbol of our childhood, the toy we clutched in our infancy. "We need a good smart bear," Irving declares on the last page of the novel. "Some people's minds are good enough so that they can live all by themselves—their minds can be their good, smart bears." For the narrator's father, "Illusions are his good smart bear."
Irving doesn't seem quite sure, though, what kind of bear he wants to be himself—a teddy or a grizzly. For all his obsession with the sordid and scatological, his abusive tirades against his own characters, his penchant for scenes of sudden violent death, he really wants to be liked. Indeed, we'd better like him if we know what's good for us. (p. 40)
James Atlas, "John Irving's World," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 13, 1981, pp. 1, 36, 38, 40.
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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 political terrorism. It was Garp's passion—the desperate love of, and fear for, his wife and children that made him run after speeding cars—which spoke most directly, I think, to the novel's millions of readers. Like the Nabokov of Lolita, Irving had found a way to deal with the grotesque, the absurd and the murderous aspects of contemporary American life and yet to write a book about survival and love. (p. 277)
Few readers will be so moved this time around. For all of its energy, The Hotel New Hampshire ultimately declines into mere Creative Writing….
The anachronisms, of which there are many, are meant to indicate to us literal-minded types that, while the novel uses all the conventions of realism, the action takes place in Imagination-land, that paradise of Creative Writing teachers in which anything goes and the ancient art of making things up is considered numenous evidence of a fourth dimension.
The best part of setting one's books in Imagination-land is that as long as the story remains internally consistent, the author cannot be held responsible for what happens. Or, in one of the novel's oft-reiterated lines, "Life is serious, but art is fun." (p. 278)
Whatever we turgid hacks in the reviewing trade are to make of lines like that, indeed of anything at all about The Hotel New Hampshire, I have no idea…. Cause and effect have little to do with each other in Imagination-land, which makes characters and events very hard to keep straight. After Egg and Mother and Sorrow go down, the novel becomes the year's longest and most random demonstration of the truisms that justice is only rarely poetic, that death never comes at the end but always in the middle of one's story and that Fate is a blind practical joker.
That is what I mean by Creative Writing. Despite what Irving says about the value of clarity, both through Franny and elsewhere, The Hotel New Hampshire is ultimately not only a confusing but a boring novel…. Creative Writers don't write about anything, you see … they just write. They wax creative.
The Hotel New Hampshire has absolutely nothing to do with the hotel business, about which Irving knows less, I would wager, than the night clerk at a Holiday Inn. Well, so what? Kafka was not an entomologist; The Metamorphosis is not a reliable source of beetle lore. But where Kafka penetrates the grotesque, Irving takes the reader water-skiing. The novel is all surfaces, all situations. Brother Frank is a homosexual and a taxidermist. He is also a pessimist. But that is all one knows about Frank. We meet none of his lovers, learn literally nothing about how and when he discovered his inclination, what he thinks or feels about it, what he wears, how he walks, talks, relates to heterosexuals … nothing. Here's Frank. He's a homo who stuffs Labrador retrievers. Can you believe it? (Turn up the laugh track.) And here's little sister Lilly. She's so little she's a dwarf. I mean, can you believe this family?… Lilly pretty much disappears from the book until she writes Trying to Grow, her big best seller. As far as we know, it's about her crazy family, like the book we are reading. Then she kills herself. Why? Who cares? We've got a story to keep moving here, an Imagination to show off. Even incest—which could very well be the pop-lit sexual theme of the Reagan years—gets a sketchy treatment. "When you're in love with your sister," the narrator tells us in one of Irving's better lines, "you lose a lot of perspective on the real world." Yet an all-day and half-the-night session with Franny affects our boy no more than a head cold. Once it's done we hardly hear about it again. (pp. 278-79)
Imagination-land is like most theme parks. The grownups will enjoy it once a lot more than they'll admit, but unlike the children, they'll never want to go back. John Irving ought to quit wasting his time there too; he's frittering away his narrative gift on nonsense. (p. 280)
Gene Lyons, "Something New in Theme Parks," in The Nation (copyright 1981 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 233, No. 9, September 26, 1981, pp. 277-80.
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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 of story line that hisses forward into the next blowup almost before the dust of the last has settled. A typical sequence runs as follows: Franny Berry is gangraped by members of a prep school football team on Hallowe'en; on the same day, her father, Win Berry, takes the family pet, an ancient Labrador named Sorrow who is dear to Franny but troublingly afficted with flatulence, to the local vet to be put to sleep. Conscious of his fearfully violated younger sister's need for the comfort of her pet, Frank Berry races to the animal hospital in hope of saving the beast. He's too late, but he does recover Sorrow's body, and, having earlier learned taxidermy in a biology course, resolves to stuff the dog and offer it to his sister as a gift. New narrative fuse lit and burning, obviously, and explosion is imminent. (p. 102)
The rape-taxidermy sequence shuttles swiftly between the farcical and the pathetic…. We're never in doubt of Frank Berry's sympathy for his sister's suffering, but the gags super-imposed upon this sympathy do contort it. And comparable contortions abound elsewhere in the book's action…. Always, the sympathy and solidarity of the family members are in evidence—qualities placing the Berrys firmly in a world of light and affirmation. But often the visible deeds and spoken words verge upon the violently sadistic, or the black comic, or the melodramatically grotesque.
And the author's taste for incongruity affects characterization as well as action. Each of the Berrys is normal in his or her feeling for parents and siblings—loving, concerned, loyal…. But it's a fact that the Berry kids don't invariably sound "normal and nice." On the first page of the book, one child speculates to another about the precise date when their parents "started screwing"; from then on the children's sprightly R-rated obscenities decorate virtually every paragraph. Nor can it be said that these folks are untouched by deviance. Franny Berry is, for an interval, caught in a lesbian love affair. She and John Berry are in love with each other and consummate their incestuous passion in an extended sexual bout. Frank Berry is an out-of-the-closet homosexual given to expressions of glee in his aberrancy. Lilly Berry is a suicide. (pp. 103-04)
If, in short, the quality of the children's sense of fun and feeling for each other stands forth as "normal and nice," neither the children's environment nor their individual natures quite warrant those labels. Nightmare and sunshine simultaneously, once again.
A fair question about this pairing is: What's it for? Does juxtaposing the quotidian and the melodramatic—the normative and the eccentric, the healthy and the sadistic—offer much besides shock value? Doesn't it become merely confusing? John Irving's triumph in his last book was traceable, I believe, to the brisk ingenuity with which he dispatched these doubts. Garp, as will be remembered, is in part about a novelist and his audience—a novelist plagued, like most, by readers whose interest seems sometimes to derive exclusively from curiosity about whether his stories are autobiographical. The most horrible episode of rape and murder in the book is presented as a chapter of a novel written by T. S. Garp shortly after losing a beloved child in an automobile crash. As one reads the episode, one isn't merely titillated by the grisly and forbidden; one is shown, dramatically, how a writer transforms personal experience into an achieved imaginative narrative that, despite being complexly rooted, in every detail, in "real life," is remote from any set of actual happenings. Graphically depicted sexual encounter becomes, through elegant indirection, a lesson about art and its sources, a means of access to a father's inexpressible grief, and an instrument capable of reconciling totally opposite modes of feeling.
I confess I suspected that this feat—the purposeful linking of the normative and the perverse or hateful—couldn't be brought off a second time, but I was wrong. Less bloody than Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire nevertheless is rich, from start to finish, in incongruous juxtapositions, and it offers genuine pleasures. I don't pretend to know all of Mr. Irving's secrets, but I'm fairly certain about one of them. Early in the book the reader is nudged into noticing resemblances between the narrative proceedings at hand and those of a fairy tale—the only literary form that has ever satisfactorily tamed the horrible. Half-magical attachments between human and animal creatures (men and bears) hold our attention from the start. John Irving reflects time and again on dreams, wish fulfillment, happy endings. And in the touching final page, he steps forward to acknowledge that he and his reader have been living in a "fairytale hotel," spinning wish fulfillments…. Guided by the narrator, we intuit that this work (when the grotesque heaves into sight) is not only about the unbearable but about our instinct for refusing the unbearable—not only about the worst of life but about our capacity for willing away the worst. That intuition does much, throughout, to soothe our unease with contortions and contrarieties. (pp. 102, 104)
John Irving's love and squalor please us precisely because his authorial presence seems unsmudged by baseness—innocent, cheerful, bouncily energetic, at times incoherent, but always beyond reach of exploitative meanness.
This isn't to say that every objection to The Hotel New Hampshire should be discounted. I found a certain frailty in the book's emotional life; feelings such as terror, lust, and ressentiment need powerful invocation to be persuasive, and the author's charm and jokey off-handedness—his very fascination with his eye for incongruity—conspire to muffle and miniaturize them. (Grief at the loss of parent or child disappears from the page almost before its weight can be imagined, like an effortlessly cleaned barbell.) I also find the preoccupation with rape, here and in Garp, disconcerting. And although the novelist Garp is explicit in warning us off from reviewers who utter such phrases, I'm obliged to declare that John Irving doesn't strike me as a writer of significant intellectual depth…. John Irving, however, seems far more comfortable with obliviousness—with our incapacity for seeing beyond the self-endorsements of culture, class, and enclave—than are the subtlest minds who have celebrated imaginative power. And, for me, his books' frequent allusion to Scott Fitzgerald only underlines the fact that the example of that writer's moral penetration has been missed. Irving's work brings to mind lesser heroes—J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, the Beatles.
Like those performers at their best, this author is playful, tender, ebullient, by turns silly and sweet. And, most important, he has within him a strong idealizing tendency, which, at an hour when nothing is more conservatively chic than despising the ideal, deserves regard as precious. His one-man struggle to make the novel safe for—or at least hospitable to—domesticity isn't, I grant, a mark of genius; neither is his effort to persuade us that people caught in the muck of habitual obscenity—or aberrancy or phony liberation—truly want out. But at their core both efforts are kind and sane as well as funny and diverting: everybody smart will know enough to wish them well. (pp. 105-06)
Benjamin DeMott, "Domesticated Madness" (copyright © 1981, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission of the author), in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 248, No. 4, October, 1981, pp. 101-02, 104-06.
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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 that are among the pleasures of The World According to Garp. As if aware of the stylistic inadequacies of the new book, Irving resorts to the use of literary crutches, quoting at length from the poems of Donald Justice and from the famous conclusion of The Great Gatsby, which makes Lilly burst into tears and declare that their father is a Gatsby, always in pursuit of the receding green light. The very rhythms of the end of The Great Gatsby are echoed in the final paragraphs of The Hotel New Hampshire: "So we dream on. Thus we invent our lives…. We dream on and on: the best hotel, the perfect family, the resort life. And our dreams escape us almost as vividly as we can imagine them." Unfortunately, the quotations and echoes serve only to emphasize the lameness of Irving's own prose.
In this review I have, almost at the novelist's invitation, used a good book—Garp—to belabor a poor one. Enough. John Irving is a talented and resourceful writer. I doubt that he has been misled by the hoopla, cover stories, etc., surrounding his latest production. I like to think that next time he will present us with something as exciting as Garp—and as different from that novel as he can possibly make it. (pp. 14-15)
Robert Towers, "Reservations," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 17, November 5, 1981, pp. 12, 14-15.
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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. "Everything's screwed down here" says Iowa Bob and keeps on saying it till his unfortunate accident. We tire of this and the other gnomic family catchphrases….
Some of Irving's best and worst jokes depend on the literal realization of metaphor. Sorrow the dog and sorrow the emotion recur—doggedly…. Questions of taste aside, if you give the name Sorrow to a farting Labrador it is quite easy to make comical references. If you choose to name a fictional character "Freud" it is surely slightly underhand to make a number of "who said that, our Freud or the other one?" jests….
The interchange of metaphor and fact, of real and mock—especially real and mock sex, real and mock violence—seems to be Irving's chief concern….
Critics of Irving who complain that he treats his characters inhumanly, and also that his characters are lifeless simulacra, are trying to have it both ways. But so is Irving.
Eric Korn, "Trying to Grow the Freudian Way," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4101, November 6, 1981, p. 1302.
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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.
Entertaining this passive, receptive reader is Irving's ultimate goal. Two years ago he published an impassioned defense of his old teacher, Kurt Vonnegut, that seems to summarize his own credo. Vonnegut, he claimed, is especially good at the writer's most difficult and important task, "making a reader's job easy." The writer's other two goals are to entertain the reader and to upset him….
According to Irving, we often condemn Dickens for sentimentality, failing to realize that this is merely another name for "his kindness, his generosity, his belief in our dignity." The defense becomes more pointed when Irving approves the change Dickens made in Great Expectations some years after its initial publication: an alternative final chapter that provided a happy ending. (p. 1428)
Irving, of course, has a great faith in happy endings; the long wind-down of Garp (the weakest part of the book) was a struggle to transform Garp's death into transcendence and assign everybody else a long and happy life. But I think Irving was also intrigued by the very fact that Dickens could change his ending: it nicely dramatized the capriciousness that he tries to build into his own novels. Unfortunately for Irving, capriciousness is not typical of Dickens and certainly not the secret of his genius. (pp. 1428-29)
John Irving quoted with approval Santayana's defense of Dickens against readers who were "higher snobs": "they wanted a mincing art, and he gave them copious improvisation, they wanted analysis and development, and he gave them absolute comedy." At least Irving knows what he wants to do. (p. 1429)
Charles Nicol, "Happy Endings," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1981; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XXXIII, No. 23, November 27, 1981, pp. 1428-29.
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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 passages of debilitated mooniness, as Mr. Irving peddles his philosophy of salvation through dreams. 'In the Hotel New Hampshire, we're screwed down for life—but what's a little air in the pipes, or even a lot of shit in the hair, if you have good memories?'… As Mr. Irving takes up his position on the cracker-barrel, such homely 'wisdom' clearly has a potent appeal for American readers.
But though the cracker-barrel may have already made him rich on the other side of the Atlantic, I fancy that readers over here will find a stronger appeal in those scenes of riotous slapstick in which this undoubtedly gifted author shows himself at his most robust, incisive and inventive. (p. 27)
Francis King, "Fairy Tale," in The Spectator (© 1981 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 247, No. 8003, November 28, 1981, pp. 26-7.
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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 economic has to do with the way a book is marketed. Of the ideological, Sutherland writes: "The bestseller expresses and feeds certain needs in the reading public. It consolidates prejudice, provides comfort, is therapy, offers vicarious reward or stimulus. In some socially controlled circumstances it may also indoctrinate or control a population's ideas on politically sensitive subjects. In other circumstances, especially where sexual mores are concerned, it may play a subversive social role."
"Ideological" has to be understood here in its loosest sense; certainly it does in considering the case of John Irving, for Irving is not, in any reasonable sense of the term, a radical or ideologue. On the contrary, in his novels he has demonstrated real disdain for people whose lives are controlled by their politics: the Ellen Jamesians in Garp and a group of Austrian radicals in his more recent novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, are equally detested by their author. The ideological freight carried by John Irving's recent novels is not, then, political in the strict sense, but is instead to be found in Irving's attitudes, point of view, what he himself calls his vision.
The young T. S. Garp, considering his own early writing, thinks: "What I need is vision, he knew. It will come, he repeated to himself…." Has John Irving's vision come? His novels are an extraordinary jumble, of the sentimental and the violent, of the cute and the loathsome; reading them one sometimes feels one is reading a weird collaboration between J. D. Salinger and John Hawkes, a strained effort to be, simultaneously, adorable and gruesome. In Bestsellers John Sutherland says that bestselling fiction tends to divide ideologically between the emancipated (Erica Jong, for example) and the traditional (James Michener, for example). In a strange yet evidently commercially successful way, John Irving's latest novels tend to combine the emancipated and the traditional, the effect of which is to make his readers feel advanced in their views yet fundamentally sound in their emotions.
For instance while disdaining the wilder side of women's liberation in Garp, Irving views it very kindly. As a writer, T. S. Garp stays home, does the cooking and cleaning, and is generally, not at all to his displeasure, the model house-husband. John Berry, the narrator in The Hotel New Hampshire, plays, quite comfortably, a roughly similar role in that novel. Yet the one character is an ardent wrestler, the other a serious weight lifter—traditionally masculine, one might even say macho, types. John Irving prides himself on his endless invention—"Garp," he writes, "was a natural story teller; he could make things up, one right after another…."—but his real invention is in the creation of these heroes. They are extremely sensitive (Garp lies down next to his young son to smell the freshness of the boy's breath in his sleep), yet when it is required of them, brutally tough (John Berry, in The Hotel New Hampshire, kills a man with a bearhug). These John Irving heroes, these sweet bruisers, are also permanently puerile, young men whose chief experience occurred in adolescence—it's downhill after your middle-teens, says a character in The Hotel New Hampshire—and who have been able to arrange things so that, whatever their chronological age, they never quite have to leave adolescence. (pp. 62-3)
[The Hotel New Hampshire] is about a family whose father harbors utopian illusions about running a hotel that will provide perfect hospitality, hospitality with slight psychological overtones…. Many of the same symbols and themes, incidents and concerns, appear here as in Garp and Irving's earlier novels: the Austrian interlude, the bears, the physical conditioning, the sidebar discussions of fiction ("Life is serious but art is fun"), the mutilations. The appeal, too, is similar. At the heart of this novel, as of The World According to Garp, is the allure of family.
As in Garp, so in The Hotel New Hampshire, family becomes a fortress of a kind into which one withdraws with one's children for protection against the cruelty of the world. Rape, in both novels, is a big item ("… rape, Garp thought, made men feel guilt by association"). Rape is indeed at the very center of The Hotel New Hampshire; the rape and recovery from rape and revenge for rape of Franny Berry are the incidents that bind the novel together. At the novel's close, the narrator and his wife—formerly a lesbian so homely she preferred to go about in a bear costume (I'm not making this up; John Irving did)—move into a final hotel that they use as a rape crisis center.
The Hotel New Hampshire is pro-family and anti-rape. If these views do not simply take your breath away, let me go on to say that in all of John Irving's novels, discerning good from evil is never a problem; like every other moral question, it never really comes up. There are good folks and there are bastards in these novels, and one hardly needs a program to tell one from the other. Good folks can go under, but bastards get it in the neck—and in the nether regions. As the narrator of The Hotel New Hampshire puts it: "The way the world worked was not cause for some sort of blanket cynicism or sophomoric despair; according to my father and Iowa Bob, the way the world worked—which was badly—was just a strong incentive to live purposefully, and to be determined about living well." Now here is advice your local young law professor and a happy few million others can live with comfortably. (p. 63)
Joseph Epstein, "Why John Irving Is So Popular," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 73, No. 6, June, 1982, pp. 59-63.