Monday, October 02, 2006

Breaking the Rules: A Prayer for Owen Meany

One of the rules that experienced writers tell beginning writers is to avoid weighing down your novel at the beginning with a lot of backstory. I know there are good reasons for this rule -- the temptation is to tell everything you know about your characters and their lives before you even get into the story. But I was reminded of this over the weekend when I started reading a book that pretty much breaks this rule -- and I like the book, so I'm not being unkindly critical. And then I realized that a lot of my favorite books break this rule: To Kill a Mockingbird, Peace Like a River, Gilead, for example. And now add to that list, A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving.

Like Harper Lee does at the start of Mockingbird, at least a little bit, Irving starts his novel with some stage-setting, some family history, some community history. He's divided the novel up into a few very long chapters, so you're well into the book before a key life-changing incident occurs. But far from being bored by the meandering path of the story, I was completely hooked. I'd fallen in love with the characters and the town and was not the least bit bored. I like a story that takes its time -- Owen Meany certainly takes its time. But there's a purpose here, I think. The story is circling around some recurring themes and gradually building on them. I'm about a third of the way through now and John and Owen are still 11. That's OK -- I'm willing to see where the story takes me.

I've noticed a few other things, such as Irving's writerly quirks. We all have them and I think in small doses they help distinguish one individual's writing from another. But it's hard to keep them from becoming annoying. Irving has one quirk that bugs me -- his use of the dash seems pretty random. I know what you're thinking: here's a case of the pot calling the kettle black. I abuse that form of punctuation, too, but I think I use the dash correctly most of the time. I do wonder if Irving's editor went easy on him, at least with regard to his use of the dash. And even though I said I like a story that takes its time, I do think this novel could have been a bit tighter. And the brief interludes in Toronto, set in 1987, are rather jarring. When the book was published in 1989, they might have been more effective, but in 2006 a character's ranting about Ronald Reagan seems pretty dated. For me, the 'present-day' interludes disturb the timeless aspects of the story. But I'm not trained in literary criticism and I'm not a best-selling author, so maybe it's cheeky of me to even mention it.

But even with these few imperfections (at least in my eyes) I'm enjoying the book a lot. Owen Meany is a great character, I love the gradual unfolding of the story, and the quirky prose is engaging. I'll wait to talk about the themes until I finish it -- there's a lot of stuff going on and I'm not sure how it's going to resolve.


jimcoonce said...

I am definitely no expert. However, I tend to agree with you here. I have a fairly short attention span when it comes to getting into a book. If the writer spends several chapters just in descriptions, backgrounds and history it better be done well or I will lose interest quickly. I do want character development, but I think that a writer can use the storyline as a tool for the development. I think Harper Lee did this. She didn't just tell us about Scout and Jem. She brought us into their lives. We became their friends. You wanted to get to know them better.

Again, I've never written a story before, but I've read a few, so...all your writer friends can read this and then respond and, like tell me how idiotic I am to suggest how they should write stories....Okay, I'll shut up, now.... :^)

lindaruth said...

The great thing about this book is that it really is a story -- albeit a somewhat rambling one. But it holds together well. If you can get through The Lord of the Rings, you can read this.

Like I said, it's not perfect, but then no book is (except maybe To Kill a Mockingbird :) ). But it's good. When you finish seminary, you might want to give it a try.

MeganBritt said...

I can't belive you've never read Owen Meany before. I have read that, and 2 of the other three you cited as your favorites, and agree they are wonderful.... am I turning into YOU?

btw: aunt sharon is kinda nuts.

MeganBritt said...

ps. I'm reading Beloved by Toni Morrison now. You should read it, too. And you should read The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. She is amazing.