Books

John Irving
Avenue of Mysteries

It may as well be said at the outset: John Irving, the earnest, charming and energetic neo-Dickensian author of a fistful of engagingly intelligent bestsellers starting with 1978’s The World According to Garp, has not written a decent book this side of the millennium. His latest does nothing to alter that judgement. 

The problem is one of material: as in, Irving has exhausted his. If you are old enough, you’ll remember paperback editions of The Hotel New Hampshire or A Prayer for Owen Meany as staples of holiday-house shelves and second-hand bookshop bins. Charisma and good humour attached to them, also a reliable schtick. Irving owned familial dysfunction, ’70s-era sexual revolution and a certain brand of liberal-minded tragicomedy that spoke for its generation without necessarily surviving that generation’s cultural moment. But the success of Irving’s undertaking, and the author’s admirable work ethic, has seen him return to the same well again and again.

We saw it in Irving’s novel Last Night in Twisted River from 2009. That book revisited materials long copyrighted by the author – a lame hero, a generally calm and courtly air interrupted by riotous sex or violence, a cast of characters grown hydroponically from some single physical aspect, a tendency to work with broad time frames, and of course bears (the ursine being a veritable logo of the Irving franchise) – though this time as a faint palimpsest of his early work. Then there was 2012’s In One Person, which took the same biographically inflected material of novels such as The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp, and reran them, on this occasion with a bisexual narrator, flying beneath a rainbow flag. 

Avenue of Mysteries has at its centre a lame author who has enjoyed decent middlebrow bestsellerdom, and it, too, deals with issues of sexual freedom and Catholicism, but this time on holiday – by which I mean that the novel is mainly set in Vietnam War-era Mexico and the contemporary Philippines. The result is a little like the later versions of the Carry On films: a once-strong vein of playfulness and rude comedy, sent offshore in a hapless effort to recapture early energy.

Juan Diego is a fiftysomething New Yorker who has enjoyed certain success as a novelist, though his latter employment is as a creative-writing academic. Much of the fascination he holds is tied to his backstory, since Juan grew up as a poor child in Oaxaca City in the south of Mexico. He was a dump-dweller – un niño de la basura – whose education when he was a boy came from books abandoned and left to moulder at the tip or be burnt there. Short stories by Chekhov, obscure literary criticism, dreary exegeses of Jesuit dogma – all of them Juan democratically Hoovered up, both in Spanish and English, sharing his discoveries all the while with a fey sister, Lupe, who has webbing across her vocal cords and so is impossible to understand except via Juan’s translations.  Lupe combines a talent for prevision with a nascent feminism, along with a born Zapotec’s loathing of the appropriation by the Catholic Church of the Mexican version of Mary of Magdalene, Our Lady of Guadalupe.

You see how log-jammed it can get in Irving’s imagination. Juan Diego is far removed from these early experiences by the time we meet him, and his treatment with beta-blockers for a congenital heart problem (shared by his mother, Esperanza, a beautiful prostitute and cleaner for the local orphanage who dies while dusting a giant statue of the Madonna) means that his subconscious has, for a long time, been unable to properly process his past. A trip to the Philippines, where the now successful author ventures to honour an old promise to an American draft dodger from his childhood, provides the frame for the flashbacks that make up much of the novel’s bulk.

The problem is the conceit – that the exigencies of international travel mean Juan Diego’s pharmaceutical regimen is interrupted, opening the way for a series of dreams about the narrator’s early years – is ludicrous in both psychological and narrative terms. Juan’s reveries are ordered as neatly tessellated chronological accounts of his past. While the work occasionally acknowledges the silliness of dreaming with such ideal retrospection, Irving nonetheless arranges these episodes in a manner utterly at odds with his unruly source material.

And the stuff of Juan’s dreams and life, winningly weird and exotic as it is – involving a slender, Mescal-addicted gringo, an intense Hawaiian-shirt-wearing Jesuit flagellant, a fiercely atheistic medico, a reverence for dogs instead of bears, and so on – is dealt with in a manner slipshod and automatic; it feels phoned in. Here is a novel so evidently informed by authorial research trips that we are treated to extended accounts of the relative worth of hotels in Hong Kong, and the obscure shame felt by a traveller who has overpacked when his luggage appears on the carousel in Manila. It often reminded this reviewer of an underemployed and overeducated North American going rogue on a TripAdvisor review. 

There is more to the novel than this, of course, and more care, thought and imaginative engagement than I have suggested. Yet the monotony and the affectlessness with which the narrative proceeds numbs the receiving mind. Irving’s talent has always lain in the way it transcends quibbles regarding literary value via the jocosity and large-heartedness of the author’s investment in his creations. This time, though, both the vigour of the author’s imagination, and the appeal of his characters, fall flat. Avenue of Mysteries is like one of those endlessly copied VCR tapes once used to record TV shows: an instance of something that struck the viewer as worth keeping, recorded using a degrading medium. The visual fuzziness and the repetitious boredom of that episode of the sitcom which once inspired our curatorial attentions is the experience Irving’s new book affords. Sometimes the old stuff really is better than the new stuff.  AF

Doubleday, 768pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 31, 2015 as "John Irving, Avenue of Mysteries". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: AF