Sunday, 7 April 2013

Being a real writer: Notes on John Irving and Philip Roth

I first encountered Philip Roth through the novels of John Irving, specifically his 1978 book, The World According to Garp; and I discovered John Irving through the American actor, Robin Williams.

In the 1980s, Robin Williams was a hero. In my childhood he had starred in an anarchic television series called Mork and Mindy in which he played an innocent alien from the planet Ork (Mork from Ork) who lived with a young human woman. In every episode Mork tried to understand something new about humans and humanity and then reported his findings to his superiors on Ork. In the days before Seinfeld taught us that 'no hugging, no learning' can create great comedy, such edification was quite common in situation comedy programmes. Mork and Mindy was quite funny ... sometimes ... but like Happy Days, the American sitcom in which the character Mork first appeared, it soon "jumped the shark". Jumping the shark is a phrase used to describe a television series which is past its sell-by date and has become unbelievable and unwatchable; and fearing a loss of viewers, the production team resort to gimmicks and sensational story-lines in a last-ditch desperate attempt to save a show: Happy Days' The Fonz water skiing in swimming trunks and leather jacket over a shark in Los Angeles; Dallas's Bobby Ewing returning in the shower from the dead, rendering the whole previous season a dream.

Before it jumped the shark, Mork and Mindy was a showcase for Robin Williams's own brand of high intensity manic comedy. As a stand-up comedian, Williams improvised whole routines, his energy and imagination seemingly infinite, and you can get a glimpse of his genius in his 1987 movie, Good Morning Vietnam. Moreover, Williams was good friends with another of my comedy heroes, John Belushi, star of the first season of Saturday Night Live, National Lampoon's Animal House, 1941 and The Blues Brothers. My visits to Chicago's Second City comedy theatre where many of America's best-loved comedians, including Belushi, began before their graduation to Saturday Night Live, always feels like a pilgrimage; and I met a pseudo-deity on my last visit there when Lorne Michaels (the creator and producer of SNL) was also in the audience scouting for new talent. What I did not know growing up watching Mork and Mindy was that Robin Williams spent almost the entire run on hard drugs, and that Williams was with Belushi the night Belushi died of a drug overdose aged just 33 in the infamous Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard.

In the late 1980s, I saw on television a movie which I only watched because it starred Robin Williams. In fact, The World According to Garp (1982) was his second film (his first was Popeye which also seems to have sunk without a trace).  However, not even Glenn Close as Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, nor John Lithgow as the transgender football player, Roberta Muldoon, were enough to save Garp from becoming a box-office disaster. But I was hooked. Telling my friends 'I have to get inside that guy's head' I watched the film's opening again to find out who wrote it and I discovered it was based on a novel by John Irving.

I think to understand my infatuation with Garp it is important to appreciate two things about me. First, I have always wanted to be a writer, 'A real writer,' as Helen Holm, Garp's girlfriend and future wife, tells him.

'With all the reading you do, I think you're going to be a writer,' Garp told Helen ...
'No chance,' Helen said. She had no doubt about it.
'Well, maybe you'll marry a writer,' Garp said to her. She looked up at him, her face very serious, her new prescription sunglasses better suited to her wide cheekbones than her last pair which always slid down her nose.
'If I marry anybody, I'll marry a writer,' Helen said.
Garp had been trying to joke; Helen's seriousness made him nervous. He said, 'Well, I'm sure you won't marry a wrestler.'
'You can be very sure,' Helen said. Perhaps young Garp could not conceal his pain, because Helen added, 'unless it's a wrestler who's also a writer.'
'But a writer first and foremost,' Garp guessed.
'Yes a real writer,' Helen said mysteriously - but ready to define what she meant by that. Garp didn't dare ask. He let her get back to her book. 
I watched in fascination as Robin Williams played out my dream played on the television screen. Sitting at my mother's typewriter at the age of six banging out my first juvenile one-paragraph stories, I learnt that being a writer could be a full-time job. I always wanted to be a real writer.

The second reason that Garp captivated me was the ending of the movie. I cried; and even today every time I watch the DVD which is part of my 'comfort film' collection, I am overwhelmed by a cocktail of melancholy and elation. When Garp is shot and is being flown to hospital in a helicopter, he looks out of the window and discovers that his own boyhood fantasy is now realised: 'Look, Helen, I'm flying.' The helicopter continues on its journeywith Helen and the dying Garp, while the camera pans down to reveal a bouncing baby that first introduced the movie (as the newborn Garp) with The Beatles' 'When I'm Sixty-Four' as the soundtrack. Birth and death. Perfect song, perfect movie, perfect ending.

I read John Irving's The World According to Garp in two days. It spoke to me like no other book ever had, and from then on I was determined to read John Irving's whole collection.

John Irving can be divided into two: Pre-Garp and post-Garp. Pre-Garp, Irving is clearly struggling to find his voice, to settle down and become the story teller that I came to adore. Novels like Setting Free the Bears, The Water Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage are competent and entertaining, but they lack the depth and breadth, the energy and emotion, the imagination and the character of his later books. Garp is a turning point. I remember making this point when, around twenty  years old, I wrote an unpublished essay which argued that John Irving was the new Charles Dickens:  A sense of  epic proportions; a similar taste for exaggerated characters; slow, deliberate plotting which can tell a whole story over a character's lifetime; the same mixture of bawdy comedy and tear-jerking pathos. Dickens plays a central role in The Cider House Rules (1985) in which the abortionist, Dr Wilbur Larch, reads aloud David Copperfield to the orphans in his care. 'Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.' This famous opening to David Copperfield's biography applies equally to the young Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules and to all of Irving's principal characters post-Garp. All are extraordinary people born on the verge of extraordinary lives.

This essay on Dickens and John Irving was written as part of my training as a real writer. Inspired also by the essays of George Orwell which I recall reading in a Bradford tea-shop opposite the city's only independent bookshop during University vacations.  (Yes, Bradford did once have an independent bookshop, tea-shops and cafes, none of which employed a 'Barista' to froth up your coffee.) I spent the weekdays on my University work and then I devoted  Saturday and Sunday to writing ... anything ... an essay about literature or history, politics or music - the subject was less important than the discipline of writing. If I wanted to be a real writer, I needed to write.

I am now looking at the paperback Penguin edition of Orwell's Inside the Whale and Other Essays which I bought in that Bradford bookshop. I remember staring at the cover for hours. It depicts a desk with a small portable typewriter which resembled my own (a Christmas present at age nine from my parents). On Orwell's desk there are half-filled notebooks, Russian newspapers, a bust of Karl Marx; an empty glass, ink-bottles, numerous pens and pencils; a tattered poster of Lenin surveys the scene from above the desk. That's precisely how I wanted my desk to look; that's where I wanted to be a real writer - in a messy workspace that defined my intellectual aspirations. Even now, fifteen years after my typewriter was made redundant and was replaced by the sterility of a computer keyboard, I still miss the harsh machine-gun sound that defined my early literary efforts, the bell which told me I had reached (literally and metaphorically) the end of the line, the satisfaction of feeding a blank piece of paper into the roller and removing a full sheet of paper after my work was complete; the smell of ink and the stain of Tipex.

With the exception of Last Night in Twisted River (2009) - I struggled with the stereotype Italian accents - Irving's post-Garp novels are stunning. My favourite remains A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) which affected me in a way no other novel ever has. Victor Hugo's Les Miserables moved me and defined for me the power of  story-telling to generate emotion. But Owen Meany affected me: the intricacy of its steady, intelligent plotting and the evolution of its characters to one of the most satisfying denouements in modern literature demonstrated the care that an author must devote to his work. Its opening lines are up there with those penned by David Copperfield:

'I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.'
In these three sentences we are told everything we need to know about the book. We are introduced to the main character (whose voice is depicted throughout the novel in upper case), the story's first plot point, and the ending. What we don't know is how Owen Meany convinced John, the narrator, to become a Christian and this mystery drives forward the 534-page story and explains each of the book's sub-plots. It is a big book (not as big as Les Mis) and I bought the hardback with birthday money in 1989 (price £12.95; my brand new copy of Garp was just £4.95. Such prices quickly date my library).

Since Owen Meany I have waited anxiously for each new Irving book, buying them in hardback as soon as they are available. When Until I Find You (2005) was published, I was in Amsterdam. Because most of the plot occurs there, the book first went on sale in Holland. I bought it and found a new perspective on the city in which I was reading it. Irving's most recent novel, In One Person, was published in 2012 and, having bought it as soon as I could, I resisted opening the pages until my long flight to Australia would give me the opportunity to savour it. I finished it one week later just as my train was pulling to a stop back home in Leeds.

So what about Philip Roth, Pulitzer Prize winner and, in 2011, controversial winner of the Man Booker International Prize? To be a real writer one must also be a real reader; and one way of modelling myself on John Irving was to find out who had inspired him the way Irving had inspired me. My copy of Garp contains a biographical note: 'Setting Free the Bears ... was followed by The Water-Method Man, a hilarious tale of a man with a complaint more serious than Portnoy's.' Who or what is Portnoy? Library research in the pre-Google era alerted me to Philip Roth's novel, Portnoy's Complaint; and John Irving was a literary fan of Philip Roth. If it's good enough for Irving, it is good enough for me, and so began my own admiration for Philip Roth.

Roth is a quintessential chronicler of modern America. His canon, including I Married a Communist, American Pastoral, Everyman, Exit Ghost, The Human Stain and Nemesis, are examinations of the human condition, and specifically the East Coast Jewish Male condition. Everyman, published in 2007, is the book that has touched me most. A slender novel of only 182 pages (yet at £6.99 more expensive than any of my Irving paperbacks) tells the story of us all - regret, loss, stoicism. It narrates the life and death of one man, and in doing so without fanfare or celebration, reminds us of our fragility, mortality and the mysteries of life.

Exit Ghost (2007) also speaks to me. It concerns 75-year old Nathan Zuckerman, a character at the centre of several Roth novels, who travels to New York for a procedure that will stop his incontinence. Having removed himself from life several years previously to live in the countryside free from unnecessary intrusion (' ... with no sense of loss - merely, at the outset, a kind of drought within me - I had to inhabit not just the great world, but the present moment. The impulse to be in it and of it long since killed.'), Zuckerman is reminded of the America he deliberately left behind. In New York he becomes infatuated with a beautiful young and married woman and, in his scriptwriting, fantasises about being her lover. At the same time, he meets friends he has not seen for fifty years, discovers old friends have died and tries to come to terms with his age and the loss of youth, virility and (emotional and physical) self-control. While in New York he also faces up to modernity, and all of us exasperated by a youthful obsession with staying connected while alienating ourselves from the real world will identify with Roth's picture of the mobile phone culture: Through Zuckerman, Roth asks what had made 'incessant talking into a telephone preferable to walking about under no-one's surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one's animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire'; only no-one talks on phones any more, rather they butcher the English language via text messages or constantly reveal the trivia of their lives on Facebook. Thinking has given way to saying.

The novel, like Everyman,  is a powerful reminder of our own ticking clocks and is best avoided by men facing their own midlife crises:

'There it was: the tactless severity of vital male youth, not a single doubt about his coherence, blind with self-confidence, and the virtue of knowing what matters most. The ruthless sense of necessity. The annihilating impulse in the face of an obstacle. Those grandstand days when you shrink from nothing and you're only right. Everything is a target; you're on the attack; and you, you alone, are right.
        The invulnerable boy who thinks he's a man and is seething to play a big role.'
 '... I thought in taking on the young and courting all the dangers of someone of this age intermingling with people of that age, I can only end up bloodied, a big fat target of a scar for unknowing youth, savage with health and armed to the teeth with time'.
No-one else has so precisely and accurately summarised the experience of middle age and its disturbing and destructive envy of youth that is the root of many a man's experience with depression. It takes time to learn that the onset of middle age can be a period of mourning that often precedes the transit to the contentment of accepted maturity.

Exit Ghost is not as polished as Everyman; the literary references are too contrived and appear present only to validate Roth's intellect, while the polemic is an annoying and unnecessary distraction ( 'I've served my tour as exasperated liberal and indignant citizen'). The subtlety of American Pastoral that established Roth as that country's narrator disappears in favour of explicit ranting at the post-911 maelstrom.

Yet Roth's genius for laying bare the pain of experiencing love - most often obsessional and unrequited ('a bore', according to The Mamas and the Papas) - is the most truthful. In language that matches Hemingway's in his own story of obsessional love, Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises), Zuckerman tells us about the woman at the centre of his thoughts: 'She had a huge pull on me, a huge gravitational pull on the ghost of my desire. This woman was in me before she even appeared.' He feels an incredible passion that he cannot satiate; we feel his pain and desperation.

Writing about Miguel de Unamuno Clive James explains why great writers are great:

'The best writers contain within their souls all the characters they will ever create on the page; and those characters have always been there, throughout history; so the writer, no matter how modern he thinks he is, deals always and only in eternity' (Cultural Amnesia, 2007).

Both John Irving and Philip Roth have brought to life the characters residing in their souls, and by doing so have helped us come to terms with the universal and eternal themes that perplex, haunt, disturb and sometimes enliven us.