Thursday, February 11, 2010

Book Review: Last Night in Twisted River

Last Night in Twisted River
John Irving
Random House 2009

I’ve been a John Irving fan since reading The World According to Garp several years ago. And then The Cider House Rules and The Fourth Hand. I have many still to read, since his newest is novel number twelve. I’ve read half of his previous novel, Until I Find You. I kind of got stalled on it and am sure I’ll eventually go back to finish, but it was less impressive (aka more rambling) than the others and it lost my attention. A shame, since the copy I have is personally signed.

Yes, I met Irving at the National Book Fair in Washington D.C. just after that novel came out, long enough to get it signed and say hello and how I loved his story variety (which got a cute grin). I suppose I shouldn’t refer to a man who was graduating college about the time I was born cute, but so be it.

Of course I had to pick up his latest. I impatiently made myself wait a few days to start it since I was in the middle of another novel (or maybe 2 or 3 others), although I did read the first two or three paragraphs right away. The way a book begins is hugely important to me, and it yanked me right into the story.

Once I started reading, my literary spirits started to sink a bit. Like the last one, this novel – after the great beginning – felt slow. Now I don’t mind rambling in a novel if it’s interesting and the characters are pulling at me to get to know them. I like literary fiction; it’s my favorite genre and I’m not intent on rushing through books to get to the next. I savor. I kick back at night before sleep settles in and immerse myself in someone else’s world. It’s the joy of fiction.

However, if I find myself thinking I’d rather rather read something else on a particular night, I know the story is not keeping me pulled well enough.

Irving’s characters, as always, are interesting and varied and well drawn. The first problem I had was the time frame jumping. At times we were in the present moving along and then suddenly we were back somewhere in the past and trying to figure out just where in the past. I understand the point of the book: it’s largely about the process of writing, of creating a story from real life without using too much real life. That is what Irving does, and he does it well. And of course writers jump back into their past to pull stories and experiences. For the reader, though, this was slightly disconcerting.

The other technical issue I had with it was the repetition. At times, I felt Irving assumed his readers were either complete morons who had to be told something six or seven times before they would “get” it or else he was writing for dementia patients who do need things repeated (or two year olds, but the story is far too advanced for them). I’m an avid reader with very good comprehension; tell me once and I’ve got it, thanks. Repetition in the way it was used, often in an explanatory tone, felt rather insulting. No need. I gotcha the first time.

After the first half of the very long novel (and I don’t mind long, either – heck, I write long), I finally felt like I was getting swept away in it and truly enjoying it. And then, BAM, an even bigger insult right at the end. A note to writers: if you call a large percentage of your readers “stupid” even through a character’s dialogue or thoughts, you’re not winning them over for your next novel.

I also don’t mind political issues in novels. I use political issues. However, when you’re presenting one side of the issue and all of a sudden a major character comes out ranting about one certain political figure or event enough that it completely pulls away from the story and into a rant, that’s not good fiction. Yes, one of the major characters comes out and calls a whole big group of people in the current population “stupid” and “bully patriots” and “dumber-than-dog-shit” and is agreed with by the main character, the writer, who is presumably a character sketch of Irving himself. Yes, he has a right to his political opinion, but once the reader comes to that point in the novel, she ends up wondering if the whole book was written simply to make that opinion widely known.

I’d like to just remind readers that novels are one person’s opinion and that most novelists have not been on the inside of politics to know any more than the media knows. The novel does put the media down, as well, for presuming to know more than they do and to make up stories around events that aren’t the way they look. Yes, true, but so do novelists. The difference is, we’re supposed to be presenting things as fiction and opening eyes to varying viewpoints, not telling everyone who doesn’t agree with us they’re stupid bullies.

It’s hard to feel so let down by one of your favorite writers. That one section of the book truly ruined it for me. Of course, the character making those statements turns out to do something truly stupid and self-centered, so maybe that was meant to infer his opinions really aren’t worth a whole lot.

Irving can always say that Danny the character is not him and does not share his political thoughts, but as he keeps repeating through the story that fiction is not based on true life and then countering it by having Danny write about his true life, that would be rather hard to buy. 

I found much of the main character’s actions hard to fathom and had more interest in Dominic, his father, than in Danny. Danny seemed to live in his own little world and saw things from his own very limited viewpoint, which would make anything he wrote also rather limited perspective. In addition, they both ran away from things instead of facing them, which made me a tad unsympathetic and unlikely to hold their views in very high estimation. They weren’t bullies, true. They were wimpy instead: just keep running and letting the bad guy ruin your life over and over. Hm…

What I did like about Twisted River was the imagery and the voice and the bits of subtle humor and the “twist” at the end. The novel as a whole was original and rather innovative. Will I pick up his next novel? I don’t know. I may wait to hear reviews and check it out of the library instead. I do still plan to read his older books, a couple of which I have on my shelf waiting. I imagine I’ll wait on that until the “stupid” and “bully” comments have time to fade.

Legalities: This book was purchased by the reviewer and no compensation was received.


Celia Yeary said...

LORAINE--this is the best, most thorough review I've ever read. You've really delved deeply into the plot and the characters' motives and actions. Since I don't like to hear one political side's rants, I wouldn't like that part of the book, either. I stopped watching certain TV shows during the Bush administration because every episode ended with a moral verdict of the right. I don't care which side--I just resented being preached to from one of my favorite law programs, and leaving a bad taste in my mouth about the entire show. Well done--Celia

Francesca Prescott said...

Loraine, I'm blown away by your ability to analyse a book. This is such a well thought out, intelligent review. Like you said, I also start to have doubts about a book if I find myself thinking I'd rather read something else. Sometimes I'm glad I kept at it, sometimes I wish I hadn't wasted my time. But I don't think I'd be able to deliver such a thoughtful analysis about a book. Bravo ma belle!

LK Hunsaker said...

Celia, thank you! That irritates me about TV, also - the one-sided slams as though they know everything. And the way they represent the military, which is too long a comment for here. ;-)

Francesca, thank you, too! I've also had thoughts that I wasted my time on certain books, which is sad when there are so many I still want to make time to read.

On to the next one tonight: a John Jakes ;-)