As the year begins with two of the world's largest religions clashing in the latest acrimonious bloodspill between Israelis and Palestinians (six kids were killed today after prayer as Israelis bombed and marched into Gaza, according to The Guardian), I finished one of the most unique and profoundly affecting spiritual experiences I've had in years. It came in two parts; first, it came in the HBO mini-serial Angels In America, which is a discussion for another time. The second part came in the form of a fictional character named Owen Meany.
A Prayer For Owen Meany is a 1989 novel by John Irving (The World According to Garp and both the novel and screenplay The Cider House Rules). I picked it up because I got into the Jimmy Eat World album Clarity last summer; the concluding sixteen-minute track is a delicate dirge titled "Goodbye Sky Harbor" that draws its lyrics and atmosphere from the final scene in Irving's novel. The novel is part the confessional, part coming-of-age story of the narrator, John Wheelwright and his handicapped best friend - a dwarfish boy with a unique set of vocal pipes and the firm belief that he is God's instrument - and their hilarious (mis)adventures in Gravesend, New Hampshire from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties. The novel begins with one of the most compelling and memorable opening sentences I've ever read: "I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice - not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."
If the plot sounds familiar, it might be because a film called Simon Birch came out in 1998 with a similar storyline. But Irving wanted nothing to do with the film - and for good reason. The movie is a wholly different creation from the book, keeping nothing but the eponymous character, a similar cast, and the pivotal, incipient scene in the first chapter when John's mother dies. From there, all similarities are left behind; Irving paints a Gravesend and a cast of characters across nearly 600 pages with as much vividness and verisimilitude as the town you grew up in, the church you attended, and the high school you went to.
The characters must wrestle in this intrinsic world with determinism/predestination, faith, loneliness, guilt, forgiveness, historical memory, assimilation, displacement, fear and death. Most of all, the novel is about infidelity with others and with oneself; compromise, hypocrisy and honesty...and storytelling itself. These struggles are set against the independent backdrop of religion, war and the caustic aftertaste of the illusory, postmodern American dream. To put it another way: Irving satisfyingly accomplishes what Yann Martel merely attempts with his more arrogant, overbearing Life of Pi by raising responses to inquiries about the relationship between morality and faithfulness instead of merely raising questions (albiet nonsensically). It's a discussion that is expansive, tedious and ambitious in scope. But most of the time, it works.
There are certainly things to dislike. The narrator's tone is cynical, despondent, and dour, but is intended to be playfully rueful. The narrator's language is verbose enough, at times, to border on the obscure. At first, I thought that was very self-appreciating of Irving. But I began to see a thematic pattern in the vocabulary that was witty, comedic and clever (a few times, the text seems metafictional). Also, it's possible you'll never misuse a semi-colon once you finish this book since it's used so often - but I think it's sometimes used to excess. Irving comes across as rather unctuous, and sometimes even self-righteous. A couple of scenes felt either rushed or contrived, even anti-climactic. But, I decided, to dwell on these things is to simultaneously identify and miss Irving's point.
Publically, there's a love-hate relationship with the novel. Most criticisms seem to either completely missing an interpretive point of Irving's novel or they had certain expectations that were not met upon finishing (although it seems like most people love it). For one reviewer, it's contrived and implausible, and for another reviewer it insults Christianity. But Christianity is hardly (what I think is) the point...while contrived and implausible are exactly what the characters fight so hard for - and against - in this fantastic novel.
I haven't read a book that kept me (willingly) up until dawn since I was eighteen when I read The Kite Runner. And I haven't felt my heart break so much for a character, as well as disappointment at finishing a novel, since I was fourteen when I read Les Miserables for the first time. I started reading slower as the book was ending, just so I could "save myself" the pending heartbreak. When I finally finished, I lay in bed in anguish and hope with myself and God.
If you decide to read it, I recommend that you read it slowly and with a similar supension of belief you'd use to approach a fairytale. Plan to read it over a few weeks, if not a month or two. I also recommend a soundtrack; sometimes I read with music, especially when songs are referenced in the text. I'd recommend Nancy Wilson's acoustic guitar soundtrack from the Cameron Crowe film Elizabethtown and the following: "Too Romantic," "All This and Heaven, Too" and "Fools Rush In" by Frank Sinatra; "Green Onions" by Booker T. and the MG's; "Move Over, Darling" by Doris Day; "Runaway" by Del Shannon; "Palisades Park" by Freddy Cannon; "Easier Said Than Done" by The Essex; "Duke of Earl" by Gene Chandler; "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by The Tokens; "We Can Work It Out" and "Paperback Writer" by The Beatles; "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" by Bob Dylan; "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" by Marylin Monroe; "Mrs. Robinson" by Simon and Garfunkel, and "Four Strong Winds" (preferably) by Neil Young. And, of course, the aforementioned Jimmy Eat World song "Goodbye Sky Harbor" to listen to after you turn the last page.
I believe the novel sets out to ask: "At what moral point does responsibility meet fidelity, and can belief reconcile delusion with doubt?" It asks, "Why do you, or do you not, believe in God? How do you live your life with, or without, God?" It also asks, "How does faith make mortality significant or insignificant?" If these questions interest you, A Prayer For Owen Meany might interest you as well. Perhaps, like myself and others, you'll even find an irrevocable, tender attachment to the characters halfway through. And you may also find your heart torn apart with heartbreak for the last pages and with disappointment for having come to the end, wanting to stay and finding that - like the narrator - you'll be forever "doomed to remember" that final scene at Sky Harbor with Owen Meany...and the prayer.