I go back and forth about John Irving, sometimes marveling at him, as I did through much of The World According to Garp and, now, The Cider House Rules, and sometimes rolling my eyes, as I did at A Prayer For Owen Meany. He gets at the multifaceted aspects of life and somehow contains a strong, uncertain moral bent without (usually) sermonizing. He has a tendency to delve into character background and explanation at the expense of action, giving overly elaborate details about characters who remain flat anyway. Yet his gift for keeping forward moment despite any obstacles from his own verbosity is amazing, as is his almost Henry James-esque ability to nail an idea, as he does when he writes, “Society is so complex that even Heart’s Haven had a wrong part to it.”
The Cider House Rules moves seamlessly between the narrative action and overarching generalizations with more skill than a 19th Century novel and so much dexterity that they don’t seem unnatural or forced, as such abstractions or general life lessons often can—in, for example, The Spies of Warsaw. Rarely does the novel devolve into Steinbeck-land moralism and sentimentality, as when Wilbur Larch argues that Homer has a duty to help those who cannot help themselves—in this case by performing abortions. Granted, the argument has some logical fallacies for careful readers to see, but it’s nonetheless jarring in a book that’s otherwise carefully evenhanded. Problems exist, such as the aforementioned biographies of minor characters, and Irving is more a fan of the sledge hammer than chisel. Perhaps this rambunctiousness is the subject of some attacks against him: Irving doesn’t have the cool and cutting quality that seems in vogue among many critics today, the aesthetic preference for a single sentence summary of a person rather than paragraphs of background designed to bring a character to the foreground. But whatever faults John Irving has, failing to live is seldom one: his best characters usually have the differentiated roundness that brings them alive. James Wood thinks not: in a recent post, he said:
The review I just wrote about Joseph O’Neill’s superb novel,”Netherland,” in “The New Yorker,” praises the novel both for its deep and wise interest in life and lives, and for its high degree of artifice and style. That doubleness is entirely in keeping with my attacks on people like Tom Wolfe, John Irving, the more formulaic elements of John Updike, and so on.
(Link added by me).
The Cider House Rules might not have the lifeness Wood prefers, but it has the engaging quality I love and too infrequently find. It had long been sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be read, and so I decided to try it. As this introduction shows, I liked it more than not, even if some parts revealed too heavy a hand and showed, I think, what Wood meant. Still, the whole—with Wilbur and Homer Larch at the center of a novel about the discovery of what it means to assume the terrible weight of responsibility while still laughing at the lunacy of the world—carries any weaknesses along with it in a flood, as Irving’s best novels do. They forge their own eccentric morality and philosophy, but though I think of them often I can’t immediately define those traits that I can feel. One day, maybe, but one mark of a good novelist is, I think, the inability to corral all their themes and ideas without a great deal of study, and by that standard, too, Irving succeeds.