Thursday 4 August 2016

Brilliant but preposterous

I am not quite sure why 'A Prayer for Owen Meany' by John Irving made it on to my 101 books list but I definitely do not regret its inclusion, and he is most certainly a writer I will be adding to the 'read again' list. The armadillo on the cover intrigued me, but also endeared the story immediately to me because of my own close encounter with an armadillo. The story is narrated by John Wheelwright and tells the history of his friendship with Owen Meany, a boy so tiny the other kids pass him around like a doll and who's broken voice somehow demands to be heard. This also endeared the book to me because the only other character I know of who speaks in capital letters is Death in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. Strangely this novel contains a lot of religion and it did not put me off; I think if I had known in advance it might have done so. There is considerable discussion of the many and various denominations of Christianity among which the characters move but also the nature of faith and destiny. It's not a spoiler to say that Owen believes that god has a plan for him that forms the very purpose of his life and existence.  

So, Owen causes the death of John's mother, who is struck on the head by a baseball in a freak accident, an event that seems to secure rather than damage their friendship, since Owen is almost as attached to her as John is. He is then raised by his grandmother and his step-father Dan Needham, a strange man who's obsession is the annual local amateur dramatics production of 'A Christmas Carol'. Things come to a head the year Owen manages to get himself cast as both the baby Jesus in the school nativity and the Ghost of Christmas Future in Christmas Carol and it sets the groundwork for Owen's destiny. The book is very much a character driven book, not just Owen himself but cousins Noah, Simon and Hester, Rev and Mrs Wiggin, Rev Merrill, Headmaster Randy White and the people of the community they live in who all play a part the young boys' lives. 

"Poor Mr Fish. I never knew what he did for a living. He was Sagamore's master, he was the good guy in Angel Street - at the end, he took my mother by the arm -  he was the unfaithful husband in The Constant Wife, he was Scrooge. But what did he do? I never knew. I could have asked Dan; I still could. But Mr Fish was the quintessential neighbour; he was all neighbours - all dog owners, all the friendly faces from familiar backyards, all the hands on your shoulders at your mother's funeral. I don't remember if he had a wife. I don't even remember what he looked like, but he manifested the fussy concentration of a man about to pick up a fallen leaf; he was all rakers of lawns, all snow-shovelers of all sidewalks. And although he began the Christmas season as an unfrightened Scrooge, I saw Mr Fish when he was frightened, too." (p.191-2)

I liked very much the contrast between the two boy's characters; John to whom things just happen, and Owen, who both makes things happen and for whom all events have a meaning:

" 'What a coincidence!' I said, when The Flying Yankee had gone; I meant that it was a farfetched piece of luck that had landed us under the trestle bridge precisely at noon, but Owen smiled at me with his especially irritating combination of mild pity and mild contempt. Of course, I know now that Owen didn't believe in coincidences. Owen Meany believed that 'coincidence' was a stupid, shallow refuge sought by stupid, shallow people who were unable to accept the fact that their lives were shaped by a terrifying and awesome design - more powerful and unstoppable that The Flying Yankee." (p.200-1)

Lovely image here is John's grandmother, after she finally acquires a television:

"She watched television all day, and every evening; at dinner, she would recount that day's inanities to me - or to Owen, to Dan, or even Ethel - and she would offer a hasty preview of the absurdities available for nighttime viewing. On the one hand, she became a slave to television; on the other hand, she expressed her contempt for nearly everything she saw and the energy of her outrage may have added years to her life. She detested TV with such passion and wit that watching television and commentating on it - sometimes commentating directly to it - became her job." (p.275)

The story takes us back and forth, between John's future adulthood, where there is no Owen, only memories of Owen, and their childhood and adolescence together. I loved Owen's battle of wits with the new headmaster, involving a Volkswagen Beetle and a statue of the Virgin Mary; his plan to save John from the Vietnam war draft; and Owen's recurring dream that he believes is a mission he has to fulfil. I was left feeling that John lives a life that he is not quite sure what to do with without Owen. Here he is staying with some friends at a lake house in the summer, it feels like the ultimate nostalgia:

"Every day, I volunteer to be the one to go to the station; shopping for a large family is a treat for me - for such a short time. I take a kid of two with me - for the pleasure of driving the boat would be wasted on me. And I always share my room with one of the Keeling children - or, rather, the child is required to share his room with me. I fall asleep listening to the astonishing complexity of a child breathing in his sleep - of a loon crying out on the dark water, or the waves lapping on the rocks onshore. And in the morning, long before the child stirs, I hear the gulls and I think about the tomato-red pickup cruising the coastal road between Hampton Beach and Rye Harbor; I hear the raucous, embattled crows, whose shrill disputation and harangues remind me that I have awakened to the real world - in the world I know - after all.
For a moment, until the crows commence their harsh bickering, I can imagine that here, on Georgian Bay, I have found what was once called The New World - all over again, I have stumbled ashore on the undamaged land that Watahantowet sold to my ancestor. For in Georgian Bay it is possible to imagine North America as it was - before the United States began the murderous deceptions and the unthinking carelessness that have all but spoiled it.
Then I hear the crows. They bring me back to the world with their sounds of mayhem. I try not to think about Owen. I try to talk with Charlie Keeling about otters." (p.441)

He never denies how vital Owen was to his life, although he is telling the tale of his own life it is Owen who is the central character. The book has a very twisted timeline because we learn about Owen's death and funeral well before the actual events of the day in question are related. This quote I found this so poignant, because you get so involved and invested in their friendship, and can just imagine how it must be to lose it:

"When I want to be 'wicked' I show the finger; correction  - I show what's missing. I show not the finger. I shall save the missing finger for my next encounter with Ms Pribst. I am grateful to Owen Meany for so many things; not only did he keep me out of Vietnam - he created for me a perfect teaching tool, he gave me a terrific attention-getter for whenever class is lagging behind. I simply raise my hand; I point. It is the absence of my pointer that makes pointing an interesting and riveting thing for me to do. Instantly, I have everyone's attention. It works well in department meetings too.
'Don't you point that thing at me!' Hester was fond of saying.
But it was not 'that thing,' it was not anything that upset her, it was what was missing! The amputation was very clean - it was the cleanest cut imaginable. There's nothing grotesque, or mangled - or even raw-looking - about the stump. The only thing wrong with me is what's missing. Owen Meany is missing." (p.549)

As the tale unravels towards the end, and some mysteries are uncovered, I found that I was even more  engaged with the unfolding for Owen's destiny and his certainty that this was the meaning of his life. A really long book but I was disappointed when it was over; I had such a mixed reaction to Owen, he is presented as physically small and vulnerable, so you have this urge to protect him, but he is such a forceful personality you are certain that he does not need your protection. I liked it because, even though he believed his purpose was 'god given' it was not something imposed on him, but something that he embraced, and even pursued. I also liked it because it did not feel as if the author is trying to make a case for Christianity or belief or faith; he is just relating this story and this happens to be the experience of the characters. The book is very cleverly constructed, with events at different times vital in strange ways to the denouement and lots of symbolism, including that armadillo, the Virgin Mary statue and a dressmakers dummy in a red dress owned by John's mother. And then there's that fateful baseball ... whatever happened to it? 

1 comment:

  1. Love reading your thoughts on this. I always appreciate books that don't push their ideas on you, but just show your their point of view.


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