Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of the most well-crafted contemporary novels that I have read (but then, I haven't read that many contemporary novels). Everything fits - or as the title character comments about Thomas Hardy, "HE'S VERY EASY TO UNDERSTAND - HE'S OBVIOUS, HE TELLS YOU EVERYTHING YOU HAVE TO KNOW*" (281). By the end, all the major pieces have fallen into place, but it begs to be re-read to appreciate more subtle nuances that might be more obvious in hindsight.

A story of faith and friendship, of doubt and the miraculous, of small-town New England life and international politics. . . this novel made me think as well as laugh out loud and shed a few tears. Since it would be too complicated and reveal too many spoilers to summarize much of the story, I would like to focus on one aspect of the novel: how faith happens.

Our narrator, Johnny Wheelwright, asserts that he is a Christian, that he has faith because of Owen Meany, specifically because of what happened to his best friend Owen Meany. Faith factors variously in the lives of both major and minor characters, but Johnny doesn't really take it seriously as he's growing up. In high school, he comments that "[t]he class loved Sartre and Camus – the concept of 'the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation' was thrilling to us teenagers. The Rev. Mr. Merrill countered humbly with Kierkegaard: 'What no person has a right to is to delude others into the belief that faith is something of no great significance, or that it is an easy matter, whereas it is the greatest and most difficult of all things'" (277). But Johnny doesn't understand Kierkegaard or his friend Owen's insistence on "FAITH AND PRAYER," and he doesn't trouble himself to understand either.

Years later, Pastor Merrill, whose own faith had floundered, tells Johnny, "'But miracles don't c-c-c-cause belief – real miracles don't m-m-m-make faith out of thin air; you have to already have faith in order to believe in real miracles'" (463). Johnny, however, comes to the opposite conclusion. His faith is born out of the "miracle" of Owen Meany's unshakable sense of purpose and prescience, so miracles preceded faith. Even though he finds faith perplexing, Johnny concludes that it would be more difficult not to have faith: "For although I believe I know what the real miracles are, my belief in God disturbs and unsettles me much more than not believing ever did; unbelief seems vastly harder to me now than belief does – but belief poses so many unanswerable questions!” (504).

It seems that Johnny follows the more valid path to faith. Throughout Scripture miracles are used to demonstrate the validity of God's Word, to attest to the authenticity of the true prophets, His messengers, including the Prophet, Priest, and King - the Messiah. While faith is certainly the gift of God, faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. Insofar as miracles establish the word of God, they can be understood as a precursor to faith. Please understand, I'm not trying to establish a gospel according to Owen Meany (it is certainly not an allegorical tale), but merely demonstrating that this fictional story with supernatural elements explains faith with rudimentary biblical themes. The content of that faith is another matter, and one that is not developed sufficiently enough in the novel to critique it.

I wonder how much of this story is autobiographical. According to the dust jacket, the author John Irving grew up in a small town in New Hampshire, attended a private academy there, and now lives in Canada, just like the narrator Johnny. Was there really a boy with a strange voice, or is it just that John Irving is a master storyteller, one like Thomas Hardy, whom Owen quotes as saying, "A STORY MUST BE EXCEPTIONAL ENOUGH TO JUSTIFY ITS TELLING. WE STORYTELLERS ARE ALL ANCIENT MARINERS, AND NONE OF US IS JUSTIFIED. . .UNLESS HE HAS SOMETHING MORE UNUSUAL TO RELATE THAN THE ORDINARY EXPERIENCES OF EVERY AVERAGE MAN AND WOMAN." (459) A Prayer for Owen Meany is certainly a story that is out of the ordinary, one whose telling is justified, and one that is worth reading.

*All Owen Meany's dialogue is printed in caps to remind the reader of his distinctive voice.

Teaser Tuesday - A Prayer for Owen Meany

is hosted by Should be Reading.

TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  1. Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page.
  2. Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  3. Also share the title of the book that the “teaser” comes from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given! Please avoid spoilers!

And Owen's particular brand of fatalism would have been challenging for a good psychiatrist; I'm sure Dr. Dolder was scared to death about it. And would Owen have gone so far as to tell Dr. Dolder about Scrooge's grave?

~ p. 341, A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Once & Future King by T. H. White

I haven't been idle for the past month, really, but when one only has so much time to read, and when that time is spread between several books, it takes a while to finish anything, especially 677 pages! But at least I finished The Once and Future King before it was due at the library after my second renewal (shameful, isn't it!).

At any rate, I'm glad that I persevered, for the story was worth reading. This modern (mid-twentieth century) retelling of the legends of Arthur by T. H. White is full of wit and charm and interesting characters, though I wish some of the characters had been more fully developed (why not 1,000 pages?). I think some of the adventures could have been balanced out with a bit more introspection, but that may be simply because I like to know how people think, not just what they do.

Book I "The Sword in the Stone" relates Merlyn's education of Arthur, a.k.a. Wart. While some of his methods follow the normal patterns of the day with instruction in logic, etc., Wart's special eduction occurs mainly when Merlyn transforms him into various animals, which provide him many different avenues to reflect upon the ways of man. Merlyn is a lovable character, the epitome of the absent-minded professor since his life is lived backwards, causing him to bring modern ideas to the middle ages and generally leaving him befuddled about which end is up, or forwards or backwards or something like that.

This was my favorite section of the book. It was fanciful, yet philosophical, and full of picturesque language such as "They were in the dark and stilly womb of night" (106) and witty sayings like "The best thing for being sad...is to learn something." (185). Arthur's adventures as an animal were delightful and insightful.

Merlyn still features in Book II "The Queen of Air and Darkness," but Arthur is no longer a schoolboy with magical lessons to learn in the animal kingdom. He has a kingdom of men to build and defend, and Merlyn repeatedly challenges him to think about the best way to do that. Arthur conceives the Round Table and knights who will fight with Might for Right. Merlyn also warns him of future events, but forgets the important detail of Arthur's parentage, resulting in a child born of unknown incest, a child who will eventually bring his father to ruin along with the order of his kingdom.

Arthur fades to a background character in Book III "The Ill-Made Knight" while Lancelot and Gwenever take center-stage with a supporting cast of other knights and their adventures and quests. My complaint about character development focuses mainly on this section, for Lancelot and Gwenever seem rather flat until near the end, despite their infamous affair. From what I remember of the epic poems of the knights' adventures, there was more substance to their characters than simply fighting and questing. The story development, however, is well crafted and builds to the disgrace of Lancelot and Gwenever and the tragedy of Arthur in Book IV "The Candle in the Wind."

Final thoughts. . .The musical Camelot was based upon White's retelling of the story of Arthur. I'd like to watch the movie version again, since I'm sure I will be able to follow the story better for having read The Once and Future King. I am still a bit puzzled by the meaning of the title. Merlyn explains that he will be back (but he's living backwards, remember), just as Arthur will return again, but except for a passing reference to Avilion, there is no further explanation of how or when that return will occur. Perhaps it is better explained in The Book of Merlyn: The Unpublished Conclusion to The Once and Future King, which sounds like a fascinating epilogue as Merlyn returns on the eve of Arthur's last battle with more animal instructions and philosophical reflections, perhaps like these musings of Arthur near the end of this novel:

"He had been taught by Merlyn to believe that man was perfectible: that he was on the whole more decent than beastly: that good was worth trying: that there was no such thing as original sin. . .His Table, his idea of Chivalry, his Holy Grail, his devotion to Justice: these had been progressive steps in the effort for which he had been bred. . .But the whole structure depended on the first premise: that man was decent. . .

"Now. . .the king was trying not to realize. For if there was such a thing as original sin, if man was on the whole a villain, if the bible was right in saying that the heart of men was deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, the the purpose of his life had been a vain one. Chivalry and justice became a child's illusions. . ." (666-667)

It would indeed be a vain endeavor if humanism were the only basis for judging the meaning of life. But the Bible is right in saying that the heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked, but White (via Arthur) neglected that other foundational knowledge that Calvin identified at the beginning of his Institutes: we must have both the knowledge of God and knowledge of man. With knowledge of God, chivalry and justice find meaning, and more importantly definition, in "Be holy as I am holy" and are no longer illusions but lifelong goals toward which to strive, though with ever faltering steps.

How ironic that a Medieval tale sheds so much light on modern humanism, but then Merlyn was living backwards, after all.