Monday, August 22, 2011

Conclusion: The Co-habitational Reading Challenge

So both RR and I finished our rereading of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany at the tail-end of last week as part of our Co-habitational Reading Challenge. While we both still consider the book a delightful romp and one of the great treasures of our young(er) reading years, we have to say that the book does totally fall apart in the second half or so. I suppose it’s a testament to how much you used to love a book that you’d go about giving it such a hard ride upon rereading it.

For me, the book began to resemble, around the second half or so, a rather large and cumbersome piece of IKEA furniture as I began to wonder whether Irving would end up with a bunch of unused pieces left over and whether he’d be able to tighten up all the screws by the last chapter. Sadly, there are a lot of dangling, unfulfilled or at least unsatisfying aspects to the end of this long, long novel. For one, I didn’t feel like I got enough closure on the mysteries of John’s mother’s life – her clandestine singing career and the secrets behind who John’s father actually was. I also felt really disappointed in the way the character of Hester – John’s sexually precocious cousin – just sort of disintegrates: she spends pretty much the entire second half of the novel vomiting, and then she becomes a famous musician. Huh? What? How did that happen?

RR and I both agreed that the more spiritual-mystical elements of Owen Meany got really out of hand the longer the novel went on. The earlier examples of it – like when Owen is convinced he is an instrument of God after accidentally killing John’s mother with a baseball, or when Owen sees his own name and date of death on a tombstone while playing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in a stage production of A Christmas Carol – all had natural, secular explanations to coincide with them. (The baseball thing was just a freak accident; Owen was suffering from a massive fever when he had his vision about his death.) But by the time Rev. Merrill begins speaking in Owen’s voice near the end of the novel, well, I was convinced that Irving had pretty much jumped the shark.

Thankfully, our disappointments in the novel have been tempered by our love of the first half, which is sweet and touching, so full of richly drawn characters and packed with some laugh-out-loud hilarity. “We’ll always have the Christmas pageant,” will be, I think, our mantra when we think back on this experience.

Anyway, this was a fun (if time-consuming) exercise and well worth the effort. We loved doing it, but also love the idea of getting back to our regular reading schedules. If you have any thoughts on Owen Meany, by all means drop us a comment. Or better yet, if you’re in the Toronto area, come out this Thursday (August 25) to Type Books on Queen Street West at 6pm and tell us in person: RR and I will be doing a reading there with PEI author Jeff Bursey. We’d love to see you if you can make it.



  1. hmm! i wish i had the time for a real comment here. [edit: well, i wrote one anyway, somewhat.]

    the background: this book was much cherished in my late teens. i didn't read it again for ages.

    ... but now i reread parts of it every several months. it is comfort reading for me, and i am probably unable to think objectively about it. after all this time, johnny's childhood kind of feels like MY childhood, like i lived it myself, but outside myself watching, like those dreams where you vividly watch yourself doing things... so how can my own memories be ill-structured or overly mystical, because obviously since they are memories they really did happen like that?

    i do definitely agree about Hester: she seems rather abandoned and randomly vomiting in the second half of the novel. poor Hester and her eyebrows.

    but the sketchy mom reveals, and the increasingly bonkers spirituality, both seem to me very right and i will try to describe why., as the book's memories get closer to adulthood, Johnny the narrator's truly twisted personality emerges. the guy is a immature disaster: as stunted in his mental, personal and emotional development as Owen was physically. and as he's gotten older and freakier, his inner self has dwelt constantly on the epic of his childhood, and so his narrative gets messier. ... you know? in particular, the increasing mysticism seems to me the result of the narrator getting so good at believing his own myths that he just plain makes shit up. i kind of like how insane he gets, how his Own Personal Owen overshadows his christian God. what a resplendent nutjob! i bet he wasn't anywhere near Owen when he died!

    ... but i certainly didn't have this perspective when i was a kid and teenager reading it, and i probably wouldn't glory in this if i had come to the book only as an adult.

  2. Thanks AMT for the awesome comment. Very insightful! RR and I actually discussed this element to a certain degree (she caught the unreliable narration much faster and better than I did) although our disappointment in the ending kind of overshadowed our ability to analyze this point. But thanks so much for pointing it out.