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Thursday, December 7, 2006

A Prayer for Owen Meany

A Prayer for Owen Meany
by John Irving

Many fans of Irving's books claim "Owen Meany" as their favorite. I've never been of that opinion. To me this book has too many flaws to make it as good as "The World According to Garp" or "The Cider House Rules." The major flaws to me stem from HOW the book is told.

The narrator for the story is John Wheelwright, such a dull, uninspiring person that I wish the book had been written in third-person. John narrates from 1987, about 20 years after the main events concerning Owen Meany and by then John is just about the 45-Year-Old Virgin. He might have had sex at some point, but it doesn't seem likely. He's so uninspired that the only one he could ever really lust over was his cousin Hester. Mostly John sits around in Toronto where he teaches English to teenage girls at a relgious boarding school and in his spare time whines about the Reagan administration. I first read this book in 2003 when Reagan was barely alive and now I've read it after his death and I still don't care, though I'm sure when the book was published in 1989 such criticism had more meaning. Anyway, my point is John's life without Owen Meany is more dull and pointless than even my own life so why the hell would I want to read it?

Also, the way John tells the story about Owen is such a rambling yarn that it's like one of those long, winding stories your grandparents would tell you that involve walking uphill both ways to and from school through a foot of snow even in July. As a reader you really have to pay attention to keep track of the story, or maybe get some Cliff Notes. One minute John and Owen are 11 and John's mother dies, the next they're 6 and John's mom meets his future stepfather Dan, and the next we're back in 1987 to listen to John whine about Reagan. It becomes tedious after a while to get batted all around like that.

Not to whine too much more myself, but Owen Meany also bugged me. I'm sure other people like him but I found him to be an obnoxious know-it-all, the Lisa Simpson type who always knows what everyone should be doing. And yet for some reason everyone just goes along with this, especially John, who compares himself to Joseph in the Bible though a better comparison would be to one of Jesus' disciples who follow him around and don't ever seem to quite GET their master's teachings. Really, I would have shoved Mr. Holier-Than-Thou into a locker and left him there for a while, except then I suppose you'd have to hear his horrible screeching in ALL CAPS. THAT IS TOLERABLE FOR A LITTLE WHILE, BUT LARGE TRACTS OF TEXT LIKE THIS GET ESPECIALLY ANNOYING, LIKE OWEN'S PIECES AS "THE VOICE" FOR "THE GRAVE" NEWSPAPER. So I guess I should be glad the book wasn't written in first-person by Owen.

The long winding plot involves Owen Meany, who lives with two dimwitted parents who run a granite quarry. Something went wrong with Owen at birth so that he doesn't grow more than five feet tall and his voice is fixed in a permanent scream--thus the obnoxious all caps for his dialog. Owen befriends Johnny Wheelwright and pretty much controls John's destiny from there because John is too uninspired to control his own destiny. John's mom had him out of wedlock with someone she won't name and later marries Dan Needham, a local school teacher and amateur play director. The mystery of John's father is not very interesting as John only sporatically cares and in the end it's revealed through a little deux ex machina.

As I mentioned earlier, John's mom is killed at a baseball game, which isn't giving much away because thanks to the winding, rambling way this story is told this even happens in the beginning. From there John is raised by his grandma, though really he's raised more by Owen. It was Owen who killed John's mother indirectly by hitting a foul ball that struck her in the temple and because of this Owen believes himself to be "God's Instrument" and dreams that he will become a hero.

From there Owen and John go to private school and Owen joins the Army but keeps John from going to Vietnam. In the end Owen does become a hero through a really contrived scenario. And so John believes as we all meant to believe that there's a divine plan for all of us--or maybe just some of us.

I suppose the reason a lot of people like this is that religious theme about "God's Plan" and so forth that even some little freak like Owen can do something great to give his life meaning. I'm not religious anymore so I find that hard to buy into. If I were a believer I might be more willing to look past the rambling way the story is told and the dull 1987 interludes and thus get more out of it than I did. So really if you are a firm believer that God has a great destiny for all of us--or some of us at least--then you'll probably enjoy this book far more than I did.

That is all.

(Not quite, though. There is a movie adaptation of this called "Simon Birch" from about 1998. John Irving disavowed this to the point where the credits read "As Suggested By." Though Mr. Irving hates the movie I had enough empathy where I understood what the filmmakers were trying to do; they were trying to turn an R-rated book into a PG family film. I prefer the movie in some ways because it doesn't have that rambling story that stretches out over 45 years--obviously no Reagan-bashing either--and the way Simon/Owen becomes a hero is slightly more plausible. I'd say to put it on your NetFlix list if you like the movie, just be sure to watch with a little empathy yourself.)

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