By which I mean a review that trashes a book...Although I guess the review itself might be bad, too.
(I think this might be the same reviewer who harshed on Clinton's book on the front page, for some reason.)
July 12, 2005
In Searching for a Father, Searching for Himself
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
"I begin with a sense of who the victims of the story are," John Irving once said of his writing process. "I try to think of the most uncomfortable parts of the victims' story, of who is going to be hurt the most."
Certainly Jack Burns, the hero of Mr. Irving's bloated and lugubrious new novel, is a victim in spades - and then some. As a boy, Jack is sexually molested by an older girl at school. He is molested by his mother's female lover. And he is molested by an older woman at the local gym. He loses his innocence early on, and over the years he also loses many of the people closest to him: he grows up without a father, is sent away to school by his unstable mother, and sees many of his loved ones succumb to bizarre or untimely deaths. He also learns, as he enters middle age, that much of what he believed to be true about his life was in fact a lie.
In "The World According to Garp," the novel that made him famous back in 1978, Mr. Irving's people also suffered a series of calamitous, violent events, but their stories were framed by a larger, philosophical inquiry into the relationship between reality and art, life and the imagination. In contrast with those earlier characters, who were brightly drawn, vigorous creations, Jack Burns emerges from this book as a passive, curiously vacant fellow about whom it's difficult to care.
As for the supporting cast of "Until I Find You," it's made up of generic crazies, predators and victims - comic-strip figures, drawn with the author's customary taste for exaggeration and melodrama, but without his usual energy and humor.
In fact, there is something lackadaisical and weary about this entire novel. Not only is it hideously overstuffed at more than 800 pages, but it also feels as though it had been written on automatic pilot. All the trademark Irving themes and leitmotifs are here - including wrestling, prep school shenanigans, incestuous liaisons and violent deaths - and most of them feel as though they had been mechanically inserted by rote.
As in the author's bravura 1998 novel "A Widow for One Year" and his completely annoying 1981 one, "The Hotel New Hampshire," a highly dysfunctional family stands at the center of this volume. In this case, the story quickly assumes the shape of a Telemachus-like quest for Jack's father - a quest that in turn serves as an extremely loose armature on which Mr. Irving can drape every manner of digression, while at the same time chronicling Jack's sentimental and sexual education.
Jack's earliest memories involve traveling with his mother, Alice, an itinerant tattoo artist, across Europe in search of his father, who supposedly abandoned them before Jack was born. Their search is unsuccessful, but their journeys to Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki and Amsterdam are chronicled in mind-numbing detail.
Eventually, mother and son return to Toronto, where 5-year-old Jack is enrolled as one of the few male students at a girls' school called St. Hilda's. There, he falls under the influence of a 12-year-old bully named Emma, who proceeds to initiate him into the mysteries of sex. She will turn out to be the most genuinely affectionate of the many predatory and mostly older women who treat Jack as their boy toy.
One of the problems with this novel is that Mr. Irving never finds a persuasive voice for narrating these events. The repeated acts of sexual abuse committed upon the prepubescent Jack play neither as awful, realistic acts of abuse nor as metaphorical, Grand Guignol encounters. As a result, the whole book is suffused with a smarmy but cartoonish aura: the reader is unable to sympathize with Jack as a poor abused child or to regard his experiences as some sort of farcical parable about the wicked ways of the world.
A similar problem attends Mr. Irving's depiction of Jack's adventures in Hollywood, where he becomes famous for his cross-dressing roles and eventually wins an Oscar. Like the literary careers of earlier Irving heroes, Jack's acting career seems meant to underscore the author's interest in the transformative dynamic between life and art. Unfortunately, Mr. Irving does not have the easy familiarity with Hollywood that he does with the writing world, and his extremely lengthy descriptions of Jack's life there feel forced and secondhand.
Some passages strain to create a dark, Bruce Wagner-esque picture of Hollywood, but instead yield yet another hackneyed portrait of the City of Angels as a Sin City. Jack's supposed encounters with real-life celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Meryl Streep are thoroughly unconvincing, as are Mr. Irving's ham-handed efforts to explicate the town's power-sex-money equations. For instance, he would have us believe that a young hotshot agent would have the hots so badly for a homely, overweight girl that he would help her best friend, a complete unknown, get some acting work.
Though Jack achieves enormous fame and wealth, though he becomes a worldwide sex symbol, he remains slightly detached from it all. His psychiatrist bluntly asks him: "Is it because of your mother's lies to you, or your missing father, that you are an unanchored ship - in danger of drifting wherever the wind or the currents, or the next sexual encounter, will take you?"
Needless to say, Jack re-embarks on the quest to find his father - and to uncover the truth of what happened between his parents when he was a little boy. But by the time Jack finally finds his progenitor, we could care less, so weary are we of Mr. Irving's contrived storyline and his plodding recitation of Jack's bizarre encounters with bizarre people. In fact it often seems as though the author were simply wracking his brain to come up with peculiar scenarios: we learn in all too graphic detail that Emma suffers from a medical condition that makes it painful for her to have sex unless her lover remains completely immobile, and that Jack likes to have his penis held by a woman while watching movies.
While the narrative is told in the knowing, omniscient voice Mr. Irving has used before, the reader often suspects that it's actually Jack's own account of his life - as laid out for his psychiatrist, who we're told is "the opposite of an editor" and who exhorts him "to leave nothing out."
Jack's "melancholic logorrhea" might yield some useful therapeutic results, but in terms of storytelling, it makes for a tedious, self-indulgent and cruelly eye-glazing read.