17 February 2013

Books: Until I Find You by John Irving (2006)

Too much happens in this over-long, at times extremely boring novel. 

It begins, however, in 1969 when Jack Burns mother, Alice a well-known tattoo artist, drags him through half of Europe for a year in search of his father, William Burns. Jack’s dad, it appears, is a runaway father, who is also a church organist and an “ink addict.” After losing the trail, they return to Toronto where Alice enrolls Jack into St. Hilda, an all-girls school. It is here, Alice assumes, Jack is safe from becoming his womanizing father his mother insists his dad is. But at St. Hilda, Jack becomes the victim of a boat-load of remarkable sexual molestation at the hands of older women. That he grows up to be an Oscar winning actor and screenwriter (taking home Irving's own 2000 Oscar) is amazing. Eventually, the novel comes full circle as the now somewhat troubled man retraces the steps of his 4 year-old self and returns to Europe to meet a half-sister and a father who –despite the narrative of his mother- very much wanted to be in his life. 

Oddly, this novel is perhaps Irving’s most autobiographical work –something he’s denied for decades that all his books represent some sort of written therapy.

Unlike author Stephen King, who I’ve been reading steadily for 30 years, my affair with the works of John Irving is rather recent –it began somewhere early in the 2000’s when I read one of his most popular novels, A Prayer for Owen Meany. Since then I’ve read The Hotel New Hampshire, The World According to Garp, Cider House Rules, Last Night in Twisted River and Widow for One Year –though like Son of the Circus (which I started) I don’t think I actually finished Widow. Still, I’m bound and determined now to read all his books.

I knew Until I Find You was not one his most praised books, but I did little research into why. If I had been a regular reader of Irving, I might have been disappointed with it, and then moved on to his next book. And if this was my first Irving, I probably never want to read another one of his books. The fact that I’m reading his books out of order –and in a more compressed time- I can forgive him for this self-indulgent, over bloated novel (at 820 pages, it's about 400 pages too long) that is filled with unappealing characters –all of them women. And while I don't claim to be a prude, even I got a bit leery with the almost soft-porn aspect of the book. And the almost acceptance from the women that it was okay to sexually abuse Jack -and it doesn't help that the psychiatrist character explains that most women who abuse, do it more so out of love the child is not getting from the parent than any real sexual release. I don't buy that, and I'm curious if this is true, or just an excuse to present the abuse as being somewhat acceptable -which, of course, is the hallmark of an Irving book. His goal, it seems, is to make this deviant aspect -the abuse- as normal as breathing. He wants us, the reader, to react in revulsion. But at least in Until I Find You, it's more creepy than usual.

Long-time readers with recognize many of his recurring themes, but as I noted, this book does represent an aspect of Irving the writer's real life -he introduces two personal elements in Until I Find You, issues he’s never discussed publicly: his sexual abuse at age 11 by an older woman, and the recent entrance in his life of his biological father's family. So in many ways, Jack Burns in this novel is John Irving. Not sure how that will affect me when I read his other work, especially his first three novels –all which are in my future.

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