Saturday, November 28, 2009
"Last Night in Twisted River" - John Irving's Meta-Novel
"The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long."
Thus begins, in media res, John Irving's latest novel. I am calling it a meta-novel, because it reads like a mobius strip of a narrative - fiction and commentary about the process of writing fiction twisting themselves together like the river in the title or the branches of the wind-swept tree depicted on the book's cover. In a uniquely Irvingesque way, the author returns to themes that will be warmly familiar to those of us who perch on the edge of our seats waiting for the next offering from the mind and pen of John Irving. There are the obligatory appearances of bears, Philips Exeter Academy, the University of New Hampshire, Vermont, Toronto, the wrestling room, the Writers' Workshop in Iowa, sexual dalliances in motor vehicles, awkward couplings and uncouplings, the severing of limbs, and the threat of death as a constant companion to the characters and to the reader.
This may be Irving's most autobiographical novel to date, although he takes great pains to have the protagonist, writer Danny Angel, né Daniel Baciagalupo, discuss the topic of autobiographical writing. Angel, channeling Irving, makes the point that while there are always autobiographical elements in any novel, the characters take on a life of their own and the fiction is different from the composite figures that spring from real or imagined events in the life of the writer.
Irving returns, as well, to the theme of younger men held in the thrall of older women. Using settings in cook shacks and restaurants in the logging camps of northern New Hampshire, Boston's North end, Iowa, Vermont and Toronto, Irving serves up a bouillabaisse of characters and action that propel the reader forward through the twisted journeys of three generations of men and those who love them and add spice to their lives. Dominic "Cookie" Baciagalupo, his son, Daniel and grandson, Joe form a tragic triumvirate around which revolve countless characters who appear on the stage of the novel in colorful and unexpected ways. Some fall from the sky, snowshoe into the teeth of a blizzard, break through the ice, slip off of logs and drive from New York's Chinatown halfway across the U.S. to the heartland of Iowa.
You will notice that I am not talking much about the plot. Although the plot is as brilliant as any we have come to expect from John Irving, I found myself even more interested in the process by which Irving chose to present the plot. The book's broad themes and the discursive musings about the art of writing added a layer of intrigue to my enjoyment of this story.
This is a wondrous work that tells the story of a writer who is telling a story about his life and his work as a story teller. It is a tantalizingly twisted tale that should delight and "appall" discerning readers.