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.


SmallWorld at Home said...

I absolutely love this book.

Sherry said...

I could not get through this novel. The all-caps voice of Owen Meany was annoying, and I just found myself struggling to maintain my interest in the characters. However, Eldest Daughter loves it, too. To each his own.

hopeinbrazil said...

Thanks for an intriguing review. I avoid most modern novels so I'm glad to know this one might be worth exploring.

Calon Lan said...

Well, I said I'd leave the reading list on my own blog, but then I went and forgot. (We just moved into a new house and have all kinds of fun stuff to work on right now!) This is pretty much what I'm working on reading for now and the near future:

Re-reading all of my P.G. Wodehouse books, David McCullough's bio of John Adams, The Faerie Queen, some books on Christian thinking (Alvin Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief and most of C.S. Lewis's writings), going back through Tolkien, The Kalevala, a book on medieval Welsh religious lyrics, finally reading Don Quixote, and various books on Anglo-Saxon history. I'm also going to finish the essay challenge on my own time. I have a ton of academic essays on Tolkien, Lewis, and Anglo-Saxon history sitting on my hard drive, and I want to read through them.

By the way, Owen Meany sounds fascinating. That might go on the list as well.