Thursday, August 20, 2009
A Prayer for Owen Meany
I’ve already talked about my thoughts when I posted about Chapter 7. This book was an experience…that’s the best way to describe it. I’ve been curious about Owen Meany for quite awhile, and I am glad I read the book. But as previously mentioned, it’s way too heavy on the symbolism for me. As Care so aptly put it, it’s “symbolism on crack.”
I found the editorial reviews for this one fairly entertaining. While the Library Journal review isn’t exactly doing back flips, it’s not a bad summary:
Diminutive Owen Meany, the social outcast with the high, pinched voice, has an enormous influence on his friend Johnny Wheelwright--not least because the only baseball Owen ever hits causes the death of Johnny's mother. But as Johnny claims, "Owen gave me more than he ever took from me. . . . What did he ever say that wasn't right?" Spookily prescient, convinced that he is an instrument of God, Owen intimidates child and adult alike. Why Johnny "is a Christian because of Owen Meany" is the novel's central mystery but not its only one: Who, for instance, was Johnny's father? Untangling these knots, the adult Johnny pauses to consider his religious convictions and distaste of American politics in passages that are neither especially persuasive nor effectively integrated into the book. And though Owen is a compelling presence, his power over others is not entirely convincing. Still, readers will be drawn in by the story of the boys' friendship and by the desire to see some resolution to Johnny's mysteries.
However, Publishers Weekly went all out:
Irving's storytelling skills have gone seriously astray in this contrived, preachy, tedious tale of the eponymous Owen Meany, a latter-day prophet and Christ-like figure who dies a martyr after having inspired true Christian belief in the narrator, Johnny Wheelwright. The boys grow up close friends in a small New Hampshire town, where Owen’s loutish parents own a quarry and where the fatherless Johnny, whose beloved mother never reveals the secret of his paternity, becomes an orphan at age 11 when a foul ball hit by Owen in a Little League game strikes his mother on the head, killing her instantly. The tragedy notwithstanding, Owen and Johnny cleave to a friendship sealed when Owen uses desperate means to keep Johnny from going to Vietnam, and brought to its apotheosis when Johnny is present at the death Owen has seen prefigured in a vision. Despite the overworked theme of a boy's best friend causing his mother's injury or death (one thinks immediately of Robertson Davies and Nancy Willard), the plot might have been workable had not Irving made Owen a caricature: Owen is, all his life, so tiny he can be lifted with one hand; he is “mortally cute,” and he has a “cartoon voice” because he must shout through his nose, which Irving conveys by printing all of Owen’s dialogue in capital letters; an irritating device that immediately sets the reader’s teeth on edge. Then too, the author’s portentously dramatic foreshadowing, which has worked well in his previous books, is here sadly overdone and excessively melodramatic. On the plus side, Irving is convincing in his appraisal of the tragedy of Vietnam and in his religious philosophizing, in which he distinguishes the true elements of faith. But that is not enough to save the meandering narrative. Owen is not the only one to hit a foul ball in this novel, which is too “mortally cute” for its own good.
Ouch. Although I will confess to agreeing with a lot of that review.
At the end of my copy there is an afterword by John Irving in which he compliments himself on the first sentence in Owen Meany:
“I may one day write a better first sentence to a novel than that of A Prayer for Owen Meany, but I doubt it. I have a feeling for first sentences, and I’ve written some pretty good ones.”
And okay, I admit the first sentence of Owen Meany was intriguing:
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or even because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
But is it really necessary to brag on yourself like that? I know…your books are held in very high regard and are even taught in English classes and courses. But good grief, can you sound any more pompous?
Because I’d been curious about Owen Meany for quite awhile, I’m glad I read the book. And thanks to Care for organizing our read-along…without it I’m sure I never would have finished
Some of our group discussions can be found at Care's Online Book Club, Regular Rumination and Casual Dread.