Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Sometimes, everything is symbolic of nothing. (The Rum Punch Review of "Last Night In Twisted River"!)

It's back... I'd gotten away from my Rum Punch Reviews, but then a recent comment on one made me think, "Why did I ever stop doing those?" The answer is: no reason. So they're back.

I suppose it's my fault for putting such importance on the last line of the book Last Night In Twisted River. John Irving never told me, in specific or in general, that the last line was anything special, after all; he just said that in writing a book, he writes his last line first.

But him saying that -- and the fact that his talking about the last line of the book was repeated over and over and over in the months since Last Night In Twisted River came out -- and the fact that I'd never heard that before about him, even though I've been a John Irving fan for about twenty years now -- made me think that the last line of this book would be really good, would be really worth getting to.

Even if it is my fault, in part, I don't think it's all my fault. If you're going to be a big-time author and you're going to go on Good Morning America or The Today Show or whatever morning show I think I saw him on talking about how you write your last line first, and make a big deal about that, then you're putting a lot of emphasis on that last line, too, making it not my fault if I build it up in my mind and spend the four months it'll take me to read your book anticipating that last line, anticipating it so much that when I read the last page of the book, when I turned the page and realized that the page I was on was, in fact, the last page and would have the last line on it, I put my hand over the last paragraph so as not to spoil the surprise...

...well, if you're going to do all that, then that level of anticipation isn'tt entirely my fault, is my point.

The last line of Last Night In Twisted River wasn't worth all that anticipation.

And neither was the book.

Put another way, the last line wasn't the only thing that kind of let me down about Irving's latest book.

I became a John Irving fan about two decades ago, in the early 1990s, when I was just getting back into college and working two jobs (at a Subway restaurant and a movie theater) to make ends meet and living in a little L-shaped studio apartment and didn't have much money. Around the corner from the theater I worked at was a used book store, and one summer day I went in there looking for a cheap book to buy, and came across The World According To Garp for seventy-five cents. I bought that and read it and loved it, and soon read through every John Irving book I could get my hands on, even Setting Free The Bears.

I would do that, in the next year or so, not just for John Irving books, but also for Anne Tyler books, and for Joseph Heller books, and for Kurt Vonnegut books, reading through every book by those authors that I could get my hands on, all in a row: One Irving or Vonnegut or Tyler book after another until I'd read everything by that author and could move on to the next author.

When you do that, when you read through an author's works all at once, you get an extra feel for that author, sometimes -- you get more of a piece of their voice, and their attitude, and maybe a little insight into that author.

For example, when I read all of Kurt Vonnegut's books straight through, I got really depressed. I remember that spring well: it was a beautiful spring in Milwaukee, and I had just taken up roller-blading, and despite having no money, really, and no free time, really, I was young and newly-in-shape and had jobs that provided me free food and free movies, so I should've overall been pretty happy. Instead, overall, I was always feeling a little down, always feeling a little sad, always feeling a little overwhelmed by humanity, and I finally gathered that it was because I ws reading so much Kurt Vonnegut, and I then had the feeling (I don't know if it's right or wrong) that Kurt Vonnegut felt that way, too, most of the time. After all, that feeling suffused his writing, so how could it not have suffused his life? Vonnegut, I figured, must have been more or less putting his philosophy or outlook onto paper, even subconsciously.

In assuming that, I didn't assume that Vonnegut had been writing about his life -- not even when I read Slaughterhouse-Five, which would seem to at least in part have been based on experiences that Vonnegut had. As a part-time writer/novelist, I don't make the assumption that everybody who's not a writer does: I don't assume that the writer is writing about himself, or people he knows.

That idea -- that writers write about what they know, that writers are always basing their writing on their lives, that writers, are, essentially, writing about themselves, is an idea that I don't believe is true, necessarily. While my characters sometimes exhibit qualities of my own, and while sometimes I base characters on real-life people (like my new character Krzyzewski, in the latest installment of Temporary Anne; he's named after [but not necessarily based on] my maybe-cousin), those characters are made-up and not wholly formed in the likeness of someone or something in my life.

That idea, though, is a major theme in Last Night In Twisted River, which focuses (mostly) on Daniel Baciagalupo, known for most of the book as Danny Angel... and I just got that, and I'll get back to in a minute (maybe) a bit of maybe-symbolism in the name Danny Angel and a character in the book... Daniel Baciagalupo is the protagonist (mostly) of the book, and he's a writer. As a writer, Daniel writes books that appear to be based on his life: He writes a book that is mostly a takeoff of his marriage. He writes a book about a relationship that he had. He writes books that are loosely... at worst... based on his life, and that are almost biographical, at best. (Or worst.)

But while writing those books, Daniel at times in the book is questioned about whether the books really were based on his actual life. His dad, Dominic, reads the books and wonders whether the books detail Daniel's actual life, but Daniel denies that they do. At one point, Daniel writes a book that he takes pains to make different than the actual events in his life, at which time the critics (as characters in the book) question Daniel about whether the book, which is actually different from his life, is based on Daniel's life.

As Daniel's career advances, in fact, in Last Night In Twisted River, each of his books becomes less like his own actual life, and more like an actual work of fiction instead of a fictionalized-autobiography; but, as that occurs, people seem to assume more and more that Daniel's books, which are becoming more like fiction, are actually more based on his real life.

Here's where it gets confusing, and a little distracting: Daniel Baciagalupo seems to be a stand-in for John Irving -- in that Daniel writes like John Irving. Specifically, Daniel writes his novels beginning with the last line and working towards the first -- the way Irving writes, as Irving frequently pointed out on the publicity tour for this book. (A book Irving wrote by first coming up with that letdown of a last line.)

That alone may not be too confusing. But then, in the latter part of Last Night In Twisted River, [SPOILER ALERT, OF SORTS, BUT IT'S A PRETTY MILD SPOILER] Daniel Baciagalupo (the character) begins writing a book that is, definitely, the book Last Night In Twisted River. I think that Daniel may actually plan to call the book he's writing (in the book) Last Night In Twisted River; but even if he doesn't plan to call it that, the last book Daniel begins to write (in the story) is very definitely the book Last Night In Twisted River... making it seem, more, that Irving intended Daniel Baciagalupo to be his stand-in, and making it seem, more, that Irving intended Last Night In Twisted River to be, at least in part, a commentary on how people assume that authors write about things that actually happened to them -- which would be, at times, a troubling thought to have about John Irving, given the subject matter of some of his books and given what happens to some of his characters.

If you're familiar with Irving's work -- if you read every book by him, in one summer or over a longer period of time, you can see why John Irving might want to make the point that a story by an author is not a story about that author's life. What is harder to see is why John Irving might make that point by having an author character write books that are very definitely based on that character's life, and then by making that author character be a stand-in for the author of the author character.

It becomes confusing, and distracting.

But I'm getting ahead of myself: I've written, as it were, the last line of this review first.

Last Night In Twisted River
is a sprawling mess of a book that is saved only by the fact that it's written by John Irving. Irving is, as I described him to Sweetie in explaining why I liked and didn't like this book, the Brett Favre of authors: he does things his own way, in a style that's hard to mimic (although I like to flatter myself by thinking that my own writing is similar to Irving's, something that I think is true and something that happened without my trying to do so). And Irving, like Brett Favre, in doing things his own way does those things so masterfully that a subpar effort from him is still better than the best of most of his competitors.

When Brett Favre has a bad game, he's still one of the best quarterbacks around. And a bad John Irving book is still better than most other books. By that standard, Last Night In Twisted River is an okay book -- but it's not a good John Irving book. We expect more of John Irving, and rightfully so.
Irving should be trying harder. My English teacher in 12th grade said I wasn't working up to my full potential. That's the remark he put on my report card -- even though I had an A in an advanced-placement class. As a high school senior, I was earning an A in a college-level course, and my teacher said I wasn't working up to my potential. When I asked him what he meant by that, given that I had an A, he said "I see you not even trying and still getting an A; you should be trying."

John Irving, without apparently trying, can write Last Night In Twisted River. But he should be trying. And if he was trying, Last Night wouldn't be as disappointing as it is.

Disappointing, for an Irving novel, that is. Still better than most of the other stuff I'll read on my Kindle this year (I'll be reading on my Kindle while chortling over the fact that the Anna Quindlens of the world are dead wrong, and books are actually dead.)(And chortling, too, over the fact that the Stephen Kings of the world wrongly claim that selling books for a reasonably-priced $9.99 will impoverish authors.)(It won't. It might make them less wealthy, but that's not a bad thing, Stephen King.)

(I read Last Night in Twisted River, though, as a book, since it was given me as a present at the same time that my Kindle was, and I wasn't about to download the book when it was sitting right there next to my Kindle waiting to be read in hard-copy form.)

[SPOILERS ABOUND FROM HERE ON OUT.] In Last Night In Twisted River, Daniel Baciagalupo accidentally kills his dad's lover, thinking she's a bear. That happens about two chapters into the book, and from then on, the book loosely follows Daniel and his father's migrations around the country as they avoid being tracked down by Carl, who was also the lover's boyfriend, and who is a mean person and a drunk. The book follows mostly Daniel, while also peering in on his father, Dominic, for about 40% of the time, and stops in on Daniel and his dad during the Vietnam war and during Daniel's marriage and when the two of them are living in Toronto, and it spends some time with Daniel's son Joe, and features visits from Ketchum the logger, who's a great character, one of those characters about whom I think This guy should get his own book.

The story spans about 50 or 60 years, which is a lot of time to cram into a book, even a book as heart-gratifyingly big and thick as Last Night In Twisted River. When I first began reading Last Night, in fact, I was glad to see it was so thick in part because all I ever hear from writers and publishers and agents these days is It's got to be shorter; I'm busy trying to whittle my latest novel down from 133,000 words to under 100,000 in part because I was advised to do that.

As I've been doing that -- revising my novel downwards (the novel in question is Up So Down, and you can read the entire, so-far-unrevised version for free by clicking here), I've been both resenting it, and liking it. I resent it because I liked the book the way I wrote it the first time, and don't want to cut passages and cut characters (I lifted out an entire character in the revised version.) But I liked revising it because I think the story is a little tighter this way: It might be a better read if I cut out a lot of the extraneous stuff -- cutting out what Elmore Leonard might call "the parts that people skip."

"The parts that people skip," the extraneous stuff, is part of what makes Irving such a great writer, though. It wasn't necessary for him to write the whole Pension Grillparzer story into one book. It wasn't necessary for him to throw in the stuff about the Undertoad. That stuff, those extra details, the fantastic and the mundane, are what make Irving Irving. It wouldn't be a John Irving novel if you didn't get a lot of exposition about the Green Bay Packers in books that otherwise deal only tangentially with the Green Bay Packers.

There's a lot of stuff that people skip in Last Night, but, for a change, for Irving, that's part of the problem. When I first began reading it, I reveled in the details about logging and cooking and Italian life in Boston in the 1950s and cooking in Iowa and more... but as it went on, the stuff that people skip began making the book less good, and feel more cramped. As Irving piles on detail after detail and biographical sketch after biographical sketch and character traits, the book becomes more crowded and bigger... but that takes away from the story that's being told, and results in a lot of things happening offscreen, as it were: Major events in the characters' lives are at times relayed almost second-hand and in a cursory fashion, as though Irving realized that he had to discuss them but didn't have the time to do so properly.

Things get worse when some of the details, the stuff that people skip, become even more distracting, as when in the early part of the book and then in the later part of the book, Irving throws in political commentary, sometimes commenting in his omniscient, questioning third-person narrator's voice and sometimes commenting through characters.

I'm not critiquing the politics of the political commentary -- for the most part, I agree with the politics expressed. I'm critiquing there being political commentary at all; it's jarring, and it's entirely out of place compared to the rest of the book. Most of the book is a thoughtful, almost dreamlike, recitation of Daniel's life and the relationships between fathers and sons and people who are fathers without sons (like Ketchum)... and then from time to time, political commentary comes barging through the narrative wall, like a giant Kool-Aid pitcher. The impression I got is that Irving was writing this book over time, and that at points during the writing, political events were happening and rather than blogging or privately grousing about those events, Irving simply had his characters mouth off about them... and then didn't edit that back out.

That jarring off-key tone isn't the only problem with shoving in the political commentary -- the excess verbiage used pushes the narrative further off the mainstage and takes up space in the book that could be devoted to telling a story the reader actually cares about. Instead, Daniel's story unfolds in snippets, here and there, feeling not so much like a narrative or novel as it does a series of excerpts from a novel, excerpts maybe reprinted in a magazine in between political columns and artistic criticism. The thread of the storyline gets lost and picked up and lost and picked up, and the result is an anecdotal retelling of Daniel's life, with some anecdotes lasting several chapters and some taking only a page or so.

The effect becomes like a better, more literary, version of Forrest Gump: Daniel Baciagalupo travels through the second-half of the 20th century getting more and more immersed in the world... and then pulling back from it. From his isolated youth in Twisted River and Boston to his burgeoning political awareness to his final retreat from political awareness (and the world), the feeling is kind of like Forrest had chosen to type his story rather than tell it to people at a bus stop: flashes of a life that don't so much flesh out a character as fill out a storyboard.

Coming on the heels of the brilliant story Until I Find You -- which used the same snippet-like revelation of a life to much better effect -- Last Night In Twisted River is especially disappointing.

The way the book is written, chock-full of details and thoughts and critiques that maybe shouldn't be there, has a different, distracting effect, too, one I touched on before: It makes the reader constantly wonder whether some part or other of the book is not only autobiographical -- that being a natural result of how Irving shaped the Daniel character -- but also how much of the book is symbolic.

And, if any of it is, just what those symbols mean.

I'm on the record as saying that most symbolism is bunk. That doesn't mean that authors don't occasionally use symbolism -- just that most of what people think is symbolic is actually more the application of the "My Aunt's Dog Theorem."

My skepticism aside, symbolism exists as a literary technique, and the fact that it exists can be confusing if something in a book starts to seem like it should be symbolic ... of something or other... and the longer I read Last Night In Twisted River the more it seemed to me like everything was symbolic... of everything. Only the symbolism wasn't clear, so that ultimately there were all these symbols that then didn't seem to symbolize anything.

Take the main character's name, Danny Angel. Born Daniel Baciagalupo, Daniel takes a pen-name when he becomes a writer, in part to keep the cop from tracking him down and killing him and his dad. (The cop's motivation to do that is never clearly explained. The cop was sleeping with the killed woman, too, but didn't love her; in fact, the cop probably hated the woman. When she's killed, Daniel and his dad set it up to make the cop think he killed her, probably while drunk. Later, the cop discovers that he didn't kill her while drunk, and then spends the rest of his life looking for Daniel and his dad -- doing so very halfheartedly -- to kill them for killing her.)

Daniel, as Danny Angel, lives only part of his life as Danny Angel. He's an angel, I realized today, only part of the time, which doesn't mean much until you read the book and realize that there's a character in it who is (mostly) called "Lady Sky," and that Lady Sky tells Daniel's son, Joe, that she is an angel only part of the time. Lady Sky drops -- literally-- into Daniel and Joe's life one day and then says she's an angel only part of the time, and things like that make it seem as though Lady Sky, or Danny's name, or both, are symbolic... but it's not clear whether they are, and if so, what they symbolize.

Then there are other possible-symbols: Daniel's name, it is explained early on, is a distortion of Kiss of the Wolf; "Baciagalupo" is Italian for Kiss of the Wolf, almost. Later in the book, Kiss Of The Wolf will take on a more literal meaning, and will also become the name of a restaurant and, possibly, a porn film. Leaving me to wonder: is that symbolic? And if so, of what?

There are even more overtly symbolic moments than those, symbolic moments that are unanchored and left as floating symbols of anything or nothing. Daniel, in one of the archival snippets Irving relates, wakes up repeatedly saying inuksuk, an Eskimo (or Indian) word describing stone monuments or statues around the area where Daniel lives. One such statue stands on the dock where Daniel stays sometimes, and one of Daniel's housecleaners pays some obeisance to it.

The inuksuk is introduced, and dwelt on, and elaborated on, and becomes a focal point for Danny's thinking... and then drops away without any explanation, raising again the question of whether it was meant to be symbolic of something -- is the inuksuk, in its mysterious sentinel-eque life, meant to be a sort of stone-age version of Ketchum, maybe? or something else in the book? Is it Daniel's father watching over him, even while Dominic is alive? In the book, after all, the statue is described as kind of a sentinel, but it's on an island where there is a tree that is ultimately (I'm pretty sure) revealed to itself be a symbol of Daniel's father.

Or is all that nonsense, and the inuksuk means nothing and was just something Irving found interesting?

That's the kind of distracting question that the seems-like-it's-meant-to-be-symbolic writing poses over and over.

A worse transgression for me was the casual way Irving slips in a reference to 9/11. I can see that 9/11 is going to be shorthand, now and in the future, for "terrible tragedy," the way "Nazi" is political shorthand for "things I don't like." We should impose a Godwin's law, right now, on film and literary and other media references to 9/11, period. We should say that if your book or film or painting is not about 9/11, it cannot reference 9/11, period.

Irving breaks the 9/11 Godwin's law by having his characters do stuff on 9/11, as 9/11 is happening -- which wouldn't be bad, I suppose, since the character's lives in the book span from 1950 to 2005, so 9/11 happened to them, but Irving makes it bad by having 9/11 happen on a day that's chock full of other symbolic events -- events I can't describe because it would spoil too much. You'll have to take my word for it (until you read the book, if you do), that the events the characters are living through on 9/11 are also very deep and tragic, and are apparently made more so by the fact that they're happening on 9/11.

The idea of using 9/11 is apparently to underscore the tragedy the characters are feeling by pointing out that there are also other very tragic things going on, making it worse. (Referencing 9/11, in that sense, is lazy: Here's a comparison to what this character is feeling, it seems to say. This event in this character's life is similar to watching buildings full of people collapse.) And if a writer of Irving's caliber can't do it, then there is no way that anyone can include a reference to 9/11 that will not be clumsy and mishandled. So we need to stop that, before it becomes a thing.

The inclusion of the 9/11 attacks is, weirdly, possibly the least symbolic moment in the books: the whole reference falls flat, possibly because in the book the attacks are watched, and related, by a minor character, "Six Pack Pam," (who, although minor, plays a key role in the book). By relating the 9/11 events through a character we hardly know, the whole chapter seems to take an odd left turn into yet another distraction, this time the re-introduction of a character that had almost faded away, coupled with the introduction of a very emotionally charged moment that ultimately has not a single thing to do with the book. 9/11, in the book, has in the end no more impact on the book than if Six Pack Pam had, on that day, watched The Ellen Show instead of TV coverage of 9/11.

"Six Pack Pam" is herself a fairly interesting character - -more interesting than Daniel, or Daniel's son, Joe. Joe, Daniel's son, is reminiscent of Egg from The Hotel New Hampshire. He never seems to be a fully-formed character, and it is hard to care about Joe, period. He's kind of boring and never really there.

Daniel is only partly better; we know more about Daniel, but Daniel himself is kind of boring, too. The most interesting things about Daniel, it turns out, are the people he meets. His father, his dutch-uncle-of-sorts Ketchum, his deceased mother, his father's Italian girlfriend, Daniel's first wife, the Asian writer Daniel sleeps with (and the Asian nurse his father sleeps with), Lady Sky, Tireless the cleaning lady, the oriental restaraunteurs, the student with the dangerous dogs, even the homeless guy behind the restaurant: each of them is a fascinating, or potentially-fascinating, character and each is only momentarily on the stage, flitting in and out while Daniel more or less just exists as a life for them to flit in and out of, and to think about things.

Maybe that was Irving's point, if he had a point. I don't think novels need to have a point -- but Last Night In Twisted River seems to strive mightily to make a point, to symbolize something, to say something. It works extremely hard, as a book, to do more than tell a story. It is brimming with ideas and characters and thoughts and arguments and stories-within-stories, so much so that a reader gets the feeling that there must be more than ... just this.

Consider: Daniel is a writer who writes barely-fictionalized versions of his life while complaining that people think he writes barely-fictionalized versions of his life. Daniel, for a while, dates a student of his who he suspects is writing a barely-fictionalized version of her life, only to find out [SPOILER ALERT!] that her book really is fiction... as is the version of herself that she presented to Daniel.

What is one to make of that? It's a theme that's repeated throughout the book, but it's just one of the many themes that Irving picks up and drops off and picks up again, layering on what seems like it should be a meaning, but then dropping it so quickly that the meaning becomes impossible to discern.

That, too, becomes distracting, and that's the ultimate feeling I got of this book. If you've ever tried to read something while waiting for a bus that's about to arrive, you already know the feeling you'll get reading Last Night In Twisted River: when reading while waiting for a bus, you'll read a paragraph, look up, and then check your watch and look up again and then read another paragraph. The effect will disjoint you and does not lend itself to reading anything more substantive than Entertainment Weekly.

In Last Night In Twisted River, that disjointing, distracting effect comes entirely from within the book, and makes it actually tiring to read. Beautifully written, full of classic Irving monologues and great characters we've come to expect from him, Last Night ultimately is, perhaps, too full of baubles, with each bit of story or quirk of character saying Look over here! Now here! Now here! and leaving the reader exhausted and unsure what's happening. It's like the literary equivalent of being a field trip helper on a third-grade visit to the zoo.

Each book I've read from Irving has had more and more of those details, and has been more sprawling, and has been more laden with meaning and literary trickery and a surfeit of potential, mostly realized. In Last Night In Twisted River, he might have hit his tipping point. If books give an insight into the mind or personality of the author -- and I think they do -- then Irving is, by now, an easily distracted man whose mind dwells on the symbolism of everyday things without being able to discern what that symbolism might be.

If that's what he's like, he's a guy I'd probably very much enjoy talking with from time to time. I enjoy reading his writing, after all: each sentence is like a carefully-crafted piece, forming a mosaic that's wonderful to look at and comprehend. If he's like that in person, he'd be a great (if distracted) conversationalist, but only for a short while.

Still, well-crafted sentences and interesting thoughts don't add up to the greatest book in the world. Last Night In Twisted River is, as I said, better than a lot of other things I've read, and will be better than many things I read in the future. But it's not Irving's best.

Maybe, in the end, I hoped for too much. Maybe the fault is mine. Maybe, like the anticipation I had for the the last sentence in the book, an anticipation was raised by the hype about that long-awaited last sentence, maybe all of Irving's prior books led me to hope for too much from this one.

Whatever the reason, though, I'm glad this is only the latest book that I've read by Irving. If it was the first book I'd read by him, I might never have picked up a second. But because it's the latest -- and hopefully not the last -- book he's written, I'll give his next one another chance, and I'll hope that in the future, a new Irving novel drops, almost inexplicably, out of the ether, to land, almost literally, in my lap and give me a chance to take the things that immediately preceded it, and not forget them, but put them in perspective while still looking ahead to the good things that are yet to come.

1 comment:

Rogue Mutt said...

I think because Irving is my favorite author, the one who got me into "literary" books and writing, I hold him to a higher standard than other authors and so this book really stunk to me. I hated "Until I Find You" too because so much of it just seemed to be a therapy session or things happening to characters just because they happened to him in real life.

The Favre comparison is apt at this point because they really both need to retire before they further spoil their legacy.

Here's my review of "Twisted River": http://bjbooks.blogspot.com/2010/02/last-night-in-twisted-river.html