A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
I’m a big fan of most of Irving’s early and mid-career books, including his nonfiction. I loved reading Garp, Hotel New Hampshire, and A Prayer for Owen Meany. I had to begin the latter three times until it finally ensnared me and I couldn’t put it down. Perusing The Last Chairlift, sadly, is not like that.
I read this book aloud to my partner evenings over a period of three months. I kept waiting for Irving’s Dickensian afterburner to kick in at about page 100, that thrust that would propel us to the end. It did not engage, not for me anyway. Almost nine hundred pages seems too long for a contemporary novel, I believe. It might have been better served to come in at four or even five hundred pages. Why?
For one thing, there is too much of a certain kind of repetition. Normally, I like some recapitulation, little wrap-ups of or references to earlier events to remind readers what has come before. However, in this novel, Irving has an annoying habit of attaching endearing monikers like the little snowshoer to characters instead of using the character’s name (and his practice seems clunky compared to the Russians who do this rather well). Of course, he alternates their usage with their real name at times, but by the time he does, one forgets who the little snowshoer is . . . or was.
And did someone say ghosts? A few of the characters die along the way (the novel does cover quite a life span), but do they? They keep reappearing as ghosts, but Irving doesn’t have much of a mechanism for readers to grab onto. We’re just supposed to know it. Rather than being led to believe this is some kind of flashback, it is really encounters with ghosts we’re having. I will accept responsibility for sloppy reading, but I’m not sure it’s all my fault. Or are ghosts merely an easy, perhaps sloppy, representation of how the main character misses the people in his life who die?
Finally, Irving has a careerlong fascination with a number of images or motifs: bears or people in bear costumes, an almost homoerotic fascination with wrestling, and also, among others, a perhaps erotic fascination with trans people (and a son who accepts his trans mother, see The World According to Garp). This novel is populated with trans people, yet I never get the sense that Irving has a real feel or understanding of them. There is not enough information present on the page for readers to believe he knows what he’s talking about: complex physical and psychological transformations, surgical or other medical procedures, the emotional angst that must come with such metamorphoses. And always, I wonder why he avoids other LGBTIQA+ iterations, mostly the G one (except for a lesbian couple who must be the last vestige of vaudeville, appearing nightly in Two Dykes, One Who Talks, har har har). Just saying.
It seems that Irving may have wished for this book to be his swan song, and he puts his entire heart and snippets of every motif from his entire oeuvre and mixes them all into a fine pea soup with not a little ham. I don’t know about others, but as I finished this go-around with the latest Irving novel, I could only stomach so much of this rich pea soup. And only so much ham.
TUES: A Writer's Wit | Jean Hanff Korelitz
WEDS: A Writer's Wit | Robert Surtees
THURS: A Writer's Wit | Diane Duane
FRI: My Book World | Amanda Gorman, Call Us What We Carry: Poems