The Book Group and John Irving’s Prayer for Owen Meany

John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany (Bloomsbury 1989)

Before the meeting: This is an odd book. It tells the life story of Owen Meany, a young man who is tiny in stature and huge in voice like the hero of Gunther Grass’s The Tin Drum (which I haven’t read, though I’ve seen the movie). From an early age Owen has a profound belief that he is an instrument of God, and he has a vision of his own death, including the exact date and some of the circumstances. His story is told by his best friend Johnny Wheelwright, who doesn’t have a lot to distinguish him from any other child of an old New England family, except that his mother never revealed the identity of his father and she herself was killed in a bizarre Little League accident when he was eleven.

I loved the first hundred pages or so, which introduce us to the characters who inhabit the small New Hampshire town of Gravesend, and tell the story of Owen and Johnny’s childhood friendship, their shared quest to find the identity of Johnny’s father, their adolescent adventures. I was happily back to my enjoyment of The World According to Garp (1978) and The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), both of which I read when they were newly published. John Irving has an eye for the detail that brings a scene to life, and manages to keep his story slightly off-kilter without every completely descending into quirkiness. His characters are vividly realised in a few strokes, with an almost Dickensian oddness. My love waned in a very long sequence involving the staging of two theatrical pieces concurrently, a Christmas pageant and a production of A Christmas Carol. In both of them Owen is improbably compelling, at least in rehearsals, as the Christ Child and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Both predictably descend into chaos. These chapters rattle along, full of amusing and touching incidents and character development, but I was straining at the bit, wanting the story to move forward.

Then at almost exactly the midpoint of the novel, in the narrator’s present time, I was rapped over the knuckles in a moment that’s close to being explicitly meta. John (as he is now known) laments that his girl students don’t read Hardy’s novels with an eye to foreshadowing. ‘I hope you realise,’ John Irving was saying at barely one remove, ‘that all that stuff about Owen as Christ, Owen as a ghost predicting the future, Owen and a number of armless figures, Owen practising a special basketball move, all that was giving you very specific hints about where this narrative is going.’ Well, I took the hint, and from that point on I read everything as foreshadowing.

When all that carefully constructed foreshadowing came together in the final pages of the book, it was most satisfactory – or just a bit too neatly tied together, depending on your point of view. I was left uneasily cold by the religiosity of the story, which to be fair was signalled on the very first page when John-the-narrator tells us that Owen was the reason he believes in God. Owen becomes a Christ figure, but without arms, and John lives out his day as a vaguely religious, celibate man whose only purpose, apart from teaching English literature to teenage Canadian girls, is to bear witness to Owen’s story. Religion is his analgesic. ‘Don’t underestimate the church’ – he says at one point – ‘its healing power, and the comforting way it can set you apart.’ (Page 415) It’s a religious faith that depends on miracles for its existence (the kind of miracles that exist only in the pages of carefully contrived novels), and leads to a lack of engagement with the world, or with anything but the memory of his Christ-like friend. It leaves a sour taste in this reader’s mouth.

But, speaking of foreshadowing, John’s present time coincides with the Contra scandal under Reagan, and though he has been living in Canada for decades he is addicted to the US news. So much of John’s (and presumably Irving’s) commentary on Reagan’s US feels eerily prophetic of Trump and Trumpism. I recognise John’s newspaper addiction as an old-media version of my (our?) Twitter addiction. It’s not that things were the same back then, but by contrasting the Kennedy era of Johnny and Owen’s adolescence with the Reagan era of John’s middle age, the passions that burned over the US invasion of Vietnam with the apathy that greeted the Contra scandal, the novel captures a change in the US’s political culture, a change that has since deepened to an extent that would have looked wildly fantastical in the 1980s.

After the meeting: Last night was our last meeting for 2020 and our second since we all started to relax a little about Covid–19. All but two of us made it – one of the absentees had to attend a family do, and the other had been tested for the Covids with his young daughter and was staying home as a good citizen (he WhatsApped us this morning to say the result was, as expected, negative). We had what we’ve been calling a Gentlemen’s Picnic: everyone brought food. We ate well, including salmon with anchovy butter pats, barbecued sausages, charcoal chicken, several salads and three different desserts. Covid deprived us of meatballs slow cooked with figs. Our host had Gospel music playing as we arrived, which he said was the nearest he could come to the religiosity of the book, and at the end of the evening he treated us to a couple of short films he had made – potentially setting a dangerous precedent as I’m sure may of us have substantial slide shows we’d love to share.

It’s not that we didn’t talk about other things: family news, good TV and movies (a Michael Jordan film is apparently excellent, and I’m not the only one who loved Corpus Christi), a bit of reminiscence about the 18 years of book group and rumination on how it has changed this year (because of Covid and zoom? because of the level of trust that has enabled discussion to become more robust? because the person who noticed the change has been a more frequent attender this year?), Trump deprivation syndrome, and show-biz anecdotes all got an airing. But the book generated a lot of discussion.

I wasn’t an outlier, as it turned out. Someone described the book, memorably, as a shaggy dog story. A man who said he hadn’t finished it was having trouble following comments about how all the threads came together in the last scene: it turned out he’d read all but the last 10 pages or so, which just goes to show how skilfully John Irving postpones his revelations until the last possible moment. Someone said – articulating my sentiments exactly – that in the first couple of pages he breathed a sigh of relief: after reading a number of books for the group that, whatever their other virtues, were pretty rockily written, with this he knew he was in the hands of an accomplished storyteller.

Someone felt that this was a book written by someone who had a big back catalogue, who now could relax and just spin a yarn without being too serious about it, venting about current politics as the spirit moved him. Not everyone agreed. Some, me included, felt we were expected to take the religious theme seriously but found it pretty hard to do so. One said most of the religious stuff was largely incomprehensible to him. I asked if the recurring image of armlessness was purely decorative or had some thematic significance. One of our architects took offence, demanding, ‘What’s wrong with decoration?’ and describing the way those recurring images created a patterning that was pleasing in itself and helped the reader track the story. Our Book Chooser, who first read the book 30+ years ago, loved it then and loved it again this time, thought the armlessness represented Owen’s helplessness in the light of fate. This led someone to comment that though Johnny keeps his arms, he is ineffectual, spiritually armless. None of us could remember what we were told about the armless image drawn by the 17th century sagamore Watahantowet when he signed away the land to the invaders, but felt that might offer some help. I just looked it up:

Some said it was how it made the Sagamore feel to give up all that land – to have his arms cut off – and others pointed it out the earlier ‘marks’ made by Watahantowet revealed that the figure, although armless, held a feather in his mouth; this was said to indicate the sagamore’s frustration at being unable to write. But in several other versions of the totem ascribed to Watahantowet, the figure has a tomahawk in his mouth …

There’s more. The upshot is that the armlessness could signify many contradictory things. It’s a good example of how so much of the early pages of the book are full of foreshadowing, and of how hard it is to pin down the book’s actual position. Is John Wheelwright a dependable narrator? Does Johnny have a feather between his teeth, while Owen had a tomahawk? The questions aren’t resolved, and we don’t even know if they are meant to be taken seriously. We admired the first sentence of the book as an example of foreshadowing; evidently John Irving himself admired it too.

A number of chaps had done some supplementary reading. One of them had read that John Irving starts with a clear image of how a book is going to end and then makes sure everything leads to that point. This rings very true.

In order to give the appearance of completeness, I’ll finish with a quote from the one chap who hadn’t read the book at all, except for the author’s introduction in his copy. He said he concluded on the basis of that introduction that John Irving was a wanker. Not everyone agreed.

6 responses to “The Book Group and John Irving’s Prayer for Owen Meany

  1. kathyprokhovnik

    You describe John Irving’s method so well Jonathan. I loved his books for some years, then it all got a bit repetitive, and maybe he did descend into quirkiness for its own sake, and I stopped reading them. But I’m glad this one stood the test of time – sort of. Your description of feeling cold at the end, while admiring his ability, does resonate with me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What to say to this pretty comprehensive covering of the novel in question – but that I have heard of the book “Garp” – mostly the image of a child swimming underwater – from a movie make? And that I have read part of the book but also seen the movie of “The Tin Drum” (mostly because a kinship connection had an acting speaking role – and I had met and been in a party at Grinzing in Vienna with the Little Person Fritz HAKL – who is the character dressed in the Nazi SS officer uniform…) On one level I can appreciate the spiritual dimension/the religious dimension – in others – or in a book/treatise/nove//play – but I am always reminded of the fundamentalist childhood I grew up and out of – and it therefore carries a kind of personal distrust with it, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. And there I was expecting some profound words of wisdom in your last paragraph!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m the person who hadn’t read the last 10 pages. I did it after the book club meeting on Tuesday night. The elements of the novel were indeed tied together with laser-like precision. It was an execution. Both of Owen Meany and of me, as the reader. I didn’t really care that all these loose ends were knotted finally, the story was merely diverting rather than illuminating. We didn’t discover much about being human, or anything else of substance.

    The main thesis of the book is presumably about the nature and challenge of religious faith. But its treatment is (I think unintentionally) paradoxical. Our narrator turns to the theme of faith many times, convincing us that Owen Meany triggered his own belief in God (and Jesus etc, the whole damn Christian thing). Yet the ‘miracle’ of Owen’s sacrifice, the event that turns the narrator into a believer, is of course a meticulously crafted contrivance by the author – the last ten pages of the execution mentioned above. One of our book club members pointed out that this is how John Irving writes – working backwards from the conclusion. Are we meant to accept this as evidence for belief? The act echoes a more explicit deception in the book, when Owen contrives a miracle to confound the doubting Pastor Merrill (who is also the secret father of the narrator).

    Pastor Merrill is also the only character who conveys an appropriate but fitful tension between faith and doubt, but Merrill has his own character assassinated at length by the narrator late in the book.

    I enjoyed some things in the story such as the prescient comments about Ronald Reagan’s America, which anticipated something of the depth of cynicism in contemporary American politics. Some of the critical observations about the anti-war protests and sixties culture were refreshing (What silly things did we not believe in the 60s?). I fully accepted Owen’s voice on the page, the capitalisation of his words to signal a uniquely bright and high-pitched vocalisation. I enjoyed Owen’s integrity and lack of cynicism. There were Dickensian set pieces that were pretty funny – almost slapstick comedy (the nativity play, and school assemblies).

    But it was 600 pages of pretty unsatisfying reading.

    PS Jonathan: I love the blog.

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    • Nicely said, Ian. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve written, but I have a nagging sense the Irving may be trying to say something serious about religion. All I can come up with is that he thinks it’s a cop out. The parallel between Owen’s fake miracle and the novels ‘real’ one is surely deliberate, meant to make us take Johnny’s conversion with a grain of salt. John’s life fizzles out after his conversion and his belief seems to lead to nothing good. I’m glad you enjoy the blog

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