Un-”pre-disastered” living: the flawed heroism of John Irving’s characters, namely OWEN MEANY
Like all of John Irving’s novels, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a brick; or, more fittingly, it’s a block of granite. This a thick volume that roughly covers 30 years in the life of an odd couple pair of friends, one of whom is a fairly unexceptional elite/intellectual and the other is a quarryman’s son/military officer… and instrument of God?
I realize, in retrospect, that I have been a long-time, unconscious enthusiast of John Irving. I LOVE him. But I didn’t know I loved him! It’s a Hollywood movie ending kind of love! When I’ve read a book of his, I enjoyed it, but I didn’t hunt for another. But if I came across one—as I did with Owen Meany, which I found at the end of a neighbour’s driveway in a FREE box — I read it with pleasure. I’d see him on TV from time to time, and listen to him with great admiration. But I didn’t say, “there’s my beloved John Irving!” or troll for clips on YouTube. However, you can see it’s all changed: I’ve done that now…
John Irving one of a few authors whose work has translated well to the big screen: The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules are both excellent films—and excellent books, of course!—and are great for such different reasons. (I’ve included a clip here from The World According to Garp—Owen Meany was never made into a film.*) In this scene, a house Garp is considering buying has a plane fly into it just before their viewing. Garp proclaims this a good thing: “No, this is great! It is already pre-disastered for us! What are the chances this could happen again?”This is funny in it’s own right, but also an inside joke for anyone who knows Irving’s work: few of his characters actually prescribe to the notion of “pre-disastered living.” Their lives are full of calamity because they are always searching for something.
A Prayer for Owen Meany charts a friendship though the eras, but coming-of-age is just the start. Owen is an exceptionally small, gifted, and religious boy. One of his first remarks is, WE MISSED DOING A GOOD DEED. Like a gravestone, or God himself, Owen Meany speaks only in ALL CAPS.
As he grows, his wisdom becomes jaded and dark, and he believes his life has a particular cryptic “mission” that has to be fulfilled. Owen’s conviction is partly about religion—taking that leap faith. But it’s also about the tension between will and fate. The two main characters represent this: Owen is driven, outspoken, and active, and Johnny Wheelwright (the narrator) is a passive passenger in Owen’s pick-up truck, a leisure-class participant in life.
As I read this novel, it was as though the main character faded into the background… He is so led by events around him. He observes more than speaks (which is, of course, a writer’s weapon!) He is an apathetic student. He is asexual. He represents such a lack of drive that I began to wonder if he even exists—if perhaps Owen is a figment, or a spin off persona of his. Of course I know this is not the case: the story is about two actual friends. But as my mind wandered into this vague place, I inexplicably recalled Fifth Business—mainly because of what I knew the title meant (paraphrased here from Wikipedia):
Those roles in theatre which, being neither those of hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, were essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement.
Yes! That is what Johnny Wheelwright is. Otherwise, I remembered Fifth Business dimly; I did not appreciate this novel in highschool! But how I was thrilled to find Johnny Wheelwright, a grown man and English teacher, many pages in, talking about Robertson Davies! And there is something to it: Fifth Business is partly about two childhood friends, partly about religiosity, partly about war, partly about a ball-throwing accident… that’s about as far as I went with it…
I said the novel is about the tension between will and fate, and wanted to elaborate on that. There’s an important and beautiful quotation from Robert Frost that encapsulates this message:
Something we were withholding made us weak / until we found out it was ourselves we were withholding / from our land of living, and forthwith / found salvation in surrender.
To me, that is a central premise of the book. Mind you, I went on to read the rest of that poem, “The Gift Outright,” elsewhere, and was rightly disappointed! I love Robert Frost wholeheartedly, but that poem is a sort of eurocentric tale about how the land of America was a gift for the taking… And that’s not really an irrelevant point, to make here—it is apropos: after all, this is story that begins with a pecking order of Mayflower names in New England. I find that such a compelling question: Where do entitlement and heroism begin and end? In Cider House Rules, with Irving’s trademark literary irony, David Copperfield is read aloud to the orphanage children at bedtime:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
This is a theme in much of John Irving’s work; it has been a theme in literature for a long time. Sadly, it has often been attributed to male protagonists… But I think we would do well to think about this now as much as ever—and certainly, women as much as men.
So, to summarize: Don’t miss a chance to do a good deed. Do be the hero of your own life. TALKING IN ALL CAPS IS PERFECTLY FINE… if, and only if, you are heaven sent.
Would you, if you could, live a “pre-disastered life?”
*A Prayer for Owen Meany was the inspiration for a film called Simon Birch; I haven’t seen it yet. Though Simon Birch eliminates parts of the book that I personally believe dragged, and have become dated (mainly, micro-details about the Vietnam War and the Regan administration), and even though his characters are so vivid, complex, and empathetic, I still think so much of John Irving’s magic is in the microcosms he creates. His universe is a central character, too.