John Irving changed everything for me. The summer I turned fifteen—which was also the summer I lost my virginity—my friend Allison, seventeen, handed me the paperback of The World According to Garp. I was unimpressed by the jacket copy but would have followed Allison into fire, so I started reading it that night, sleeping over at her house. At 4 a.m. I was still reading, enthralled, buzzing from the electric current Garp set alive in me. I went to the kitchen for a snack and stood there reading, eating some blackberries. Soon Allison’s mother—going through a difficult divorce that summer, prone to insomnia—joined me. “Oh, Garp, that’s a good one,” Sandy nodded at the book as she turned to make us both a cheese omelet. She turned on Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, a favorite album of hers, and my world exploded. I understood “meta” for the first time, though I had studied the concept earlier in the year in English class. Here we were, during Ronald Regan’s first term, morning again in America, eating breakfast, listening to the Breakfast in America album while feasting on omelets with good imported cheese and hunks of baguette with jam from Provence and some salted sliced Roma tomatoes that Sandy grew, years before anyone was talking about Roma tomatoes in the US. Supertramp sang “The Logical Song”—spitting at the ridiculous conformity of education, wishing for schools that taught us to think and examine and be sensitive—while I was sitting there, on summer break, learning more, thinking more deeply and critically, than I ever had in a classroom. We were eating breakfast, the sun was rising, I was coming into my own in many ways—having sex, thinking more critically, leaving childhood behind. It was just before the dawn of my own adult life and I there I was, reading about Garp’s coming of age. Meta indeed.
It was perfect and important and one of those nights you look back on decades years later and remember precisely—the blue and white pattern of the plate, the bit of melted cheese stuck to the rim, the way the tea changed color in my mug while the sun came up, the heat in the kitchen, the roll of aluminum foil out of its box on the terra cotta tile counter—even though you can’t remember some years at all. It was the night I found Irving, it was the night I understood meta, it was the night I came to understand that fiction could not just enthrall me and transport me to another world but could also change how I felt about myself and my world. I was already a feminist, but Irving made me look at feminism and the movement through the lens of fiction. He related the emotional territory of being raised by a single mother, as I was, in a way I’ve found nowhere else in fiction. He made me start to think seriously of traveling—of going over to see for myself what was going on Vienna. He made me think about how we treat sex workers like shit—and it’s no coincidence that one of my best friends today is a woman who has spent more than twenty years in that realm. I learned of the MFA reading Garp, of the writing program at Iowa. He made me feel that my own anxiety about bad things happening was okay because guess what, bad things happen. He helped me understand that loving people regardless of their disability or sexuality was not about “okay” or “not okay,” that it was instead required for humanity. You had to love Ellen with no tongue and Duncan with one eye and Roberta the transgender woman or you had to go home. It was spectacular. I’ve read it a dozen times since and it’s still spectacular.
I quickly moved on to The Hotel New Hampshire—which is a sentimental favorite of mine despite its widely discussed flaws. Fuck ‘em. Vienna again! Bears! A family saga! Lilly, who knows how hard it is to write in the shadow of the greats, struggling with her confidence; I understood Lilly. Why bother when the ending of The Great Gatsby has already been written? Every one of the characters in the central Berry Family helped me understand myself so much better. Longing that can’t be, sexuality that can’t be, being a woman in a culture where sexual violence against women runs rampant, loss—sorrow floats—forgiveness, healing, it’s all there in a book rife with excesses and farcical elements that somehow work together to serve the story. Reading that novel I started to think, for the first time, How does this work?—an important question for a young woman just starting to write short stories with focus. Not that I was showing them to anyone. “Just not big enough,” as Lilly said in her suicide note. The Hotel New Hampshire taught me a huge life lesson that shifted my perspective on the world dramatically: a happy ending might not look like it does in a traditional fairytale, but that does not mean your life is not a fairytale. It still can be, monsters and all.
I went back in Irving’s oeuvre and next read The 158-Pound Marriage and it furthered what have become lifelong twin interests in and study of those who survive wartime atrocities and sex and how it functions in relationships.
At seventeen I was a runaway, but Irving had a new book out, The Cider House Rules, and it brought me to the library, where I started hanging out every day, and that library saved my sanity and thereby my life. It gave me everything.
And that is how I feel about John Irving novels. That they gave me everything.
Novels teach us how to have empathy, and more than anything, Irving’s novels have given me empathy for myself. From them as a teen I learned that it was okay to be weird, to be full of longing and competing desires. It was okay to write and to eschew convention. It was okay to have deep passions. It was good to be friends with all sorts of people that might be thought misfits; people with big brains and fine hearts were what mattered. Feminism was important, being a reader was important, being a writer was important, some time by the sea was important—but watch out for the undertoad. I didn’t always hold on to all of the lessons, but I’ve always come back to them.
As a writer no one matters more to me than Irving. From him I learned a practice that works for me for almost everything I write: know the last line and then work to get to it. Map it all out before you start to write. I am as baffled by writers who say they sit down and let the story lead them as they are by me. He taught me to ignore critics—especially those who are criticizing a form that they do not write themselves. He taught me to love backstory on a character and to fight with editors who say to “cut cut cut.” He taught me to show the details from the past that got this character to where they are today. Show the messy childhood, those moments on the playground, at the dinner table, from the high school classroom, the adolescent sexual groping that made your character the 43-year-old she is today who still likes to be felt up over the clothes for a while first and is obsessed with music boxes. He also taught me that being political in your work is not a liability. That you can serve character and story while still advocating a viewpoint. But it’s all about characters, and I get obsessed with mine and stay obsessed. In a famous essay of his, “In Defense of Sentimentality,” Irving writes: “And when we writers—in our own work—escape the slur of sentimentality, we should ask ourselves if what we are doing matters.” The notion has stayed with me. What am I doing here if I don’t make people feel? It has led me to be braver on the page than I have wanted to be, to show the thing I want to keep hidden, and I am grateful.
Irving’s favorite writer is Charles Dickens. He has saved one of his novels to read, so that he had that great pleasure to look forward to. Likewise, I’ve saved one of Irving’s novels, A Prayer for Owen Meany, to read at some later point in my life. A boy I was madly in love with gave it to me on my twenty-first birthday, just after it was released. I swooned, but wanted to save the pages, and have for all these years. Someday, someday… and it is a delicious thought. It’s good and rich to love a writer in that way.
Today is John Irving’s 74th birthday. Celebrate.
Here are my seven favorite John Irving novels, in no particular order:
- A Widow for One Year
Ruth Cole is a complex character in this novel full of heart, executed with incredible restraint. A novel that considers how we become writers and the way we tell stories as much as anything, this will be of particular interest to writers and avid readers. A beautiful book.
- The Cider House Rules
Rich with place and scene, Irving’s love of New England shines through in this novel, as does the influence Dickens has had on his writing. Interrogates hypocrisy and ambivalence around abortion and is strongly, clearly pro-choice.
- The World According to Garp
If you haven’t read this, please stop what you are doing and read it now.
- Until I Find You
I love the sprawl of this novel. It’s big in every sense. Reminiscent of The World According to Garp in the span of the life it covers and the emphasis on formative scene, it also explores the sub-culture of tattoo artists in fascinating detail.
- In One Person
An incredible, gorgeous exploration of gender, sexuality and, ultimately, what it means to be human.
- The Hotel New Hampshire
A family saga about love and loss in various disguises, it carries with it elegiac longing and a sense of loss.
- The 158-Pound Marriage
There’s sex and swinging and jealousy and boredom and anger—and a child who hides inside of a gutted cow for two weeks to escape detection by soldiers who have raped and killed her mother. Do you really need to know more?
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