Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I wish I could remember when A Prayer for Owen Meany first appeared on my book radar. It was years ago now, and I immediately got an old mass-market paperback copy and then forgot it on my shelves somewhere. But I kept hold of the idea that I should read it, and that it was considered a “good book” by those in the know – whoever they are.

Having read it for myself now, I’m not certain I would call it a “good book.” I would call it: a long book, a book of ideas, an American book, and an ambitious book. These four descriptions don’t mean that it couldn’t also be a good book, but I found myself repeatedly disappointed with A Prayer for Owen Meany, mainly in the writing but also in the depth of Irving’s ideas.

The novel is told by John Wheelright, an American bachelor living in Canada in the late 1980s, but the bulk of the story occurs between about 1952 and 1969 and is about his best friend growing up in New Hampshire, Owen Meany. It is about their childhood, about the death of John’s mother, their search for John’s real father, their prep school lives and the onset of the Vietnam War. It is both a comic novel and a real tragedy—a mixture I usually like—and it’s also an example of a very typical kind of American realism: the details of small town life, boyhood trials, American sexual culture, and religion (lots of religion).

I must say right off that Owen Meany himself is an incredible character. I can only imagine how much fun Irving must have had writing this young man. He is a freak—a tiny kid with a horrific voice, zappingly clever, courageous, eccentric, loyal and hungry for love, starving even. Narrator John is so bland in comparison, as I’m sure he’s meant to be. But he is too bland, finally. I couldn’t even really figure out who John was until pages 421 – 424 when suddenly, he comes thrillingly to life. That’s a long time to wait.

John isn’t ultimately the point of the novel. The point is Owen—what becomes of him, what he brings to John and other characters. It isn’t really giving anything away to quote what’s written on the back cover of my edition:

Owen Meany, the only child of a New Hampshire granite quarrier, believes he is God’s instrument. He is.

This religious aspect of the novel is, perhaps, its most interesting. I am not an ideal reader for a book with a deep religious focus because I don’t have a lot of patience where religion is concerned. (Marilynne Robinson’s exquisite Gilead would be the great exception to that statement.) Having said that, I believe that Irving handles the theme with great detail and a lot of care. The novel reveals Religion in all its destructive, powerful glory and explores the intricacies and limits of personal faith. Irving also focuses a sharp eye on the gray zone where religion and superstition share uncomfortable territory.

A quick word on the book’s political preoccupation. I’m curious whether the book was at all controversial when it came out in 1989. It is fiercely anti-Vietnam war, and fiercely anti-Reagan (the two narrative time periods). My only complaint with the politics in the book is the heavy-handed and clumsy way they are delivered. No, that isn’t quite fair. Because the heart of the novel takes place during the Vietnam war, the political critique in those chapters is quite meaningful and feels more or less natural, but the 1980s political analysis is clumsily delivered in series of boring monologues.

Ultimately, my frustration with A Prayer for Owen Meany is similar to the feeling I get when I find myself in discussion with someone who is very bright but who doesn’t know when to stop talking and who takes me, or anyone else listening, for an idiot. The book engages with some fascinating ideas, involves one of the most interesting fictional characters I’ve ever come across and centers on events—both fictional and historical—of great import. Unfortunately, a lot of that “goodness” gets drowned out by too much “unnecessary.” Irving has his characters explain, many times over, all of the book’s symbolism. He also repeats himself. And worst of all, the book overprepares the reader for the impending tragedy. I got so sick of Irving’s allusions to what was going to happen to Owen Meany that when it actually happened I was too numb to appreciate what should have been an extremely powerful scene.

Anyone else read Irving? Are any of his earlier novels worth trying out? Thoughts?

17 Responses to “John Irving – A Prayer for Owen Meany”

  1. sukey17

    I confess that I read about 100 pages of this but couldn’t finish it. There was just so…. much of it somehow, and it didn’t move me. I was about to write that it didn’t have enough emotional variation for me, but then that sounded stupid as all those events were about destiny taking the characters up and down and up and down. I liked your description of it being by someone who couldn’t stop talking; I think that’s very apt. I’d like to try Irving again one day, maybe The Hotel New Hampshire? Perhaps with a family driving the narrative, I’d feel more grounded in the novel.

  2. litlove

    Sigh, that comment was from me, Litlove. For some reason the site suddenly mixed up my details with an old blog I used to have. No idea why!

    • Michelle

      Yes, I was thinking to try one of his earlier novels. Perhaps he had less confidence, and in his case, maybe that would be a good thing? I can’t help thinking that part of the problem with A Prayer for Owen Meany is that no one bothered to “edit” him down a bit… but perhaps I am being unfair to his editor. It is hard to know.

  3. Helen

    I have read Son of the Circus, which I didn’t get on with, I can’t remember why, I have a vague feeling it may have offended my priggishness but that might not have been it. A good friend of mine was evangelical about Owen Meany, it was the best novel he had ever, ever read, and because of my unhappy experience with SotC I was afraid to read it. So I was interested to read your review; the unsubtlety rings a bell with me, I think SotC suffered from it too.

    • Michelle

      I am usually a very forgiving reader, in the sense that I don’t mind “slow” or “quiet” narrative styles. But I have very little patience for an overactive narrator unless the narrator has an outsized personality (a bit like Vanity Fair, for example). So the fact that the overactive narrator in Owen Meany was really just John Irving being too intrusive did not work for me at all. If he is like that in all of his novels, I will not try him again 🙂

  4. Emily (Evening All Afternoon)

    I went through a phase in high school of really loving John Irving, and I still have a soft spot for the books of his that I read back then (in particular The Cider House Rules), but I have to admit that my tastes have shifted away from him for exactly the reasons you name: that style of overblown American realism that feels the need to hit the reader over the head with its messages and hammer home all the foreshadowing to a painful degree. Recently I had the same complaints about Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and I fear that if I went back to some of the Salman Rushdie I used to love, I would feel the same about those novels. All this makes me feel a bit sad, but evolving tastes are, I suppose, natural and inevitable.

    That said, I do continue to find the Christmas pageant scene in Owen Meany to be pretty hilarious.

    • Michelle

      Oh yes, that Christmas Pageant scene is amazing! Part of the reason I got so frustrated with Owen Meany is that I felt it had incredible potential. He is so funny in so many places – passing Owen Meany above the heads of the children in Sunday school, for example – but then it all becomes far too heavy-handed.

  5. Stefanie

    Like Emily I discovered John Irving in high school and really loved him because he seemed so irreverant and refreshing to my moderately conservative upbringing. I read Owen Meany for a library book group in the mid 90s and no own found the politics bothersome. I enjoyed the book, not becasue I thought it so brilliant but because it gave me a sort of nostalgic feeling and because I was amazed at the intricacy of the plotting.

    • Michelle

      You mention nostalgia and I would totally agree with this. I can’t be nostalgic for the 60s but his writing made me think of America a lot. Since I’m an expat it is fairly easy for me to be nostalgic, and this is something I did really enjoy about the novel. Even the tirades from the 1980s timeline – especially from the John character who has become Canadian but spends all his time thinking about America – this I can identify with.

  6. Kevin Neilson

    Prayer was the only Irving novel I could ever stomach. Although I read it years ago, I remember liking some of the hurmous bits and feeling that the boyhood crush on the mom was handled fairly well. But per your comments, I do remember, too, Irving telegraphing so much in advance that it undermined my readerly pleasure. Cheers, Kevin

    • Michelle

      I also liked the way he handled both the boys as kids and as adolescents. That all felt very real to me. Despite my frustration with the book, if you take the thing apart it is easy to find much to praise. I just wish he’d slimmed it all down a bit.

  7. Anthony

    There’s a common theme emerging here. Like Emily and Stefanie I went through an Irving phase at secondary school. A Prayer for Owen Meany was the one that killed off any positive sentiment for Irving’s work, which I now find sentimental and repetitive

    • Michelle

      I still love your Twitter comment about not being able to get back the hours you gave to A Prayer for Owen Meany. Made me laugh. I’m glad that I read it, but I’m irritated it took up so much of my time. 🙂

  8. Lilian Nattel

    I started to read this a long time ago (probably not long after it came out) right after reading another of his books. I also couldn’t finish it and remember throwing it down with frustration–though I can’t remember anything else about it.

    • Michelle

      Well, you answer one of my other questions about the book actually. I was curious whether some of my reaction came from my reading it in 2011 when it was published in 1989. I wondered whether, as readers, we haven’t gotten too far away from Irving’s particular narrative style. But it sounds like he would have frustrated me in 1989 as well.

  9. Biblibio

    A Prayer for Owen Meany is actually the only one of Irving’s books I’ve read, and I rather liked it. Maybe there is something with the age one first encounters it? Though I know it isn’t the best written novel, there’s something about the story that nonetheless had me hooked. Then again, I’ve never really had the urge to read any of Irving’s other novels, maybe because everyone seems to agree that he’s a repetitive author and I never wanted to ruin my experience with A Prayer for Owen Meany… hmm.

  10. Care

    I loved the book but after reading all these comments I will just assume it could be due to my lack of sophistication per literature? Anyway, I had to go back and read my thoughts on it and was reminded that I read as part of a readalong where we had terrific discussion and I can positively say that this enhanced my appreciation a ton. I still learned a lot, it was my first (and still only) Irving read and I like foreshadowing (or for-spotlighting – something I mentioned in my notes.) It’s also possible that I was proud of the fact that I read the whole thing. I don’t do well with books over 500 pages.

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