Nathan's Reviews > Until I Find You

Until I Find You by John Irving
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really liked it
Recommended for: Irving veterans

I have read 10 of John Irving's books: his first 9, and this one. Clearly, he does something that I keep going back for. Maybe it's no coincidence that I also read all of Dickens' novels in chronological order, back in my twenties. The two are very different -- Dickens is much funnier, for instance -- but they have much in common. It doesn't surprise me to read others' mention of the links between them:

Of the scope, the sheer heft factor of their books, many complain. I like it. It's hard not to like a character, Jack Burns for one, when, after 800 pages, you feel you've known him his whole life. I think incomplete knowledge and hasty summation of others is at the root of human conflict.

I am a sucker for writers who are both essentially compassionate and unequivocally outraged by human cruelty, especially if they don't just wring their hands, but leap from their armchairs, sprint after the offenders, smash out their tail-lights and put them on notice, a la T.S. Garp.

Irving also is a tonic to me because I feel understood when an author writes frankly about sexuality. I don't have to share a character's particular predilections to enjoy the reading, and I feel respected when things aren't whitewashed 'for my protection.' I concur that cruel sex isn't immoral because of the sex, but because of the cruelty. I believe that *any* morality that's used for superiority, used to judge or condemn others, is really just tarted-up cruelty. For these reasons, Irving is right up my street.

Both Irving and Dickens zero in on the invisible-because-conventionally-unregarded strings that most of us are still dancing at the ends of, with the other ends tethered to our childhoods. Most of us throw our hands up about our pasts, stamp 'history' on the whole bundle, and close the door upon it. If we're like sailing ships, our history is the wind, beyond our control, still pushing at us; it takes skill and tenacity to steer the present, consciously, against this wind, and most of us don't have the grit for it. Both Irving and Dickens have troubled to regard childhood, to steep themselves in it, and their writing about childhood rings with this truth as a result: childhood is magical, yes, but more Pan's-Labyrinth-magical than Pinocchio-Blue-Fairy magical; it's magical because ordinary human actions can be transformed, distorted, elevated to myth, when perceived by a child. A single instance of loss, of gratitude, of injustice, all parts of the passing parade of human experience as understood by adults, can become -- or as mysteriously not become -- lifelong, permanent, and defining for a child. As a former child, present parent, and future feature of my childrens' memories, it helps me to remember this, and reading these authors gets me there.

As for 'Until I Find You,' in particular? Well, it's not Irving's tightest work, and Irving's tightest work is none too tight. I have to conclude that he's serving a purpose other than spare, lean writing. It has a different effect on the reader than saying, "So Jack and his mom went to a succession of major Scandinavian cities, met assorted tattooers, and stayed in various hotels," to have to go through the somewhat circular experience, the full theme-and-variations, with Jack. It pays off when he has to refactor his memories, because we have them too, and they were so many pages ago that they feel like *our* childhood memories. In many respects, reading the book is more like living life than like experiencing a finely-crafted, precision-engineered storytelling. Mrs. McQuat almost gets to serve as a needed counter-weight, but dies too early; Claudia's daughter comes and goes with Jack seeming to sleepwalk through both the experience and the ramifications; the bat exhibit and The Wurtz; I could make a long list of the dangling threads that just keep dangling. Irving has no regard whatever for Chekhov's gun (look up 'Chekhov's gun' in Wikipedia), and I guess I don't either.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
October 1, 2007 – Finished Reading
November 9, 2007 – Shelved

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