After I finished The Hotel New Hampshire today -- this being the second time in my life I'd read it-- I started thinking about what I call the My Aunt's Dog Theorem. This is my theory that if you take some abstract painting, just blobs and swishes and swirls and stuff, and hang it in a museum, someone will come along, look at it, and say That looks like my aunt's dog.
It means, this theory of mine, that we all interpret books, songs, art, through our own experiences; it's part of why I distrust any exegesis of a work of art that wasn't done by the creator him- or herself, and it's part of why I don't even trust the interpretation of a work when it's done by the person who made it, either. Every person is going to approach a given piece of art a different way: with different emotions and different histories and different likes and dislikes; this means that even the best-intentioned symbols and metaphors in a work might be wildly miscast.
It's not that artists can't intend their work to mean a particular thing. It's that whether it means that thing to a particular person is beyond your control.
The first time I read The Hotel New Hampshire would have been in the early 90s, when I was 23 or 24. I can't narrow it down more than that because I don't actually recall reading it. I know that I did, and I remembered certain things about it (like the character named "Egg" and keep passing open windows, a saying in the book) but beyond that I had no real memory of it at all. The only impact it made on 23-year-old me was well that was a pretty interesting book.
Today, though, when I finished up the last few pages, I got a bit of a lump in my throat and felt sentimental. I also felt like I understood what the book was about -- although it might only be about that to me.
The book meant more to me, as a 47-year-old, than it ever did as a 23 or 24 year old; the entire book took on a whole new weight with me.
I thought Avenue Of Dreams was about fate, and A Prayer For Owen Meany was about whether things happen for a reason -- another kind of fate, I suppose-- and I think, now, that The Hotel New Hampshire is about finding one's place in the world, and whether you can be happy if you don't find where you should be.
The Hotel New Hampshire is a sprawling novel, like The World According to Garp or The Cider-House Rules, one of the great vast Irving books that feels like a whole world, full of the most interesting (if not always the nicest) people you'll ever meet. Irving does have (or at least had, as his later books lack some of this quality) a knack for breathing life into even the most minor of characters in a book.
The story focuses on the Berry family: Win Berry meets his wife when they both work a summer at a resort in Maine, and they fall in love, and Win Berry also buys a bear from a traveling showman named Freud. From there, Win and his wife have kids: Frank, Franny, John, Lily, and Egg. The family starts a hotel, The Hotel New Hampshire, in their town, rehabbing an old girls' boarding school into a strange hotel that only ever has a few guests before they sell it to a traveling circus and go to Vienna for a few years.
They go to Vienna because Freud, the showman, is running a hotel there and needs help. The family moves into the second Hotel New Hampshire, the primary residents of which are a group of radicals with a plan to overthrow society, and a group of prostitutes who hang around the third floor. And another bear, this one Susie the bear. Susie is a woman in a bear suit.
The events in Vienna, which I won't lay out here because it's a book that should be read, and there are lots of surprises, then lead the family back to America, where Lily becomes a famous author.
That's the general track of the book, but there's a whole lot more packed into it: legends of Vienna like "The King Of Mice," a street entertainer who threw himself out a window because he was tired of life (hence the saying the Berrys adopt: keep passing open windows), the strange man in the white dinner jacket who seems almost not to be real, Iowa Bob, Win Berry's football coaching dad, histories of operas and thoughts on politics and literature: I think this is, more than Garp or any other book, the platonic ideal of a John Irving book.
The book toys with a lot of ideas ranging from psychology to politics to family identity to sex, but it seemed to me as I read it this time that the main thing the book was talking about was whether everyone has a place to be, in this world; a role to fill, an identity that suits them and which, once they find it, they will be content to inhabit -- being restless and unfulfilled until then.
This morning, at about 2 a.m., Mr F woke up and I sat up with him while he played piano and then tried to fall back to sleep, ultimately taking him for a ride around his course at 3 a.m. On that ride, I started sort of daydreaming about going on vacation in a year or two, once things settle down and I've got my new job more settled. I was considering how much we might have to save and where we might go, because I really like road trips and vacations and thinking about them is fun for me.
Midway through deciding that it would probably be New York City, I thought about Mr F's old swing in our living room, the one we had to take down because the beams weren't strong enough to hold him up when he swung and he was going to break our ceiling. I thought about how Mr F still sleeps in his little closet, now his feet sticking out kitty-corner a bit, because he likes (we think, he doesn't tell us) to feel the safety of three walls around him. I decided that rather than saving up to go to New York I'd rather save up to do some remodeling and put in a swing and a bigger alcove for Mr F so that he'd have something he liked.
In The Hotel New Hampshire, Frank, the oldest brother, doesn't really come into his own or fit in until all the kids are grown-ups, after which Frank is the one who is most competent. Franny never seems at ease, and John, either -- along with their dad, and plenty of others in the book, who are wistful or looking forward to the next thing or frightened or depressed about what they are doing. The happy characters in the book are those who have found what they ought to be: Iowa Bob, the old football coach, is supremely happy coaching football at a prep school but restive once he retires, and ultimately is done in by Sorrow (when you read the book you'll understand the capital S.) Susie the bear drifts around, sometimes a bear, sometimes not, until she finds a place she is needed and then she is happy -- although she's so insecure she still needs some convincing.
Win Berry is the most dramatic of all: he's repeatedly described as a dreamer, as being not quite there. He feels, as a character, a bit like a dream himself, fading in and out of the story. It's not until Win takes charge of his life that he ends up where he always wanted to be. In Win's case, it turns out that where he always wanted to be is a place that exists only in his mind, but that doesn't keep it from being real.
When I was 23 or 24, I thought I'd go into politics, maybe the foreign service. I wanted to travel, back then. I'd only gone out of Wisconsin a few times, on vacations, but I wanted to see more. That was part of why I went to study in Washington and Morocco for most of 1994. I wanted to get out and see the world. Back then I wanted to be a writer, a politician, in the foreign service, a teacher, sometimes an astronomer, and ultimately a lawyer -- although even after I'd settled loosely on lawyer I went through phases of wanting to be a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a divorce lawyer, a guardian ad litem, a personal injury lawyer, a judge, all to end up where I am today: a partner in a firm doing almost exclusively consumer protection law.
I'm happy about that. I love my job. I love my family, my house -- as rundown as it's getting sometimes and as out-of-control as our yard it -- I love the city I live in. I love going to the free zoo and driving Mr F's route through the industrial park. I love wading in the river with the boys in the summer and having the older kids over for movies on Xmas Eve.
For the first 28 years of my life or so, I bounced around and tried things out and frittered around, as I say Mr F does sometimes: dithering between the kitchen and the living room, or the downstairs and the upstairs, wandering aimlessly, until he picks what it is he's going to do.
Does everyone have a place, a thing, a role, that they're meant to do? I tend to say to people, when I talk about it at all, that I made a pretty bad teenager, a less-than-great twentysomething, but as a forty-seven-year old I think I've hit my stride. I still kind of feel like the same person, but all the things I loved to do all those years fit better on a guy who's nearing fifty than they did on a guy who was 16. If you want to sit at home on your day off and read John Irving and then spend Friday night at the library before coming home and blogging about books, it's easier to do that as a 47 year old than a 16 year old.
It kind of feels to me like I was meant to be the person I am now, that I'm at my most comfortable and happiest these days. I didn't exactly set out to be this person at this time in this place. There was a lot of chance involved: If I'd never gotten hit by a drunk driver, I wouldn't have had a lawyer who I thought seemed like an interesting guy with an interesting job. If I'd had more money as a student I might have gone to Marquette or the University of Maine law schools, instead of Wisconsin's, but Wisconsin's was cheaper. If my 6-month position at the Department of Revenue hadn't expired when it did, I might not have applied for the job at the firm where I met Sweetie, and so I might never have settled down in Middleton and had these kids and now grandkids.
It wasn't part of any grand design; if you'd asked me at any stage of my life whether I thought this was where I'd end up, I'd have said probably not, but these days are about the happiest and most content that I've ever been.
That's how it works for the Berrys in The Hotel New Hampshire, too: they don't really have a plan, beyond Win Berry's only-somewhat-explicable desire to run a first-class hotel (the sort of hotel where he spent a magical summer with his wife-to-be and a bear called State O' Maine), and they get caught up in events beyond their control that end up helping shape their course through their lives -- but it's only once they decide to take control of their own existence that they end up satisfied and happy; up until then, they are struggling, depressed, frightened, too.
It's interesting to see the progression of Irving's thoughts, at least as I interpret them. The Hotel New Hampshire seems to say that we need to make efforts to shape our lives, push them until we are where we would like to be, that we won't be happy just being carried along to where we end up. A Prayer For Owen Meany, a much later book, seems to be saying that everything we do is fated and that our attempts to change the outcome of our lives are futile. Avenue of Mysteries moves back to the middle road: people are shaped by both obvious and mysterious forces, with at least some control over their destiny.
Or maybe that's how I'm reading them, in light of now nearly five decades of experience. Maybe the events of the past 2+ years, leaving my old firm and building a new one, or, going back more, the challenges of raising Mr F and Mr Bunches, have caused me to reassess what it takes to be happy in the world. The younger me might have been content to be pushed around by the world, to go where he was taken and see what that led to; the older me knows that books are what we read into them just as the world is what we make of it, and that while we may not entirely control our own destinies, what with all the forces at work on us at any given minute, we have to try to get to the place we want to be if we want a chance at happiness.
In The Hotel New Hampshire, the Berry children re-read The Great Gatsby over and over. Lily, the writer, wants especially to come up with an ending that's the equal of the ending of that book; the others don't seem to obsess over the ending as much -- which might be just as well, given that The Great Gatsby was not a happy ending.
In the end of The Hotel New Hampshire, Irving plays on The Great Gatsby's ending:
“So we dream on. Thus we invent our lives. We give ourselves a sainted mother, we make our father a hero; and someone’s older brother and someone’s older sister – they become our heroes too. We invent what we love and what we fear. There is always a brave lost brother – and a little lost sister, too. We dream on and on: the best hotel, the perfect family, the resort life. And our dreams escape us almost as vividly as we can imagine them… That’s what happens, like it or not. And because that’s what happens, this is what we need: we need a good, smart bear… Coach Bob knew it all along: you’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed. You have to keep passing the open windows.”
It's an ending that begins by suggesting that we make our lives better first in our dreams -- we invent what we love and what we fear-- but our dreams escape us, and so to survive we've got to get ourselves a smart bear (State O' Maine helped Win Berry through college; Susie the bear helped the Berrys in a variety of ways) and get obsessed with what it is we want to do, so that we don't give up.
The people in The Hotel New Hampshire who keep passing open windows did what the second half of that paragraph suggests: they stopped inventing a life and started getting one, and so they ended up where they were most content and happy.
So what did I get obsessed with, that led me here? When I was younger, I was a terrible employee, a terrible student: I got marked down in an English class because the teacher could tell I was phoning it in, that I was doing the minimum I needed to get by. I never worked very hard at jobs, and when they go unpleasant I'd just quit. I kept to myself and didn't have many friends, and didn't really try all that hard.
Around 1995 that changed. When I came up to Madison to enroll in law school, I stood at the bottom of Bascom Hill and thought about how, 8 years earlier, I'd come here for a semester and had to drop out. I hadn't taken my freshman year of college very seriously, and that led to many years of just frittering around. But that day, as I looked up the hill at the faraway statute of Lincoln, with the state capitol a half-mile behind me, I decided that I'd better take this part of my life seriously. I studied and worked at law school like I'd never done before. I took extra classes and read ahead and asked questions and did all my homework. I took my jobs seriously, showing up early, working hard at them. I started my own practice and then built a substantial law practice from scratch: at my old firm, when I started, I was in a back office sharing a half-time paralegal with three other lawyers. By the time I left there the firm had grown from 12 people to 37, much of it due to my innovations and ideas.
I met Sweetie and I got serious, too: she was the only woman I ever thought of marrying, and I would have and will do anything for her.
From 1995 on, I got obsessed and stayed obsessed, and it's why, even when things have gotten tough at times, even when they were at their most stressful, I was able to focus on the important stuff: on wrestling Mr F and drawing alphabets with Mr Bunches, on going to movies with Sweetie and teaching Oldest, Middle, and The Boy to play golf. On meeting my first-ever grandson. I was surrounded by smart bears and because of that was able to channel my obsessions to the point where I don't think I'll ever stop walking by open windows.