An Introduction to John Irving

Terrence Des Pres, 1980

Superior fiction asks three things of the novelist: Vigorous feeling for life as we live it. Then imaginative force, strong enough to subvert and rebuild unhindered. And then–but this is rare and so essential that we might call it the “reality principle” of fiction– shrewd sense to keep the first two locked in stubborn love with each other.

The three in combination are a priceless gift, and to say that John Irving is vastly gifted is to say precisely that he possesses the proven talents which make for major fiction. He has published four novels in ten years, and with the appearance, in 1978, of The World According to Garp, he has taken his place in the front rank of American fiction. Other novelists of his generation (Irving was born in 1942) may be equally prolific; but there is something singular, something uncommonly thorough about Irving’s work to this point–as if his books were the working out of a design, a telos, a fierce implicit vision now realized and fully set forth. In retrospect this is easily seen. Rising directly out of the three novels in this volume, Garp marks a clear culmination, a first phase complete in itself, a proof of promise that becomes, in turn, the signal and certification of a mature, commanding career.

A good example of how attentively Irving is to the item is a good description of the problem of impotence and its treatment. Irving consulted with the best pharmacists.

Irving’s grasp on fact is firm, yet not so cramped as to dampen his delight in wild fabulation. To manage this balance with compassion and comic liberty is chief among his strengths. Not fact but fact perceived is fiction’s rightful domain, and Irving has been quick to take this special license to its limit. Rampant invention is central to his art, and one of the finest pleasures to be got from reading his novels resides in the multiplicity of styles, the range of forms and abrupt imaginative turns to be found in each book. Irving’s multiple manner, if I may call it such, his will to come at the world from different directions, is one of the outstanding traits of Garp; but this remarkable flair for confluence–stories inside stories, genres circumventing genres–is already handled with mastery in Irving’s first novel, Setting Free the Bears, published in 1968, and with a freedom almost wanton in The Water-Method Man, which appeared in 1972. Only The 158-Pound Marriage departs from mixed form; published in 1974, it is as lean and concentrated as a mine shaft. But in every case Irving’s habit of originality provokes surprise and enjoyment. And there is, finally, a further pleasure when we read these novels in sequence: each is wholly distinct, in conception and style, from its companion.

The novels in this volume are so unlike that we might almost think of them as books by different authors. But only at first glance. For what informs all three, inspiring each with intense consistency, is John Irving’s peculiar vision, his odd way of seeing the world. Friendship, marriage and family are his primary themes, but at that blundering level of life where mishap and folly–something close to joyful malice–perpetually intrude and disrupt, often fatally. Life, in Irving’s fiction, is always under siege. Harm and disarray are daily fare, as if the course of love could not run true. As if existence were governed by caprice and mockery, by the perverse power of some yet-to-be-charted tenth planet; and if a sign or emblem were wanted for this new ruler of the zodiac, there is no doubt, in Irving’s universe, what name and shape it would take.

In The World According to Garp there is a summer scene by the ocean, an episode wherein little Walt, so very young and vulnerable, is repeatedly warned by his parents to beware of the undertow along a stretch of dangerous shore. The undertow, they remind him, is very wicked today. Look out for the undertow. One morning they spot their small son alone on the beach, staring intently at the incoming waves. When asked what he’s doing, he says, “I’m trying to see the Under Toad.” All along he had mistaken the correct word and mythicized the fear it signaled into a creature of invisible but monstrous being. And Walt is right. Arising as if from the sea, the Under Toad squats upon the world’s rim, bloated and watchful, the sign of a new star under whose baleful dispensation life must hence-forth proceed.

Novel by novel, Irving has moved steadily toward more intimate knowledge of this sinister energy. His relish for German words, together with the way Vienna–a city symbolizing death–haunts everything he has written, gives an almost historical tremor to the pun on Tod , while the corresponding pun on Unter suggests a depth of being which in theology has been called “the demonic,” by which is meant life perversely pitted against itself, a will to mockery and mutilation, eruptions of exuberant spite. These are the forces to which Irving has adjusted his vision; and therefore his insistence on bizarre events and sad outcomes, on stories “rich with lunacy and sorrow,” as he says in Garp.

Irving’s intent as a novelist has been to fix the perception of life’s demonic undertow at exactly those points where, any day, any one of us might slip and be sucked down. He aims, that is, to confront the habits of the Under Toad directly. Irving takes for granted that the world is mucked up beyond even provisional redemption; that personal destiny is again and again derailed by impersonal forces; that no leader, faith or ideology will arrive to save us from the mess in which we founder. It is perhaps even the case that some secret region of the soul takes pride in destruction, seeking collusion with that which will bring it to ruin. How, then, do we make a defense? There is no solution, of course, but if Irving has done much to reveal our predicament, his temper as an artist suggests that to which we too may look for support. To a courage which stares the Under Toad straight in the eye. To a compassion which allows respect for suffering without self-pity or loss of detachment. And finally to laughter, to the boisterous, even ruthless thrust of comedy.

This is admittedly hard medicine. But that life is a string of clumsy catastrophes and idiot accidents can hardly be denied. At the same time, the whole business appears so melodramatic and silly as hardly to matter at all. Mastery of this situation comes through a vision which can manage both sides equally: hence Irving’s manner of mixing disaster and farce, his blend of gravity and humor, his bent for revealing an element of self-parody in the most pitiful moments. Most extraordinary–this irks some readers, but for most of us has been a source of keen exhilaration–is Irving’s capacity for bounce and resilience and something akin to hard-minded glee, his determination to face that which laughs at and, mindful of all pain, all pathos, laugh back.

A world at war is the worst world possible, and this is where, in Setting Free the Bears, Irving starts. There are plenty of horrendous moments in this novel, yet from such unhappy material Irving produces nonstop laughter. The impact of war upon civilians, its chaos and rapidity of event, its deadly whirling force–all this comes across with convincing power. So does the maniacal behavior of ordinary people trapped in a world of seismic upset. How does Irving make this funny? How, without the aid of tragic resolution–for in an age so warped and bedraggled there is no hope of high closure–can crass, undignified suffering be turned to catharsis? The answer is in good part the secret of his art. Sorrow divested of terror and pity becomes lunatic, and lunacy on its own ground is comic. Irving knows that under grotesque pressure and robbed of choice, men and women respond to their fate in ways which are brave but also ridiculous, jerked this way and that by shifting circumstance and an acceleration of coincidence that render attempts at sane action ludicrous. If this is indeed the case, and if no one is exempt, then the determination to laugh at becomes likewise the duty to laugh with, the sole mode of compassion, of human communion, available in a world whose overseer is the Under Toad.

But if war’s concussion is its center, Setting Free the Bears is not, properly speaking, a “war novel” at all. The book’s main line of action, which culminates in animal apocalypse when the Vienna zoo is “liberated,” takes place in the sixties, which is to say in the far-reaching shadow of World War II. And here Irving’s love of stories within stories becomes especially effective. Setting Free the Bears is composed of three separate layers, each story bearing strongly upon the others, but each distinct in content and stylistic presentation.

The “Pre-History” covers wartime Vienna and partisan scrambles in Yugoslavia. The “Zoo Watch” contains some of the most original writing in modern fiction and celebrates Irving’s strange fellow-feeling for animals, as if in his view our humanity is not complete without acknowledgment of the animal dimension of being. Finally, there is the picaresque tale of the two young men who ramble about the Austrian countryside, planning their “zoo bust,” heading for hilarious ruin. The picaresque mode is freewheeling, open-ended, unpredictable. In its explosive brutality, so is war. And so too, in its certain uncontrollability, must be the release of a zoo full of animals, the fierce and the timid alike, some to eat, most to be eaten. But to see things this way is also, indeed inevitably, to behold life as foredoomed, in which case the novelist becomes, as T. S. Garp will say of himself, “a doctor who sees only terminal cases.” The tendency in Irving’s fiction is toward epilogue, and one of the most remarkable things about his first three novels, viewed from the vantage of Garp, is that they can be read as one extended fictional enterprise. Together they track our spiritual passage from its origins in reaction to the inhuman revelations of World War II, through the anomie of the fifties, the radical rampage and self-destructive experiments of the sixties, toward the struggle for adulthood and survival which characterized the seventies.

To argue that Irving planned this Bildungsroman of our time would be excessive. Nonetheless, his deep sense of demonic turbulence, his comic reception of life as “a ludicrous and doomed effort at reclassification,” and his steady sympathy for those who sustain damage and maimed hope and still fight to be normal–to love, raise children, stay sane–combine to make Irving especially suited to record the havoc and madness we everywhere witness during these last-gasp days of our century. Thus while those who screw up in Setting Free the Bears pay with their lives, the screwed-up hero of The Water-Method Man persists through his folly and earns a second chance. The bitter outcome of The 158-Pound Marriage, however, suggests that a second chance is only, after all, a chance, and that the perversity of the human heart is sufficient to ensure that the Under Toad will more than likely have its way, leaving its victims to laugh or curse as they can.

The Water-Method Man takes its young protagonist through two wives and a side trip to Vienna on his precarious approach to adulthood. The zany freedom of male companionship ends in a ghost tank at the bottom of the Danube, making way for the beginning of serious male-female relations as the hero, nicknamed Bogus, gets his penis back to normal working order. Children and the responsibilities of parenthood begin to figure importantly, and perhaps because these are fundamentally hopeful themes, Irving’s second novel is also his most relaxed piece of writing. It is likewise–apart from Garp–his most intricate, a virtuoso performance in juxtapositions. Script and scenes from a cinema verite film replay the story in parody; and against these, like the backdrop of night, Irving unwinds the blood-and-guts saga of Akthelt and Gunnel, an epic poem in “Old Low Norse,” in which, as in cartoonlike dream, the Under Toad rules.

For its dextrous comedy, for its energetic play with form, The Water-Method Man provides happy relief. It also serves as a bridge from the kind of world determined by impersonal forces to the closer, more self-inflicted world of private relationships. But if history is a field of ruin, so too is the shut sphere of marriage–marriage, that is, as an experiment and a test which some survive and others do not. In this latter sense, The 158-Pound Marriage is surely a black and ruthless book. The title refers to a middle-weight wrestling match, where falls are fast and expected, where expertise in tactics counts more than brute force, where consequences may be dire but scarcely the substance of champions. Starting with the commonplace of adultery, Irving traces the soul’s unrest, its stupid preference for pain and complication, through two couples who switch partners and pursue their odd indulgences to the point of no return. There is no overt violence, but the outcome can only be buffoonery and hate, with the hint that this particular “match” was fixed from the onset–that one of the couples may have played this game before.

Roped off from connection with the larger world, Irving’s menage a quatre is strictly a collision of personalities. And whereas sex in the earlier novels was an easy-going gift, in The 158-Pound Marriage sex becomes the source of subtle disruptive powers, the occasion for setting free something a good deal more brutal than bears. Which is to say that Irving’s humor, as strong as ever, has moved closer to the tears which such sad and twisted goings-on must, if released from comic check, draw forth from the unhappy heart.

That a serious novel like The World According to Garp should become genuinely popular confirms the good sense of common readers generally. It is evident, however, that Irving’s celebrated fourth novel owes much to the three earlier novels, and I do not think the popularity of Garp rests entirely with the obvious benefits of a good story and the accessibility of wonderfully straightforward prose. John Irving belongs to a small group of contemporary writers, chief among whom must be included Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon, novelists whose work has inspired respect for the plainest of reasons–these people write a kind of fiction useful, as genuine art must always be useful, to spiritual need. Fiction speaks to us, touches our deepest fears and wishes, insofar as it articulates our embattled sense of being in the world, thereby confirming the self in its struggle to face and endure (and perhaps pull free from) the besetting difficulties of a time and condition. One prominent critic has suggested that the key to Irving’s kind of novelist is the mobilization of paranoia as a mode of universal insight. Given the threat of terminal wreckage–the proliferation of war, famine and genocide, helpless governments and collapsing economies, nuclear befoulment and the possibility of a Final Solution that would be truly final–little wonder that those who take their stand vis-a-vis the Under Toad have gained our special regard.

Facing prospects so oppressive, Irving’s kind of novelist has worked out a number of strategies. Vonnegut combines a so-it-goes stoicism with the cosmic perspective of science fiction. Heller penetrates infernal darkness through the hysterical drain-off of a central insidious event. Pynchon seems openly to side with destructive energy, celebrating its negative splendor, reveling in its promise of doom. But whereas Vonnegut and Heller accept our condition of victimhood as final, and Pynchon identifies with existence-as-aggressor, Irving has stubbornly refused to capitulate. Rebellion, defiance, even derision, inform his art. He confronts threat with jeers, perceives pain in terms of farce, stays afloat in a sea of destruction by direct immersion (the equivalent of compassion), and rebukes fate by playing with the ways the Under Toad plays with us.

Reading Irving’s novels, we are so engaged by their exuberance, their humor and what appears to be sheer delight in mischief that the world seems almost jolly, a slaughterhouse fitted up with funhouse mirrors, a hell of an entertaining place. And this, it seems to me, is Irving’s victory: the whole damned human lot is funny, our “ludicrous and doomed effort at reclassification” is a stale bleak joke, but a joke all the same, our general plight an occasion for having the next-to-last laugh, no matter if it dies in mid-burst. As an artist of utmost earnestness, Irving tells the hardest kind of truth, but in the telling insists upon the freedom to have fun. Critics have sometimes missed the horror at the heart of Irving’s vision. They have observed his high-spirited frolic and presumed, mistakenly, that Irving’s whole point as a writer is play. Maybe, but with one decisive difference: this kind of play, defiant, boisterous, recklessly brave, is Irving’s hard-minded prescription for survival.

John Irving’s fiction comes down to this: it serves our need for spiritual defense. Is this no more than a bag of brilliant tricks? Possibly, but against an adversary like the Under Toad the tactics of the trickster–prominent in myths of every culture–are indispensable. Without them the enormous pressures of dread and savagery would surely grind us down to nothingness. All comic artists are tricksters. They skate on thin ice, they make us laugh, they help us to hang on. And the survival value of laughter, in times like ours, cannot be too highly prized. For sanity, for endurance, for necessary pleasure, no other stance works half so well.