Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Top 20 Books, #1: The Finale

Before proceeding, you may want to read part 1 of this post here. If you like suspense, don't scroll down, click the link.

Anyway, where were we? The future Mrs. out in Highland Springs (not in Banning, as originally reported), low-end Hollywood party, chatting with Randolph Mantooth, the awkward final first date, yadda-yadda-yadda...

Ok, up to speed. Here goes:

Scroll back to the party, a week before the final first date. At the party, or after the party, in the ride back to the other person's car, a book was discussed (Yes, a book. That's the point of this post, remember?). Books, go figure, are common subjects in my conversations. The following is an estimation of the discussion.

She: Have you read any John Irving?

Me: Yes, I loved [The World According to] Garp.

She: What about Owen Meany?

Me: Who's that?

She: Not who. What. A Prayer for Owen Meany. By John Irving.

Me: Never heard of it.

She: Well, you have to read it. It's an amazing book.

Me: OK

She: No, you don't understand. It's brilliant. By far his best.

Me: (Incredulously) Not better than Garp.

(Somewhere I remember Tino agreeing with me. Garp is classic. It can't be better than Garp.)

She: Better.

Me: No. I don't believe it. Now I don't want to read it.

She: What?

Me: I hate when people tell you something is the best ever. You go in with super high expectations and then you are disappointed.

Then, she said something that I have often repeated, almost verbatim, when I talk about Owen Meany.

She: No. Better than Garp. I guarantee it.

Me: Whaddaya mean, guarantee it?

She: Trust me. I was just like you when someone told me to read Owen Meany. I couldn't believe it could be that good. I started it as a skeptic. And I won't lie to you, the first 75-100 pages are nothing special, just your basic novel stuff. Then wham! It takes off. It's unbelievable. It keeps building and building and takes you to the very last page. And then it's over. And I was, like, depressed, yet exhilarated. Depressed because it was over. Exhilirated because it was the best book I've ever read.

Me: Really?

She: I hate it when people hype things up: a book, a movie, whatever. But this is the exception to the rule. It will not disappoint. Read it.

Me: I will.

I said I would, but I was still skeptical. But we had planned to go to dinner a week later and I wanted to show I was open-minded. And you know what, dear readers? She was dead on right. The date may have ended in failed expectations, but A Prayer for Owen Meany rocked. I finished it in a few days. She was right, the first sixty, seventy pages were just okay and I said to myself, "Aha! See, she overhyped this!" And then I remembered, she said it would be this way, and then I hit that 100th page, and the world changed, all the way to the last page, and then silence.

She was right. Owen Meany was the best book I had ever read. And whenever I talk to people about books, the book inevitably comes up, and I give them the same speech I received in L.A. in 1992, and they are skeptical, but they all agree in the end. With one exception, someone who worked for me several years ago hated it. She didn't finish it. She just couldn't get into it, she said. I was horrified at the time, but when we had to fire her, I forgave the exception.

"In April 2003 the BBC's Big Read began the search for the nation's best-loved novel, and [they] asked [readers] to nominate [their] favourite books." Owen was #28 (see the complete list here).

Cintra Wilson, on salon.com, says the following: it was "the first book ever to make me cry." She continues:

Owen Meany is simply a great and luminous character, a man whom you wish you knew and hung out with, and the novel is driven by the merits of his palpable soul. This is a book about the interconnectedness of things and the importance of seemingly meaningless details and the yielding nature of true friendship, and how everything plays a part in recognizing a larger force and ultimate plan. There are always pitfalls and disasters, but these too play a part in the eventual logic of events. I think this is what all people want from faith -- a feeling that the seemingly senseless indignities of life ultimately serve the higher purpose of educating the soul. Like life, nothing in this book makes any particular sense until later in the book when it all falls gracefully together into a whole that means more than the sum of its parts.

"Owen Meany" is John Irving's heroic stab at connecting all of the metaphysical dots.
The full review is here, but I recommend not reading it (spoilers) until you've read the book.

I'll be honest, it is not hard to find negative comments about this book:

"Like Garp it is unnecessarily prolix and self-interrupting, but where Garp rambled to no purpose A Prayer For Owen Meany is rather too perfectly constructed. It is a book for people who want life to be explicable, who can't bear loose ends." - Stephen Games, The Guardian

"My advice is to run while you can." - Peter S. Prescott, Newsweek

"(T)he thinking behind it all seems juvenile, preppy, is much too pleased with itself." - Alfred Kazin, The New York Times Book Review

Of course, book critics are idiots, unless you happen to agree with them. Then they're brilliant. But in this case, they're wrong, so I wave rotten vegetables at them.

And maybe my emotional response to the book is based less on the quality of the book, and more on what was going on in my life when I read the book. Sure, anyone can say that about any book they've read at an emotional time in their lives. Anyone who's read Peter Høeg's Smila's Sense of Snow may recall the stark desolation of Høeg's prose, which was compounded for me by my reading it on my way back to L.A. from New York, at the beginning of a two and a half month separation from my wife and infant daughter.

I can only tell you what I know. If you like John Irving, you should love A Prayer for Owen Meany. If you don't like the author, then you may not like it as much. But I still stand by this being my favorite book. If you don't agree with me, well, obviously there's something terribly wrong with you. But seriously, the book is amazing.


Anonymous said...

Yup - it's simple. My favorite book too. Had nothing to do with what was going on in my life. I just loved it. And... I never listen to Bill's recommendations. I was NOT an english major. While I went to a private high school where I was forced to read even more Shakespeare than Bill (and god forbid the rarities - the Henries - ALL of them) - I do not have the intellectual capacity for a lot of what he reads (and gets.)
This - there was nothing to get! It is just a beautiful, moving and exciting story. And... I never want to see the movie...

Tattoosday said...

I omitted mentioning the movie, Simon Birch, purposely. It is loosely based on Owen Meany, but strays wildly from the novel. So much so, that Irving requested his credit be changed to "suggested ny a novel by John irving." WWW.IMDB.COM trivia clarifies: 'Author John Irving doubted his novel, "A Prayer for Owen Meaney", could ever be turned into a film, and sold the screen rights on the condition it not be released under the same name as his book.'

Kenna said...

This book came up in conversation with two friends last night. I've never read it, but they both loved it, and now I guess I'll have to read it.

Kenna said...

Read it. Didn't love it; didn't hate it. Although I think I hate Johnny Wheelwright just a little bit.

Anonymous said...

I just finished the book today and I can't stop thinking about it. I guess this is just one of those books that sticks with you. I cried like a baby this morning and I still feel a little down. I guess time will only tell if this becomes one of my favorite books. I don't like to make these decesions quickly. I'll have to wait and see.

I had already read The Cider House Rules by John Irving and loved it. That is a good book too--I really recommend it. I really like John Irving.

And Kenna, Johnny is what he is. I think he is indecisive and can't live his life without Owen, but I think that eventually he will be able to move on.

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