the pencil reads

posts on articles, books and movies

A Widow for One Year

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

I liked it. A lot.

I was mildly uncomfortable the first few chapters of the book. Irving has the knack of telling you what is going to happen before telling you how it happens. His books are never like horror movies with things jumping out at your from behind corners; instead, they are like peep show -- you know what you will eventually see, but the adventure is in the unrevealing. (Hmm, there must be a better analogy than a peep show!)

Anyway, I was mildly uncomfortable the first few chapters cos I knew what was going to happen and I didn't want to read about it. But I got through the parts I didn't want to read about, and as it unfolded, I felt increasingly drawn by the characters and their life story. It was refreshing having a female protagonist too, and at some points, the dysfunctional love between mother and daughter made me tear.

I liked this novel second only to The Cider House Rules. Even though I'm getting tired of Irving's repeating theme of sex (too much!) and over-anxious parents, it was funny, heartwarming, and chock-full of eccentric characters.

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed

Tuesday, March 15, 2005
I finished another book by John Irving, this time a compilation of short stories titled Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. His short stories are interesting enough – I read the entire compilation over two days – but after reading four other full-length novels by him, his short stories are, well, too short. I’m usually left with the thought, “What! Is that it? What happens to so-and-so after his long drive to Iowa? What did that entire dinner conversation mean?” There were some stories where I didn't have a clue what Irving was trying to get at.

This compilation includes The Pension Grillparzer, previously found only in The World According to Garp. The title is derived from the first story of the compilation, Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. In a way, this story is an explanation of how and why Irving became a writer. It is a bit like jumping into cold water to suddenly have Irving as Irving address you – refreshing, different, intriguing. This was my favourite story of the compilation (not counting The Pension Grillparzer), and it starts thus:

“A fiction writer’s memory is an especially imperfect provider of detail; we can always imagine a better detail than the one we can remember. The correct detail is rarely exactly what happened; the most truthful detail is what could have happened, or what should have… Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just as carefully imagining the truth you haven’t the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary strict toiling with the language…”

And he goes on to tell a fantastic and believable story.

In another strand of thought, remember what I said concerning dreams in The Fourth Hand? I was wrong in thinking that dreams and premonitions were a new theme in Irving’s latest novel because there is a story all about dreams in this compilation titled “Other People’s Dreams”. In this story, the main character has the gift (or curse?) of dreaming other people’s dreams when he sleeps in their bed. In the last two paragraphs, there is a hint of premonition as well, which is how dreams feature in The Fourth Hand. So there, mystery solved.

The Fourth Hand

Tuesday, March 08, 2005
So I’ve finished my fourth book by Irving, The Fourth Hand. This is his latest novel (2001). Interestingly, I noted in his acknowledgements a mention of a few assistant writers. I wonder how much they actually write for him.

Anyway, back to the book, The Fourth Hand is full of sex. It is not like the sex in The Cider House Rules which is passionate, intense, and pivotal. This sex is farcical and in large amounts. It comes from having a handsome playboy as the main character. Patrick Wallingford, a news reporter who lost his hand to a lion, isn’t capable of saying no to women. He is described as physically irresistible, yet in the long run, forgettable. His ex-wife likened him to the flu – when you are down with it you feel like you will die, but when you are well again you forget he even exists. He is extremely attentive to women, but also so shallow that he is capable of “losing himself” in any woman at all.

So this novel is about how he rises from his self-created stereotype by falling in love for real, for once. It also involves four hands. Coincidentally, its content is similar to another book of Irving’s I read, The Water Method Man. Both feature a male protagonist; both characters are on journeys of self-discovery and formation. An illuminating difference though is that intrinsic to Patrick’s journey is a strong will to change, which Trumper in The Water Method Man does not exhibit.

This novel also touches briefly on premonition, dreams and destiny. This is the first time I’ve encountered this theme in his books (then again I’ve only read four) and it looks like an interesting development. In The Cider House Rules, The World According to Garp, and The Water Method Man, life is chaotic, hilarious, brilliant, tragic, completely human. In this novel, there is the barest hint of destiny. Long before Wallingford met Doris, he had already dreamt of the ending. While this destiny has to be worked for (Wallingford has to will himself not to sleep with the sexy make-up girl and the powerful colleague), the very fact that it exists is quite something as it runs contrary his earlier worldview. Perhaps Irving himself is changing?