Table of Contents
 Setting free the bears
 The water method man
 The 158-pound marriage
 The world according to Garp
 Biographical sketch

Group Title: novels of John Irving /
Title: The novels of John Irving /
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00097440/00001
 Material Information
Title: The novels of John Irving /
Physical Description: vi, 164 leaves : ; 28 cm.
Language: English
Creator: James, Wayne Leslie
Publication Date: 1981
Copyright Date: 1981
Subject: English thesis Ph. D
Dissertations, Academic -- English -- UF
Genre: bibliography   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )
Thesis: Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 1981.
Bibliography: Bibliography: leaves 161-163.
Additional Physical Form: Also available on World Wide Web
Statement of Responsibility: by Wayne Leslie James.
General Note: Typescript.
General Note: Vita.
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Bibliographic ID: UF00097440
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier: alephbibnum - 000297154
oclc - 08330836
notis - ABS3525


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Table of Contents
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    Setting free the bears
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    The water method man
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    The 158-pound marriage
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    The world according to Garp
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    Biographical sketch
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Full Text








In memory of my father, whose wisdom of how the world

really works far exceeded that of his son.


Special thanks to my chairman, Dr. R. Brandon Kershner, for his in-

valuable criticism, his unflagging encouragement, and his unremitting


Very special thanks to Victoria LaPlaca for her expert typing and

editorial assistance throughout all the stages of this long project, and

for her constant faith in me.



ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ...................................................... iii

ABSTRACT................................................. .............. v

INTRODUCT ION ........................................................... 1

N o te s . . .. .. . . . .. . .. . . .. . . . . . . . . . .. .. .. . .. .14

CHAPTER ONE: SETTING FREE THE BEARS.................................. 17

Part One: "Siggy"............................................... 22
Part Two: "The Notebook"....................................... .27
Part Three: "Setting Them Free".................................. 42
No tes ................................ .. ........................ .48

CHAPTER TWO: THE WATER METHOD MAN ....................................49

Notes................................... ..................... ..... 84

CHAPTER THREE: THE 158-POUND MARRIAGE ................................85

Notes........................................ ......... ......... 112

CHAPTER FOUR: THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP............................ 13

Notes.................................. ............. ........... 159

BIBLIOGRAPHY ........................................... ......... ...... 161

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH..................................................164

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate Council
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Wayne Leslie James

December 1981

Chairman: Dr. R. Brandon Kershner
Major Department: English

John Irving is a contemporary American novelist whose works have

captured a large popular audience and serious, but not extensive, criti-

cal attention. The popularity of Irving's best-selling novel, The World

According to Garp (1978), sent many readers back to his earlier novels:

Setting Free The Bears (1968), The Water Method Man (1972), and The

158-Pound Marriage (1973).

All of Irving's novels draw upon his experiences in the various

places he has lived: parts of New England, Iowa City, and Vienna,

Austria. Irving has employed his imagination to, in his words, "trans-

late" these experiences into the characters, incidents, and themes of

his fiction. Irving stresses very heavily the role of imagination and

inventiveness in fiction, and this emphasis is evident in the various

kinds of humor, the verbal wit, and the originality of characterization

found throughout his novels. Irving also deals extensively with the

phenomenon of imaginative creation; several of Irving's protagonists are

artists of one sort or another, and the nature and place of fictional

creation are prominent issues in most of his stories. Because he some-

times writes what has been called "fiction about fiction," Irving has

certain connections with the postmodern literary movement.

But the nature of Irving's themes and narrative structures is

essentially traditional. His narratives consistently employ social and

historical verisimilitude, and the values which his works champion are

those that have generally concerned humanitarian artists in the liberal

tradition. Irving's works are valuable as commentaries on the institu-

tions and lifestyles that characterize our age. Unlike many contempo-

rary writers, Irving is partly a satirist in the traditional sense; his

works often attack the worst in modern society: the persistence of

prejudice, the predilection for violence, and the overemphasis on mate-

rialism. Irving's novels often deal with the dangers, both emotional

and physical, which abound in a world characterized by social and polit-

ical chaos, but they also focus on those human values and institutions,

such as the close-knit family, which can provide purpose and stability

within that dangerous world.


Greil Marcus begins his interview with John Irving published in

December of 1979 by stating, "John Irving remains little known, but he

is no longer unread."' This observation was precisely right in 1979,

but today John Irving is quickly becoming as well known as his novels.

Thanks to the enormous amount of "press" given to his last two books,

The World According to Garp (1978) and his newly released The Hotel New

Hampshire,2 and to his extensive exposure through feature articles and

interviews in popular magazines and appearances on various television

talk shows, the name John Irving is well on its way to becoming a house-

hold word. Indeed, Irving has become, in certain respects, the epitome

of the "popular" writer; his latest book soared straight to the top of

the best-seller list even before its official release date. Irving has

found himself in much demand for such things as public readings and

various sorts of creative writing conferences, and he seems somewhat

less reluctant than previously to participate in such events. Part of

Irving's reluctance to become a public figure is no doubt a manifesta-

tion of his simple desire, which he has made well-known, to remain a

private, family-oriented man. Moreover, Irving consistently maintains,

as many other authors have also, that public and critical attention to

him tends to distract attention from what he sees as truly important

about a writer: his work. At various times, Irving has expressed the

same sentiments as his protagonist (who is also a novelist) in The World

According to Garp: "Read the work. Forget the life."3 But to abide

strictly by Irving's own admonition would be to miss at least part of

what is important about his novels.

John Irving grew up in Exeter, New Hampshire, where he received his

private school education at Exeter Academy. He was, in his words, "a

struggling C/B student" who maintained interest and showed promise in

two activities: writing and wrestling.4 He credits wrestling with

teaching him the value of determination and hard work, and maintains

that there was a "metaphoric" connection between how he learned to

wrestle and how he learned to write. He notes in the Rolling Stone


I was not a very good wrestler, but I did well. . I could
learn one thing, and do it over and over and over so that I
could do it on anybody. I thought I could learn to write that
way too; I was very mechanical about it. I had straightfor-
ward teachers who taught me all the basic things first. Just
a sense of clarity, and the variations that are possible on
the sentence--just that.5

After graduating from Exeter, Irving attended the University of

Pittsburgh, where he attempted to continue his wrestling, but he dropped

out when he could not achieve the same kind of success at wrestling that

he had enjoyed at Exeter. Irving then attended the University of New

Hampshire and from there went as a student to Vienna where he devoted

himself to his writing. After returning from Vienna and graduating from

the University of New Hampshire, Irving spent two years at the Iowa

Writers Workshop, during which time he published his first novel,

Setting Free The Bears (1968). Irving received positive critical

response to his first novel as well as to his second and third--The

Water Method Man (1972) and The 158-Pound Marriage (1973)--but none of

his first three books sold well enough to earn him much money. Irving

relied for his livelihood on teaching at various places, including the

Iowa Writers Workshop, until the overwhelming success of his fourth

novel, The World According to Garp (1978) gave him the financial inde-

pendence to devote himself to writing full time.

Irving makes no secret of his distaste for "biographical readings"

of fictional works, but it is quite clear that his fiction has drawn

heavily upon his personal experiences. (I will examine more closely

Irving's attitude concerning the place of personal experience in writing

as part of my analysis of Garp in chapter four.) Irving's first novel,

for example, is set in and around Vienna; its background descriptions

draw upon Irving's firsthand observations of Vienna and the Austrian

countryside, and much of its subject matter emanates from his knowledge

of Austrian political history during and around World War Two. His next

three novels are all set in American locales where Irving has lived

(various parts of New England and Iowa City, Iowa), and in each are

characters who travel, at some point, to Vienna to live or visit.

Moreover, his third and fourth novels both include characters who are in

some way connected with wrestling; the protagonist in Garp, in fact,

forms a devotion to wrestling, both as a participant and a coach, which

shows an uncanny resemblance to Irving's own. (The wrestling motif in

Garp was heavily exploited, somewhat to Irving's dismay, by Pocket Books

in its promotion of the novel.) And, finally, all of Irving's novels

deal to one extent or another with the phenomenon of imaginative, fic-

tional creation; again, in Garp, there are striking parallels between

the writing career of and the actual books produced by the protagonist

and Irving's own career and novels. When questioned about his reliance

on his experiences as a source for his fiction, Irving has consistently

played down the role of those experiences with qualifications such as

the one he voiced during the Rolling Stone interview: "Any writer uses

what little experience he or she has and translates it. It's the trans-

lating, though, that makes the difference."6 "Translating" for Irving

involves a fiction writer's use of "imagination" to transform the raw

materials of his experience into stories that are, above all, "orig-

inal"; the power of fiction, in Irving's view, lies in direct proportion

to the energy of its "inventiveness." But terms like imagination and

invention have taken on such a wide range of connotations within the

contemporary era that one must consider Irving's use of these terms

carefully to avoid being misled about the essential nature of his fic-


Robert Scholes did a great service for the contemporary critical

community with his 1971 book The Fabulators; Scholes managed to bring

together the writing of such authors as Vonnegut, Southern, Hawkes, and

Barth, which had been variously and rather vaguely defined as Black

Humor or absurdist, under the broader label "fabulation." Scholes

defines the fabulator as that artist who turns away from traditional

modes of realism and places a premium on the imaginative power of verbal

inventiveness. He says of fabulation:

First of all, it reveals an extraordinary delight in design.
With its wheels within wheels, rhythms and counterpoints, this
shape is partly to be admired for its own sake. A sense of
pleasure in form is one characteristic of fabulation. . In
the face of competition from cinema, fiction must abandon its
attempts to "represent reality" and rely more on the power of
words to stimulate the imagination. . Fabulation, then,
means a return to a more verbal kind of fiction. It also
means a return to a more fictional kind. By this I mean a
less realistic and more artistic kind of narrative: more
shapely, more evocative.7

We must not see the products of fabulation, Scholes concludes, "as

misfits which have failed to become proper novels or satires" but as

works which are firmly predicated on "the art of story-telling."8

Especially in its particular emphasis upon the place of imagination in

the fiction-making process, there are some important links between

fabulation, as Scholes defines it, and the art of Irving's novels.

There is a link, first of all, between the fabulator's emphasis on

the evocative power of language--his "return to a more verbal kind of

fiction"--and Irving's view of the writing process as, foremost, a

"mechanical" one which relies on the creative power of language for its

effect. Irving commented on his view of writing during an interview in

1979: "I never believed that writing was a matter of intellectual

capacity. It seemed to me a mechanical triumph first of all--you just

had to know the skills."9 "Inventiveness" in Irving's fiction is some-

times as much a property of language as it is the creation of original

characters and events or the delineation of ideas. Irving once said

quite bluntly to me in a personal letter, "There's more deliberate,

mischievous, 'creative playfulness' in my work than there are ideas (I

hope)."'0 Irving's emphasis on this kind of creativity shows itself in

the comedy, the verbal wit, and what some refer to as the "sheer narra-

tive exuberance" of his fiction. It also accounts largely for Irving's

fondness for pithy aphorisms and clever displays of verbal irony.

Irving has remarked about writing The Water Method Man, "I wanted to

write a book that was absolutely comic. I wanted it to be intricate and

funny and clever and I wanted it to go on and on.""1 It seems at times

that Irving, like Garp, would have himself remembered as a writer partly

for his verbal cleverness; at the end of Garp, Garp's wife Helen finds a

"whimsical" note which Garp had written before his death: "No matter

what my fucking last words were, please say they were these: 'I have

always known that the pursuit of excellence is a lethal habit.'"12

Irving never allows language to obscure the other aspects of his fiction

(as many fabulators tend to do), yet he seems always conscious of its

effect, its power, as Scholes says, "to stimulate the imagination."

But Irving's fabulation, his "delight in design," extends beyond

his concern with verbal structuring and style. In each of Irving's

novels, we find stories within stories: a proliferation of small tales

which attach to the larger plot of the book. By weaving multiple

stories into the fabric of the main plot, Irving creates artistic

"tapestries," and this bricolage effect can be, as Scholes suggests,

"partly admired for its own sake." There is usually some connection

between these smaller stories and the larger themes of the novels. In

The Water Method Man, for instance, the bizarre sexual incidents of the

"Akthelt and Gunnel" tale serve as metaphoric commentary on the problems

facing the protagonist; likewise, in Carp, the stories which Garp tells

his children reflect his own psychological motivations and fears regard-

ing the dangers of his world. Yet the connection between the small

tales and the book as a whole often seems tangential; these appendant

stories sometimes have little specific "meaning" within the novel's main

plot. For example, many incidents in The Water Method Man--such as the

confrontation between the young Fred Trumper and his father in the

family bathroom or Trumper's disastrous attempt to learn to ski--turn

into clever, self-contained, comic stories which seem to have little

thematic significance within the larger context of the novel. And even

a serious, lengthy, and finely crafted story like "The Pension

Grillparzer," which appears in Garp as an example of the young Garp's

burgoening talent, seems to be essentially an exercise in imaginative

tale-spinning for its own sake. Such stories can be seen as products of

Irving's "creative playfulness," and, as such, they are not thematically

integrated into the novel's main action and message. Yet it is a

mistake to see Irving's inclusion of such stories as gratuitous "orna-

mentation," for the weaving together of these bits and pieces of story-

telling is what ultimately defines, to a large extent, the texture of

each novel's structure. As Scholes says of fabulation, Irving's fiction

employs "wheels within wheels" to create an "artistic kind of narrative"

that is "shapely" and "evocative." Like the true fabulator, Irving

predicates his fiction on "the art of storytelling"; the sense of

"pleasure in form," which we detect everywhere in Irving's works,

springs directly from his masterful weaving together of small bits of

fictional invention.

There is also a certain connection between the fabulator's desire

to turn away from "attempts to represent reality" and Irving's view of

the use to which the creative artist puts his imagination. Implicit in

Scholes' discussion of the fabulator's use of verbal structure is a

phenomenon which other critics, who have examined many of the same

writers, have approached more directly. Tony Tanner, in his book on

American fiction between 1950 and 1970, City of Words, emphasizes that

the use of imagination and verbal structure, besides reflecting what

Scholes calls a "delight in design," often points to the artist's at-

tempt to impose an order on his fictional world that he finds lacking in

the chaotic world of reality. He notes in the introduction to his book,

"Between social space and private, inner space, there is a third or

mediating area in which the writer searches for his freedom and his

form--and that of course is verbal space"; he goes on to define "verbal

space" as that in which "the writer can arrange his perceptions of the

external world in his own pattern."13 In light of Tanner's emphasis on

the "freedom" which the imaginative artist seeks for himself, a remark

which Irving made about his use of Vienna as a setting for his first

novel seems telling: "It's not the Vienna Vienna--and that gave me

great freedom. I didn't have to be responsible to Vienna. Vienna was a

place I could make up."14 Several of Irving's protagonists seek this

same freedom that imaginative creation provides: Siggy Javotnik, in

Setting Free The Bears, freely uses his imagination to reconstruct the

"facts" of both his family's history and the history of East European

politics; Fred Trumper, in The Water Method Man, seeks to emulate his

best friend, Merrill Overturf, who makes his own life an artistic cre-

ation by "making up" whatever he chooses about himself or the world at

large. For many of Irving's characters, the freedom to impose order

through their own creation also serves as a freedom from the dangers of

a chaotic and violent everyday world; Fred Trumper and Garp both throw

themselves into artistic creation as part of their search for "protec-

tion" from a world they perceive as both psychologically and physically

threatening. Irving's emphasis on the power of the imagination, it

would seem, springs from more than just aesthetic considerations.

But to carry too far the comparison between Irving's fiction and

that which comprises a large part of the contemporary canon--whether we

call it Black Humor, absurdist, postmodern, fabulation, or something

else--is more misleading than enlightening. There are a number of

important things about Irving's works that set them apart from those of

writers like Barth, Pynchon, Vonnegut, or Hawkes. First of all, despite

his insistence that he gives "foremost" consideration to his language

and places "creative playfulness" above ideas, Irving's prose never

seeks to be, as the prose of someone like Hawkes seems to be by design,

an end in itself; Irving does not use language strictly for its aesthe-

tic effect, nor does he create complex verbal intricacies, as Barth

often seems to do, to point up the empty extravagance of the work itself

or to serve as metaphors for the unknowableness of reality. John

Gardner is right when he cites Irving as one exception among many con-

temporary writers who indulge in what he calls "linguistic opacity." He

comments on such writers in his book On Moral Fiction:Is

Fiction as pure language (texture over structure) is in. It
is one common manifestation of what is being called "postmod-
ernism." . Mobs of contemporary writers focus their atten-
tion on language . sending off their characters and action
to take a long nap. J. P. Donleavy, Ron Sukenick, James
Purdy, Stanley Elken, John Barth, and a good many more of our
writers concentrate, to a greater or lesser extent, on lan-
guage for its own sake, more in love, on principle, with the
sound of words than with creating fictional worlds.16

Whether or not Gardner is justified in heaping such vociferous condemna-

tion on the writers he attacks here, I think he is right insofar as he

sees a difference between the kind of emphasis these writers place on

their language and that which Irving gives to his. Irving is always

concerned to, in his own words, "engage the reader"17 by creating fic-

tional worlds wherein characters and actions are well defined and psycho-

logically linked. In this sense, the term imagination, as it applies to

Irving's fiction, has much of the meaning that it had for a traditional

nineteenth century novelist such as Dickens--a writer whom Irving cites

"unashamedly" as a strong "influence" on him.18

It is wrong, in fact, to suggest that Irving's use of imagination

amounts to a turning away from "realism," if by that we mean an abandon-

ment of social and historical verisimilitude and traditional notions of

logical narrative development. Most of Irving's novels are narrated in

fairly straightforward, chronological fashion; even his most complex

novel, The Water Method Man, despite its stylistic tinkerings with

flashbacks and scrambled time levels, falls finally within the bound-

aries of traditional narrative. Garp is a downright "old-fashioned"

novel in its use of sentimental characterization, editorial/omniscient

point of view, and nineteenth-century-style historical narrative--com-

plete with epilogue. Some have found Irving's works--especially Garp--

"unrealistic" in the sense that they seem to focus too much on the

bizarre or the grotesque. What constitutes "believability" in fiction

is probably hopelessly tied up with the relativity of subjective judg-

ment, but Irving has made it clear that he does not set out to create

"incredible" stories; Irving remarks in the Rolling Stone interview, for


I feel I have to smile and say, oh, that's nice, when people
tell me how zany and bizarre and far out they think my writing
is. I get a little embarrassed when I hear that because it
didn't come that way to me. It was very logical. It was
never zany. It was, "of course."19

A bit later in the same interview, he shows a certain defensiveness on

this same point; he comments,

Someone also said to me, in a really pissy tone, "What do you
think is the most unbelievable thing in The World According to
Garp?" As if it were all unbelievable. They were just spoil-
ing for a fight.20

That bizarre and grotesque occurrences appear frequently within the

fictional worlds which Irving creates is undeniable. But his fictional

worlds are not rendered fantastic or incredible as a result. Irving

does not create what Marcus calls "arty, comic-book worlds"21 as do some

of his contemporaries such as Vonnegut or Heller. Irving consistently

creates thoroughly human characters, even his antihero types, with whom

we empathize because their place within the human condition closely

resembles our own. Irving's "translation" of human experience into

fiction is original, innovative, and, at times, even shocking, but it

never involves creation of the unrecognizable.

It is not just the nature of Irving's narratives, however, that

sets him apart from most of his contemporaries, for the motifs and

themes which underlie his narratives are also essentially traditional.

Although his fiction never serves merely as a vehicle for Irving's

social, philosophical, or political views, his works are unlike those of

the fabulator who, as Scholes tells us, rejects all efforts at moraliz-

ing or satirizing in the traditional sense.22 Beyond their comedy and

creative inventiveness, Irving's novels are important as commentaries on

modern society: the institutions, values, and lifestyles that charac-

terize our age. Not unlike so many nineteenth century novelists (for

whom he claims a "preference" over most twentieth century writers23),

Irving is a satirist in as much as he exposes and often attacks the

worst in modern society: the persistence of unthinking prejudice which

overshadows humanitarian behavior, the predilection toward senseless

violence as a solution to personal or social problems, the injustice

inherent in value systems predicated on materialism and selfishness.

Irving's fictional worlds are often rendered menacing or even absurd,

but the message which emerges from the work itself is rarely informed by

despair or nihilism. Irving once noted in a letter to me, "It's fair to

say that my work reduces itself to 'the simple human verities of love

and kindness.'"24 Each of Irving's works is, in some way, a family

story, and within them the traditional values associated with the family

--security, devotion, love--are consistently championed.

It might be an oversimplification, but certainly not an exaggera-

tion, to suggest that "preservation of the family" is the motif around

which all of Irving's novels are built. There is, in fact, a simple

formula at work in all of Irving's fiction: preservation of the family

is the highest good while disintegration of the family is the worst

evil. Danger, tragedy, and suffering pervade Irving's fiction, and that

thing most threatened is the family. The lives of Irving's characters

are largely dictated by what happens to their families: the destruction

of Siggy Javotnik's family leads to his "schizophrenic" behavior and

thus indirectly to his tragic death; Fred Trumper's life is given valid-

ity and purpose when he establishes a permanent family; the unnamed

narrator of The 158-Pound Marriage is destroyed by cynical despair when

his family falls apart; and the meaning of Garp's short life lives on in

the form of his extended family. Moreover, the concern which so many of

Irving's characters show for the vulnerability of children becomes a

metaphor for the inherently precarious nature of human life in general.

As a whole, Irving's fiction seems to suggest that he shares the domi-

nant concern of his protagonist in Garp. The narrator of that book

tells us at one point,

If Garp could have been granted one vast and naive wish, it
would have been that he could make the world safe. For child-
ren and for grownups. The world struck Garp as unnecessarily
perilous for both.

Underlying all of Irving's fiction are two things that have concerned

all serious artists within the liberal tradition: the love of life and

the fear of death. These are brought together in his vision of the

family: within the family we can both give and receive the highest kind

of love through procreation, and, in so doing, we can find some protec-

tion, however transitory, from the threat of destruction.

Perhaps what can finally be said by way of characterizing Irving as

an artist is quite simple: he is, above all, a storyteller. Irving has

said that when he creates fiction, he is mainly concerned with two basic

things: "making characters" and "narrative momentum."26 His novels

bear evidence of these concerns, for what affects us most about them,

finally, is our engagement with the lives of the characters and their

stories. The various aspects of his writing craft are clearly geared

toward that engagement. His style, for example, serves primarily to

delineate character and action; his prose is essentially simple, direct,

and economical, and, as such, it avoids drawing attention to itself at

the expense of characterization or narrative development. Irving often

uses dialogue and succinct description of actions to allow his charac-

ters to reveal themselves; his narratives are given much of their

"momentum" by his use of more direct action than enveloping action.

Moreover, he avoids sophisticated plot devices that might obscure the

essence of the story itself. Irving's popularity and his importance as

a serious artist rest finally upon his ability to create imaginative,

compelling narratives peopled by clearly defined human characters about

whom we care.

As a popular writer, Irving has received considerable critical

attention in reviews and short articles, but there has been very little

extensive or in-depth critical treatment of his works. Consequently,

this study attempts, foremost, to provide a close textual interpretation

of each novel; the bulk of each chapter is devoted to general analysis

of the structure, characterizations, motifs, themes, and ideas of the

respective novel. This analytic approach attempts to evaluate each work

as an artistic achievement and as a commentary on twentieth-century life

and thought. A particular question that this study addresses is that of

the "place" which Irving's works occupy within the scope of contemporary

fiction. Because each of his novels shows a mixture of tendencies--

modernist, postmodernist, and what we might call traditionalist--

determining where Irving "fits," as an artist and as a thinker, becomes

a complex task. Also singled out for special attention here is an issue

which underlies all of Irving's fiction: the relationship of the

creative artist to his own creations and to art in general. Apparent in

each of the novels is a paradoxical attitude about the value of imagina-

tive creation; concomitant with suggestions that art is essentially

valueless, except as a way for the artist to impose some order on the

chaos of his existence, there is strong evidence that Irving recognizes

the moral responsibility of an artist as a commentator on social and

political phenomena. Finally, this study attempts to assess the

development of Irving's artistic techniques and of his vision from his

first novel to his fourth. It can be shown that Irving's most important

novel, The World According to Garp, although quite different from his

earlier works, is, in several important ways, an outgrowth of his first

three books. Garp receives the most extensive treatment, not only

because it is Irving's most ambitious achievement, but also because it

is instrumental to a thorough understanding of the outlook at the center

of each novel: a vision of the world according to John Irving.


lGreil Marcus, "The World of The World According to Garp," Rolling
Stone, 13 December 1979, p. 69.

2Because The Hotel New Hampshire was released just before the
completion deadline for this study, I was unable to include any analysis
of it here.

3John Irving, The World According to Garp (New York: Pocket
Books, 1978), p. 580.

4Harcus, p. 71.

SMarcus, p. 71.

6Marcus, p. 71.

7Robert Scholes, The Fabulators (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1967), pp. 10, 11, 12.

8Scholes, p. 18.

9Marcus, p. 70.

1'Quoted from a personal letter which I received from John Irving
dated 3 October 1980, p. 2.

'Marcus, p. 72.

2lIrving, The World According to Garp, p. 582.

'3Tony Tanner, City of Words: American Fiction 1950-1970 (New
York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 19.

14Marcus, p. 71.

1SGardner's book is a very far-reaching assault on contemporary art
and artists which amounts finally to a moral condemnation so strong that
it smacks of religious self-righteousness. I do not mean to imply here
that I share Gardner's condemnation of the writers he attacks.

16John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (New York: Basic Books, Inc.,
1978), pp. 69, 70, 71.

1Personal letter from John Irving, p. 1.

8Personal letter from John Irving, p. 1.

19Marcus, p. 73.

20Marcus, p. 73.

21Marcus, p. 72.

22Scholes, p. 41.


23Personal letter from John Irving, p. 2.

24Personal letter from John Irving, p. 2.

25Irving, The World According to Garp, p. 279.

26Personal letter from John Irving, pp. 1, 2.


During his interview with John Irving, Greil Marcus commented that

Setting Free The Bears is an unusual novel, especially for a first novel

by an American author, because it is set entirely in Europe and contains

no American characters.' The setting of Setting Free The Bears cer-

tainly does make it unique among recent American fiction, but the

strength of Irving's first novel rests on more than its uniqueness.

Setting Free The Bears is an impressive first novel because it deals

with such a wide variety of things that are prominent in contemporary

fiction and in twentieth century life and thought in general. If only

in its breadth of appeal, Setting Free The Bears exceeds Irving's next

two novels and rivals Irving's weightiest and most popular novel, The

World According to Garp. Setting Free The Bears is a multifaceted novel

in a way that Irving's next two, for the most part, are not.

While it is essentially a "protest" novel, typical of the sixties

era out of which it comes, Setting Free The Bears is also much more. In

its examination of the grim political realities which underlay the

atrocities and destruction in Eastern Europe during the early and mid

twentieth century, Setting Free The Bears is not unlike the historical

novels of Ignazio Silone, Cesare Pavese, or Thomas Mann. In its use of

the chaotic military and political situation of Eastern Europe as a

metaphor for the larger sense of absurdity and the breakdown of meaning-

ful values in the modern world, it compares with the absurdist and


"black humor" novels of Joseph Heller or Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. And, final-

ly, in its emphasis upon the importance of basic human verities within a

world peopled by "survivors" of the physical and psychological on-

slaughts of modern existence, it falls within the modernist tradition of

novelists such as William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Put simply, the

novel deals with many of the most disturbing moral and philosophical

problems that have occupied the best minds and writers of the twentieth


The structure of Setting Free The Bears is relatively complex, for

the novel is made up of three parts, each of which is quite different in

style, tone, and message. Part one of the novel, narrated by the pro-

tagonist, Hannes Graff, relates the adventures of Graff and his new-

found friend, Siggy Javotnik, as they travel by motorcycle across the

Austrian countryside in 1967. This part is dominated by a picaresque

quality and is highlighted by light and often boisterous humor. Graff

interrupts his own narrative to present, in part two, two sections from

Siggy's writings which he inherits following Siggy's tragic death at the

end of part one. One section is Siggy's firsthand account of a night he

spends locked inside the Vienna Zoo planning his grand scheme for free-

ing all the animals; the other section is Siggy's "fictionalized" ver-

sion of his own family's history and the history of Eastern Europe

between 1938, just before Hitler's takeover of Austria, and the end of

the Russian occupation of Vienna in 1955. In stark contrast to the

light tone of part one, part two is characterized by a dark, disturbing

tone which emanates from Siggy's graphic descriptions of the tragedy and

destruction which ravaged Europe before, during, and following World War

II. Graff picks up his own narrative again in part three which concern

his efforts to carry on with the adventuresome trip which he and Siggy

had begun and his eventual carrying through with Siggy's plan to set

free the animals in the Vienna Zoo. The tone of part three shares both

the light, picaresque qualities of part one and the somber, disturbing

air of part two, so that the message of this part and of the book as a

whole, finally, is an ambiguous, paradoxical mixture of heroic idealism

and cynical despair.

While Setting Free The Bears deals generally with the moral and

philosophical problems of the modern world, it also concerns itself more

specifically with the problematic nature of the fiction-making process.

The complex issues concerning the nature and place of imaginative writ-

ing are ones that Irving will come back to again and again in his sub-

sequent works. Here these issues attach specifically to the form of the

second part of the novel, that part which interrupts the immediate nar-

rative line of the novel and interjects some of Siggy's writings. By

examining a single family's history of suffering and destruction,

Siggy's "Notebook" becomes a microcosmic examination of the larger

historical events that ravaged all of Europe during World War Two and

its aftermath. But eventually Siggy's "Notebook" is revealed to be no

more "historical" than the whole of the novel itself, and thus some

disturbing questions about the imaginative artist's freedom to "make up"

things are raised. In various interviews, Irving has emphasized that he

is never interested in strictly factual renderings of times or places in

his writings, just as he is never interested in writing autobiograph-

ically. Irving states this clearly in the Rolling Stone interview:

The Viennese friends I have point out two things about my
writing about Vienna. One is, it feels very much like Vienna
to them, and it reminds them of all the things they've ever
felt in Vienna. But then they're quick to say that of course

it isn't Vienna at all. And indeed it isn't. It's not the
Vienna Vienna--and that gave me great freedom. I didn't have
to be responsible to Vienna. Vienna was a place I could make

Now this freedom to "make up" is an extremely important aspect of

the fiction-making process for Irving and one that, considering the

nature of part two of Setting Free The Bears, leads to some important

critical questions. Just as in The World According to Garp, in Setting

Free The Bears we are presented with a writer creating a fictional story

within the fictional story of the novel itself. We do not know it at

first, but the "Highly Selective Autobiography of Siegfried Javotnik,"

which relates the historical "facts" of the central family, turns out

not to be very strictly autobiographical at all; it is, in fact, a

rejected master's degree thesis which Siggy labels "what is loosely

called fiction--a novel, say. Because it's not intended to be a real

history."3 Just as in Garp, what we have is a novel within a novel,

fiction within fiction. But actually it is more complex than this, for

Siggy's "novel" is based mostly upon the "remembrances" of a close

friend of the central Viennese family, Ernst Watzek-Trummer. What's

more, Graff, as "editor" of Siggy's material, actually creates a new

fiction out of Siggy's fiction by strategically interweaving the two

sections taken from his writings. The layers of fiction piled one upon

another here create some intriguing critical questions: Does Siggy's

fictionalization of his autobiography somehow undercut its validity as a

"true" rendering of events? Can the failure to recognize or acknowledge

a fiction for what it is ever mislead people in their actions in the

"real" world? (Graff carries through on Siggy's plan to set free the

animals in the Vienna zoo after reading his fictionalized "Notebook";

this culminates in a disaster as most of the animals are destroyed, and

Graff ultimately questions his own actions.) And broader questions

inevitably evolve from the smaller ones: does the undercutting of those

views expressed in the fiction within the novel cast doubts upon the

validity of any "truths" that are posited by the novel as a whole?

Moreover, the book seems finally to ask, is it ever possible to be

thoroughly understood as a creator of fiction, and what are the dangers

of being misunderstood? These questions, only intimated here, will

become focal points in Garp.

Largely because Setting Free The Bears raises so many questions for

which it provides only few and mostly tentative answers, the overall

vision of the novel is ambiguous. In fact, there seems to be a juxta-

posing of the messages which emanate from the three parts of the novel,

so that the message of any one part of the novel is undercut by that of

another. For example, the romantic, carefree, almost hedonistic spirit

of part one of the novel is undercut by the brutal, disturbing realism

and serious political protest of part two. Yet the actual manifestation

of that protest turns out to be the ill-conceived and disastrous "zoo

bust" in part three, so that the serious political protest of part two

is itself undercut and reduced to a kind of absurd, self-defeating

gesture. There is an uneasy tension created between the book's positing

of fundamental human values and its constant undercutting of those

values. Ultimately, the novel renders an unsettling vision of a world

in which good intentions, heroic deeds, and humanitarian ideals are

buried beneath the destructive, illogical, and seemingly malevolent

happenings of a reality governed by chance. The cautious optimism

expressed by the protagonist at the very end of the novel keeps Setting

Free The Bears from slipping into outright nihilism, but the tone of the

book remains dark and tinged with cynicism. An analysis of each part of

the novel reveals the recurring pattern of "deflation" (each part under-

cutting the message of the preceding part) which defines the novel's

complex vision.

Part One: "Siggy"

Both in its specific qualities and general tone, part one of

Setting Free The Bears is a reversal of part two. For example, unlike

the humor in part two which is mostly "black" humor, disturbing and

unsettling rather than simply funny, the humor in part one is light,

boisterous, and traditionally comic--appropriate to the picaresque

spirit of the environment here. The very titles of the chapters in part

one bespeak an air of lighthearted fun: "The Second Sweet Act of God,"

"Out of the Bathtub, Life Goes On," "What Christ Cooked Up in the Bath-

room." Within the lighthearted world of part one the two adventurous

and mischievous young rogues, Hannes Graff and Siggy Javotnik, need

only, as one of Siggy's aphorisms advises, "be blissfully guided by the

veritable urge!" (p. 7) as they set off on their impromtu trip across

the Austrian countryside. Any troubles which threaten these two quickly

dissolve into burlesque comedy. When they are fined by a game warden

after trading their unlawful catch of trout for their breakfast, Siggy

gets clever recompense by stealing his wife's frying pan and various

other useful utensils. When Siggy is confronted by a lunatic who tries

to taunt him into a fight so that he can sue for assault, the scene

turns into riotous slapstick complete with the stock "clown" pouring

beer into his trouser's fly and being "bashed" in the groin with a

motorcycle helmet. Likewise, an incident involving Siggy's setting free

a pen of sheep becomes a stock burlesque scene; Siggy attempts to shoo

off the sheep while children laugh and scream and an old man blubbers

empty threats at the two young rascals. The crowning comedy of part one

is a pages-long description of a desperate attack which Siggy wages on a

milkman whom he observes beating his helpless horse. From its long,

detailed description of a naked Siggy riding the milkman's back in and

out of muddy bushes and frantic observers, to the final arrival of the

bumbling local police, this scene seems to come straight out of the

light-hearted tradition of Laurel and Hardy or the Keystone Cops.

Indeed, the comedy of part one is so dominated by the harmlessly ridic-

ulous that it resembles farce rather than serious comedy.

In conjunction with the lightheartedness of the humor in part one,

there is a pervading sense of idyllic romance. In typical romantic

fashion, the two adventurers leave the stifling environment of the city,

choked with automobile exhaust fumes and dull university duties, to romp

aimlessly in the fecund, open countryside. Graff and Siggy begin to

"live off the land," catching fish to sustain them as they wallow in the

teeming abundance of nature. Graff's narrative descriptions in part one

are replete with idyllic scenes of natural exuberance and abundance,

with all the standard images of the romantic poet:

There was a boulder under the bridge, and it made a tiny
waterfall to clean our trout in; we let the water spill into
their slit, flapping bellies, sluice about their lovely ribs
and fill them up to their high, springy breastbones. . .
When the sun came off the water and hung level with the
bridge, we thought we'd find a farm and make our deal for
breakfast. . Siggy drove slowly and we both leaned back to
catch all the air smells, of pine pitch in the woods, and of
clover and sweet hay beyond. The woods were thinning, fields
swelled behind and beside them. . Then the road climbed a
little and the river ran down and away from us; we could see a
village now--a squat church with an onion-shaped spire, and

some solid buildings close together in a one street town. (p.

At another point, Graff revels in thoughts of the ideal nature of this

idyllic environment; with their beers cooling in a nearby stream, Graff

thinks to himself,

Belly-up to the sun, then, with the bee drone all around us; I
couldn't see the road from the orchard, just the bridge rail
underlining the treetops, the green-blotched bouquets of
blossom and bud. This world is kind to itself, I thought.
Well, the bees make honey for the beekeeper, the bees multiply
the orchardman's apples; no one's hurt by that. And if oily
Herr Faber were a bee-keeper, and Gippel an orchardman,
wouldn't they be all right too? (p. 43)

Misadventure does come into their lives when Graff and Siggy offer

a ride to an innocent, young country girl named Gallen, for this results

in Graff's burning his legs on the motorcycle's exhaust pipes. But, as

it turns out, this merely provides a welcome excuse for prolonged treat-

ment and recuperation at a cozy country Gasthof owned by the girl's

aunt. There Graff indulges in some naughty but harmless flirting with

Gallen, who suffers his advances with feigned annoyance and responds

with her own provocative teasings. Siggy, meanwhile, collects flowers,

writes poetry, and stirs up various sorts of comic mischief. Neither of

the two carefree young heroes even takes the threat of being jailed

following the milkman incident very seriously. It merely provides Siggy

with a reason to slip away and return to the Vienna zoo, where he plots

the details of his strange scheme to set free all the animals. Up very

nearly to its end, then, part one is essentially a comic, lighthearted

tale of romantic adventure; its main characters seem to resemble a kind

of comedy duo, and its tone is virtually untouched by anything like the

bitter, sobering cynicism which dominates part two.

The tone of part one is not sustained to its very end, however, for

it is abruptly shattered in the last scene, which depicts the bizarre

and gruesome death of the eccentric Siggy. While trying to escape the

local authorities, after returning to accuse Graff of disloyalty to

their shared ideals, Siggy rides the motorcycle into a wagonload of bee

hives and is stung to death. That such a freak accident should climax

part one seems, in one way, rather appropriate: the whole scene is

somehow in keeping with the chaotic, slapstick nature of events here.

But the humor of the last scene is no longer light and comic; it has

suddenly turned black and menacing. Because of its nature, this scene

takes on central importance, both to the shaping of Bears and to the

overall direction of Irving's thought in his later novels. This sort of

scene--depicting the violent suffering or death of an innocent victim at

the hands of a malevolent and freakish fate--will become for Irving a

recurring metaphor of the absurd and dangerous nature of the world.

Here this scene serves specifically as a transition between parts one and

two, for it points back to subtle hints, planted mostly in Siggy's

aphorisms quoted sporadically throughout part one, of the dangers in-

herent in a world ruled by chance, and it points forward to part two

where absurdity abounds in a world ravaged by senseless political chaos

and warfare.

Most of the aphorisms and snatches of Siggy's poetry which Graff

interjects into the text of part one merely reflect the carefree, roman-

tic idealism and light comedy which are so prevalent here. For example,

he quotes such lines from Siggy's "jottings" as "Finesse is no substi-

tute for love" (p. 23) and such poems as

Notorious Graff,
Lord of the Tub
Where nymphets come to water.
Grabby Graff,
Sly in the Tub,
Leads virgins to their slaughter.
Bottomless Graff,
Fiend of the Tub,
Wooer of beasts and nymphets.
Appalling Graff,
Stealthy in Tub,
Makes virgins into strumpets.

Oh Graff!
Rotten Graff!
For your ass a briar staff
To teach you to be kinder. (pp. 52-53)

We are merely amused by such interjections and reminded of the harmless

camaraderie which underlies the relationship of the two central figures.

But planted throughout part one, although they are nearly obscured by

the prevailing air of comedy, are aphorisms and jottings by Siggy which

seem to foreshadow his own tragic death in the final scene and to por-

tend the fatalism of part two. Some of Siggy's aphorisms are rather

ambiguous yet vaguely unsettling. For example, Graff interrupts his

narration of a comic scene of mid-morning promiscuity in the zoo beer-

garten to quote a strangely sobering thought from Siggy's notebook:

"You have to draw the line somewhere" (p. 18). But later in part one,

the interjected aphorisms and poems, while still overtly comic and

lighthearted, become less ambiguous and more disturbing; at one point,

as Graff soaks his legs in a bathtub, Siggy sings him a disconcerting

"bathtub song":

Disaster, disaster,
We're having a
If we try to
Get away,
Will run faster. (p. 67)

At another point Siggy's sudden flash of cynicism deflates one of

Graff's idyllic visions of a life given to orchard and bee keeping.

When Graff insists, "Well, Sig, I could never tire of this," Siggy

responds, "One day it rains, one day it snows," and this is followed by

a short poem quoted from Siggy's notebook:

Fate waits
While you hurry
Or while you wait,
It's all the same to Fate. (p. 43)

And finally, shortly before the catastrophic last scene, Graff quotes

the opening lines of an unfinished poem from the notebook:

Ah, Life--fat bubble fit to burst!
Fate's got the veritable pin. (p. 79)

Given the point of view of this part (Graff narrating the events from a

point in time following Siggy's death), these interjections serve as a

subtle foreshadowing of Siggy's fateful end. But more important, these

hints, along with the freakish nature of the disaster itself, foreshadow

the absurdities and destruction which proliferate in part two. The

all-important juxtaposition of the novel's parts has been effectively


Part Two: The "Notebook"

A promotional blurb from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, printed on

the inside cover page of Setting Free The Bears, notes that this novel

"has much to recommend it. It moves rapidly from incident to incident

in the best picaresque tradition. It is full of amusing dialogue. Its

characters are depicted with love and skill." One wonders if the re-

viewer read beyond part one. Placing part one and perhaps part three in

the picaresque tradition is certainly accurate, but lumping the cruci-

ally important part two under this label is rather misleading. The

lighthearted tone, adventurous spirit, romantic settings, and burlesque

comedy of part one are replaced in part two by a sobering, sometimes

cynical tone, and a preponderance of black humor. Part two undercuts

the tone, spirit, and message of part one by throwing its lightness and

laughter against a background of menacing darkness and senseless


This is not to say that there is nothing in part two of the roman-

tic idealism guiding the two heroes in part one; nearly half of part two

is devoted to a detailed account of Siggy's "zoo watch," the long night

he spends hiding inside the Heitzinger zoo, philosophizing and planning

the strategy for his grand, idealistic gesture of liberation. Moreover,

the "Autobiography" section of part two, despite its elements of black

humor, champions a number of humanitarian ideals; we learn that Siggy's

moral mentor is a simple but wise, loving, and stout-hearted man named

Ernst Watzek-Trummer. His efforts at holding together a deteriorating

family, to which he does not belong but is morally and spiritually

attached, and his status as a "survivor" make him reminiscent of a

Faulknerian heroic peasant type. Yet the spirit of Siggy's idealistic

act of liberation and protest, which grows directly out of his sense of

outrage at the inhumanity visited upon his own family, is thrown into

question when Graff later carries through with Siggy's plans and creates

only another disaster.

The juxtaposing of contrasting messages, which characterizes the

overall vision of Setting Free The Bears, points up a critical paradox

that shows up in much of Irving's writing. This paradox involves the

clash between a concerned artist's deep-seated urge to protest those

insane human attitudes and actions which contribute to destruction and

suffering in the modern world and his absurdist attitude which tends to

mock all such efforts as futile and perhaps even counterproductive.

Such a paradox is hardly new or unique to Irving, for it can be found at

the center of the works of numerous contemporary writers who fall into

the protest/absurdist category: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Joseph Heller, John

Barth, and Tom Robbins. But Irving has made a rather unique use of this

paradox to effectively juxtapose the sections of Setting Free The Bears

so that they work both with and against one another. The contrast

between the two sections of part two--Siggy's history and his zoo watch

--parallels the larger contrast between part one and parts two and

three, and the effect of all this is to turn what first appears to be a

light novel in the "picaresque tradition" into a probing and disturbing

examination of the human situation in the modern world.

There are a number of important characters in the autobiography

section of part two, but the protagonist here, that character which this

part is essentially "about," is actually the narrator himself, Siggy.

The shape he gives to his "Selected Autobiography" reveals as much about

him as it does about the story's characters; the basis of his outlook

and motivations is made evident by his treatment of the materials of his

"Prehistory." But, in another sense, Siggy is not the ultimate "con-

troller" of part two at all, for the immediate narrator of the novel,

Graff, shapes part two by alternating the presentation of two sections

from Siggy's "Notebook" which he inherits following Siggy's death. It

is this alternating structure of part two that shows us so clearly how

Siggy's ideals, motivations, and actions are directly influenced by the

tragic events which surrounded his family's history. Moreover, the

split structure of part two reflects the split personality of Siggy

himself; Siggy comes to see himself as a combination of his moral men-

tor, Ernst Watzek-Trummer, who provides him with a historical perspec-

tive, his own biological father, Vratno Javotnik, a cynical, antihero

figure who attempts only to adapt to the absurdity around him to sur-

vive, and his "mythical" father, Zahn Glanz, a purportedly genuine hero

who acts selflessly against the injustice and destruction which ravage

Eastern Europe during World War Two. Thus the paradoxical protest/

absurdist split is shown to control this part at all levels: it defines

Siggy's personal vision and character while it also controls the struc-

ture which Graff, as editor/ narrator, gives to the whole of part two.

To find the roots of this split vision in Siggy, one must first

look to his handling of "The Highly Selective Autobiography of Siegfried

Javotnik: Pre-History." The cynicism and black humor which character-

ize this section are a product of Siggy's outlook, and that outlook, he

makes clear, is itself a product of his family's tragic history. Early

in the "Zoo Watch" section, he writes to Graff concerning the "monstrous

decisions" with "terrible consequences" that shaped his "pre-womb exis-

tence" and then continues, "You see, Graff, in our case, it's the pre-

history that made us and mattered to what we'd become. My vita begins

with my grandparents and is almost over on the day I was born" (p. 104).

But the spirit of moral protest and humanitarian idealism, which exists

alongside Siggy's cynical outlook, also springs from that history. He

speaks partway through the "Autobiography" of what he chooses to see as

the heroic deeds of his "spiritual" father, Zahn Glanz, and identifies

himself closely with him. Of Zahn's purported effort to help an anti-

Nazi newspaper editor escape to freedom, Siggy comments:

If Zahn Glanz wasn't the driver, why did he never meet my
mother in Kaprun? So he must have been the driver. And
carried with him half of what I was at that time, because then
I was, at best, only an idea of my mother's--half of which, if
it didn't cross the Hungarian border at Kittsee, went wherever
Zahn Glanz went. (p. 155)

And Siggy's heroic plan to liberate the animals from the Heitzinger zoo

is prompted, we learn later on, by his speculation that Zahn Glanz was

possibly the first "zoo buster," an unfortunate would-be hero who was

eaten by the animals which he freed. Around the core of senseless death

and destruction which makes up Siggy's family history, then, are those

figures and forces--heroes and anti-heroes, idealism and absurdism--

which shape his personality.

A large part of the fatalism which affects Siggy seems to be in-

herited from his maternal grandfather Marter who struggles admirably but

not very successfully to hold his family together during the long and

painful war and postwar years. As the family name suggests, Siggy's

grandfather is a "martyr" to the violence of the war. Early in the

"Autobiography," there is a clear contrast drawn between the optimistic

idealism of the young, politically-minded student Zahn Glanz, and

Grandfather Marter. Upon hearing the arrival of Chancellor Schuschnigg

announced on the radio, Zahn passes a remark which sparks a telling


"He's done something, anyway to show we're not just Hitler's
"Know-it-all," says Grandfather. "Just who does he think
he is? Another Andrews Hoffer, standing up to Napoleon.
Cheers in the Tyrol--that I believe. But what do they say
about Schuschnigg in Berlin? We're not standing up to a
Frenchman this time."
"God," says Zahn. "Give him some credit. The vote's a
sure thing. Nobody wants Germany in Austria."
"You're thinking like a taxi driver now, all right,"
Grandfather says. "Nobody, you say--and what does it mat-
ter?--wants, you say. I'll tell you what I want, and how
little it matters. I want a man who'll do what he says he'll

do. And that was Dollfuss, and he got murdered by some of
those nobodies you mentioned." (p. 121)

To his wife and daughter, each concerned more about her social appear-

ance than politics, Grandfather is just "an old pessimist." But the

course of events quickly proves his pessimism to be well-founded; the

"vote" turns out to be worthless, Schuschnigg is quickly forced to

resign, and the control of the Austrian government falls under the

brutal hand of Hitler. And thus begin the long years of wholesale

death, destruction, and madness that ravage Eastern Europe; the auto-

biography becomes a history of this general destruction and the subse-

quent dissolution of the Marter family. Grandfather Marter, with the

help of Ernst Watzek-Trummer, does his best to keep his family together,

but after his family loses their home and possessions, his brother is

burned to death by a Nazi Youth member, his wife is machine-gunned to

death by a trigger happy Russian soldier while she is announcing the

birth of their grandchild, and his son-in-law is mysteriously liquidated

by a professional Yugoslav assassin, he finally commits suicide. The

sense of fatalism that Siggy inherits grows directly out of his reaction

to the malevolent madness that led to the dissolution of his family and

his grandfather's suicide.

But Siggy inherits a deep-seated intellectual cynicism from his own

father, Vratno Javotnik, that far outstrips the fatalistic pessimism of

his maternal grandfather. Vratno Javotnik is presented as the epitome

of the absurdist antihero. In the midst of the political and military

chaos of the war years, Vratno, unlike the heroic young Zahn Glanz,

seeks only to survive by adapting himself to the absurdity of his envir-

onment. Siggy first introduces his father as one who "had no affilia-

tions" politically and to whom religious affiliation "couldn't have

mattered . one way or the other" (p. 158). Siggy notes that his

father's "pessimism at an early age" prompted him to become a linguist

so as to learn the languages of various invading armies; his description

of how his father reasoned out such a survival method is laced with the

cynical irony that characterizes the "sanity" of the antihero:

The Croatian reaction in Zagreb was probably sullen--the
feeling that the Serbs were sure to get everyone killed by
their lunatic defiance of Germany. Vratno only thought they'd
missed the point. It didn't matter whose side you were going
to be on; when Germany came into Yugoslavia, one day it could
save your skin to speak German. Burning your textbooks was
certainly unwise. (p. 158)

A bit later, Siggy notes that, during the overthrow of the Austrian

government, there were many "heroes in Belgrade," naming them off one by

one, but he then continues, "In Jesenje was my father, making himself

universally fluent, preparing for his sly survival" (p. 159). These

tactics do help Vratno survive--for a while--but they can neither pro-

tect him from suffering during the following war years nor ultimately

prevent his bizarre annihilation. Like the real heroes, such as the

brave, selfless Nihailovich, the antihero Vratno is also destroyed.

Siggy's account of his father's efforts at survival-through-adap-

tation is filled with expositions on the absurd logic and rationaliza-

tion which proliferate during war time and with black humor scenes

dominated by the cynical bitterness which underlies most of part two.

Siggy's description of the city of Slovenjgradec, for example, is laden

with bitter irony:

The only people my father had to fear in Slovenjgradec were a
few uprooted Serbs. These called attention to themselves on
October 21, 1941, by protesting the somewhat conflicting
reports of the massacre at Kraguyevats, where--one broadcast
said--2,300 Serbian men and boys were machine-gunned in re-
taliation for 10 German soliders killed by Chetniks, and 26
Germans also sniped but only wounded; another broadcast said
that at least 3,400 Serbs were shot, which would have been in

excess of the retaliation number promised by Germany to combat
Chetnik sniping--that is, 100 Serbs per German killed and 50
serbs per German wounded.
Whichever broadcast was correct, the womenfolk of
Kraguyevats were digging graves from Wednesday to Sunday, and
Slovenjgradec, at least, was generally pacified to learn that
the Germans had presented the Kraguyevats Town Council with
380,000 dinars for the poor. Who were just about everyone
after the massacre. Oddly, the amount of the German donation
was estimated to be slightly less than half of what 2,000 to
3,000 dead Serbian men and boys might have had in their pock-
ets. (p. 161)

It is in Slovenjgradec that Vratno must first use his linguistic abil-

ities to "adapt" himself for his survival when he accidentally falls in

with the "Slivnica family horde," a family of totally amoral, apolitical

professional assassins whom Siggy describes as "odd-job artists for the

Ustashi terrorists" and as "dread fiends, all of them" (p. 162). Vratno

is enlisted by them to befriend, "get-the-goods" on, and eventually

assassinate a German motorcycle scout-outfit leader, Gottlob Wut. The

rationale which Bijelo Slivnica uses to argue that Vratno must be Wut's

assassin is a model of the baffling absurdity which characterizes war-

time political conditions in Eastern Europe:

"Wut is a German. Germans kill Chetnik-Serbs, and lately,
partisans. Partisans kill whatever the Germans want killed,
but they don't want to kill partisans if they can help it."
"Why not?" my father asked.
"Because," said Bijelo, "the Ustashi will soon enough be
killing Germans for the partisans, because in the end the
partisans will win."
"So what?" said Todor.
"So who does just about everyone want to kill?" Bijelo
"Serbs!" said Todor.
And Bijelo Slivnica finally said, "Then a Serb should
kill Gottlob Wut. Because the Ustashi will support the German
percentage proclamation and kill one hundred Serbs for the one
German, Wut. So the Germans are appeased, and when the Red
Army and the partisans team up and drive the Germans from
Yugoslavia--there's the Ustashi, having a good reputation for
killing Serbs, nasty Chetnik-types. So the partisans are
happy to have the Ustashi along. And the Ustashi stay happy;
they pick winners. And, of course, they settle the score with
old Gottlob Wut. Now I ask you," said Bijelo, "how's that for
thinking?" (p. 188)

Indeed, such ludicrous and inhuman rationalization of the slaughter of

scores of human beings is what passes for "thinking" in the kind of

environment Vratno must endure. His quest to survive is typical of that

of the Black Humor antihero; as Robert Scholes suggests in his book, The

Fabulators, "The Black Humorist is not concerned with what to do about

life but with how to take it."4 For Vratno, "taking it," eventually

means abandoning even his efforts to adapt to the deadly chaos around

him; he is forced simply to hide from it.

Eventually, Vratno double-crosses the Slivnica family, Gottlub Wut

bombs their car, killing all but one of them, and the would-be assassin

and would-be victim ride off on motorcycles into the bills to wait out

the madness of the war. But even there they cannot successfully escape

the omnipresent horrors of the time. Siggy's narration of Vratno and

Gottlob's two-year sojourn in the mountains of northern Slovenia often

mixes descriptive scenes of massacre and slaughter with scenes rife with

unsettling black humor. At one point, for example, Siggy first de-

scribes a scene which the pair witness on one of their infrequent trips

out of the mountains:

The second trip, to Turkey, ended just southeast of Maribor at
the Drava River, where the Ustashi had accomplished another
massacre of Serbs the night before; an elbow of the Drava was
clogged with corpses. My father would always remember a raft
snagged in some deadfall along the bank. The raft was neatly
piled with heads; the architect had attempted a pyramid. It
was almost perfect. But one head near the peak had slipped
out of place; its hair was caught between other heads, and it
swung from face to face in the river wind; some faces watched
the swinging, and some looked away. (p. 198)

Then in the very next paragraph he describes the bizarre and perversely

comic death of an old peasant who steals fuel and food from the Ustashi

to help Gottlob and Vratno stay alive:

He raided the Ustashi depot at Vitanje--until the August of
'44, when he was returned to Rogla in a fellow-villager's
mulch wagon. The terrified villager said the Ustashi had
stood the kicking Old Durd on his head on the wagon floor and
shovel-packed mulch all around him; only the soles of his
shoes were visible at the peak of the mulch mound, when every-
one tried to extricate him for a proper burial in Rogla. But
the mulch was too wet and heavy, too hard-packed, so a certain
mass of mulch was chopped and rolled off the wagon into a
hole; the hole was circle-shaped because that was the appro-
priate cut of the mulch mass, which was said to contain Borsfa
Durd. Although no one really saw more of him than the soles
of his shoes, the fellow-villager who'd brought him back, in
his reeking wagon, testified that it was Borsfa Durd without a
doubt--and Gottlob Wut said he recognized the shoes. (p. 199)

There is a burlesque quality to such scenes which recalls the farcical

air of part one; the absurdity of Durd's burial is comical in much the

same way as Siggy's absurd attack on the milkman. But here the laughter

is merely a thin veneer covering the chilling reality of the human

depravity and insanity being depicted. Perhaps the most graphic example

of this is Siggy's perversely humorous narration of Gottlob Wut's own

Durd-like death by suffocation in excrement; he dies at the hands of

those men in the German scout-unit which he deserted:

Heads bowed over the trough, breath held against the rising
steam and stench, eight men fumbled and peed . .
Then the man spanning the crapper gave a cry . "Wut"
the man screamed, and Gottlob, turning fast and peeing down my
father's leg, saw sloppy Heine Gortz rip the handrail from the
rotting, tiled stall's wall and pitch backward, pants snug at
his ankles, fanny first down into the crapper's chasm. "Oh
dear God!" moaned Heine Gortz, and feet-up, his pocket change
falling down on him, he cried again, "Wut! For God's sake,
Bronsky, it's Wut! Wake up, Netz! You're peeing next to old
And before my father could stop his own peeing, Bronsky
and Hetz had spun poor Gottlob around and bent him backward
over the urinal .. They moved him into the stand-up
crapper stall. Then they upended him, and sent him head-first
down into the breathless bog. Balken 4 worked as a team.
New-leader Heine Gortz, beshitted from his spine to the backs
of his knees, had Wut by one leg and stuffed poor Gottlob down
the crapper's chasm . . Like poor Brosfa Durd, Gottlob Wut
was buried coffinless; like Borsfa Durd, Gottlob Wut could
finally be recognized by no more than the soles of his shoes.
(p. 212)

Such black humor treatment, with its incongruous mixture of laughter and

disgust, renders fully the absurdity of such occurrences. And it is the

utter absurdity of the actions of all those engaged in the war--on

whatever side--that Vratno must finally hide from. When the Marter

family returns to their home in Vienna at the end of the war to find

Vratno hiding there, Grandfather Marter immediately asks him, "Which

army are you hiding from?" Siggy narrates his father's answer: "'All

of them,' my father said, in German--then in English, then in Russian,

then in Serbo-Croat. 'All of them, all of them, all of them!'" (p.


But even the end of war does not mean the end of fear, suffering,

and death for those who survive the Hitler years in Eastern Europe.

Siggy's narrative of the postwar years in Austria recounts the atroci-

ties of the "liberating" Soviet army; at one point he states, "For a

liberating army they did a surprising amount of raping and such" (p.

215). Elsewhere he relates various incidents of senseless death in

occupied Vienna: Russian soldiers machine-gunning an innocent old man

peeing out an apartment window, machine-gunning Grandmother Marter as

she announces the birth of her grandson, and even, in all the chaos and

confusion, machine-gunning one another. In Siggy's own family, the

death of his grandmother is followed hard upon by the "liquidation" of

his father at the hands of the surviving Slivnica family member, and

eventually by the disappearance of his mother and the spectacular mail-

sled suicide of his grandfather.

It is, indeed, as Siggy himself says, a "scary world" of unrelent-

ing, senseless violence into which he is born. And it is the response

of two family members to the absurdity of all this destruction--the

fatalism of his grandfather and the cynicism of his father--that helps

to form a major part of Siggy's character. The evidence of Siggy's own

cynical outlook can be found in his personal revelations in the "Zoo

Watch" section. Near the end of that section, for example, he writes

revealingly of his thoughts on longevity:

At the risk of sounding polemical, I'd like to say that there
are two ways to live a long time in this world. One is to
trade with violence strictly as a free agent, with no cause or
love that overlaps what's expedient; and if you give no direct
answers, you'll never be discovered as lying to protect your-
self. But I don't exactly know what the other way to live a
long time is, although I believe it involves incredible luck.
(p. 242)

Obviously, Siggy's sympathies gravitate toward the "survival-through-

adaptation-to-absurdity" attitude of his father; like his father, Siggy

seeks, at least with one side of personality, neither to make much sense

of life nor to protest its malevolence, but just to "take it."

The revelations of the "Autobiography" section of part two, then,

explain much about Siggy's character: the hedonism mixed with streaks

of fatalism evident in part one, the bitter resignation bordering on

despair evident in the "Zoo Watch" section of part two. But there is,

of course, that other side of Siggy's character which manifests itself,

not in resignation, but in humanitarian indignation and outraged protest

against all those forces which trap or enslave men or beasts, inflict

senseless cruelty, and induce needless suffering. It is this side of

Siggy which induces him to set free fenced animals, to attack the horse-

beating milkman, and to dream up the liberating of the Heitzinger zoo

animals in part one. And it is his moral outrage, based upon his deduc-

tion (later confirmed by Graff) that the night watchman at the zoo

tortures the animals for his sadistic pleasure, that confirms his re-

solve to liberate the zoo animals. This side of Siggy's character is

also traceable to his family history; specifically it springs from the

influence of two other father figures in his early life: the mythic

hero Zahn Glanz and the very real hero/survivor Ernst Watzek-Trummer.

As Siggy's autobiography depicts them, both Zahn Glanz and Ernst

Watzek-Trummer are opposites of Vratno Javotnik. We learn that while

Vratno was preparing for the war years by making himself linguistically

and politically "adaptable," both Zahn and Ernst were already voicing

their protest against the forces of tyranny and in support of those

which promised liberation and freedom. In the first autobiography entry

dated Nay 30, 1935, the radical Zahn is introduced as "Hilke's first

boyfriend" who "thinks he'll be a journalist, or a politician" (p. 106).

The "Autobiography" then skips to the year 1938, just prior to the

ill-fated election of Chancellor Kurt Von Schuschnigg, the subsequent

dissolution of the Austrian government, and the invasion by Hitler's

troops. Now Zahn and Ernst are both vociferous supporters of

Schuschnigg and Austrian independence; the day before "Black Friday,"

March 11, 1938, Ernst constructs his Austrian eagle suit out of pie-

plates, lard, and feathers and parades through Vienna proclaiming the

freedom of Austria. Ernst's ludicrous but admirable gesture prompts

Zahn Glanz to some bold but ill-conceived actions of his own; donning

Ernst's eagle suit, completed imaginatively by the addition of real

chicken claws, Zahn drunkenly but boldly drives his taxi through Vienna

with "Ja Schuschnigg!" scribbled on its hood. Thus is the contrast

between the heroic idealism of Zahn Glanz and Ernst Watzek-Trummer and

the cynical antiheroics of Vratno Javotnik first established.

This initial contrast is supported by the rest of Siggy's narra-

tive; while Vratno is hiding through his language skills and fleeing the

forces of chaos from city to city and country to country, Zahn is pur-

portedly risking his life to drive the Nazi resistance editor Lennhoff

to safety in Hungary, and, later, liberating the starving and threatened

animals from the Vienna Zoo. (Siggy's narrative provides no proof that

Zahn was actually the heroic driver or the first "zoo buster," but it is

important that Siggy clearly comes to believe that he was.) And during

this same time, Ernst Watzek-Trummer is selflessly helping to support,

hold together, and protect the Marter family. Siggy's narrative makes

this contrast between the two heroes and the antihero most explicit late

in the "Autobiography" after Vratno marries Siggy's mother and becomes a

part of the Marter household. Siggy emphasizes, for example, how his

father becomes aware of the lingering power and presence of the myth-

like hero Zahn Glanz. Vratno finds that this mysterious person somehow

preoccupies his wife's thoughts to the point that he becomes little more

than a physical surrogate for Zahn. At one point in the narrative,

Siggy depicts a three-way confrontation among his father, Ernst Watzek-

Trummer, and his mother which illustrates this:

"Now you tell me, ok? . Who was Zahn Glanz?" . My
father screamed at him, "Zahn Glanz, damn you!" . Then my
mother was out of her room, with her nightgown open so wide
that Ernst Watzek-Trummer looked away from her. She said,
"What was that? Who is here?" "Zahn Glanz!" Vratno shouted
at her. Zahn Glanz is here!" And with a flourishing gesture
to her room, he said, "Zahn Glanz! What you call me in there
sometimes--and they're usually the best times too!" (p. 236)

Moreover, in another part of the same scene, the narrative clearly draws

a contrast between the die-hard loyalty of the humanitarian Watzek-

Trummer and the compromising self-preservation attitude of Vratno; when

Vratno describes his abandoning Gottlob Wut to save his own skin, Ernst

displays shocked disbelief:

Vratno called to mind the sloppy Heine Gortz's question "Who
are you with Wut?" And speculated how he might have kicked
Heine Gortz down into the crapper, and then grabbed Bronsky,
or Metz or both, bending them back over the urinal while
Gottlob freed himself and cracked their skulls with his con-
cealed Amal racing carburetor.
And suddenly Watzek-Trummer said, "You mean you didn't do
all that? You didn't even try to do any of that?"
"I said we just met" my father told him, "and Gottlob was
a good enough sport to go along with it."
"Oh, he was, was he?" Watzek-Trummer roared. (p. 236)

Siggy's determination to make some gesture of protest against the cru-

elty of the world, no matter what the odds against its success, spring

directly from his admiration for Zahn Glanz and Ernst Watzek-Trummer.

Three things, finally, become metaphoric of the paradoxical personality

that Siggy's prehistory bequeaths him: the 1938 Grand Prix Racing

motorcycle that represents his father's self-preserving flight from

chaos and destruction, the pie-plate eagle suit that symbolizes the

fierce loyalty and selflessness of Ernst Watzek-Trummer, and the ori-

ginal Heitzinger "zoo bust" which comes to represent the romantic hero-

ism of Zahn Glanz.

Part two of Setting Free The Bears is clearly its thematic core;

what we learn here in some way qualifies, clarifies, or otherwise af-

fects our reading of everything else in the novel. Its alternating

structure, besides underscoring the contrast of the larger parts of the

novel, becomes a kind of metaphor of the "schizophrenic" nature of the

protagonist whose outlook is split between a recognition of the evident

futility of selfless actions in a world dominated by senseless violence

and general absurdity and a need to somehow protest and even act against

those forces of tyranny in the modern world. It might be suggested that

Irving's depiction of the zoo nightwatchman as an ex-Nazi who sadistic-

ally tortures animals as he once did human beings is a bit too ingenious

as a plot device; but Siggy's motivation to set free the animals is,

nevertheless, presented as admirable. The active idealism of Ernst

Watzek-Trummer prevails over the antiheroic resignation of Vratno

Javotnik and, in the spirit of the romanticized hero Zahn Glanz, Siggy

decides to help 0. Schrutt's "small mammal charges" escape his tyranny.

And even though Siggy does not himself carry out his plan, his decision

and all that it implies--his motivation for it, the questionable wisdom

of it--is the central issue of part three. In a sense, Hannes Graff

must choose to honor one or the other side of Siggy's character in the

same way that Siggy had to choose to emulate Vratno Javotnik or Zahn

Glanz. Although Siggy dominates the book, Graff is finally the hero of

the novel; he receives Siggy's legacy--in the form of the motorcycle,

the notebooks, and the scheme for the zoo bust--and the burden to make

something of it that the self-destructive Siggy could not. That process

becomes a complex one and the value of his decision to honor Siggy's

intentions, once it is acted upon, becomes profoundly ambiguous. A

large part of this complexity stems from the fact that both Siggy and

Graff are influenced in their decisions by Siggy's "Highly Selective

Autobiography" which, he admits, as I have earlier noted, was "not

intended to be real history" and should be looked at "as what is loosely

called fiction--a novel, say." These key phrases are, in large measure,

what part three is all about.

Part Three: "Setting Them Free"

There are several metaphors that might depict the movement of the

novel up to the end of part two. One might compare this movement, for

example, to the swinging of a large pendulum. From the high point of

its light, comic, picaresque narrative in the first part, the novel

moves downward toward the sobering suggestions of fatalism in part one's

tragic ending; it then plunges downward even deeper and more rapidly in

the second part, fraught as this is with so many scenes of unexplainable

destruction and death which are rendered in a tone laced with black

humor. But then there is clearly an upward movement at the end of part

two as Siggy throws off his sense of fatalistic resignation and plans

his heroic liberation of the animals in the Heitzinger zoo. Or, without

running through all the permutations, one might plot the novel's move-

ment as a series of slow inflationss" followed by rapid "deflations."

But, such crude comparisons aside, the novel does seem somehow to con-

tinually undercut itself, to put forth a tone or a message which is

subsequently thrown into question. Not surprisingly, part three is the

capstone of this process. Here the attention shifts to Hannes Graff

who, it is soon apparent, shares Siggy's psychological paradox; he

vacillates between an attitude of cynical resignation in the face of a

seemingly arbitrary and senseless existence and a morally-inspired drive

to protest the cruelty and tyranny of that existence.

With the revelation at the end of part two that Siggy's "Auto-

biography" is more "fiction" than "real" history, we are suddenly beset

by the same sort of skepticism that affects the narrator himself. There

is a feeling that we have somehow been tricked or cheated, and we begin

to look back rather skeptically on the "truth" of what we have just read

and been deeply affected by. This is the very reaction of the narrator

in his opening "P.S." chapter in part three; Graff explains that he

interleafed the "Autobiography" and "Zoo Watch" sections because "I felt

it was almost impossible to endure either the verbosity of Siggy's

souped-up history or the fanatcism of his rotting zoo watches--if you

were to read them whole" (p. 263). Moreover, he casts a skeptical eye

on Siggy's motivations that spring from his reaction to his family

history: "Certainly Siggy made some obscure connections between his

awesome history and his scheme for busting the zoo; though for my own

part, I can't speak too well for the logic in that" (p. 263). And

finally he casts even more doubt on the authenticity of Siggy's history

by noting its dependence on numerous unacknowledged and perhaps ques-

tionable sources: "I'm afraid that Doctor Ficht was at least right in

griping about poor Siggy's failure to footnote. He obviously drew as

heavily from Watzek-Trummer's library as he did from Old Ernst himself"

(p. 263). Ultimately, Graff's skepticism extends from Siggy's autobi-

ography to Siggy himself; he notes at the end of the first chapter, for

example, that he is simply not convinced by Siggy's grand comparisons of

himself to war heroes like Drazha Mihailovich. Graff almost defiantly

throws the spirit of part two and Siggy's motivations which spring from

it into question; that is to say, he quite effectively "deflates" that


Graff's skepticism, in fact, seems to push him toward the hedon-

istic spirit so prominent in part one. Following Siggy's death, he

decides simply to continue his adventuresome trip, now with Gallen as

his partner, recalling Siggy's admonition, from that earlier time, con-

cerning how to have a successful trip: "He had once had the way not to

spoil it. No planning, Graff. No mapping it out. No dates to get

anywhere, no dates to get back" (p. 267). He scoffs at Siggy's own

breach of that wisdom when he thinks, "How funny, really, his crazy and

elaborate scheme for the zoo bust looked alongside that previous notion"

(p. 267). Graff feels some guilt about not accompanying Siggy's body,

reluctantly admitting to himself that he felt he "didn't have nearly

enough calamities on record to hold a candle to Trummer and his ghastly

burial duties, direct and indirect, certain and implied, one by one" (p.

274). But with his cynicism seemingly well entrenched, he soon sets

off, accompanied by the naive young Gallen, on his "no plans" adventure


Intent on "knocking over" Gallen instead of the Heitzinger zoo,

Graff retreats from Siggy and his crazy schemes into romance, but it

soon becomes apparent that Siggy and his history are having their effect

on him, nevertheless. Even as he makes love to Gallen, he is haunted by

thoughts of Siggy, and we soon see that his constant belittling of

Siggy's scheme is intended to convince himself of its craziness as much

as anything. He begins to rationalize his feelings; he tells himself,

for example, "I would have gone with him (to the zoo), but only because

he obviously needed looking after" (p. 275). And he finds that he must

consciously use his intellectual skepticism to block his sympathy for

Siggy's romantic ideals; he argues with himself at one point: "I mean,

thinking coldly, it was a brainless, impossible plan" (p. 275).

Thoughts of Siggy's history, of the spirit, if not the reality, of the

heroics of Zahn Glanz and Ernst Watzek-Trummer begin to intrude upon his

hedonistic involvement with Gallen and his carefree plans for "no

plans," until finally his intellect--that device of his cynical

pessimism--is overthrown. He makes this quite clear at one point when

he thinks, "Somewhere in the rotting mirror, I had lost my head and

couldn't find it" (p. 312). Graff begins to give in to his emotional

attraction to Siggy and his mad scheme even though his logic militates

against it. When Gallen asks him, "How could anyone take Siggy seri-

ously?" he rebukes her with, "I liked him, you bitch. .. It was his

idea and it's crazy, maybe. And maybe, so am I" (p. 310).

We are not very surprised, then, when Graff finally does carry

through on Siggy's plan for the zoo bust, for his rationalizations

against the whole notion become increasingly transparent (not to mention

the fact, of course, that the title of the third part is "Setting Them

Free"). But also we are not surprised because, by now, we have come to

expect such a diametric shift in attitude, a swing from an intellectual-

ized resignation to an idealistic, emotionally charged assault on the

world's injustices. In fact, our familiarity with the cyclical nature

of this movement prepares us for the shift which Graff's outlook and the

tone of this section takes once again when the zoo bust becomes an

obvious failure. After witnessing the animals killing one another

following their release and people slaughtering them for "bounty" in the

streets, Graff concludes, "Oh, I am sorry, Siggy. But you were more

than illogical, you were wrong" (p. 333). He now collapses into an even

deeper state of resignation; he is rendered, as he puts it, "inert" (p.

337). He can only conclude, "Things didn't piece together any better

than before" (p. 336), and he rebukes his own well-intentioned but

ill-conceived actions; he thinks,

What worse awareness is there than to know that there would
have been a better outcome if you'd never done anything at
all? That all small mammals would have been better off if
you'd never meddled in the unsatisfactory scheme of things.
(p. 337)

But this is still not the last swing of the pendulum, of course, for as

Graff lies "inert" in a ditch outside Vienna, deserted by a disgusted

Gallen and regretting his own foolishness, he catches sight of a pair of

Rare Spectacled Bears trotting off into the freedom of the woods. His

romanticized heroics suddenly seem justified once again. But he is

cautious, still touched by skepticism; he decides he must quickly move

on before some vision appears which could once again render his efforts

at liberating the bears nugatory, something "that would not have allowed

me to believe in them, either" (p. 339). In the final scene, Graff

rides his motorcycle away from Vienna, heading toward Siggy's body in

Kaprun and Siggy's mentor Ernst, feeling a confidence in his ideals, at

least, as he says, "for the moment" (p. 340). Graff seems to have

learned from his experiences, and he accepts responsibility for the

consequences of his actions. And thus the text ends with the metaphoric

pendulum on the upswing; but, of course, we are left with the knowledge

that what goes up, will probably come down.

The ambiguity of its ending befits the overall complexity of

Setting Free The Bears. This novel, like so many of the best novels in

the contemporary canon, raises more profound questions than it answers.

Philosphically, it poses a whole array of existential questions concern-

ing the meaning and purpose of life. Psychologically, it poses ques-

tions about human motivations, needs, and perversities. Artistically it

raises questions about the nature of fiction, the influence of the

fiction writer, and the possible "dangers" of the whole creative pro-

cess. Especially in the light of Irving's later development, it is

extremely important to remember that part two of this novel, that part

which raises so many of the key questions and serves as the book's

thematic center, is presented as a "fiction," a kind of novel within the

novel. I would suggest that a large measure of the importance of

Setting Free The Bears has to do with its stature as a "portrait of the

artist" novel, not in an autobiographical sense, but in the quite

literal sense that the novel is a "portrait" of "an artist" creating

fiction which has a profound but finally morally ambiguous effect. Some

of what is important in Setting Free The Bears will be deemphasized in

Irving's next two novels. But nearly all of those questions raised in

Setting Free The Bears will emerge to claim central focus in his fourth

novel, The World According to Garp.


'Greil Marcus, "The World of The World According to Garp," Rolling
Stone, 13 December 1979, p. 71.

2 Marcus, p. 71.

3John Irving, Setting Free The Bears (New York: Pocket Books,
1968), p. 254. All subsequent references will be to this edition; page
numbers will be cited within the text.

4Robert Scholes, The Fabulators (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1967), p. 43.


Perhaps the first thing to note about Irving's second novel, The

Water Method Man, is that its scope is much narrower than that of

Setting Free The Bears. Whereas Setting Free The Bears was directed

outward, in that it concerned itself with broad historical, political,

and social issues, The Water Method Man is very much directed inward; it

centers almost exclusively on the problems of the protagonist. Because

of its narrower scope and the fact that the novel is imbued with so much

humor, some have viewed The Water Method Man as a less "serious" novel

than the first. Irving himself has helped to sustain this evaluation by

calling the book "a lark."' Indeed, The Water Method Man is a genuinely

funny book, so comic, in fact, that its other qualities seem at times to

be overshadowed. But to think of The Water Method Man as a comic tour

de force which contains only a few serious ideas is a major critical

mistake. The concerns of this novel are less diverse than those in the

first, but they are no less serious or important. Moreover, the differ-

ence between the two books is an important indicator of the direction

which Irving's development takes after his first novel. Irving has said

that with each of his novels, he found it easier to find his "voice";

consequently, there is a development in the first three books which

culminates in Garp--a book which is much more of a personal "statement"

than the others. By turning its attention away from broad historical

and social issues, The Water Method Man focuses on more specific ques-

tions that Irving will increasingly give attention: how does one create

stable meanings in a world of totally relative values and truths? How

does fiction relate to reality, and what are the dangers in being unable

to separate the two?

The Water Method Man is Irving's most technically complicated

novel; the narration of each chapter is fairly straightforward, but the

chapters shift backward and forward in time so that the various "pieces"

of the plot do not come together until late in the book. The scrambled

pieces of the story amount to a series of flashbacks to various parts of

the protagonist's life which are built around a central, "stable"

present time narrative. The first person narrator relates his story in

retrospect (we see him beginning the very novel we are reading late in

the book), so the book's structure reflects his own effort at "putting

together" the pieces of his chaotic life.

The novel deals with various "phases" in the life of the protagon-

ist/narrator, Fred "Bogus" Trumper. Before his "married phase," Trumper

lives a carefree, hedonistic life with his friend, Merrill Overturf, in

and around Vienna. The relationship between Trumper and Merrill is

reminiscent of that between Siggy and Graff in Setting Free The Bears,

and their activities have the same comic picaresque qualities as those

of the two rogues in part one of the first novel. But their companion-

ship is ended when Trumper becomes involved with and eventually marries

a buxom, serious-minded young American skier named, appropriately,

Biggy. Trumper finds his life as a poor, married graduate student in

Iowa City boring and stagnating; when his marriage begins to break down,

he abandons his wife and child to return to Vienna in search of Merrill.

Unable to find Merrill after six months of searching, Trumper is forced

to return to America where he finally learns, through American authori-

ties, that Merrill is dead. The trauma of Merrill's death, coupled with

the shock of finding his wife involved with another old friend, throws

Trumper into a period of mental paralysis. He works with an avant-garde

filmmaker, and takes up residence with one of his coworkers named

Tulpen, but he eventually abandons her also to return to Iowa, where he

finishes his Ph.D. thesis. When he learns that Tulpen has had his

child, Trumper returns to her; they reconcile their relationship, and

Trumper finally seems to find security and fulfillment in his role as a

husband and father.

The Water Method Man is devoted almost exclusively to an examina-

tion of its narrator/protagonist: his life, his problems, and his

psyche. The events in the narrative, the other characters in the book,

or anything outside the protagonist are important only insofar as they

have an effect on or somehow tell us something about the protagonist.

The point of view helps to maintain this concentration on the protag-

onist; although the point of view shifts from first-person (in Trumper's

"diary" and letter sections) to third-person limited omniscient (Trumper

evidently writing from a more objective perspective), our attention is

always focused on the him. We see his world and the other characters

through his eyes; we know his thoughts, fears, and hangups from "in-

side." The title of the novel is surely the only appropriate one; the

novel's subject is the Water Method Man, period. There are technical

aspects of the novel--various elements of style and structure--that are

important to a full analysis of it, but to get at the major issues of

the book, one must first look closely at its central character; to

examine the protagonist of this novel is to examine its major thematic

thrust, for the two are virtually inseparable.

Fred Bogus Trumper is every bit the contemporary antihero. Trumper

seems to be a first cousin to John Barth's Jacob Horner; his history is

a long and mostly futile effort to make any sense of himself or the

world around him. Early in the novel he tells us of his loss of faith

in the objective world, the world of facts; he states flatly, "None of

this is important; these are just facts."2 For him, facts, while true,

are merely things that he has constant difficulty keeping straight; he

tells us, "Facts fall out of me slowly. So I don't get lost, I'll

repeat them. Now there are two. One: My urinary tract is a narrow,

winding road. Two: Tulpen and I have the carelessness of our names in

common. And possibly not much else" (p. 7). He admits to being a

"pretty good liar" (thus his nickname, "Bogus") and places his faith in

rituals rather than objective truth; at one point he responds to his

girlfriend Tulpen's admonishing him to "stick to the facts": "I hon-

estly think my avoidance of the facts has as much to do with my dis-

trusting the relevance of them as it has to do with my lying a lot; I

don't think the statistics in my life have ever meant very much. . .

Rituals are more revealing than facts" (p. 58). Consequently, Trumper

maintains a number of rituals: writing letters ("It was the ritual of

writing them that mattered," he states); making tape recordings; keeping

a diary (bits of which become parts of the novel itself); making love at

a certain time, in a certain way, and in a certain environment. Rituals

are one of Trumper's refuges from the shifting, chaotic nature of objec-

tive reality; they are one of the few things that help him to keep the

details of his life straight and to make some sense of them.

Trumper's profound distrust of the objective world also gives rise

to his Garp-like paranoia about the inherent dangers lurking in everyday

activities. He worries persistently about the safety of his loved ones;

he wonders, for example, if the three spare tires which he carries in

his car "are enough" (p. 20). At another point he reveals his gratui-

tous fears for his child and his home in a letter to his wife and son:

I always watch him sleep for a while. What I mind about
children is that they're so vulnerable, so fragile-looking.
Colm: I get up in the night to make sure your breathing
hasn't stopped. . I have to check the stove; the pilot
light is always going out. And that furnace sounds funny; one
day we will wake up baked. Then check the lock on the door.
There's more than hogs and corn in Iowa--or there might be.
(pp. 61-62)

Trumper is overprotective of his son; he seeks again and again to shield

him from the pain, suffering, and death so prevalent in the world. When

Colm asks his father to take him to downtown Iowa City, Trumper attempts

to dissuade him: "'There's just people there .. If we went there, we

might see one of them crying--or worse'" (p. 158). He attempts to

shield Colm from the horrors of the "outside world" by taking him to the

zoo, but there they find the animals are mistreated, suffering, and

fighting, and Bogus ends up wondering, "Is this good for a child to

see?" (p. 158). Even feeding the ducks in the city duck pond turns into

a confrontation with the reality of death; when a duck crashes into the

pond and floats dead, Bogus tries to convince his son that the bird is

"just being silly," but Colm shocks his father with his awareness of the

mortality of all living things. He tells his father bluntly, "'Some

ducks just die . They just get old and die, is all. Animals and

birds and people, they just get old and die'" (p. 161). Trumper's at-

tempts to shield those he loves from the dangers and suffering in the

world are invariably unsuccessful, and his desire to do so is tied

closely to another of his efforts to take refuge from the world of cruel

"facts"--an attempt which is also not entirely successful.

Just as Trumper uses letter writing and tape recording rituals to

help impose some kind of structure on the chaos of his experience, so he

attempts to use imaginative creation as a shaping tool: a device to

lend some order to the disorder of his existence. For Trumper, imagina-

tion and creativity are less important as sources of meaning and value

than as bulwarks against the dangers and meaninglessness of reality.

Trumper finds his Ph.D. thesis project, a translation of an Old Low

Norse poem, an unbearably pointless task until he begins "making up"

vocabulary and eventually whole passages and sections instead of doing a

strict translation. Eventually he decides to "legitimize" the project

by reworking the whole poem into a faithful translation, but he finds

that this simply restores the pointlessness of it; the narrator tells

us, "When he had finished all four hundred and twenty-one stanzas, it

seemed a pretty empty accomplishment. In part this was because he had

been so honest a translator that there was nothing of his own in the

whole work" (p. 354). Moreover, when Trumper thinks about ways to

protect his son from the persistent dangers inherent in living and

maturing, he outlines a scheme which sounds very much like the creative,

fiction-making process. He tells us,

I had this feeling about Colm that seemed unnatural. That is,
I desired to bring him up in some sort of simulated natural
habitat--some kind of pasture or corral--rather than the
gruesome real natural habitat itself, which seemed too unsafe.
Bring him up in a sort of dome. Create his friends, invent a
satisfying job, induce limited problems, simulate hardships
(to a degree), fake a few careful threats, have him win in the
end--nothing too unreasonable. (p. 157)

His use of such terms as "create," "invent," and "simulate" here make it

evident that Trumper would like the kind of control over everyday real-

ity that the artist commands over the "realities" which he or she in-

vents. Imaginative creation becomes a source of order and control

amidst the disorder and senselessness of existence. The very writing of

the novel itself, we learn eventually, is part of Trumper's attempt to

make some sense of his life; near the end, the narrator describes

Trumper's beginning the book which we have just read and suggests the

positive effect this has on him: "He wished he understood what made him

feel so restless. Then it occurred to him that he was actually at peace

with himself for the first time in his life" (p. 377). As so often in

Irving's works, we get a "portrait of the artist," and part of what it

reveals is his reliance on imaginative creation to impose a manageable

structure on reality.

But beyond the positive service of imposing an artificial order on

things, art seems to have little value in any traditional sense for

Trumper. The two artists--Trumper and the filmmaker, Ralph Packer--

whose work actually makes up parts of the novel both see art as essenti-

ally meaningless; what's more, they look upon anyone who does see mean-

ing and value in art as naive, misguided, or just plain silly. Packer,

who bases one of his experimental films, "Fucking Up," on the events of

Trumper's marriage and its breakup, is hailed by critics as a talented

avant-garde filmmaker, but he flatly denies that he seeks to instill any

meaning or value into his projects. When one of his films is criticized

on political grounds, Packer tells Trumper, "'Shit, Thump-Thump, I

didn't really mean anything. I mean, I don't know what I meant .

Shit they're just pictures'" (pp. 41-42). Trumper completely concurs

with Packer's estimation of the films and even works with him precisely

because of that devaluation of the artistic enterprise; "'In fact,'" he

says of Packer's films at one point, "'their lack of "meaning" I find

especially refreshing'" (p. 42). At another point, Trumper describes

Packer as one "who--in spite of (perhaps because of) never knowing what

he means--is a vanguard in underground film," and follows this with a

clever allusion to a "meaningless" play by Samuel Beckett: "We are

waiting for crullers" (p. 46).

Trumper finds those who try to read meaning into Packer's films

both laughable and irritating. Upon leaving a showing of "Fucking Up,"

for example, he overhears a barrage of inane and contradictory commen-

tary from those filing out of the theatre:

"What a perfect shit," a girl said.
"I don't know, I don't know," someone complained.
"Packer gets more and more hung up on himself, you know?"
"Well, I liked it, but . .," said a thoughtful voice.
"The acting was really okay, you know . ."
"They weren't exactly actors ."
"Well, okay, the people then ."
"Yeah, great."
"Good camera work too."
"Yeah, but he didn't do anything with it ."
"You know what I say when I see a film like this?" a voice
asked. "I say, 'So what?' That's what I say, man."
"Give me the keys, motherfuck ."
"Another piece of shit is another piece of shit is ."
"But it's relative."
"It's all the same." (p. 363)

Trumper's reaction to such analysis of the movie's significance is exas-

peration bordering on hostility: "Bogus thought of biting the slender

neck of a tall girl in front of him, thought of turning and kneeing a

covey of callow philosophers behind him who were calling the film 'great

nihilism'" (p. 363). His reaction to the professional critics who des-

perately try to twist a meaning out of the film's lack of meaning is

simply bafflement; when Life praises Packer for achieving a "definitive

non-statement," he asks himself rhetorically, "A what?" (p. 361).

Trumper views imaginative creation as an activity which can be benefi-

cial to the creator in that it serves as a way to impose some order or

structure on the chaos of reality, but he does not see it as the crea-

tion of something with any objective value or meaning.

Given the purpose which art serves for Trumper, then, it is not

surprising that he is so emotionally and psychologically attached to

that character who becomes, in effect, despite his few actual appear-

ances in the narrative, the central figure in Trumper's life: Merrill

Overturf. Overturf is not an artist in the same sense as either Ralph

Packer or Trumper himself; he does not actually create art per se such

as Trumper's soundtracks or Packer's films. But, in another sense,

Overturf is the ultimate artist, for he uses his imagination to shape

his very life--a feat which Trumper envies and admires so vehemently

that Overturf nearly becomes for him a kind of mythical ideal or savior.

The narrator states this quite bluntly at one point: "Bogus' longest

dreams are about heroes. Accordingly, he dreams of Merrill Overturf"

(p. 219).

That Trumper admires and becomes so attached to Merrill Overturf

because he is the imaginative man par excellence, the ultimate master of

creative "lying," is not entirely clear until later in the novel, but we

get subtle hints of the connection between Overturf and art very early

on. There is a telling juxtaposition, for example, between the last

scene of chapter thirteen and the title of chapter fourteen. In the

last scene of chapter thirteen, Tulpen is upbraiding Trumper for lacking

any depth or feeling; she tells him, "'No one knows you, Trumper. You

don't convey anything. You don't do much, either. Things just sort of

happen to you, and they don't even add up to anything. You don't make

anything of what happens to you'" (p. 94). Meanwhile Trumper is search-

ing her large fish tank for an eel which he refers to as "the poet"

because it "talks" in bubbles. When Tulpen tells him that another fish

must have eaten it, Trumper goes berserk and attacks the fish tank with

a pencil; the narrator describes the scene:

Trumper slapped his hand hard on the water surface; the other
fish bolted, fled in terror, collided with each other and
glanced off the walls. "You bastards!" Trumper screamed.
"Which one of you did it? . He stabbed into the tank with
a pencil. "Stop it," Tulpen yelled at him. But he stabbed
and stabbed trying to lance one of them against the glass.
They had killed the poet! The eel had been pleading with
them--bubbles for mercy! And they had eaten him, the fuckers.
(pp. 94-95)

Tulpen finally pulls Trumper away from the tank, but he throws a clock

at it, cracking the glass, which drains out the water and forces Tulpen

to transfer the fish to another tank where one of them is immediately

eaten by another fish. Now immediately following this scene of the

watery death of the "poet eel" which closes chapter twelve, we are

confronted by a curious question in the title of chapter thirteen:

"Remember Merrill Overturf?" This juxtaposition is, certainly, no mere

coincidence, for it establishes a connection between the "poet eel" and

Merrill Overturf.

I would suggest, in fact, that this small scene serves not only as

a foreshadowing of Merrill Overturf's own watery death in the Danube

river but also as a central metaphor of the connection between Overturf

and Trumper as artists, however different, living within a hostile

environment. The poet eel's "bubble talk," which the fish fail to

understand and for which, Trumper maintains, he was killed, is perhaps

comparable to the language (in a figurative as well as literal sense)

which Overturf and Trumper, as artists, speak. This suggestion is

bolstered when one recalls Tulpen's remarks at the beginning of the

scene: "'No one knows you, Trumper. You don't convey anything'" (p.

94). (Trumper's question to himself, "Where is the talking eel?" fol-

lows immediately upon these remarks.) Moreover, Overturf's status as a

"misfit" in his environment, like the eel in his, is noted elsewhere in

Trumper's narrative. Attempting to think "objectively" about Merrill at

one point, just after leaving his wife, he records a statement:

"Merrill Overturf and other irregular people are unsuited to conditions

demanding careful routines. Diabetes for example," and then he adds,

"Thinking, marriage, for example" (p. 222). Clearly, Trumper is here

connecting himself with Overturf and thinking of them both as somehow

atypical within their environments--precisely in the way, I would sug-

gest, that artists are often thought of as oddballs or misfits within

their societies. Their status as individuals somehow endowed with an

"abnormal" imaginative view of things goes a long way toward explaining

both Trumper's attraction to and even dependence on Overturf as a spir-

itual guide and the difficulty each has in living any sort of "normal"


But, as I suggested, the full revelation of how Merrill Overturf

becomes, for Trumper, the ultimate example of the imaginative man comes

later in the novel. In chapter thirty-four, Trumper reveals how

Overturf made (for at this point he is already dead) an "art" out of the

very conduct of his life. The title of the chapter is very telling in

itself: "Into a Life of Art: Prelude to a Tank on the Bottom of the

Danube" (p. 324). In this chapter, Trumper thinks about how Merrill

lived a "life of art" in that he imagined, he "made up," whatever he

needed: history, facts, even himself. Trumper comments early in the

chapter, "I'll hand it to you, Merrill; you could cultivate a marvelous

look. It was the former fighter-pilot look; the ex-Grand Prix Racer

who'd lost his nerve, and perhaps his wife too; the former novelist with

a writer's block; the ex-painter out of oil. I never knew what it was

you really were" (p. 324). He thinks specifically of how Merrill prob-

ably picked up the girl who was with him when he drowned, impressing her

first with his air of culture and later impressing her with some of his

"invented history" of Vienna. Trumper eventually recognizes it as

self-destructive, but it is Merrill's ability to invent himself, to

imagine his chosen way of life into existence, that Trumper envies. If

we look back once again at the key "poet eel" scene which first suggests

the relationship between Trumper and Merrill, this becomes quite appar-

ent. When Trumper first looks into the aquarium, the narrator tells us,

"Trumper lay trying to imagine other ways to live" and then tells us, in

the very next sentence, "He saw a tiny, translucent, turquoise eel...A

tiny, translucent, turquoise poet reading beautifully to his world!" (p.

90). Trumper can make up parts of his translation of Akthelt and

Gunnel; he can help Ralph Packer to create films, or he can even begin a

diary which will turn into a novel, but he cannot apply that creativity,

as Merrill could, to his own life; he cannot successfully "imagine other

ways to live."

Because of the way the novel is structured, it is not entirely

clear until late in the narrative, but, in retrospect, we can see that

it is Trumper's idolizing of Merrill that sustains his psychological at-

tachment to him. Trumper's attachment to Merrill and his "fictional

life" is reminiscent of Hannes Graff's attachment to Siggy Javotnik and

his "fictional history" in Setting Free The Bears. There are, in fact,

striking similarities between Siggy and Merrill and between the rela-

tionship of each with his respective friend. For example, both Siggy

and Merrill are hedonists caught up in their own romantic notions:

Siggy's "no plans" attitude is matched by Merrill's determination to be,

as Trumper says, "a self-destroying fool" (p. 127). But each maintains

a certain purity about his ideals that will not allow for damaging

distractions that could compromise those ideals. Merrill reacts to

Trumper's involvement with Biggie, for instance, in much the fashion

that Siggy reacted to Graff's involvement with Gallen: each sees his

friend's emotional involvement with another as a betrayal. When Trumper

first meets Biggie and manages to seduce her with jokes and poetry,

Merrill (like Siggy with Graff) simply teases him about the affair. But

after it becomes apparent that Trumper's attentions are serious, Merrill

becomes indignant and upbraids Trumper for becoming trapped in the

cliched world of normalcy. He tells Trumper at one point, "You're not

any fun to be with. You're in love, you know . you poor stupid

bastard" and then remarks to Biggie, "Jesus, you too. You're both in

love. I don't want anything to do with either of you" (p. 138). And it

is this kind of fanaticism which both Graff and Trumper see as self-

destructive yet somehow admirable and seductive.

For Trumper, there is, ironically, a certain seriousness in

Merrill's imaginative existence that he finds lacking in his own once he

has succumbed to the normalcy of a domestic life. He comments on this

lack of seriousness in his life shortly before the breakup of his mar-


It's been quite a light pain, and sometimes fun. It's just
the nightly things--all little--that seem not to have amounted
to something very big, or finally serious, so much as they
have simply turned my life around to attending almost solely
to them. A constant, if petty, irritation. (p. 68)

But Trumper's psychological dependence on Merrill Overturf runs even

deeper than an idolizing of or longing for the seriousness which

Merrill's imaginative life represents; for Trumper, Merrill seems to

provide the only link to a belief or faith in the meaning of anything.

At one point Trumper seems to indicate that, without Merrill, he is in

danger of being engulfed in the chaos of total relativity; the narrator

tells us:

He opens his eyes. Nothing is as it seems. How could there
be a God? He tries to remember the last time he thought there
was one. In Europe? Surely God gets to travel more than
that. It wasn't in Europe, anyway, at least there was no God
in Europe when Biggie was with me. Then he remembers Merrill
Overturf. That was the last time God was around, he thinks.
Therefore, believing in God went wherever Merrill went. (p.

Trumper's casting Merrill in this almost god-like role and his psy-

chological dependence on him serve as the basis, then, for several

phenomena: Trumper's frantic search for Merrill following the absurd

events which culminate in the breakdown of his empty marriage; his

mental breakdown and collapse into catatonic "limbo" when he fails to

find Merrill; and his setting Merrill up as a kind of mythical, god-like

hero of creativity after Merrill's death.

Trumper's flight from his wife and child is precipitated by the

angst which characterizes his meaningless domestic existence. His

experience is extremely similar to that of other antihero types in

contemporary fiction--John Barth's Jacob Horner being perhaps the most

prominent--who find themselves afflicted by the emptiness of "normal"

existence. Trumper's affliction leads to what seems to be a genuine

mental breakdown; he comments later that when he set off to find

Merrill, he left "his wife and mind behind" (p. 42). During his search

for Merrill, he is beset by various sorts of dreams, nightmares, and

hallucinations, and he has increasing difficulty distinguishing these

mental apparitions from his conscious perceptions of reality. The

enormous mental overload which he experiences and the breakdown to which

it leads is underscored by an allusion to Yeats' poem, "The Second

Coming"; the title of chapter 22, "Slouching After Overturf," reminds us

of the "beast" which "Slouches toward Bethlehem" in that poem and, by

association, of the key third line of the poem: "Things fall apart; the

center cannot hold."3 Frustrated in his attempt to find Merrill,

Trumper falls apart, paralyzed finally in what is apparently a six-month

catatonic trance. Chapter twenty-four, which details Trumper's frustra-

ted attempts to find Merrill and his effort to compose a letter to his

wife, ends with a comment on his mental collapse: "While at the Taschy,

two bidets flushed simultaneously, and Bogus Trumper lost the memory

part of his mind. And perhaps other, closely related parts of his mind

as well" (p. 244).

Then following chapter twenty-five (in which the time shifts to

long after Trumper has returned to New York), chapter twenty-six returns

to what seems to be the time of chapter twenty-four with the line:

"Just how long his mind was lost he didn't know, or how fully he'd

recovered it by the time he was aware of some more writing in the type-

writer before him" (p. 250). But what follows turns out to be a dream

of discovering Merrill, who is suffering from insulin shock, and the

police's mistreatment of them both. This dream section ends with the

line, "Then the bidets flushed and rinsed his mind" (p. 255), whereupon

the entire first paragraph of the chapter is repeated and Trumper

awakens from his trance, aware that he has been dreaming but unaware

that several months have passed since he first sat down at his type-

writer. Trumper picks up his search for Merrill but is soon involved in

a bizarre drug caper which turns out to be part of an effort by American

authorities to force him to return to America. It is not until after

Trumper has played out this scenario, learned of Merrill's death, and

been turned loose in New York that he realizes he has "lost" nearly six

months of his life. Trumper's collapse into catatonia, it is clear, is

a direct result of his failure to find Merrill Overturf. Deprived of

the psychological nourishment which he once garnered from his associ-

ation with this imaginative man who gave meaning to his life, Trumper

falls into the emptiness of ordinary existence--into that paralysis that

has affected characters as divergent as Melville's Bartleby, Joyce's

Dubliners, and Barth's Jacob Horner.

The loss of Merrill precipitates Trumper's paralysis, but his

conversion of Merrill into a kind of mythical hero of the imaginative

process provides Trumper with what stability and meaning his life has

following Merrill's death. Trumper attempts to follow in Merrill's

footsteps so as to impose some sort of structure on his life. Following

an unsuccessful attempt at reconciliation with his wife, Trumper returns

to New York intent on working with Ralph Packer. His thought upon first

entering Ralph's studio is very significant, for it points up his at-

tempt to follow Merrill's example. The narrator comments, "'Here I go,'

he said witlessly to himself. 'Into a life of art'" (p. 336), and we

are reminded of the title of chapter thirty-four, in which Trumper

thinks about how Merrill manages to make a work of art out of his daily

existence: "Into a Life of Art: Prelude to a Tank on the Bottom of the

Danube." Moreover, it is certainly significant that the chapter immedi-

ately following that which treats Trumper's six-month trance deals with

the importance of "structure" in artistic creation and its relationship

to the nature of reality. Following the title "How Is Anything Related

to Anything Else?" the chapter begins, "Ralph was attempting to explain

the structure of his film by comparing it to a contemporary novel,

Helmbart's Vital Telegrams. "'The structure is everything,' he said"

(p. 259). That novel, one chapter of which is reproduced in the text,

turns out to be a Barthelme-like,4 nonsense anti-novel which Trumper

finds "almost unreadable" (p. 261). Yet he is somehow intrigued by its

"meaninglessness" and relates this quality to Ralph's films; the narra-

tor comments, "What Trumper had some difficulty understanding was what

relation Helmbart's work had to Ralph's film. Then he thought of one:

perhaps neither of them meant anything. Somehow that made him feel

better about the film" (p. 261). Furthermore, his thinking about vari-

ous fictions--Helmbart's novel, Ralph's film, and Akthelt and Gunnel--

brings him to feel the necessity of starting a diary which will help him

"keep things straight," a diary which will, of course, form part of the

novel itself. The narrator tells us,

His head seemed so cluttered with things. There were a mil-
lion images from the film on his mind, both real and imagined.
Then Helmbart's puzzling passages about Eddy's feet returned
to haunt him. And there was Akthelt and Gunnel to con-
sider. . He did manage a sentence. It didn't seem to be a
diary sort of sentence; in fact, it was a real cliff-hanger of
an opening line. But he wrote it in spite of himself: "Her
gynecologist recommended him to me." What a way to begin a
diary! The question struck him: How is anything related to
anything else? But he had to begin somewhere. (p. 265)

Trumper's looking to the creation of art to lend a kind of structure to

his existence seems to be as close as he can come to following in the

footsteps of Merrill, who had managed to shape, via his imaginative

fictions, his very life into a work of art.

Metaphorically for us and psychologically for Trumper, then,

Merrill Overturf remains, even after his death, a model of imaginative

creativity. When confusion and misunderstanding leads to Trumper's

leaving Tulpen, he feels himself slipping into another mental collapse.

At the end of a bus ride that takes him away from Tulpen, the bus driver

wakes Trumper from his sleep: "'We're in Bath,' the driver told him,"

and the narrator comments, "But Trumper knew he was in limbo. 'What's

worse,' he thought, 'I've been here before'" (p. 345). But he feels

uplifted, a short time later, when he finds the opportunity to create a

meaningful fiction, Overturf-style, for his son; Trumper makes up and

tells Colm "his own version of Moby Dick," and when Colm asks him, "'Is

Moby Dick still alive?'" Trumper's thoughts are very revealing: "Well,

why not? I can't provide the kid with God or a reliable father, and if

there's something worth believing in, it ought to be as big as a whale

. 'He's alive' Trumper said" (p. 345). Moreover, a fiction "worth

believing in" is as vital to Trumper, the narrator tells us, as it is to

his young son:

"He really is alive?" Colm asked.
"Yes, and everyone leaves him alone."
"I know," said Colm.
"But no one hardly ever sees him," Trumper said.
"I know."
But a wild part of Trumper's brain was chanting, Show your-
self, old Dick! Up out of that water, Moby! Such a miracle,
he knew, would have been as much a gift to himself as to Colm.
(p. 346)

Trumper even finds that his Ph.D. thesis, which he finishes "factually"

as a kind of practical and therapeutic tribute to Tulpen ("She had

always been one for facts," he thinks [p. 348]), becomes "a pretty empty

accomplishment" until he decides to "add something" of his own creation.

His thesis advisor is unaware that Trumper has made up some added de-

tails, so there is poignant irony and a kind of unintentional pun in his

response to them: "'And the part with the eels!' cried Holster. 'Think

of it! She cut off their pricks! How perfect--but I just couldn't

imagine it!' 'I could,' said Fred Bogus Trumper, B.A., M.A., Ph.D." (p.


But the spirit of Merrill Overturf ultimately becomes more than a

mythical inspiration for Trumper; Merrill is "reincarnated" in the form

of Tulpen's baby boy whom she names Merrill in honor of Trumper's at-

tachment to his deceased friend. It is appropriate that Tulpen's child,

being a reincarnation of the creative Overturf, is what brings Trumper

back to her. But also it is this child, or rather Trumper's realization

that he has once again helped "create" as a father, which begins to

modify his view of the creative act. Trumper realizes that fatherhood,

for him, is a way to avoid the self-destruction of Merrill's life and to

make the creative act an integral part of his life rather than some

abstraction which he imposes upon his existence. His comments and

thoughts upon his role as a father make this clear:

Bogus said, "Well, it just didn't work thinking of myself as a
Filmmaker, or even a Sound Tracker. I never really believed
it." And he thought, or a husband, either; I never really
believed that. But a Father . Well, that was a clearer
feeling. (p. 343)

And fatherhood, like surviving human relationships, Trumper learns,

entails more than creating meaningful fictions to believe in. A conver-

sation with his older son makes him painfully aware of this:

"I saw Moby Dick last night," Bogus decided to tell Colm, who
looked a little suspicious.
"You're making that up," Colm said. "That's not real."

"Not real?" said Trumper. He'd never heard Colm use the word
"Right," said Colm, but the boy's attention was wandering--he
was bored by his father--and Bogus wanted desperately for
things to be lively between them.
"What kind of books do you like best," he asked Colm.
"Well, I still like Hoby Dick," Colm said. . I mean, 1
like the story. But it's just a story."
On the dock beside his son, Trumper fought back sudden tears.
(p. 379)

For Trumper, living in the world--as father, as husband, as a person in-

volved in the overwhelming complexity of human relationships--finally

demands some recognition of the distinction between fiction and reality,

the kind of distinction that Merrill Overturf, killed in pursuit of his

own fictional creation, could never make. To live in the world, Trumper

decides, is to live within the reality of the material, the "flesh,"

however stultifying or impossible that may sometimes seem. That respon-

sibility of living is what Trumper faces at the close of the book. In

the final scene, Trumper is associated with his famous fictional crea-

tion, Moby Dick, but he is also depicted as facing squarely the reality

of that everyday existence which once drove him into a mental collapse.

Surrounded by his wife, ex-wife, children, and friends, Trumper thinks

about his situation:

Bogus wondered what he could have thought he wanted. But the
kitchen was far too flurried for thinking; bodies were every-
where. So what if dog puke still lurked unseen in the laundry
room! In good company we can be brave. Mindful of his scars,
his old harpoons and things, Bogus Trumper smiled cautiously
at all the good flesh around him. (p. 381)

Thus the novel seems to end on a note of qualified yet significant opti-

mism; the protagonist, it would seem, has gained a certain enlightenment

through his struggles that renders him more capable of existing within

an inherently problematic reality. His remarks near the end of the book

seem to reflect a new attitude toward his problems: "'Oh shit,' he

said. 'It's so complicated sometimes' . Surviving a relationship

with any other human being sometimes seemed impossible to him. 'But so

what?' be thought" (p. 378). Trumper, unlike those protagonists who are

destroyed by their experience of paralysis, manages to face and, it

would seem, overcome the emptiness of his existence.

I suggested earlier that The Water Method Man represents a narrow-

ing of focus for Irving; it might also be suggested, given the novel's

central focus on the problematic nature of reality and the relationship

between fiction and reality, that The Water Method Man represents a turn

toward "postmodernism." Generally speaking, postmodernist works seem to

suggest that the distinction between fiction and reality is either

impossible to make or not worth making and that the problems of exis-

tence in a world of fluid values and meanings are insurmountable. (Or

they render all such issues as moot by indulging in verbal structuring

for its own sake.) The Water Method Man seems to resemble such post-

modern works, yet its ending and the message which it conveys--that the

effort toward making a distinction between fiction and reality, toward

establishing some stable values and meanings is a necessary step toward

successfully living in the world--cut against the grain of most of those

works we call postmodern. Thus a crucial critical question about The

Water Metbod Man emerges: for all of its indulgence in issues that seem

typically postmodern in nature, just how postmodern is it as a whole

finally? An examination of some of the technical aspects of the novel,

such as its structure and verbal style, can help answer this question, I

think, for, as such critics as Gerald Graff and Richard Poirier have

noted, the essence of a phenomenon such as postmodernism often resides

not only in what an author has to say but also in how he goes about

saying it.5

In some ways the structure of The Water Method Man seems to be

quite typically postmodern. The reader can be easily disoriented within

the maze of the novel's narrative time levels which switch abruptly from

chapter to chapter or sometimes several times within a chapter. Fur-

thermore, the narration constantly switches between first and third

person and between past and present tense. Moreover, the text ulti-

mately becomes a kind of multimedia event as letters, tape transcripts,

and movie screenplays are sporadically injected into it. Such disorien-

tation of the reader is to some a distinguishing feature of the post-

modern novel; a maze-like structure often serves, just as it does here,

as an appropriate metaphor for the confusion and complexity that consti-

tute the protagonist's experience. (Trumper's "narrow winding" urinary

tract becomes a more specific metaphor of the same phenomenon.) Given

the narrative complexity of The Water Method Man, we are bombarded by a

chaotic mixture of past and present events, memories and fantasies,

facts and fictions.

But the question of how radically postmodern such a structure is, I

would suggest, depends on how it works as a metaphor; that is, the

structure of many postmodern works serves as a metaphor for chaos and

meaninglessness by simply being chaotic or meaningless in itself. In

the books of Donald Bartheleme or Alain Robbe-Grillet (who admits that

he seeks "to destroy meaning"6), the "message" often resides in the very

opacity of the medium, the indecipherabilty of the structure itself; the

surface of things, such works suggest, is the extent of what we can

actually know of any fictional creation and, by implication, of reality.

There are suggestions, as we have seen, that Trumper and Ralph Packer

share an attitude toward art--that it is ultimately meaningless--that

comes very near this. Recall that Packer compared one of his films to a

novel in which "the structure is everything"; at one point he reads to

his film crew from the book jacket of that novel: "The transition--all

the associations, in fact--are syntactical, rhetorical, structural; it

is almost a story of sentence structure rather than of characters;

Helmbart complicates variations on forms of sentences rather than plot"

(p. 259). And Trumper "feels better" about Ralph's film when he specu-

lates that "perhaps neither of them (Helmbart or Ralph) meant anything"

(p. 261). But, as any good critic knows, the attitude of the protagon-

ist is not necessarily that of the author; the fact is that the struc-

ture of Irving's creation is not at all like the passage of Helmbart's

novel which Irving actually presents in a spirit of comic parody. Put

simply, the structure of The Water Method Man contributes to the meaning

of the book rather than obscuring or destroying it. The associations

and juxtapositions brought out by the novel's structural complexity are

invaluable, for they help establish the thematically important problems

facing the protagonist. A closer examination of the novel's structure

reveals that, despite its complexity, it lacks neither logic nor pur-


Among the shifting flashbacks which create most of the complexity

of the structure of The Water Method Man, there is one chronological

narrative around which the rest are consistently built. The "present

tense" with which the book opens--that section in which the central

metaphor of Trumper's "narrow, winding urinary tract" and the central

motif of trying to "get things straight" are both established--carries

the chronological development of the plot; the other sections--using

normal narration, letters, recordings--are fitted between the chapters

which proceed chronologically. For example, following chapter one

(present time), chapter two shifts to "memories" of Trumper's earlier

Iowa or "married phase"; chapter three (a letter) and four also deal

with the Iowa phase, but chapter five returns to present time. Chapter

six again shifts to the Iowa phase, but chapter seven returns once more

to the present narrative. This pattern is evident throughout the novel;

the chronological narrative proceeds linearly while various past exper-

iences, memories, documents are interspersed between these chapters.

Such a structure sets up a situation in which the present is constantly

being bombarded by the problems and memories of the past: a perfect

metaphor of Trumper's psyche and of his basic problem. The present time

represents what we might, in handbook terminology, call the thematic

"problem" to be solved; that is, Trumper's major difficulty--his inabil-

ity to make any sense of his life--is the focal point of the novel, and

the various forays into his past life gradually reveal to us how and why

Trumper is in his present predicament. Through the constant juxtaposi-

tion of the present against various parts of Trumper's past, it becomes

clear that his distrust of facts, his inability to keep things straight,

and his general cynicism about the value of such things as art are all

products of his past experiences. His inability to find meaning in

study or work, his failed marriage, and his loss of Merrill Overturf

make up the failure of his past and plague his present. That past is

what he must overcome in order to live with any success in the present

or the future. The end of the novel, as I earlier suggested, seems to

indicate a positive move away from the paralyzing effect of that past.

The structure of the novel, then, although complex, is hardly meaning-

less or haphazard; its orchestration helps establish the thematically

important link between Trumper's past experience and his present predic-


And just as the overall structural complexity is much more than

gratuitous "play," other more subtle aspects of style and tone are more

than mere displays of rhetorical or imaginative indulgence. The verbal

style, for example, varies throughout the novel to accentuate the mean-

ing of particular scenes. Some contrasts make this apparent. In the

early chapters, Trumper narrates in first-person, explaining his situ-

ation in painstaking detail. Trumper is characterized here as someone

who is shell-shocked by his past experiences and seeking to make some

sense of things, to "get things straight" a bit at a time. The verbal

style of these chapters is appropriate to establishing that characteri-

zation; note, for example, the almost exaggerated simplicity of the

short, declarative sentences in the opening paragraph of chapter seven:

Tulpen and me at work. She does the editing; actually, Ralph
is his own editor, but Tulpen assists him. She also does some
darkroom work, but Ralph is his own developer too. I don't
know much about developing and not much about editing. I'm
the sound tracker; I tape in the music; if there's sync-sound,
I get it right; if there's a voice over, I lay it in; if
there's offstage noise, I make some; when there's a narrator,
I often do the talking. I have a nice big voice. (p. 38)

Here the style, as much as the substance, of the prose gives us a pic-

ture of the cautious, baffled, cynical narrator/protagonist. Another

early passage embodies the same air of uncomplicated, stick-to-the-facts

simplicity in the emphatic, balanced sentences that make up one of

Trumper's satiric "explanations":

When my mother used to write me, she'd ask about the stuff we
had. She was concerned about whether we had a toidy pot for
Colm. If we had one, we were all right. My father also
suggested snow tires; with snow tires, we'd be happy all
winter. I imagined their friends asking them how we were; my
father would mention our winter driving and my mother would
bring up the toidy pot. How else could they have answered?
(p. 58)

Moreover, these chapters are interspersed with terse declarations, set

off from the narrative like aphorisms; for example, Trumper declares,

shortly after the above-quoted passage, "Rituals are more revealing than

facts!" (p. 58). The style, as much as the sense, of these passages

tells us that these are the conclusions of a man seeking to make things

"add up," to establish some stable operating guidelines within the

paralyzing emptiness of his existence.

This exaggerated simplicity of style is employed at various places

throughout Irving's works, and it is inevitably linked with the speech

or thoughts of characters who are confused, baffled, and sometimes over-

whelmed by the events around them. This is the style that characterized

the narrative description of Graff's feelings following the zoo bust in

Setting Free The Bears, for instance:

Things didn't piece together any better than before.
And that should have been no surprise to me. I knew.
All the figures in your rotting column make the sum, but the
figures are in no way bound to be otherwise related. They're
just all the things you've ever paid for. As unfitted to each
other as toothpaste and your first touch of warm, upstanding
Gallen was in Klosterneuburg. Where there still were
monasteries. And monks making wine.7

Such terse, declarative statements seem to connote a paradoxical mixture

(appropriate to so many of Irving's characters) of baffled innocence and

knowing cynicism, passive resignation and barely muted anger. This

style is very similar to that used so often by a writer like Kurt

Vonnegut, Jr. for essentially the same purpose: to depict the innocence

and confusion of his victimized antiheroes such as Eliot Rosewater,

Billy Pilgrim, or Dwayne Hoover. But in The Water Method Man, Irving

varies his style when it is appropriate; the long, fluid, somewhat more

sophisticated sentence structures which he employs to describe Trumper's

recovery from his catatonic trance, for instance, stand in stark con-

trast to the short, emphatic style used earlier. This style is appro-

priate to the hallucinogenic quality of this section:

Just how long his mind was lost he didn't know, or how fully
he'd recovered it by the time he was aware of some more writ-
ing in the typewriter before him. He read it, wondering who
had written it, pouring over it like a letter he'd received,
or even like someone else's letter to someone else. Then he
saw the dark, crouching figure in the bottom corner of his
French windows and startled himself by suddenly sitting up-
right and moaning, while simultaneously in the mirroring
window, a terrifying gnomelike replica of himself reared up
and bleared like a microscopic specimen. (p. 250)

Now my purpose in showing how Irving varies and controls his verbal

style is not to prove what a good or clever craftsman he is (although he

is certainly both), but to suggest how Irving uses all his resources,

even something as subtle as verbal style, to help create and accentuate

his motifs, themes, and meanings. This is very much unlike a radical

postmodern novelist such as Robbe-Grillet who claims that he uses verbal

style just as he might play with burnt matches because he really has

nothing to say.8 Irving has something to say, and he uses his technical

skills with structure and style to help say it.

Like its message, then, the structure and style of The Water Method

Man seems to place Irving (or at least this book) outside the hard-core

or radical postmodern camp. And much the same might be said, I think,

for the humor of the novel. One of the major criticisms voiced against

many postmodern novelist by critics such as Gerald Graff, or most vocif-

eriously by John Gardner,9 is that these writers do not treat their

characters in such a way that we can take them seriously and/or care

about them as people. Such critics complain that postmodern novelists

use humor that is so farcical as to be merely pointless or so black as

to be merely cyncial; moreover, they charge that the postmodernist's

humor is often so much at the characters' expense that we cannot em-

pathize or sympathize with them.10 Irving sometimes uses burlesque,

slapstick, or black humor, as we noted in Setting Free The Bears, but

nearly all the humor in The Water Method Man falls somewhere between

these two extremes, and almost inevitably it engages us with rather than

disengages us from the characters involved. Most of the comedy here is

rooted in a sense of the absurd and the incongruity of human circum-

stances, yet it manages to be more than clever indulgence and to avoid

becoming bitter.

An examination of two small comic scenes, both involving Trumper's

use of his recorder--one of those devices used to conjure up that past

which so plagues Trumper's present--can reveal how Irving manages to

imbue what may seem like toss-away comedy scenes with metaphoric sig-

nificance. In chapter two the narrator describes a scene in which

Trumper finds himself, following the collapse of a rotten screen against

which he had been leaning his head, in the ridiculous position of dan-

gling out the window of his house, balanced on his mid-section, just as

his wife and child arrive home. What ensues is a ludicrous exchange in

which Trumper's no-nonsense wife, Biggie, keeps demanding of him "'What

are you doing?'" to which he answers absurdly, "'I'm fixing the

screen.'" To recover himself, the narrator tells us, "Bogus finds the

tape recorder with his foot, dragging it toward him like an anchor. He

restores his balance by kneeling on the control panel" (p. 20). Then

the narrator comments, "The recorder is confused; one knee says FULL

SPEED FORWARD, the other says PLAY. In a high voice Merrill Overturf

blurts, 'Off Gelhalft's dock the tank's top hatch opens, or flut--!'"

(p. 20). This scene is fun in its comic absurdity, but it is also much

more. At one level it sets up an important contrast in characterization

between the dreamy, born-loser antihero Trumper and his rather humor-

less, common-sense wife. But more important, it suggests several meta-

phorical readings. The "confusion" of the recorder, for example (like

the "narrow winding road" of Trumper's urinary tract), can be seen as a

reflection of his own confused life and psyche. Moreover, Trumper's

balancing on the window sill is perhaps figurative of his being pulled

between two forces, both of which are speaking to him here; as Biggie's

practical, domestic voice says "FULL SPEED FORWARD" and asks, "What are

you doing?", Merrill's voice advises "PLAY" and makes reference to one

of his great imaginative fantasies: the tank on the bottom of the

Danube. This contrast between Biggie's practicality and Merrill's con-

suming fantasy, toward which Trumper's mind constantly turns, is reem-

phasized at the end of the chapter. Biggie tells Trumper, "'I'll fix

the screen. You're terrible at that kind of thing,'" while the narrator

tells us that "what Trumper thinks he'd really like to know is whether

there was anyone under the top hatch of that tank. Or if there really

is a tank at all; if Merrill Overturf really saw it" (p. 21).

In chapter four there is another comic scene involving Trumper's

recorder, and, metaphorically, it works in much the same way as the

earlier scene. Again the metaphor involves the juxtaposing of Trumper's

dreamy, emotional self-indulgence against those forces of practicality

and common sense that contribute to his cyncism, depression, and, ulti-

mately, his mental collapse. As Trumper attempts to record comments

about his own "self pity," which he insists he was "exposed to at a

tender age," his no-nonsense wife questions him persistently, as in the

earlier scene, about what he is doing. His pat answer becomes a kind of

nihilistic refrain: "'Nothing, Big. Nothing, Big.'" (p. 27). Then as

he attempts to record a line concerning the dangers of "dwelling on

small emotional things," he records it too close to one of his father's

hospital reports, so that when he replays it, the line comes out,

"'There's a danger in dwelling on small emotional . bladders which

can be easily infected, though the major key is some kidney complica-

tion.'" Trumper then records, "'I resolve to be more careful how I

pee'" (p. 28). Such a scene is full of comic cleverness, but it is also

thematically strategic. Trumper is caught between those things which

Merrill represents for him--the emotional, the impractical, and the

dramatic--and both the empty burden of his domestic life (represented by

his wife's voice) and the haunting memory of his cold, unfeeling father

(represented by his professional, factual voice cutting off Trumper's on

the tape). Trumper will eventually be overloaded by the mass of memo-

ries, hallucinations, and bad dreams that he cannot "erase," just as he

cannot seem to erase his father's voice from the tape; the narrator

tells us, "Bogus is sure he's erased this once, but apparently he missed

a bit of it. Or perhaps certain parts of his father's speeches are

capable of reproducing themselves. Bogus is not beyond believing this"

(p. 28). Such small comic scenes are numerous throughout The Water

Method Man; in one sense they help to make the novel the "lark" which

Irving claims it is. But, as these two scenes demonstrate, this comedy

is often deceptively light or clever and never without its usefulness to

the larger meanings of the novel.

Much of the comedy in The Water Method Man is not, of course,

confined to small scenes. There are several large, sprawling scenes

(the "boob loop" scene, the skiing scene, the childhood bathroom scene)

that indulge in various types of humor for several pages at a time.

Given the amount of slapstick or burlesque humor in such scenes, they

are often cited by those who see this novel as merely a comic tour de

force. But actually these larger comic scenes, like the smaller ones,

serve as significant metaphors to exemplify the larger motifs and themes

of the book. The "duck hunting" episode, certainly one of the most

hilarious in all of Irving's works, is an appropriate example. This

episode, which makes up the whole of chapter eighteen, involves

Trumper's unsuccessful sexual encounter with a naive young student,

Lydia Kindle, who is infatuated with him. The events move quickly from

the ridiculous to the utterly absurd; after Lydia abandons Trumper in

the middle of an Iowa corn field, he chases in the nude across partly

frozen swamps and barbed wire fences, rides to town with two half-crazy

duck hunters who present him with a plucked duck, steps on a mouse trap

in his own basement, and finally inflates with urine a very incrimina-

ting condom, which he has neglected to remove, while his wife looks on.

The narrator describes the capstone scene of this ludicrous episode:

The mailman entered, waving a letter. It happened so suddenly
that he startled Colm, who shrieked back down the hall, drag-
ging the duck after him. I waddled three more painful knee
steps to the kitchen door, still clutching my balloon, and
rolled out of sight into the kitchen.
"Special Delivery! Special Handling!" the mailman an-
nounced again flatly--not having been forewarned of the possi-
bility that he might ever be in need of a more appropriate

I peeked out of the kitchen. Obviously the mailman was
pretending to be totally blind. Biggie, now at the end of the
hall, appeared to have forgotten that she'd told anyone to
enter and was glowering at the mailman; in her mind he was in
some way connected with my hunting trip. Bless his poor
brains, the mailman shouted once more, "Special Delivery!
Special Handling!" Then dropped the letter in the hall and
ran. (pp. 191-92)

The letter which the mailman delivers into this maelstrom of insane

behavior is, ironically, from Trumper's supremely sane father.

Now the comic effect of this scene certainly owes a great deal to

Irving's ability to render it supremely absurd by bringing together such

an incongruous mixture of things: a mouse-trap, a urine-filled condom,

and a lifeless, plucked duck. (The earlier scene involving the tape re-

corder does much the same thing, by juxtaposing "small emotional things"

with "infected bladders.") Such a crazy mixture of things informs much

of Irving's humor; it becomes, in fact, a recurring motif reflecting

Irving's view of the confusion and chaos of the modern world. But if

the choice of ingredients for this collage of absurdity is incongruous,

it is not simply random and intentionally meaningless like that in

Helmbart's "purely structural" novel. The whole episode is, in fact,

symbolically tied to the central issue of the book: Trumper's psycho-

logical attachment to Merrill Overturf and his subsequent inability to

live any sort of normal life. Trumper's decision to acquiesce to a

sexual "adventure," for example, can be seen as his attempt to imitate,

to somehow pay tribute to, his hedonistic mentor. Significantly, the

chapter opens with Trumper's drawing a direct connection between the

events of the chapter and an argument over Trumper's loyalty to and

idolizing of Merrill:

It begins, actually, the night before, with an argument,
wherein Biggie accuses Merrill Overturf of childish escapist

pranksterism and further claims that I have been able to hero-
ize Merrill only because he has been missing from my life for
so long--implying, harshly, that the real Merrill, in the
flesh, would put even me off, at least at this moment in my
life. I find these accusations painful and counterattack by
accusing Overturf of courage. (p. 171)

Trumper's encounter with Lydia Kindle thus becomes a gesture in support

of Merrill and his "courage" to live a totally free life and against the

trap of domestic responsibility.

Trumper, of course, has as little success in imitating Merrill as

he does in coping with everyday life. When Trumper needs to surrender

himself to the fantasy of an illicit sexual adventure, he is suddenly

beset by guilt feelings and thoughts of the terrors of the real world.

Smelling Lydia's body powder, Trumper is first reminded of his son:

"Then she pulls my head down to the powder spot, but I feel my stomach

tighten at the scent. It reminds me of Colm's baby shampoo; the label

says: NO TEARS" (p. 178). And then he associates the scent with more

general horrors: "I shut my eyes in her powdered cleavage, noting a

sort of candy musk. But why does my mind run to slaughterhouses, and to

all the young girls raped in wars?" (p. 179). Trumper's subsequent

inability to consummate the affair leads to wounding his feet and even-

tually to stepping into the literal and symbolic "trap" in his basement.

Significantly, this is the same basement in which Trumper had earlier

philosophized about the emptiness of his petty domestic routines, so the

mouse trap becomes the appropriate symbol both for the ludicrous situ-

ation in which he finds himself and for that empty existence which he

has failed so miserably to escape. Moreover, the letter which Biggie

announces at the end of the chapter ("'It's from your father, the

prick'" [p. 192]) contains a check which seems to be Trumper's ticket

out of his trap because he can set off in search of Merrill. But that

search leads, we eventually learn, not to Merrill but to another trap:

Trumper's mental collapse. This comic episode, then, like virtually all

the humor in the book, turns out to be much more than witty indulgence.

The humor of The Water Method Man may contain enough pure fun to qualify

the book as a "lark," but this humor, like the structure, the language,

and the symbolic patterns, contains enough meaning to make it much more.

In The Water Method Man, Irving narrows his focus to those concerns

that we have come to identify as typically postmodern: the relationship

of art, fiction, and fiction-making to reality; the nature of a problem-

atic world of relative, fluid values and meanings. Yet, despite the

attention it focuses on such postmodern problems, The Water Method Man

is not finally a radically postmodern book. Irving does deal, as so

many postmodern novelists do, with the overwhelming problems of living

in a dangerous, chaotic, and often absurd world and with the subsequent

temptations to lose oneself in imaginative fictions which can provide

the control, security, or meaning often lacking in everyday existence.

But he does not do this, as many postmodern novelists do, by losing

himself and the reader in frivolous tale-spinning or linguistic play.

There is a great deal of complexity in the structure of The Water Method

Man, but this structure is a meaningful part of the book's method; the

complexity here is not just, as John Gardner calls it, "a search for

opacity.""11 Such things as verbal style and symbolism are used subtly

and cleverly, but not without a purpose which connects them with the

larger themes of the book. Moreover, although it portrays a protagonist

who voices his belief in the "meaninglessness" of art, The Water Method

Man is not a book which is, as Richard Poirier says in describing post-

modernism, "in the process of telling us how little it means."12 The

novel sets a problem for its protagonist--how to live with any success

in an absurd world--and provides an answer, however tentative or in-

complete, for that problem: he must try to apply the imagination,

creativity, and affection to everyday responsibilities that the artist

applies to his creations, and he must avoid the self-destruction of

attempting to live entirely within his own fictional creations.

Trumper's confrontation with the emptiness of his existence is as devas-

tating for him as it is for other postmodern heroes; but Trumper is not

left hopeless, finally, in the face of the void. In a manner rather

atypical of postmodern protagonists, he learns and grows through his

experience. The ending of The Water Method Man may not be unequivocally

optimistic (Trumper is described as smiling "cautiously" in the last

line), but the hero is shown to be finally engaged in rather than dis-

engaged from the business of living.

The change in focus marked by The Water Method Man is indicative of

where Irving's development will take him by the time he reaches his most

ambitious and important novel, The World According To Garp. At the

center of that novel are some of the same issues that emerge in The

Water Method Man: the nature of art and fiction-making and the rela-

tionship of the artist to his creation and to reality. In between these

two books falls a novel that shares many of the motifs and idiosyncra-

sies of Irving's other works, but is, in terms of subject matter and

tone, quite a departure from the mainstream of his development. Setting

Free The Bears, The Water Method Man, and The World According to Garp

all raise disturbing questions about the nature of existence, but final-

ly all are statements, however qualified, of faith in the value of

living and maintaining human relationships. The 158-Pound Marriage

raises the same questions, but it lacks that final statement of faith.


'Greil Marcus, "The World of The World According to Garp," Rolling
Stone, 13 December 1979, p. 72.

2John Irving, The Water Method Man (New York: Pocket Books, 1972),
p. 16. All subsequent references will be to this edition; page numbers
will be cited within the text.

3William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming," rpt. in Poetry: An
Introduction, eds. Ruth Millen and Robert Greenberg (New York: St.
Martin's Press, 1981), p. 96.

4"Helmbart" (Helm/bart) is, in fact, probably a thinly disguised
reversal of Barthelme.

5Gerald Graff, "The Myth of the Postmodernist Breakthrough," Tri-
Quarterly, 26 (1975), p. 383.

6Jenny Well, "Building With Burnt Matches: A Talk with Alain
Robbe-Grillet," The New Leader 24 July 1972, p. 13.

7John Irving, Setting Free The Bears (New York: Pocket Books,
1968), p. 336.

8Weil, p. 13.

9John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (New York: Basic Books, Inc.,

toGardner, p. 69.

1Gardner, p. 70.

12Graff, p. 385.


Irving's third novel, The 158-Pound Marriage, is the shortest and

least popular of his works. Superficially, it shares many of the char-

acteristics of Irving's other novels, yet in several important ways it

is an aberration within Irving's general development. In its lack of

humor and sentiment, it stands in stark contrast to The Water Method Man

before it and The World According to Garp after it. In its lack of

characters with whom we can feel strong sympathy it contrasts with all

three of Irving's other books. Irving himself has described the book as

"cold" and its characters as "harsh." He admits that he funneled much

of his own anger and frustration, following the disappointing sales of

The Water Method Man, into the book, and he attributes the tenor of the

book to what was happening in his own life and in the lives of many

people he knew at the time that he wrote it; he comments in the Rolling

Stone interview:

Times were hard then. All of a sudden I was thick into teach-
ing again. . I was sick of teaching. I didn't want to do
it anymore. I was restless, aimless. . There were other
sorts of bitterness. The lives of many of my friends seemed
to have been just wiped out. I knew people who were living in
appalling situations and not moving out, and I knew people who
seemed to me to move out of situations too soon--into appall-
ing situations. It seemed a rampant kind of time.'

The 158-Pound Marriage does seem to reflect Irving's mood as he de-

scribes it here, for the book's main characters find themselves in an

"appalling situation," replete with frustration, bitterness, and pain.

The contrast in tone between The Water Method Man and The 158-Pound

Marriage is reminiscent of the swing from light comic humor to cynical

dark humor that we earlier observed in Setting Free The Bears. Irving

acknowledges that the books are almost entirely different by design; in

the Rolling Stone interview, he contrasts the intentions that he had for

each book: of The Water Method Man, he states, "I wanted to write a

book, if I could, with a happy ending, because I didn't feel I had a

happy ending in me, and I wanted to get one. I wanted to write a book

that was absolutely comic. I wanted it to be intricate and funny and

clever."2 But he nearly apologizes for the bleakness and bitterness of

The 158-Pound Marriage:

I got this idea for a literary novel . It grew very specif-
ically out of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and John
Hawkes' The Blood Oranges. That's the kind of period I was in
at the time: everything I read was a labor and it made me
angry. It was like I lost my sense of humor. . I decided
I wanted to write a really dark tale of sexual intrigue; in
the end nobody would know anything about each other. It's not
a warm book; the people are harsh and they bring out harsh
feelings. I think I was just not in a state of mind to like
anybody very much.3

Comparing The 158-Pound Marriage with Irving's other books, one wonders

not so much how Irving manages to bring happy endings out of stories

filled with so much tragedy but how he manages, in The 158-Pound

Marriage, to pack so much unhappiness into his shortest book.

The action of the novel revolves around two couples; Edith and

Severin Winter with the narrator (never identified by name) and his wife

Utch form a sexual foursome through a "swapping" arrangement. Each

character has a different psychological or emotional motivation for his

or her involvement in the affair, so misunderstanding, jealousy, and

pettiness soon put an end to the foursome and to the narrator's mar-

riage. The narrator tells the story in retrospect, so it essentially

represents his effort to figure out what went wrong between the couples

and to assess blame for the tragedy in which the affair eventually

results. As the narrator recounts the details of the couples' relation-

ship, he also gives a detailed historical sketch of each character; the

sketches, to a large extent, represent part of the narrator's own effort

to understand the other characters, but these sketches are also, we

eventually learn, part of the narrator's attempt to paint a rather

distorted picture of the other characters, himself, and the central

situation. The result of the narrator's efforts is a twofold failure:

by the end of the novel, he has only increased his own confusion, and,

although we feel a certain pity for him, he has failed to win our full

sympathy, for we eventually see through his attempts to shift blame away

from himself.

The 158-Pound Marriage contains most of the motifs that have become

almost stock in Irving's novels: fairly explicit sex scenes; depictions

of a world full of danger, accidents, and violence; characters lost

among their shifting emotions; characters voicing concern for the vul-

nerability of children. But these motifs have less importance in this

novel than they have in the other books. That Irving calls it a "liter-

ary" book is a clue to what lies at the center of things here and to

what makes the novel so different from his others. Like the two books

which inspired it, this novel involves one supreme issue: the nar-

rator's "reliability" as a commentator on his characters and his story.

As Carol Fesenthal says in her review of The 158-Pound Marriage, "The

novel's interest is not in the rather boring swapping arrangement, but

in the character of the narrator. . The skillful use of point of

view makes the reader very gradually learn to trust neither the narra-

tor's opinion of the others nor his implied opinion of himself!"4 The

bleak message that emerges from the book is inextricably tied up with

the narrator's inability to understand himself or others: it may be,

the book seems finally to suggest, more than merely difficult to know

the truth about other people, reality, or ourselves; it may be impos-


Irving's protagonist/narrator here is in some ways similar to those

in his earlier works, but there are some important differences. The

fact that this narrator consistently fails to make any sense of things,

for example, seems to be typical of Irving's narrators; we are reminded

of Graff's comment at the end of Setting Free The Bears: "Things didn't

piece together any better than before."5 And the narrator's unreliabil-

ity seems to be connected with Trumper's admission in The Water Method

Man: "I am not so honest. I'm a pretty good liar, in fact. . But

I'm telling the truth now! Just remember: you don't know me."6 There

are important differences, however, between the situation of this narra-

tor and that of Graff or Trumper. Both Graff and Trumper finally act on

decisions which they judge to be "right," knowing full well the impossi-

bility of being absolutely sure of anything in a relative world. But

the narrator of The 158-Pound Marriage acts, judges, and criticizes

others as if he were sure of himself, as if he had things completely

figured out. Moreover, when this narrator gives us questionable infor-

mation and judgments, he seems to be either unaware that he is doing so

or, more disturbing, to be doing this intentionally so as to prejudice

us toward his view of things. The result of his efforts, of course, is

the opposite of what the narrator seems to intend, for as we gradually

see through his subtle manipulations, we lose a large part of our

sympathy for him; although we develop some pity for him as a victim of

circumstances, we also see him as self-deceived and as a deceiver of


Before looking specifically at the narrator of Marriage here, it is

worth examining the phenomenon of the unreliable narrator, for the use

of such a narrator bears upon the question of this book's relationship

to the two books out of which Irving has said it "grew." The relation-

ship between the three books in question is rather complicated, for

while Irving claims that his book grew out of both Ford Madox Ford's The

Good Soldier and Hawkes' The Blood Oranges, Hawkes makes it clear that

his book was originally inspired by Ford's. Thus one might think of

both The Blood Oranges and The 158-Pound Marriage as books which "grew"

out of The Good Soldier. Thought of in this way, the relationship

between Hawkes' book and Irving's becomes an interesting study in con-

trast, for each book uses the problem of the unreliable narrator in a

very different way. The situation of the unreliable narrator in

Irving's book parallels that of the unreliable narrator in Ford's book

almost exactly. The narrator in The Good Soldier builds up a distorted

picture of the central situation in the story, for he misjudges, we

eventually realize, the British couple with whom he and his wife have a

close relationship, and he even misunderstands his own wife. His erro-

neous assessments, which he gives us again and again in the book, are

largely caused by his inability to understand himself, and by his

tendency to romanticize his ambitions. He cannot clearly distinguish

between appearance and reality. The narrator in The 158-Pound Marriage

also misjudges both his wife and the couple with whom he and his wife

have an intimate relationship. And his distorted views are a product of

his inability to know himself and his tendency to romanticize his situ-

ation. In each book we are eventually made aware that the narrator is

biased and shortsighted and thus "untrustworthy" as a commentator on his

own story. That is, both Ford and Irving clearly intend for us to "see

through" the arguments and rationalizations of their narrators; they

intend for us to see that their narrators are, in fact, unreliable.

Hawkes, on the other hand, seems to intentionally leave the situation of

his narrator ambiguous; it is still unclear, at the end of The Blood

Oranges, whether we are to trust the views and judgments of the narrator

or not. The ambiguity which Hawkes builds into his novel seems to befit

the opaque, postmodern nature of the book as a whole. The message which

emerges from Ford's book and from Irving's concerns the narrator's

inability to judge his situation clearly; the message which emerges from

Hawkes' book, however, concerns our inability to judge the situation of

the narrator clearly.

A brief examination of two contrasting views of The Blood Oranges

illustrates my point concerning its ambiguity and points up the differ-

ence between Hawkes' book and Irving's. Two major Hawkes critics,

Fredrick Busch and Donald Greiner, both build their critical analysis of

The Blood Oranges around the book's point of view and the question of

ironic distance between author and narrator, but they come to exactly

opposite conclusions. Greiner maintains that Hawkes intends us to see

through the rhetoric and hyperbole of the narrator to a phony idealism

which lies behind it. In Greiner's view, we are to see the narrator's

views and his judgments of the other characters as very suspect and

perhaps even grossly self-serving and destructive. Busch, on the other

hand, while acknowledging that some distance between author and narrator

might exist, suggests that we are to see the narrator as essentially

"right," speaking for the force of life and vigor and against the forces

of death and decay. Both arguments are well presented, but each, I

think, misses the essential point of the book, for that point is illus-

trated by the very fact of their disagreement. That is, the ambiguity

of Hawkes' presentation of the narrator mirrors the overall ambiguity,

or even opacity, of the book itself; the "point" of the ambiguity is

that we can never really know, as both Busch and Greiner think they do,

how we are to view the narrator or his ideals. This impenetrable ambi-

guity serves, in postmodern fashion, as a metaphor for the unknowable-

ness of reality. Moreover, our view of the narrator in this thoroughly

postmodern work is also clouded by the book's emphasis on the technical

manipulation of language for its "poetic effect." Both Busch and

Greiner acknowledge that Hawkes' novel is ultimately a purely aesthetic

creation. Busch states, "The novel is words. Illyvia is a land of

phrases, not hillsides, where chains of concepts traverse our conscious-

ness, not a real landscape"7; Greiner says simply, "The world of this

novel is entirely the world of art."8

There is definitely an ironic distance between Irving and his

narrator in The 158-Pound Marriage just as there is between Ford and his

narrator in The Good Soldier. But that distance does not lead, as it

does in Hawkes' work, to an ambiguity about how we are to view the

narrator. The narrator of The 158-Pound Marriage, in trying to preju-

dice our view of him and the circumstances of the main situation, re-

veals himself for what he is: a man filled with, as Irving himself has

remarked, "lust and rationalization and restlessness."9 He is clearly

not the objective, selfless individual he thinks, or wants others to

think, he is. To be sure, we do not immediately discover the true

nature of the narrator, for he attempts to paint a distorted picture of

himself and the other characters, but it is finally quite clear that

Irving intends for us to see the narrator for what he is. The point of

all this, in one sense, is somewhat akin to Hawkes' in his work: the

circumstances of human reality, each book suggests, are incredibly

complex and difficult to truly know. But, in the case of The 158-Pound

Marriage, just as in Ford's book, this message emanates, as I noted

earlier, not from our inability to judge the narrator but from his

inability to see clearly and to assess objectively the people and events

of his life.

Secondly, the larger difference between Irving's book and Hawkes'

concerns each author's choice of setting, for this choice has much to do

with the relative emphasis on language and form in each work. Like The

Good Soldier, The 158-Pound Marriage is basically a traditional kind of

novel in the sense that its narrative contains much social and his-

torical verisimilitude; it does not, as Busch says of The Blood Oranges,

present "a land of phrases . where chains of concepts traverse our

consciousness." The book does deal, as all Irving's books do in some

way, with writers and fiction writing; both the narrator and Edith, the

wife of the narrator's "antagonist" in their sexual foursome, are fic-

tion writers, and they pursue their writing activities and discuss both

their writing and art in general during the course of the novel. But

this is a minor, almost incidental aspect of the novel. The narrative

of The 158-Pound Marriage is not, as Greiner says of Hawkes' work, "en-

tirely the world of art." Rather ironically, the two writers in The

158-Pound Marriage share a distaste for the kind of fiction that Hawkes'

novel represents. At one point, the narrator and Edith discuss her

creative writing professor, Helmbart, the same author parodied in The

Water Method Man; the narrator then comments,

Helmbart's sort of haughty kingship over what was called "the
new novel" was nauseating to me. Edith and I agreed that when
the subject of fiction became how to write fiction, we lost
interest; we were interested in prose, surely, but not when
the subject of the prose became prose itself. 10

There is no way to know whether this criticism reflects Irving's own

feelings, but the fact is that the subject of The 158-Pound Marriage is

more than its own prose. To be sure, the main focus of this novel is

narrower than that in Irving's other books, but, in some ways, the

social and historical setting of The 158-Pound Marriage gives it a scope

comparable to that of Setting Free The Bears.

As in Irving's first novel, the immediate events of The 158-Pound

Marriage are given resonance by being set against a fairly broad his-

torical background. The narrator, in a way appropriate to his position

as an historical novelist, gives an historical sketch of each of the

characters (except, significantly, himself) and in so doing provides

broad sketches of the terrible conditions that prevailed in Eastern

Europe during and after World War Two. These scenes are narrated in a

clipped, matter-of-fact, ironic style that suggests the bitterness and

anger with which the narrator considers these horrors and atrocities.

For instance, the narrator infuses bitter irony into his description of

the treatment which his wife's mother received from both enemy soliders

and her own countrymen:

Utch's mother was raped again, several months after the S.S.
left, by some of the village menfolk who, when questioned
about their assault, claimed they were following the instruc-
tions of the S.S.: watching Utch's mother very closely to

make sure she wasn't a Bolshevik. They were not charged with
a crime. (p. 10)

A bit later he describes her death in a flat, matter-of-fact tone which

serves to intensify the horror of the scene:

Piece by piece, what happened grew clear. Utch's mother had
been raped. (Almost everyone's father and son had been
killed.) Then one morning a Russian had decided to burn the
barn down. Utch's mother had begged him not to, but she had
little bargaining power; she had already been raped. So she
had been forced to kill the Russian with a trenching spade,
and another Russian had been forced to shoot her. (p. 13)

At various places, the narrator adds short, emphatic judgments which

seem to sum up his moral outrage; he says at one point, for example,

"The damage to a statue called 'The Smile of Reims' doesn't compare to

the shishkebobbing of children on bayonets. People regard art too

highly, and history not enough" (p. 17). The style, tone, and details

of these descriptions of the war and postwar horrors in Eastern Europe

are reminiscent of the powerful middle part of Setting Free The Bears.

And significantly, the image that the narrator initially builds of

himself--that of a moral individual outraged at the evidence of human

insanity for violence--is similar to that of Siggy in the first novel.

These early historical sketches by the narrator, then, are more

than mere background for his story; in terms of the overall scheme of

the novel, these sketches influence our view of the narrator himself.

Because the narrator seems to be a moral individual concerned about

human injustice, we are inclined to develop feelings of respect, trust,

and even admiration for him. And these feelings are bolstered, of

course, by our inclination to side with a first-person narrator who

serves as our guide through the story. We are, as it were, "set up" by

the apparent truthfulness and trustworthiness of the narrator to later

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