Sunday, November 15, 2009

An Interminable Year with John Irving

John Irving takes longer to get to the point of his stories than any author I know. He is not a lazy writer. Brilliant. Infuriating. Frustrating. But not lazy.

I reread A Widow for One Year after trying to tell a friend and patron what it was about the book that had captured me. After slogging through it on a second read, now I'm not sure. Maybe what made this title stand out was the out-of-humor author. There is a tremendously funny scene early on when Ted Cole, the father of the heroine, is chased down by one of his many amours gone wrong, but this is the first book where I noticed that Irving himself seemed out of sorts. His quirky humor is missing.

It is a writers' book, the saga of Ruth Cole, novelist, from her childhood though a marriage, widowhood, and remarriage. Her father is a writer and illustrator of children's books. Marion, Ruth's mother, who leaves them, is a writer. Her mother's young lover, Eddie, who never stops loving this much older woman, is a writer. Her quirky best friend, Hannah, is a journalist. By the time we get to Harry, the Amsterdam policeman who tries to find Ruth after she witnesses the murder of a prostitute, we are as happy to see a reader as Ruth is attracted to him.

It is classic Irving. He takes us back before the beginning to tell the story of the mother who can never stop grieving for her dead sons, the lazy writer father who lures mothers in as models for his children's books then draws pornography, and the child Ruth, born to replace the two lost boys. The despondant Marion is planning to leave her husband and child, fearing that she will love the little girl and lose her, and spends her last summer in a sexual liason with Eddie, a teenage boy. This event frames the story. Both Eddie and Ruth live in anticipation of the return of Marion.

Fast forward. Ruth is a successful novelist with a history of bad boyfriends and a best friend, Hannah, with a history as the bad girlfriend. Eddie reenters Ruth's life and his undying love for her lost mother, provides a bond of friendship for the two which continues through the book. Ruth is considering marriage with her editor but is unsure and puts off any decision until after a book tour in Europe that will eventually lead her to Amsterdam, the pivotal destination of this long, convoluted story.

The part of the book that I remembered and reread to discover why it affected me so, takes place in the room of a prostitute in Amsterdam--a room all in red. The imagery is more vivid than usual in this section and, even after several years and forgetting most of the plot, the room remains in my memory. Irving does his usual roundabout tease, dropping hints about it, taking us elsewhere, coming back to let us see the outside, taking us away, returning to enter, taking us out again, and finally placing us in the closet with Ruth where she witnesses the murder. In writing about what she has experienced, Ruth leaves the crumb that will draw the hawk to her.

In part, this book is a fictional treatise on experiential writing. Irving takes us into the heads of his characters as they plot their books and we see how their experiences move through their writing, even as Ruth, at least, argues that it is all imagination. It is imagination, but it is imagination that feeds on the friends and family in the author's life. In weaving the tales these writers create, Irving lets us watch the creative process unfold from initial idea to final creation.

But I'm left with questions as I work my way through this tortuous review that seems to mirror the length of its subject. He is a formula writer. Why does he begin so far back in the lives of his protagonists? Why do we have to know about the mothers and fathers and grandparents of the hero or heroine? Why do we have to walk through several lives to get to the pivotal moment, the climax, of the story? Is he trying to show us that every event is the sum of the multiplicity of decisions that have gone before? Or does he just like to spin all the multi-colored strands into one final plot, tightly knotted? Or is he playing games with us?

He uses sexual metaphor freely in all his work--is his methodology an extension of that? The long, slow tease that leaves us begging for the denouement, and the deep satisfaction when it comes.

Even when I toss one of his books into a corner, vowing I'll not read another, I know. I'll come back for more. He is a master of the craft. I can't resist.