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.