Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Book 4 of 100: LIfe, the universe, and everything... and people, too.

A while back, I re-read Catch-22, which is probably my favorite book ever, and I was surprised at how different the book seemed to me, at 40, than it had in earlier years when I'd read it.

I think there's some value to going back and re-reading things, especially if the book meant something to you -- and to me a book meant something to you if you can remember it years later, if you find yourself thinking about it here and there, telling people about it years after you read it. What a book means to you, though, can be entirely different things at different times. Unlike songs, for example, books are long and complex and take time to read, and so we experience them differently than almost any other kind of culture or entertainment. Almost everything we take in, we do quickly, in bursts. Movies last an hour or two, songs last 3 or 4 minutes, pictures are looked at for a second, maybe two. We walk through zoos in a few hours. Museums, too.

But books last days, weeks, sometime, and so we absorb them differently, make them a part of us. But because they're so long and involved, we don't remember -- or at least I don't remember-- all the details. Upon re-reading a book I find myself surprised sometimes at things I didn't recall, and this helps reshape my view of the book, just as my being older and at a different place in my life than the first time or last time I read the book.

I started re-reading A Prayer For Owen Meany last year, actually, just after Thanksgiving. I'm not sure what made me want to read it again. I was driving home one day from a court hearing and I thought I should read Owen Meany again, and when I got home I took it off my bookshelf and started reading it.  It's one of the books I've decided to own in hardcover format, a book I want to keep around to look at and think about. It's a book that I find myself coming back to again and again, this most recent time just prior to Xmas last year.

A Prayer For Owen Meany is the story of Owen Meany, an undersized kid in a small New England town with an exceedingly strange voice. It's the kind of voice I suppose can only work in a book, because the description of the voice is so wild. Owen's voice is described as a kind of permanent scream, a voice that eventually is the only thing the narrator's grandmother remembers.  John Irving, the author, notes frequently how unusual Owen's voice is, and has Owen talk, always, in ALL CAPITALS. All Owen's DIALOGUE IS DONE LIKE THIS; so, too IS HIS WRITING.

That's actually the least unusual thing about Owen. He is extremely small -- so small that he can hide in the couch under the cushion, get lost in a closet. He is a hoarder, almost, habitually collecting things like baseball cards and a stuffed armadillo's paws, and a dressmaker's dummy. He is obsessed with practicing to slam-dunk a basketball despite his diminutive size. And he believes that he was born, like Jesus, to a virgin and that he is an instrument in God's hands, destined to do something. He doesn't know exactly what he will do -- but he knows he will die doing it, and he knows the date, too.

Owen is accompanied through his life by the narrator, Johnny Wheelwright, who tells the story from the 1980s -- he and Owen grew up in the 50s and 60s, turning 18 about as Vietnam hit its height. Other characters follow along: Johnny's stepfather and grandmother, his wild cousins including Hester, who eventually becomes Owen's girlfriend -- of sorts-- a cast of memorable backup characters of the usual sort expected in an Irving novel, and Johnny's mother -- who appears in the book only briefly before she is killed by Owen in an accident at a baseball field.

It's that accident that really sets the book's theme in motion. A Prayer For Owen Meany is a thoughtful narrative about whether everything happens for a reason, what God means to do with us, and whether there is a God at all.  It is a rumination on faith and doubt, an exegesis of love and faith and humility and identity.  There are numerous plots running through the book, each of them presenting varying aspects of these questions: Johnny's father is unknown to him, and he and Owen spend time trying to figure out who Johnny's mother slept with to produce him. Owen's mission, of course, is unknown. Why Johnny is in Canada - when he didn't have to dodge the draft-- and what happened to the baseball that killed his mother: these are all mysteries that circle around the central mystery of why we do what we do, and whether we have any choice in it.

At the beginning of the book, we are told of Watahantowet, an Indian chief whose totem has no arms-- a symbol of the helplessness the chief felt after his land was taken.  Shortly thereafter, Owen and Johnny are in a little league baseball game, and Owen gets subbed in for Johnny, when there are two outs in the 9th inning. Owen is told to "swing away," mostly because the coach is tired and everyone wants to go home. Owen, who rarely makes contact anyway, does so, and drives the ball into Johnny's mom's head, killing her instantly as she stood on the third-base line waving to someone.

That begins the exploration of whether we are all tools of fate or in control of our destiny. Johnny introduces us early on to Owen as the instrument of his mother's death, but doesn't blame Owen. Instead, Johnny -- to the extent that he blames anyone -- blames the coach for putting him in, or the other boys for not striking out. Johnny doesn't really get angry, though. He misses his mom, but there is no real mention of much sadness or despair or anger.  The whole thing just seemed to happen, and Johnny -- who, we learn, has little in the way of religious faith or belief -- views it as an occurrence, nothing to be angry around or sad about.

If Johnny is hapless, in a way, and meanders through his life having things happen to him, Owen is just the opposite: Owen takes charge of everything, or everything that he can. When young, Owen is lifted by his classmates, passed around over their head. He tries to get them to put him down, but they won't. Later, Owen is swimming in the quarry, where their parents make them tie a rope around their waists so they don't drown.  Owen unties the rope and lets it go limp, and none of the other kids dive in to save him. Eventually he surfaces, and remonstrates them: "YOU LET ME DROWN," he tells them. "REMEMBER THAT: YOU LET ME DIE." Owen is obsessed with controlling his life: he orchestrates a Christmas pageant, talks his way into a production of a play, rearranges school rules at the boarding school he attends, directs his parents and friends and family in all manner of ways. His control is evident: eventually people do what he tells them to do. Johnny spends some time describing his wild cousins Noah and Simon and Hester, who terrify and exhilarate him.  When Owen first meets them, they startle him so much that he wets his pants. He flees in humiliation, but, talked back into the group, Owen takes charge and begins telling them what games to play and how to play them.

Owen's only frustration is when he runs into things he can't control: he butts heads with a new headmaster at the school, one who causes him no end of trouble. And when he joins the Army, he can't convince his officers to send him to Vietnam, which is where he is convinced he has to go.

This last one reveals Owen's own doubts: from early on, Owen is convinced a dream of his has shown him how he will die, and he believes he knows the date.  When Vietnam starts, Owen joins ROTC to become an officer and get to Vietnam, believing he has to fulfill the dream and die there. But even as he is going to great lengths to do this, it's not clear whether he actually intended this, and whether he's really trying to fulfill the dream: he only ends up in ROTC because of what appears to be a screw-up on his part that causes him to lose scholarships to Harvard and other elite schools, and then he takes steps to try to ensure that the dream won't come true.

Meanwhile, Johnny stops drifting so much and with Owen's tutelage becomes more focused and a better learner; he will never become quite as driven as Owen, but he learns to believe and that helps direct his life.

Owen and Johnny are almost opposites in that regard: Owen knows and controls almost everything in his life, only to eventually try (halfheartedly, maybe) to avoid his fate. Johnny controls nothing; he is bounced around and goes wherever others want him to go, having no real attachments -- but as he comes to believe more he gains more direction.

In the meantime, the question still looms over the book: are we even able to control our own fates? A Prayer For Owen Meany is of the everything-happens-for-a-reason types of stories, like M. Night Shymalan's Signs, among others, where by the end of the book everything almost appears to have been clockwork, and each step of the journey seems to have been necessary to make the next steps happen.

Two problems are argued with that, though, and the second one is the larger. The first problem is that people appear to be able to change their fate in the book, although usually that results in some bad outcome: people who avoid the draft die smashing cars into bridges, for example. Johnny changes his fate (with Owen's help), but even that ends up with Johnny tormented by his memories.

The second problem, as I said, is larger, and more disturbing: in the end, it's not clear that this was all worth it. To get from point A -- Owen killing Johnny's mom -- to point B -- Owen's dream -- so much has to happen, and when it does (as Johnny warns us) the ending is almost anticlimactic.

That's not to say the ending isn't incredible. This book is one of two books, ever, that brought tears to my eyes. [The other is David Copperfield]. But in the grand scheme of things, the ending means nothing -- at least on a large scale.

I think all the time about whether things happen for a reason, whether and how much we can control our fate. I look back on events and try to see if there is a pattern to them, or if it's random chance. I met Sweetie, for example, through this chain of events: I had a temporary job at the Department of Revenue as a clerk. That job lasted only six months, and near the end of it I was in need of another job somewhere else. I saw an ad for the only job that had a clerk position starting right away. It was a law firm 50 miles away, in Baraboo. I applied, and was one of only two clerks who did so. I got the job, and met Sweetie, who worked there.

But I'd only ended up in Madison, and in that job, through this turn of events: I was accepted into four law schools. Madison was the only one I could afford, after I didn't get enough grants and scholarships to go to Marquette in Milwaukee, where I lived when I applied. My first weeks in law school, I met a guy named Jeff. Jeff and I were talking one day in the lounge when a classmate came over. Jeff saw me talking to her, thought she was pretty, and asked me questions about her. Jeff then offered me a position in the governor's office, where he worked. That job lasted a semester. At the end of the semester, I had no job -- but my connections at the governor's office led me to the temp position at Revenue.

So if I'd gotten a scholarship, none of that would have happened.

Does that mean that the scholarship, all of that, happened for a reason? Or was it an accident?

If everything happens for a reason, there is a purpose to bad events; they must be necessary to move the cogs of the universe forward. But if everything happens for a reason, then we don't have free will. We are instruments of fate, armless totems powerless to affect our lives in any meaningful way.

I think one of the reasons I might have wanted to re-read Owen Meany late last year and early this year was because of the changes in my life over the past year, which have been many.  I see the world far, far differently now than I did a year ago, or two years ago.  I have different views of many things that have happened, and see events that took place in the past differently than I did when they first happened. I can see where I made mistakes -- and where I happened into good luck.

Is saying things happen for a reason a way of comforting ourselves? When someone wins a billion dollars in the lottery, do we console ourselves with mechanisms of fate, just as we do when someone dies or we lose a job? We, as people, have a tendency to impose patterns on things. We see faces in random patterns, we find meaning in a list of songs, we try to make sense of what might be, at the bottom, a random universe whose current configuration was not set into action by a first mover, as St. Thomas Aquinas believed, but simply ended up in this pattern with no more meaning than reading tea leaves or discerning the configuration of an I ching.

There is a song that gives me the chills, when I listen to it. It's called At The Bottom Of Everything, by Bright Eyes.

It, too, deals with these types of questions. The line that haunts me and makes me feel happy and sad at the same time is near the end:

I'm happy just because/I found out I am really no-one.

It's a strange thing to be happy about. When I was a kid, my mom told me one day I would be a president, a doctor, all manner of important things.  I became a lawyer, which seemed to disappoint her a bit. I live a quiet life. I keep to myself and spend time with my family, doing quiet things like reading and writing.

I have helped a lot of people; I spend my days keeping people in their houses, suing lawyers who mess up cases, protecting people from harassment by debt collectors. I have seen people cry with gratitude because they don't have to leave their house, lose their farm.

But I'm just a small cog in a giant universe.  I'm 47, now. I'm not going to be the President. I'm not going to quarterback the Buffalo Bills to the Super Bowl. I won't become an oceanographer or a doctor.

The burden of expectations is a great one, indeed. It can be better to be no-one than to be someone, in that sense: superheroes don't sleep through the night. If you are really no-one, then you don't have to change the world.  If you are really no-one, though, then maybe everything doesn't happen for a reason. Maybe there is not a benevolent God out there making kicks go through the uprights, curing cancer, causing earthquakes for some reason. Maybe it's just random.

We don't know. We may never know.  These questions can haunt you. Should you be making more of your life? Did God, if he exists, have a plan for you, and if he does, can you avoid it if you want? What does it all mean?

A Prayer For Owen Meany answers this question, the question of what it all means, without solving those riddles. It ends up with this: the important things are the people we've loved, who make up the lives we lived.  In the end of the book, the lasting lesson is that everyone wants Owen back. They can't believe he's gone, can't believe he left them and that he wanted to, that he would willingly try to fulfill the dream. Even though the fulfillment did good -- it's such a minor, minor thing, it was really no-one, but it was definitely a good thing-- even though the dream was good, Owen's friends want him back. They could only have him back if he didn't fulfill the dream, if that tiny bit of good he did were undone and Owen returned to them, but they don't care: Owen's leaving has led them to many answers and realizations, but the main one is that they don't care about all the meaning and answers. They care about Owen, and the others they've lost on the way.

There's a good lesson to be learned. I didn't read the book as fast as I could, because often, I would put it down to take the boys sledding, to watch a movie with Sweetie, to talk to the older kids, to go to work and try to save someone's home. It was in my idle hours, alone, late at night and early in the morning, that I thought of these things and read the book. I'm writing this now, at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night, while everyone else in the house is asleep. I had to do it now -- I worked all day and then ate dinner with Sweetie and we took a ride and I played with Mr Bunches and took Mr F for his nightly ride alone, and all of those things were more important than these questions about the universe, about God, about meaning.

If we spend less time wondering what it all means, and more time just doing it all, we'd probably have better lives. There's a prayer I used to say from time to time. I learned it from a book. It's short and easy to remember. It goes like this:

Thank you, God, for this good life.
And forgive me if I do not love it enough.

If are really no-one, if we are just here to live, and be kind, and enjoy the company of others around us, if that is the only role we play in life, it's a pretty good one.

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