No Bears But Lots of Beaver

So I’m reading A Son of the Circus by John Irving right now. I used to love Irving, but as I grow older (and have more Irving reading experience) my opinion of his books has shifted from “wow, this is some crazy imaginative shit” to “oh bother… another story about bears, midgets, rape and weird sexual disorders.” Irving is the Joseph Beuys of the writing world, and his fat and honey are bears and prostitutes. I suspect a lot of people feel that way. The rest probably haven’t been paying attention.

I have, at this point, read 30 pages of A Son of the Circus, and although the story hasn’t even properly begun yet, the book is already worthy of review.

The circus referred to in the title is an Indian circus, so this book’s ursine content is probably relatively low. As a matter of fact that’s the reason why I chose this novel over the other Irvings that are still loitering in our bookshelf, a low bear quota is always a plus. It’s got midgets, though. Let’s see how Irving will manage to annoy me with those.

For now I have two other bones to pick with this novel. One of them, the smaller bone, is that the book is set in India (a country in which Irving has spent under a month in his entire life) and has an Indian protagonist who was schooled in Austria (another Irving favourite) and lives in Canada. And like all good transcultural protagonists he’s uncomfortable in Canada, feels alienated in India, and is generally at odds with where he belongs and who he is. And while I’m sure that there are plenty of similar people out there, people who for one reason or another have left their country of origin and now have trouble settling down and adjusting to a foreign culture, I think that this has become such a cliché of modern writing that it should be outlawed. Ask anyone who’s studied English Lit with a focus on transcultural studies. If they’re clever they’ll tell you that you can’t poke a stick at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who’s written extensively and stereotypically about this subject. If they’re less clever they’ll tell you that Mr. Irving is writing the shocking truth about these poor, uprooted people.

But that’s a minor complaint. Here’s the bigger one:

The 30 pages of A Son of the Circus that I’ve read make up three chapters. The first one concerns itself with how wonderfully quirky and eccentric (with just the right dash of melancholic) our protagonist, Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, is. And that’s okay. The second one briefly tells the story of Farrokh’s best friend, a dwarf, and how they met. Then, somewhat less briefly, it relates the story of how Farrokh once broke his nose on his best friend’s wife’s vagina while in a trapeze safety net. See what’s wrong with that? A lot, seems to be what comes to mind. And it gets better. Chapter three is all about Farrokh being at a private golf club and contemplating an image of the founder’s wife, Mrs. Duckworth. Mrs. D., now long deceased, apparently had a slight problem with exhibitionism. And Farrokh, his imagination now sufficiently fueled by this titillating bit of information, spends about five pages musing about the feel, bounciness and general aerodynamics of Mrs. Duckworth’s breasts. Now… see what’s wrong with that?

I’ll tell you. Why, for the love of all that’s good, do modern writers need to obsess about sex like that? I’m not a prude, really, but I find this fixation somewhat disturbing. What happened to good old “plot”? Rhetorical question, I fear. Plot’s out of fashion, because plot means talking about the world, and civilisation, and meaning. Maybe even politics (gasp!). So instead sex has become the written equivalent of what in theatre is “naked man and a projection”. It’s what once was new and daring, something to shock the elderly out of their stupor, and what’s now so commonplace that it has become the new establishment. Absurdly, sex has become safe, and plot has become something uncomfortable. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this, Solar by Ian McEwan had similar problems, but this morning while talking to Jonas I suddenly happened across the explanation. And I was astounded. It’s nothing but fear of plot. A story allergy. A postmodern disease, if you will. It permeates modern literature and sucks all meaning out of novels. I wonder what Freud would make of this.

Now, I’m not saying that A Son of the Circus isn’t still going to get around to having a little bit of plot, if there’s time between Farrokh thinking randy thoughts and all the embarrassing accidents that are bound to ensue, but I still think the absolute vacuum of meaning generated by these opening chapters is worth noting. I’ll continue reading, if only because I hate not finishing a book. Check back in a week or so to see how it went.

The Hotel New Hampshire

Another Irving book. I swore not to read any more after Until I Find You. Needless to say that I didn’t like that one very much. I find that some of Irving’s books (not all of them… wait, yes, actually all of them) are just an exercise in collecting weird characters with weird jobs and weird fetishes. It’s okay, if you do it right, after all I loved The World According to Garp, and the people in that one are about as cockoo as you can get, but sometimes it just gets in the way of the story. Like in The Hotel New Hampshire.
Now, to be fair, it is a lot better than Until I Find You, where I had to restrain myself from making a lot of black and white confetti fifty pages in. (I read the whole book in the end, god knows how I managed AND stayed sane. It doesn’t get better. Not. One. Jot.)

The Hotel New Hampshire seems to constantly be balanceing between falling off the edge of a very high cliff with spiky rocks at the bottom, pulled by the weight of cliché accumulated by its characters and staying on top of the ridge, anchored there by Sorrow. (If you read the book you’ll know what I mean. Almost all the beautiful scenes in the book are connected to Sorrow. Sorrow and State-of-Maine.)

And the book actually has many good things about it. Old friends die heroically. Parents seem to regress into children. Dwarfs try to grow. Rapists get raped. Bears transform into humans. And most of all, one of the most prominent sentiments in the book: Sorrow floats.
I’m built close to the water, as we say in Germany, meaning that it is easy to move me to tears, but even I found that the ending of The Hotel New Hampshire was extraordinarily touching.
Now imagine that I found it extraordinairily touching DESPITE all the crap that the reader is made to swallow before that.
Irving loves his wacky characters. And he loves to have a lot of them. In the last two books that I read this almost made me swear off Irving forever.
And in the Hotel? Well, it’s pretty thick. Whores, radicals, communists, radical communists, bombs, opera, circuses, dwarfs, pet-bears, fake-bears, fake orgasms, lesbians and gays, rapists, weight-lifters, stuffed dogs, plane crashes, hostages, day-dreamers, more rape victims than you care to count: You name it, the hotel got it.

It’s just a little too much. It suffocates the story at times. At other times you will just put the book down and ask: why am I doing this to myself?
Me? Well, I’m a bit of a masochist when it comes to books. Finish what you start, is my first commandment. I tend to think that things will get better, just after the next page. Often they don’t. Often I know that. I those cases I at least want to be able to make an informed decision on how bad the book in question is. This lamentable habit has cost me quite a few precious hours over the years. The only book I ever put down I regret having done so, The Stand by Stephen King, but that’s nothing that can’t be remedied.
Anyway, the bottom line is that despite all the sex, and the rape and the general nauseating over-the-top-ness of The Hotel New Hampshire I am very happy that I did not put it down. At least not for long.

Hope floats too, I guess.