The story -- and nothing but the story

Postmodernism be hanged ... John Irving celebrates old-fashioned storytelling in his latest novel

July 17, 2005|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun



By John Irving. Random House. 819 pages.

Skeptical critics, ever-mindful of literary fashion, underrate him, but John Irving, a perennial best-selling novelist, has continued to rebel valiantly against the fictional demands of postmodernism. Until I Find You, his brilliant 11th novel, finds Irving once more in the realm of realism, and, with 819 pages, at a length rivaling that of Tom Jones and Moby Dick. Not for Irving are the pale, cardboard quasi-characters of the postmodern novel nor the death of the authorial persona. Irving rejects as well early-20th-century modernism, the fictional tropes of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce that elevate the subjective over the claims of history and society, of causality itself.

In a brilliant article in the May Atlantic Monthly titled "A Bag of Tired Tricks," B. R. Myers points out that by the end of the '70s postmodernism had "degenerated from a startling assault on traditional narrative into a style as predictable as any other." By indirection, Myers thoroughly vindicates Irving's reliance on traditional storytelling, his richly developed characters, and always churning plot.

The occasion of his article is a review of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the sophomore novel of the latest " 'pomo' wunderkind" Jonathan Safran Foer. Among the book's "gimmickry" are pages "filled with numbers," some clotted with "illegible tangles of print," pyrotechnics that Irving would disdain as mediocre, mere sleight of hand.

Refusing to succumb to an evolutionary approach to fiction, Irving remains loyal to his models, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. Fiction for Irving, as for those masters, is biography, the full life of a protagonist, engaging if also substantially flawed. In Until I Find You, it takes 125 pages for his hero, Jack Burns, to graduate from age 4 to 5.

The plot, too, is age-old: A son struggles to find the father from whom he was separated at birth, a story with autobiographical resonance, because Irving is himself a man who has never known his biological father. Another is that Jack Burns, like Irving, is a master wrestler. Irving had begun to write this novel in the first person. When it became too literal, too personal, he rewrote it in the third.

Refusing to affect distance, or to adopt the Joycean premise that the writer should refine himself out of existence, and scoffing at Roland Barthes' notion that the author is dead anyway, Irving remains present. Like the old-time novelists who created a wise and amusing interjecting narrator, Irving, too, adds that additional character, the exuberant storyteller. "Boy, were their lives about to change!" he comments at one point.

Breaking arbitrary fictional "rules," he signals plot reversals before they occur. "It was the last time he would hear her voice," he cautions about Jack, and his friend Emma. Sometimes, certain to evoke a shudder from the devotees of modernism and postmodernism alike, Irving explains: "the scary thing was that Jack didn't know who he was."

Jack's selfish mother, the tattoo artist "Daughter Alice," argues that she was right to separate Jack from his father, William. "If he wasn't going to be with me, why should I have let him be with you?" Alice demands of Jack. Her claim is both logical and hopelessly benighted. Irving, a political no less than an aesthetic conservative, generally takes the view that feeling takes precedence over reason and the futile attempt to order an inevitably disordered existence.

Yet Alice has gone too far. She is in need of absolution and this is accomplished by William himself, speaking as Irving's surrogate. Over Alice, Irving clearly prefers the organist William, despite his having abandoned Jack. Among his many tattoos, William has had etched on his body these words: "Reason has reached its limit. Only belief keeps rising."

The bizarre rears its head, here as in Irving's 1978 The World According to Garp, where women cut their tongues out in empathy for a rape victim. In Until I Find You, the bizarre analogue is the grisly tattoo trade, and a walk-on character, Marvin "Mekong Delta" Jones, who has lost not only both legs in that unholy war in Vietnam, but part of his nose as well.

Another form of exaggeration is psychological. Jack becomes a famous movie star by playing transvestites, a condition in which he locates temporary solace; his loss of his father has translated into gender confusion and sexual unease.

Where Dickens pulled the heartstrings, Irving resorts to the zany; he manages quite a few hilarious moments. Jack puts his "full nelson" lock on an adversary so that his victim's head comes to rest in his dinner plate: "if he died, the murder weapon would have been his paella." In a long-awaited reunion with Michele Maher, a girl he longed for in high school, Jack finds a woman so anorexic that her mother's ring, sliding off her finger, "honestly looked more interested in eating the pizza than Michele did."

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