Saturday, December 09, 2006

BCOO: A Prayer for Owen Meany

I don't know if anyone likes reading these things, but it's good for me to get this stuff down.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving, is narrated by an American Literature teacher living in Canada. He tells us the story of Owen Meany, who is "the reason he believes in God." Meany is an unusually short person with a high pitched voice (it never changes, even as he matures). Irving writes all of Meany's dialogue in all-caps, to try to convey the range and volume of the voice. The capital letters come into the story, creating a definite reason for them, but the dialogue still gets annoying.

Meany is a Christ-figure, in the most blatant terms. We find out that his mother was a virgin when she became pregnant with him, that he can see into the future and accepts his fate, etc. He is not perfect - he hates Catholics and is extremely opinionated and a little crass.

The narrator, John Wheelwright, is a "Joseph," according to the character himself. He sits on the sidelines and watches Owen Meany try to change the world. And though Wheelwright tells us Owen Meany changed him, I never really saw it happen. Our narrator, therefore, never becomes an active participant in his own life. This makes him an uninteresting character, and is one of the major flaws in this book.

This book was really hard for me to get through. It was condescending and watery. By watery, I mean there was no wit, no humor, no meat. The plot was based on an assumed belief in god and miracles. Now, I love magical realism, but this wasn't magical at all. And it certainly wasn't realistic, even in the world in the book.

The book was published in 1989, and the Cold War is inserted into this book awkwardly. It permeates the novel, Irving shoving his politics into the book like he was stuffing a turkey. The goo remains on my fingers still.

Not only does Irving make the Christ figure blatantly obvious (and there is never doubt in the reader's mind that Irving means him to actually be Christ or some faction thereof), he creates metaphors and drives them through the story with a screwdriver. His similes are forced:

"These men looked like granite itself [great, I thought] - its great strength can withstand a pressure of twenty thousand pounds per square inch. Granite, like lava, was once melted rock; but it did not rise to the earth's surface - it hardened deep underground; and because it hardened slowly, it formed fairly large crystals."

Yikes! We didn't need all that. If we did, Irving could have explained this at the beginning of the novel, instead of 60 pages before the end.

I'll stop, before I get mad. I've started reading My Antonia (with the accent on the first syllable), by Willa Cather. Written in 1917-1918, My Antonia is a loving look at the immigrant experience and so far, I'm enjoying it. Though I'm going to go crazy if I don't read something with cynicism and wit soon.

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