Saturday, January 20, 2018

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

I struggled with this one.

My first struggle was with the title character, who I found difficult to like and relate to. Owen Meany is so obviously a device for Irving to, as one of the blurbs on the back cover of my paperback says, “meditate on predestination, faith and the unrealized forces that shape one’s days,” that I can’t take him seriously as a human being. He is not a character in any full sense of the word. He is instead whatever Irving needs him to be in order to arrive at his scripted conclusion. Somewhere late in the novel, our narrator tells us:

It seemed to me that Owen Meany had been used as cruelly by ignorance as he had been used by any design.

It’s a good line, well supported by the preceding details, but it illustrates a fundamental weakness with the text. The design in question bears too many hallmarks of the author, and not those of a supposed in-story divine intervention, that it left me fondly wishing for ignorance to win the day. In other words, by that time I was rooting for Owen Meany to lose, not win the faith jackpot Irving had decided was his lot.

My second struggle was with the narrator, who I couldn’t figure out. Specifically, I couldn’t figure out who he was talking to. The narrator in question is John Wheelwright, Owen Meany’s best friend, who is sometimes seemingly talking directly to the reader and something seemingly writing in his diary. Both devices are perfectly acceptable as structures within which to cage a first person narrator, but Irving decides to use them both, the former primarily to relay the story of the narrator’s adolescent and young adult interactions with Owen in New Hampshire and the latter primarily to relay the story of his current and grown man interactions with a new community of people in Canada.

That sounds clear the way I just explained it, and for most of the novel I guess it is, but the larger point is the fact that I noticed the two devices at all. When a first person narrator has an engrossing story to tell, the reader tends to rather pleasantly get lost in the drama. The device of the narrator -- oral storytelling, written diary, or whatever -- fades into the background. You don’t challenge the written diction of what is supposed to be an oration, for example, or you don’t challenge the lengthy and supposedly transcribed dialogue in what is supposed to be a diary. You simply settle in and enjoy the process of turning the pages.

But by constantly switching the narrative device, Irving never allows me to fall in line with his often entertaining storytelling. With every break on the page, where the diary ends and the oration begins, or vice versa, Irving did little else than pull me out of the story. Who, I would find myself asking over and over again, is John Wheelwright talking to?

And the clincher comes near the very end, when Irving is supposed to be ramping his narrative up to its whiz-bang climax.

Owen Meany taught me to keep a diary; but my diary reflects my unexciting life, just as Owen’s diary reflected the vastly more interesting things that happened to him. Here’s a typical entry from my diary.

“Toronto: November 17, 1970 -- the Bishop Strachan greenhouse burned down today, and the faculty and students had to evacuate the school buildings.”

So now one narrative device has subsumed the other? I’m no longer secretly reading John Wheelwright’s diary? Now he’s quoting me passages from it? Was he doing that before? Then why aren’t those previous sections not set off in quotation marks?

And my third struggle was with the ending, which, as I already mentioned, seemed overly contrived. Instead of dishing out a bunch of spoilers, let me give you a related example. [You? You might now be thinking. Who is he talking to?] Here’s essentially how Irving would have you write a novel.

First, come up with the ending. Make it as improbable as possible. Your main character -- let’s call him Oliver -- is going to lose his hand by intentionally holding it in the bubbling oil of a deep fryer until it is cooked away.

Next, come up with a list of character traits that individually seem unremarkable (or better yet, quirky and weird), but which, taken together could provide an explanation for the seemingly crazy action of your main character in your climactic scene. He hates fried food but works in a chicken shack. He’s in love with the girl who runs the fryer, who refuses to remove her dangling jewelry as required in the employee handbook. He’s plagued by dreams of being an amputee. He has an operation that leaves him with no feeling in his right arm.

Next, take those traits and write a chapter about each one of them. Call those chapters “The Shack,” “The Girl,” The Dream,” and “The Operation.” Make each one a novella, populated with enough quirky characters and comic scenarios to distract the reader from the predetermined climax you’re building towards. At the same time, have your narrator make regular cryptic and foreshadowing remarks about that climax. Things like “If I had known then what I knew later, I would’ve forced Oliver to stop working at that chicken shack,” or “Sometimes love will drive people to do crazy things, and Oliver was no exception.”

Finally, write your climax. Pat yourself on your back for being so clever. Cash the constant stream of royalty checks as your novel goes into printing after printing.

I’ve oversimplified for effect, but I hope you see what I’m driving at. At the end of A Prayer for Owen Meany, I felt very much like I could see Irving’s outline sketch of the novel, written, as I’ve described, with the end firmly in mind, and indulging in whatever twist or turn was necessary to get us there.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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