When someone you love dies, and you're not expecting it, you don't lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time - the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes - when there's a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she's gone, forever - there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.
It's a while since I've encountered a book as eager to draw the reader's attention to its themes - to explain, indeed, how should be read - as John Irving's witty, endearing and somewhat ungainly A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). The instruction begins immediately; the narrator - fussy, unmarried, prematurely-aged English literature teacher John Wheelwright - spends the opening sentence of the novel telling us, in no uncertain terms, the meaning of what he is about to recount:
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice - not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
The story that follows is John's attempt to make sense of his childhood, and how it shaped the person he has become. Much of this is portrayed through his friendship with Owen Meany, an uncannily serious and self-possessed boy reminiscent of Oskar in Gunter Grass' The Tin Drum. Owen suffers from physical disabilities: stunted growth and a damaged voice ("To be heard at all, Owen had to shout through his nose"; the resulting nasal screech is represented on the page through the suitably jarring device of all caps). The son of a Boston Irish labouring family, he is Other in social terms, too, in a small town - the fictional Gravesend, New Hampshire - that is filled with Mayflower stock and the sort of place where
[W]e don't enjoy giving directions [...] we tend to think that if you don't know where you're going, you don't belong where you are.
Owen compensates for these things by cultivating a natural intelligence, an unsettling directness, and a borderline sociopathic disgregard for the feelings of more or less everyone (except, for the most part, of John). He is literal-minded to a fault - "he was insulted by jokes of any kind", John explains, which is another way of saying that Owen is impervious to irony - and his status as an outsider both enables and encourages him to question the comfortable lies and entrenched interests that make up privileged small-town life. Cleverly, systematically, and perhaps not entirely without malice, he sets about challenging the power structures around him. (I couldn't help but think of him as the Tyler Durden to John's straight-laced, terminally third-tier narrator.)
Although initially Owen is a target for low-level bullying by his classmates ("Owen was so tiny, we loved to pick him up; in truth, we couldn't resist picking him up"), he soon becomes a ringleader in causing mayhem. But what would be simple mischief from any other boy his age always forms part of a long-term strategy, for Owen - and all too frequently his schemes mingle preternaturally careful thought with a cold fury, whose origin is difficult (for much of the story) to pinpoint. He causes havoc, for example, when he joins John's church, having grown impatient with the Catholic tradition in which his parents were raised:
Not only did Catholics kneel and mutter litanies and creeds without ceasing, but they ritualized any hope of contact with God to such an extent that Owen felt they’d interfered with his ability to pray - to talk to God DIRECTLY, as Owen put it.
Owen is little more content to do as he is told within his new congregation, however. His first participation in the annual nativity play is a masterpiece of sustained absurdity. He runs rings around the self-serving complacency of the play's adult organisers, causing the whole thing to collapse into farce thanks to an uncannily commanding dramatic presence as the baby Jesus, and the fact that he has absolutely no suspension of disbelief (nor any patience with saving others' feelings) when it comes to wobbly stage sets or makeshift costumes.
The pattern only intensifies as he gets older. Although it would usually be inaccessible to someone of his social class, Owen gains a place at the exclusive Academy high school through the slightly condescending patronage of the Wheelwright family, largely because they have realised that Owen - who regularly does John's homework for him - is the only reason that their scion John is keeping his head above water, academically. Once installed there, however, Owen is disinclined to be properly grateful for the opportunities afforded him by his social betters. He begins alleviating his boredom - and cultivating notoriety - by formulating ever more elaborate and destructive pranks. In one of several perfectly-paced set pieces, he gets revenge on the school counsellor (for the terrible crime of trying to talk to him) by rounding up a sports team to carry the counsellor's car into the school hall; a subsequent catalogue of disasters sees the car trashed beyond recognition. Owen's reaction is characteristic; he is both funny and cruel, yet apparently unaware of being either:
In their first session together following the destruction of his VW, Dr. Dolder began with Owen by saying to him, "I know you hate me - yes? But why do you hate me?"
"I HATE HAVING TO TALK WITH YOU," Owen admitted, "BUT I DON'T HATE YOU - NOBODY HATES YOU, DOCTOR DOLDER!"
"And what did he say when you said that?" I asked Owen Meany.
"HE WAS QUIET FOR A LONG TIME - I THINK HE WAS CRYING," Owen said.
"Jesus!" I said.
"I THINK THAT THE ACADEMY IS AT A LOW POINT IN ITS HISTORY," Owen observed.
That John's account of all this isn't wholly reliable is signalled just a few lines after his opening remarks, quoted above. Having noted that Owen turned him into a Christian, John goes on to explain that his religious knowledge consists of those Biblical passages heard during Church services or encountered in the Book of Common Prayer, the latter being "so much more orderly" than the Bible itself. This is a man, we might suspect, who values an explanatory framework, and is happy to discard as extraneous - or better yet ignore - the things that do not fit into it. He like the important bits to be highlighted for him.
So far, so human memory. John, however, is practised at extracting narrative from complexity; as a high school English teacher, it is his job to read selectively, to boil things down to their key themes. Arguably, he is far too good at it: we see him telling his pupils, about to embark on reading The Great Gatsby, what they should look out for in advance, rather than letting them first experience the novel themselves. It is a useful warning. In the description of small-town life in 1950s and 1960s New Hampshire, from the perspective of 1987 Toronto, John's editorialising voice is never far away. Characters are prejudged in light of their later history: most notably, and bizarrely, his cousin Hester, whose subsequent adult life as an (allegedly) oversexed rock star trickles back in John's frankly demeaning discussions of her as a young teenager. Vietnam casts a shadow backwards in time - we are repeatedly given examples of John's contemporaries who will grow up only to die in that war - and so, too, does the popularisation of TV:
What we witnessed with the death of Kennedy was the triumph of television; what we saw with his assassination, and with his funeral, was the beginning of television's dominance of our culture - for television is at its most solemnly self-serving and at its mesmerizing best when it is depicting the untimely deaths of the chosen and the golden. It is as witness to the butchery of heroes in their prime - and of all holy-seeming innocents - that television achieves its deplorable greatness.
But even where we are given apparently unvarnished flashbacks, complete chunks of story without obvious intrusion, we are nonetheless getting an incomplete picture - denuded of what has been forgotten and what has been passed over as irrelevant.
This is not to say that the book is in anyway thin. Far from it: it contains a hefty share of family saga moments, funny or sad or both. Most centre around John's formidable grandmother, whose "veteran, antisocial cantankerousness" is woven into the narrative at intervals, accompanied by a blaze of slightly intimidated affection:
And if she wore cocktail dresses when she labored in her rose garden, they were cocktail dresses that she no longer intended to wear to cocktail parties. Even in her rose garden, she did not want to be seen underdressed. If the dresses got too dirty from gardening, she threw them out. When my mother suggested to her that she might have them cleaned, my grandmother said, "What? And have those people at the cleaners wonder what I was doing in a dress to make it that dirty?" From my grandmother I learned that logic is relative.
But much of what is included is there to serve the Theme: faith. Not so much in a God - although John and Owen both frame it this way - as in fate. This seems to be something that Owen had long felt, in some inchoate way: "on the subject of predestination, Owen Meany would accuse Calvin of bad faith", John tells us, noting Owen's belief that there was a purpose behind his small size and broken voice. But after a tragic accident at a Little League baseball game - in which Owen strikes a ball that goes awry and hits John's mother, killing her instantly - Owen becomes convinced that there is a divine plan underlying everything and, with his typical mixture of arrogance and obliviousness, that anyone who cannot see it is deceiving themselves:
Owen Meany believed that 'coincidence' was a stupid, shallow refuge sought by stupid, shallow people who were unable to accept the fact that their lives were shaped by a terrifying and awesome design
From then on, Owen declares himself "GOD'S INSTRUMENT". By the time John feels up to recalling these events - "It has taken me more than thirty years", he says, "to get up the nerve to share Owen's voice with strangers" - he has come to agree, and he arranges his narration accordingly. John acknowledges the selectivity of memory; indeed, he becomes obsessed with it:
Your memory is a monster; you forget - it doesn't. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you - and summons them to your recall with will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!
On several occasions, he returns us to the image of the fatal Little League game, and to the evolving efforts of his younger self to 'remember' it - filling in new details each time, based on what he has learned about Gravesend in the interim - in order to make sense of the senseless:
How I remembered them on that summer day - Maureen Early and Caroline O'Day - how they had laughed and squirmed in their seats together when Owen Meany came to bat.
What a power I had discovered! I felt certain I could refill those bleacher seats - one day, I was sure, I could "see" everyone who'd been there; I could find that special someone my mother had waved to, at the end.
Mr. Arthur Dowling had been there; I could see him shade his eyes with one hand, his other hand shading his wife's eyes - he was that sort of servant to her.
The other thing that Owen comes to believe in the aftermath of this event - and which John, at length, shapes his narrative to prove - is that the date and manner of his death are, by God's will, set in stone. Literally; he belives he has had a vision of his tombstone.
It was this strand of the story that I eventually grew impatient with. Such is John's - or Irving's (I note that he, too, is a lecturer in English literature...) - desire to tie everything together in a great big foreshadowed bow that the whole thing begins to feel rather ponderous and self-satisfied. We linger over images of death (Owen as a chilling ghost of Christmas future in an amateur stage production of A Christmas Carol); we repeatedly circle back to the same imagery (slam dunking, tombstones, severed arms, ill-educated soldiers); we're subjected, over and over again, to John's omnious hints of what is to come ("Had he known everything that would follow, he would have bathed his chubby face in even more tears..."). It was no surprise at all, for this reader, that both Owen and John, as they grow up, develop an abiding love for Thomas Hardy, and especially for Tess of the D'Urbervilles, with its po-faced portents of doooooom on what feels like every other page: red lips! prematurely ripe strawberries! the family horse dying in an enormous pool of blood! red lips! roses! which prick Tess, drawing more blood! the red tip of Alec's ... cigar! more red lips! Et-tedious-cetera.
[Ahem. For better or for worse, you never forget your A-Level set texts...]
John's journey, as he presents it in adulthood, is one from doubt to faith. It is only in retrospect that he recognises "the miracle of Owen Meany", but once he does he spends years rearranging his past to make the truth of it plain. He castigates those, who - like his sometime teacher Pastor Merrill - do not share his conviction; in this, too, he is a belated follower in Owen's footsteps ("'BELIEF IS NOT AN INTELLECTUAL MATTER'", Owen says of Merrill, back in the days when John still admires the latter; "'IF HE'S GOT SO MUCH DOUBT, HE'S IN THE WRONG BUSINESS'").
At the same time, John is quick to sneer at those he sees as unwontedly superstitious: Pastor Merrill, who harbours a secret guilt that an ill-timed prayer caused the death of John's mother; his grandmother's housekeeper Germaine, who reads aloud through the night to a dying woman and then refuses to do so ever again, for fear that it was her act of reading that finished the job; and Owen's parents, who have developed the confused notion that Owen was produced via a virgin birth. (The descriptions of Owen's mother staring fixedly at walls, never leaving the house, and barely speaking a word, make me suspect some more painful truth.)
None of these ideas are obviously any less rational or real than Owen's conviction that he was God's instrument on the Little League baseball field, or that he has foreseen his own death. Rather, each of them is a spar of hope, of explanation, and of denial; they offer something to cling to, a way to cope with extremes of grief and horror. Thus, too, is Owen's foretold end for John; and, for that matter, for Owen, whose vision has so strong a hold over him that he not only carves his own tombstone to match it, but organises the rest of his life around ensuring that he meets his 'fate'. The danger lies, perhaps, in taking faith too far: in failing to entertain any doubt at all, such that - smugly secure in your knowledge of divine will - you become the architect of your own fate.
At least, this was my reading (coloured, as is to be expected, by the fact that I am an atheist). A quick scan of the internet suggests it might not be one shared by many other readers! Something to consider on this is Irving's choice of epigraphs; one comes from his own former teacher, Frederick Buechner, for whom Irving expresses continued appreciation in his foreword. He quotes Buechner as follows:
Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.
And perhaps Owen Meany is an exercise in exploring the tragic consequences of exactly this. Without doubt, there is no room for Owen to be other other than an instrument; there is no room for him to simply live his life, to make moral choices, on his own terms.
Or perhaps John is not entirely without doubt, after all:
The border outpost, the so-called customs house, which I remembered as just a cabin, was not exactly as I'd remembered it; and I thought there'd been a gate that was raised - like a gate guarding a railroad crossing - but that was different, too. I was sure I remembered sitting on the tailgate of the tomato-red pickup, watching the fir trees on both sides of the border - but then I wondered if everything I'd done with Owen Meany was not as exact in my memory as I imagined. Perhaps Owen had even changed my memory.