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The novels of John Irving

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Title:
The novels of John Irving
Creator:
James, Wayne Leslie ( Dissertant )
Kershner, R. Brandon ( Thesis advisor )
Gordon, Andrew ( Reviewer )
Duckworth, Alistair ( Reviewer )
Place of Publication:
Gainesville, Fla.
Publisher:
University of Florida
Publication Date:
Copyright Date:
1981
Language:
English
Physical Description:
vi, 164 leaves ; 28 cm.

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Death ( jstor )
Literary postmodernism ( jstor )
Mothers ( jstor )
Narratives ( jstor )
Narrators ( jstor )
Novels ( jstor )
Setting ( jstor )
Writing ( jstor )
Written narratives ( jstor )
Zoos ( jstor )
Dissertations, Academic -- English -- UF
English thesis Ph. D
Genre:
bibliography ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

Notes

Abstract:
John Irving is a contemporary American novelist whose works have captured a large popular audience and serious, but not extensive, critical 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, "translate" 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 sometimes 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 institutions and lifestyles that characterize our age. Unlike many contemporary 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 materialism. Irving' s novels often deal with the dangers, both emotional and physical, which abound in a world characterized by social and political 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.
Thesis:
Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 1981.
Bibliography:
Includes bibliographic references (leaves 161-163).
General Note:
Typescript.
General Note:
Vita.
Statement of Responsibility:
by Wayne Leslie James.

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Florida
Holding Location:
University of Florida
Rights Management:
Copyright [name of dissertation author]. Permission granted to the University of Florida to digitize, archive and distribute this item for non-profit research and educational purposes. Any reuse of this item in excess of fair use or other copyright exemptions requires permission of the copyright holder.
Resource Identifier:
028165308 ( AlephBibNum )
08330836 ( OCLC )
ABS3525 ( NOTIS )

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Full Text









THE NOVELS OF JOHN IRVING


BY

WAYNE LESLIE JAMES


























A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN
PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS
FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY


UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA


1981













DEDICATION





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

really works far exceeded that of his son.













ACKNOWLEDGMENTS


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

valuable criticism, his unflagging encouragement, and his unremitting

compassion.

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.













TABLE OF CONTENTS


PAGE

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



THE NOVELS OF JOHN IRVING

By

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.













INTRODUCTION


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

interview,

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-

tion.

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

example,

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.






Notes

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.




16


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.













CHAPTER ONE
SETTING FREE THE BEARS



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

17







"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

century.

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
up!2

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.
26)

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
Disaster.
If we try to
Get away,
Disaster
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

prepared.





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

destruction.

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

confrontation:

"He's done something, anyway to show we're not just Hitler's
backyard."
"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
asked.
"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
Wut!"
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.

222).

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

spirit.

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

trip.

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.







Notes


'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.















CHAPTER TWO
THE WATER METHOD MAN


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"

life.

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-

riage:








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.
72)

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.

355).

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
before.
"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-

pose.

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-

ament.

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
breast.
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
remark.








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.















Notes

'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.,
1978).

toGardner, p. 69.

1Gardner, p. 70.

12Graff, p. 385.
















CHAPTER THREE
THE 158-POUrD MARRIAGE


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-

sible.

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

others.

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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THE NOVELS OF JOHN IRVING BY WAYNE LESLIE JAMES A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 1981

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DEDICATION In memory of my father, whose wisdom of how the world really works far exceeded that of his son.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Special thanks to my chairman, Dr. R. Brandon Kershner, for his invaluable criticism, his unflagging encouragement, and his unremitting compassion. 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. Ill

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TABLE OF CONTENTS PAGE ACKNOWLEDGMENTS iii ABSTRACT v INTRODUCTION 1 Notes 14 CHAPTER ONE: SETTING FREE THE BEARS 17 Part One: "Siggy" 22 Part Two : "The Notebook" 27 Part Three : "Setting Them Free" 42 Notes 48 CHAPTER TWO : Tlffi WATER METHOD MAN 49 Notes 84 CHAPTER THREE : Tffi 158 POUND MARRIAGE 85 Notes 112 CHAPTER FOUR: Tlffi WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP 113 Notes 159 BIBLIOGRAPHY 161 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH 164 IV

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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 THE NOVELS OF JOHN IRVING By 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, critical 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, "translate" 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

PAGE 6

artists of one sort or another, and the nature and place of fictional creation are prominent issues in most of his stories. Because he sometimes 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 institutions and lifestyles that characterize our age. Unlike many contemporary 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 materialism. Irving' s novels often deal with the dangers, both emotional and physical, which abound in a world characterized by social and political 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. vi

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INTRODUCTION 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 ,^ and to his extensive exposure through feature articles and inteviews in popular magazines and appearances on various television talk shows, the name John Irving is well on its way to becoming a household 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 manifestation 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."^ But to abide

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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."* 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 interview, 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 straightforward 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.^ 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

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Iowa Writers Workshop, until the overwhelming success of his fourth novel, The World According to Gar£ (1978) gave him the financial independence 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 Ga££ 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 Gar£, 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 GarH 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, fictional creation; again, in Gar£, 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

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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 translating, though, that makes the difference."^ "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, "original"; 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 fiction. 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.^ 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."^

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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 f iction"--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."^ "Inventiveness" in Irving's fiction is sometimes 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)."^*^ Irving's emphasis on this kind of creativity shows itself in the comedy, the verbal wit, and what some refer to as the "sheer narrative 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."^^ 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. '"^^ {

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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 Garp , the stories which Carp tells his children reflect his own psychological motivations and fears regarding 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

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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 "ornamentation," for the weaving together of these bits and pieces of storytelling 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 attempt 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

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8 external world in his own pattern. "^^ 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 u^."^** 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 creation 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 "protection" 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

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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 aesthetic 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 contemporary writers who indulge in what he calls "linguistic opacity." He comments on such writers in his book On Moral Fiction : ^^ Fiction as pure language (texture over structure) is in. It is one common manifestation of what is being called "postmodernism." . . . Mobs of contemporary writers focus their attention 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 language for its own sake, more in love, on principle, with the sound of words than with creating fictional worlds.^® Whether or not Gardner is justified in heaping such vociferous condemnation on the writers he attacks here, 1 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" ^^ by creating fictional worlds wherein characters and actions are well defined and psychologically 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.^^ 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 abandonment of social and historical verisimilitude and traditional notions of logical narrative development. Most of Irving' s novels are narrated in

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10 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 boundaries 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--complete 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 judgment, but Irving has made it clear that he does not set out to create "incredible" stories; Irving remarks in the Rolling Stone interview, for example, 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. "^^ 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 spoiling for a fight. ^° 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"^^ 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

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11 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 moralizing or satirizing in the traditional sense. ^^ Beyond their comedy and creative inventiveness, Irving' s novels are important as commentaries on modern society: the institutions, values, and lifestyles that characterize our age. Not unlike so many nineteenth century novelists (for whom he claims a "preference" over most twentieth century writers^^), 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.

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12 It might be an oversimplification, but certainly not an exaggeration, 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 validity 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 Carp'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 dominant 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 children 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 protection, however transitory, from the threat of destruction.

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13 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. "^^ 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 characters 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

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14 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-raodernist, 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 imaginative 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. Notes ^Greil Marcus, "The World of The World According to Garp ," Rolling Stone , 13 December 1979, p. 69.

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15 ^Because The Hotel New Hampshire was released just before the completion deadline for this study, I was unable to include any analysis of it here. ^John Irving, The World According to Garp (New York: Pocket Books, 1978), p. 580. ^Marcus, p. 71. ^Marcus, p. 71. ^Marcus, p. 71. ^Robert Scholes, The Fabulators (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 10, 11, 12. ^Scholes, p. 18. ^Marcus, p. 70. ^°Quoted from a personal letter which I received from John Irving dated 3 October 1980, p. 2. ^ ^Marcus, p. 72. ^^Irving, The World According to Garp , p. 582. ^^Tony Tanner, City of Words : American Fiction 1950 1970 (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 19. ^^Marcus, p. 71. ^^Gardner'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. ^^John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1978), pp. 69, 70, 71. ^^Personal letter from John Irving, p. 1. ^^Personal letter from John Irving, p. 1. ^^Marcus, p. 73. 2°Marcus, p. 73. ^^Marcus, p. 72. ^^Scholes, p. 41.

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16 ^^Personal letter from John Irving, p. 2. ^^Personal letter from John Irving, p. 2. ^^Irving, The World According to Garp , p. 279, ^^Personal letter from John Irving, pp. 1, 2.

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CHAPTER ONE SETTING FREE THE BEARS 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 certainly 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 Carp . 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 meaningful values in the modern world, it compares with the absurdist and 17

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18 "black humor" novels of Joseph Heller or Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. And, finally, in its emphasis upon the importance of basic human verities within a world peopled by "survivors" of the physical and psychological onslaughts 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 century. 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 protagonist, Hannes Graff, relates the adventures of Graff and his newfound 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 freeing all the animals; the other section is Siggy' s "fictionalized" version 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

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19 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 writing are ones that Irving will come back to again and again in his subsequent works. Here these issues attach specifically to the form of the second part of the novel, that part which interrupts the immediate narrative 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 autobiographically. 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

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20 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 U£!2 *^ 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.""^ 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

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21 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 juxtaposing 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

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22 book remains dark and tinged with cynicism. An analysis of each part of the novel reveals the recurring pattern of "deflation" (each part undercutting 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 Bathroom." 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

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23 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 ridiculous 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

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24 some solid buildings close together in a one street town. fp. 26) 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 treatment 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.

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25 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 specifially 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 inherent 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, romantic idealism and light comedy which are so prevalent here. For example, he quotes such lines from Siggy's "jottings" as "Finesse is no substitute for love" (p. 23) and such poems as

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26 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 portend 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 beergarten 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 Disaster. If we try to Get away. Disaster Will run faster, (p. 67)

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27 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 prepared. 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 reviewer read beyond part one. Placing part one and perhaps part three in

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28 the picaresque tradition is certainly accurate, but lumping the crucially 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 destruction. This is not to say that there is nothing in part two of the romantic 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 reminiscient 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

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29 clash between a concerned artist's deep-seated urge to protest those insane hrnnan 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 "controller" 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

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30 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 mentor, Ernst Watzek-Trummer, who provides him with a historical perspective, his own biological father, Vratno Javotnik, a cynical, antihero figure who attempts only to adapt to the absurdity around him to survive, 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 structure 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 characterize 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 existence" and then continues, "You see, Graff, in our case, it's the prehistory 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 antiNazi newspaper editor escape to freedom, Siggy comments:

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31 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 inherited 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 confrontation: "He's done something, anyway to show we're not just Hitler's backyard." "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 matter?--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

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32 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 appearance 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 autobiography becomes a history of this general destruction and the subsequent dissolution of the Marter family. Grandfather Marter, with the help of Ernst Watzek-Trumraer, 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 environment. Siggy first introduces his father as one who "had no affiliations" politically and to whom religious affiliation "couldn't have

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33 ma ttered ... 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 protect him from suffering during the following war years nor ultimately prevent his bizarre annihilation. Like the real heroes, such as the brave, selfless Mihailovich, the antihero Vratno is also destroyed. Siggy' s account of his father's efforts at survival-through-adaptation is filled with expositions on the absurd logic and rationalization 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 retaliation 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

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34 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 pockets, (p. 161) It is in Slovenjgradec that Vratno must first use his linguistic abilities 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 wartime 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 asked. "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)

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35 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 Fibulators, "The Black Humorist is not concerned with what to do about life but with how to take it."^ For Vratno. "taking it," eventually oceans 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 hills 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 describes a scene which the pair witness on one of their infrequent trips out of the mountains: the o'rZ' r''''' '° J^^'^^y,' ^"^^d J"=t southeast of Maribor at the Drava River where the Ustashi had accomplished another m"'T °5.''''' '^" "'«^' ^^^°^^' ^" -Ibow of the Drava was clogged with corpses. My father would always remember Traft ITllT 11 r^ '''i'^'' ^'°"^ ^^^ '''-^The raft was neatlj piled with heads; the architect had attempted a pyramid It was almost perfect^ But one head near the peak 'had slipped l^Jo/V ''' ^^^' "'' ""S^'^ ^^t"^^" °ther 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:

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36 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 everyone 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 appropriate 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, Metz! You're peeing next to old Wut!" And before my father could stop his own peeing, Bronsky and Metz 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)

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37 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. 222). 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 atrocities 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 mailsled suicide of his grandfather. It is, indeed, as Siggy himself says, a "scary world" of unrelenting, senseless violence into which he is born. And it is the response of two family members to the absurdity of all this destruction--the

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38 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 yourself. But 1 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-throughadaptation-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 horsebeating milkman, and to dream up the liberating of the Heitzinger zoo animals in part one. And it is his moral outrage, based upon his deduction (later confirmed by Graff) that the night watchman at the zoo tortures the animals for his sadistic pleasure, that confirms his resolve to liberate the zoo animals. This side of Siggy's character is

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39 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 apolitically "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 May 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 pieplates, 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 narrative; while Vratno is hiding through his language skills and fleeing the

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40 forces of chaos from city to city and country to country, Zahn is purportedly 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 mythlike 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 WatzekTrummer, 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 WatzekTrummer and the compromising self-preservation attitude of Vratno; when Vratno describes his abandoning Gottlob Wut to save his own skin, Ernst displays shocked disbelief:

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41 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 concealed Amal racing carburator. And suddenly Watzek-Triuraner 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 cruelty 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 original Heitzinger "zoo bust" which comes to represent the romantic heroism 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 affects 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 sadistically tortures animals as he once did human beings is a bit too ingenious

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42 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

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43 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 movement as a series of slow "inflations" followed by rapid "deflations." But, such crude comparisons aside, the novel does seem somehow to continually 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 "Autobiography" 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

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44 it was almost impossible to endure either the verbosity of Siggy's souped-up history or the fanatcism of his frotting 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 questionable 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 autobiography 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 spirit. Graff's skepticism, in fact, seems to push him toward the hedonistic 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, concerning 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

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45 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 trip. 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: "1 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 f rotting mirror, I had lost my head and couldn't find it" (p. 312). Graff begins to give in to his emotional

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46 attraction to Siggy and his mad scheme even though his logic militates against it. When Gallen asks him, "How could anyone take Siggy seriously?" 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 intellectualized 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

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47 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 justifed 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 concerning the meaning and purpose of life. Psychologically, it poses questions 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 process. 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

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48 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 . Notes ^Greil Marcus, "The World of The World According to Garp ," Rolling Stone, 13 December 1979, p. 71. ^ Marcus, p. 71. ^John 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. ''Robert Scholes, The Fabulators (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 43.

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CHAPTER TWO THE WATER METHOD MAN 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."i 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 mkjor 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 difference 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 Gar£--a book which is much more of a personal "statement" than the others. By turning its attention away from broad historical 49

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50 and social issues, The Water Method Man focuses on more specific questions 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 protagonist/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 reminiscient 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 companionship 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.

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51 Unable to find Merrill after six months of searching, Trumper is forced to return to America where he finally learns, through American authorities, 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 examination 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 protagonist; 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 "inside." 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

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52 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. Truraper seems to be a first cousin to John Earth'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. "^ 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 honestly think ray avoidance of the facts has as much to do with my distrusting 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 objective 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.

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53 Trumpet's profound distrust of the objective world also gives rise to his Garp-Iike 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 gratuitous 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 attempts to shield those he loves from the dangers and suffering in the world are invariably unsuccessful, and his desire to do so is tied

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54 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, imagination 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)

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55 His use of such terms as "create," "invent," and "simulate" here make it evident that Trumper would like the kind of control over everyday reality that the artist commands over the "realities" which he or she invents. 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 essentially meaningless; what's more, they look upon anyone who does see meaning 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

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56 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 corranentary 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 1 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 exasperation 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 desperately try to twist a meaning out of the film's lack of meaning is

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57 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 beneficial 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 creation 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 appearances 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

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58 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 Trumpet is searching 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

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59 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?" follows 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 suggest, 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 spiritual guide and the difficulty each has in living any sort of "normal" life. 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

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60 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 probably 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 apparent. 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 attachment to him. Trumper 's attachment to Merrill and his "fictional

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61 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 relationship 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 selfdestructive 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 marriage:

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62 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. 72) Trumper's casting Merrill in this almost god-like role and his psychological 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 f iction--John Earth'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

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63 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."^ 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 frustrated 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 typewriter 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

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64 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 typewriter. 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 scenerio, 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 association 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 Earth'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 attempt 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

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65 existence: "Into a Life of Art: Prelude to a Tank on the Bottom of the Danube." Moreover, it is certainly significant that the chapter immediately 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, Helmbarfs 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,^ 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 narrator comments, "What Trumper had some difficulty understanding was what relation Helmbarfs 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 various fictions-Helmbart's novel, Ralph's film, and Akthelt and Gunnelbrings 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 million images from the film on his mind, both real and imagined. Ihen Helmbart s puzzling passages about Eddy's feet returned to haunt him. And there was Akthelt and Gunnel to consider. ... 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

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66 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 yourself , 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

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67 accomplishment" until he decides to "add something" of his own creation. His thesis advisor is unaware that Trumper has made up some added details, 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. 355). 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 attachment 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 conversation 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."

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68 "Not real ?" said Trumper. He'd never heard Colm use the word before. "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 Moby Dick ," Colm said. ... I mean, I 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 involved 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 responsibility of living is what Trumper faces at the close of the book. In the final scene, Trumper is associated with his famous fictional creation, 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 everywhere. 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 optimism; 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

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69 said. 'It's so complicated sometimes' . . . Surviving a relationship with any other human being sometimes seemed impossible to him. 'But so what?' he 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 narrowing 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 existence 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 postmodern 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 Method 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

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70 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. ^ 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. Furthermore, the narration constantly switches between first and third person and between past and present tense. Moreover, the text ultimately becomes a kind of multimedia event as letters, tape transcripts, and movie screenplays are sporadically injected into it. Such disorientation of the reader is to some a distinguishing feature of the postmodern novel; a maze-like structure often serves, just as it does here, as an appropriate metaphor for the confusion and complexity that constitute 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"^), 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

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71 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--alI 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 speculates that "perhaps neither of them (Helmbart or Ralph) meant anything" (p. 261). But, as any good critic knows, the attitude of the protagonist is not necessarily that of the author; the fact is that the structure 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 purpose. 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

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72 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 experiences, 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 inability 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 juxtaposition 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

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73 indicate a positive move away from the paralyzing effect of that past. The structure of the novel, then, although complex, is hardly meaningless or haphazard; its orchestration helps establish the thematically important link between Trumper's past experience and his present predicament. 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 meaning of particular scenes. Some contrasts make this apparent. In the early chapters, Trumper narrates in first-person, explaining his situation 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 characterization; 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 picture 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":

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74 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 ray 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 overwhelmed 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 frotting 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 breast. Gallen was in Klosterneuburg. Where there still were monasteries. And monks making wine.^ 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

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75 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 contrast to the short, emphatic style used earlier. This style is appropriate 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 writing 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 upright 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.® 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

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76 many postmodern novelist by critics such as Gerald Graff, or most vociferiously by John Gardner,^ 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 empathize or sympathize with them.^*^ Irving sometimes uses burlesque, slapstick, or black humor, as we noted in Setting Free The Bears , but nearly all the hujnor 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 circumstances, 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 significance. 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 dangling out the window of his house, balanced on his raid-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

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77 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 humorless, common-sense wife. But more important, it suggests several metaphorical 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 consuming fantasy, toward which Trumper' s mind constantly turns, is reemphasized at the end of the chapter. Biggie tells Trumper, "' I' 11 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

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78 and common sense that contribute to his cyncism, depression, and, ultimately, 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 complication.'" 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 memories, 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

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79 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 Truraper 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 incriminating 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, dragging 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 announced again flatly— not having been forewarned of the possibility that he might ever be in need of a more appropriate remark.

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80 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 recorder 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 psychological 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

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81 pranksterism and further claims that I have been able to heroize 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 everday 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 eventually 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 situation 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

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82 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 problematic 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 subsquent temptations to lose oneself in imaginative fictions which can provide the control, security, or meaning often lacking in everday 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. "^^ 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 postmodernism, "in the process of telling us how little it means. "^^ The

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83 novel sets a problem for its protagonist--how to live with any success in an absurd world--and provides an answer, however tentative or incomplete, 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 devastating 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 disengaged 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 relationship of the artist to his creation and to reality. In between these two books falls a novel that shares many of the motifs and idiosyncrasies 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 finally 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.

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84 Notes ^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. ^William 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. '^"Helmbart" (Helm/bart) is, in fact, probably a thinly disguised reversal of Barthelme. ^Gerald Graff, "The Myth of the Postmodernist Breakthrough," Tri Quarterly , 26 (1975), p. 383. ^Jenny Weil, "Building With Burnt Matches: A Talk with Alain Robbe-Grillet," The New Leader 24 July 1972, p. 13. ^John Irving, Setting Free The Bears (New York: Pocket Books, 1968), p. 336. «Weil, p. 13. ^John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1978). i°Gardner, p. 69. ^^Gardner, p. 70. i^Graff, p. 385.

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CHAPTER THREE THE 158-POUND MARRIAGE Irving 's third novel, The 158 Pound Marriage , is the shortest and least popular of his works. Superficially, it shares many of the characteristics 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 inteirview: Times were hard then. All of a sudden I was thick into teaching 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 appalling situations. It seemed a rampant kind of time.^ The 158 Pound Marriage does seem to reflect Irving 's mood as he describes it here, for the book's main characters find themselves in an "appalling situation," replete with frustration, bitterness, and pain. 85

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86 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 specifically 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.^ 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 marriage. The narrator tells the story in retrospect, so it essentially

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87 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' relationship, 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 vulnerability of children. But these motifs have less importance in this novel than they have in the other books. That Irving calls it a "literary" 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 narrator'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

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88 view makes the reader very gradually learn to trust neither the narrator's opinion of the others nor his implied opinion of himself!'"* 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 impossible. 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."^ And the narrator's unreliability 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."^ There are important differences, however, between the situation of this narrator and that of Graff or Trumper. Both Graff and Trumper finally act on decisions which they judge to be "right," knowing full well the impossibility 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 information 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

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89 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 others. 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 relationship 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 contrast, 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 erroneous 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

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90 have an intimate relationship. And his distorted views are a product of his inability to know himself and his tendency to romanticize his situation. In each book we are eventually made aware that the narrator is biased and shortsighted and tlius "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 difference 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

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91 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 illustrated 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 ambiguity serves, in postmodern fashion, as a metaphor for the unknowableness 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 consciousness, not a real landscape"^; Greiner says simply, "The world of this novel is entirely the world of art."* 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 prejudice our view of him and the circumstances of the main situation, reveals himself for what he is: a man filled with, as Irving himself has remarked, "lust and rationalization and restlessness."^ He is clearly

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92 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 historical 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 fiction 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, "entirely the world of art." Rather ironically, the two writers in The

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93 158 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. ^° 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 historical 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 instructions of the S.S.: watching Utch's mother very closely to

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94 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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95 accept his evaluation of the characters and events within the main action. There are other subtle but effective ways that the narrator engenders our intial trust in him. In describing his writing of historical novels, for example, he implies that he employs objectivity and discretion. He states , I find it's no good writing historical novels about people who aren't dead; that's a maxim of mine. History takes time; I resist writing about people who are still alive. For history you need a camera with two lenses--the telephoto and the kind of close-up with a fine penetrating focus. You can forget the wide-angle lens; there is no angle wide enough, (p. 15) By suggesting that he does not make judgments about people or events quickly, the narrator implies that he employs cool rationality and considered objectivity to get at the truth of what he writes about. (There is an immediate irony, of course, in the fact that he is in the process of writing about people who are "still alive.") Moreover, by suggesting that he does not attempt to generalize on too wide a scale, he implies that he uses logical discretion and sticks to evaluating only what he fully understands. Thus when small statements of evaluation or judgment by the narrator first begin to creep into the early historical chapters, we are in a position to accept his opinions even before we know the characters and the circumstances to which they apply. To take advantage of this, he begins to assess blame for the circumstances which surround the relationship of the main characters long before we even know the nature of that relationship: he bitterly accuses Severin Winter, for example, of not understanding his wife (and, by implication, of thereby causing the problems in their relationship); and he comments, on telling Severin about a traumatic event in his wife's childhood: "When 1 think of how often 1 told Severin Winter this story, I could

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96 break my teeth! Over and over again, I told him he must understand that, above all, Utch is loyal. Patience is a form of loyalty, but he never understood that about her" (p. 14). A bit later he attaches an accusation of Severin to some general philosophizing about the relationships of men and women: The moral of "The Smile of Reims," according to me, is that an unhappy man cannot tolerate a happy woman. Saint Nicaise would have taken the angel's smile, if not her whole head, with or without the help of World War II. And that goddamn Severin Winter would have done what he did to Edith, with or without me! (p. 17) We are not yet in a position to see that such judgments by the narrator are based more on emotional reaction, rationalization, and self-deception than on objectivity and clear perception of the truth of things. The narrator's contrast of himself to other characters also tends to increase our sympathy for him. For example, he throws himself in a favorable light when he contrasts himself to his parents. His mother, a mindless, innocent woman who carries on such empty rituals as superficially discussing his latest book each time he visits, lives in the shadow of her no-nonsense, coldly practical husband. The narrator's father is a stereotype of the totally unimaginative, cynical man of overwhelming common sense who makes the narrator's tendencies toward romanticism and idealism seem attractive. When the narrator wants to travel to Vienna to research a painting as a basis for one of his historical novels, his father is totally baffled by his son's desire to use the painting as a stimulus for his imagination; his father asks him, "Why don't you be professional , for Christ's sake, and find out what you're doing before you start doing it?" The narrator then comments. He didn't understand; he thought that everything was a thesis project to be accepted or rejected. I'd told him a hundred times that I didn't really care about the history behind

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97 everything as much as I cared for what it provoked in me. But he was hopeless, a diehard factualist to the end. (p. 160) The narrator also creates a caricatured image of his father: a man forever sitting asleep with a scotch pinched between his knees, unfinished books scattered in his lap. When his father dies while sitting in this position, we get the impression that this is his appropriate end, that he has died of unimaginative boredom. Compared with someone as unimaginative as his father, the narrator strikes us as open-minded and creative. And the narrator seems well aware of the "effect" of such a contrast; he chooses to reveal very few things about himself, but when he does, he invariably throws himself into a favorable light. It is eventually clear that the narrator attempts to control our view of things in all the ways that I have just suggested, but another very subtle way that the narrator controls the "facts" of his story can be easily overlooked if one does not consider closely the all-important aspect of point of view here. The novel is narrated in first person, so the narrator can only give us his limited view of things; when he gives us information about situations which he did not personally observe, he must quote other characters who were involved in the situation or let the reader know that he is recreating events that he learned of secondhand. For the most part, the narrator abides by the "rules" governing the first-person point of view. For example, when the narrator recreates a scene in which Severin and Edith get revenge on her creative writing professor for persistently pinching her and making lewd suggestions, he mixes an objective perspective (logically reconstructing things from the information Edith has supplied him) with direct quotes

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98 from her (which serve to remind us of where the narrator got his information). Rewrites, So Edith went on trying, fending off the pinches and squeezes. Then there was a large party, mainly of English and Art department people. Because of her writing, Edith was usually invited to such things, and Severin always went along; he enjoyed teasing these people. At this party Helmbart again pinched Edith. She gave him a look, she told me, which was "truly annoyed," then went over and told Severin that she was really fed up. "It's the only time I've really wanted Severin to do anything physically to anyone for me," she said. (p. 82) But at certain times the narrator shifts to a third-person, omniscient point of view without any explanation of where he received his "facts" or any indication of how much of what he is relating is purely his speculation. In relating the personal histories of the various characters, for example, the narrator takes on the role of an observer who knows the thoughts of those he observes; for instance, when he describes Edith's preparation for her first meeting with Severin in Vienna, he writes, " Say -vah-rin," she said again, as if she were tasting soup. She pictured a thin, bearded man who looked more in his thirties than twenty-seven. She had not looked twice at a single graduate student in America, and she could not imagine a Viennese graduate student at all. A degree in what? A doctorate in minor painting? (p. 41) How does the narrator know such intricate details and thoughts? How much of this kind of narration (which he uses regularly in his "Scouting Reports" on the other characters) is based on factual information that the narrator has garnered and how much is purely his subjective creation? Only the narrator could supply answers to such questions, but he does not, and the fact that he chooses not to is an indication that the narrator controls things — even the supposedly "objective facts" of history — to a larger extent than it may at first appear. We do well to

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99 remember the narrator's own comment on his use of historical facts: "I didn't really care about the history behind everything as much as I cared for what it provoked in me" (p. 160). Only with a clear view of the narrator and his position can we properly approach the central questions posed by the novel: how accurate is the narrator's assessment of the feelings, motives, and actions of the other characters and himself; where does the responsibility for the tragedy of their relationship rest? Does the blame lie, for example, primarily with Severin Winter, as the narrator always insists? The narrator characterizes Severin variously as egotistical, selfish, childish, insensitive, cynical, and animalistic. The narrator's estimation of Severin may seem overly severe, yet, if his depictions of Severin are to be trusted, there seems to be some truth in those estimations. For instance, Severin 's fanatical approach to wrestling is typical of his generally cynical, anti-intellectual attitude; at one point, the narrator quotes Severin' s complaint about the wrestlers on his team: "I don't get the ones with the real killer instincts. ... I get guys who think. If you think, your realize you can lose — and you're right" (p. 77). This cynicism carries over into various other aspects of Severin' s outlook on things. Concerning the relationship between the two couples, for instance, he says flatly, "1 think it's sex. It's just sex, and that's all it can be in a thing like this" (p. 70). And he tells Edith rather callously, at one point, about his ideal lifestyle: "I would prefer to have my income provided, and in turn 1 would provide quality talk, quality food and quality sex!" (p. 118). Moreover, while Severin seems to expect everyone around him to tolerate his crudeness and selfishness, he seems to show little tolerance for any displays of

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100 selflessness or warmth by the other characters; when the narrator tries to impress upon Severin that "other people are important," he merely quips sarcastically, "How nice for you. Edith's a romantic too" (p. 32). Considering most of the outward evidence, we are prone to share the narrator's assessment of Severin and, by extension, to see him as mainly responsible for the problems among the two couples. But if we keep in mind that the evidence we are given about Severin has quite possibly been carefully selected and strategically presented by the narrator, we are prompted to consider some deeper questions. We might consider, first of all, whether Severin' s cynicism could perhaps be a "healthy" cynicism, a kind of counterbalance to the rather naive idealism and romanticism of his wife and the narrator. There is some evidence that it is. Moreover, there is evidence that Severin's seriousness makes him a more responsible person than the other characters. For example, the narrator at one point calls Severin "the mother in their family" and recounts an incident in which Edith and the narrator are so distracted by their conversation that neither of them hears Edith's daughter repeatedly asking her a question; when Severin finally gets her attention, Edith calls her daughter by the wrong name and does not discover her error until she is corrected by Severin. Severin is, in fact, consistently more responsible for the children of both couples than either Edith or the narrator. The narrator admits several times that the distractions of his writing and his involvement with Edith make him "forget his own children," but Severin takes charge of nearly all the domestic duties involving his children, and he is extremely conscientious about their welfare. At one point, for example, Severin gives his two girls some tough but realistic advice: "You've got to be smart,

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101 and you've got to be kind. But if you're kind without being smart, other people are going to make you miserable" (p. 130). This is immediately followed by a display of Edith's tendency toward abstract romanticizing; when she announces, "I love everything Italian," Severin reminds her, "You've never been there," and adds, "Edith is most attracted to things that are unfamiliar to her" (p. 130). Contrasted to his wife or to the narrator, who admits that his reaction to "life in general" is to "passively yield" (p. 189), Severin' s tough insistence on maintaining no illusions seems to demand a certain respect. We may also want to consider whether Severin' s outlook (especially on the relationships within the foursome) is really cynical or just realistic and bluntly honest. The narrator insists that Severin is a vulgar, insensitive man given over to hedonistic indulgence, but the evidence does not always support such a view. For instance, Severin provides a very logical and quite conservative explanation for why he cannot indulge in meaningless sexual affairs (as the narrator admits he sometimes does). He tells the narrator, I couldn't have "a little nothing." What's the point of having nothing? If I were having a relationship with someone and it didn' t show--and Edith couldn't see it and feel it-then I couldn't be having much of a relationship. I mean, if you have one good relationship, why would you be interested in having a little nothing of a relationship? (p. 109) When the two couples begin to swap partners, Severin finds it difficult to maintain a superficial relationship with Utch, and his frustration prompts him to upbraid the other three with an observation which seems to contain some hard truth: he tells them, "There's a precious amount of having-one' s-cake-and-eating-it-too shit going on around here" (p. 109). Moreover, it eventually becomes quite clear that the narrator's

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102 opinion of Severin's insensitivity and cruelty is not really shared by the other characters. The narrator openly admits this at one point; he first criticizes Severin in his usual fashion: "Severin Winter was too vain to be jealous. He struck me as very much a man's man; aggressive and egocentric, he took you on his terms." But then he concedes flatly, "But neither Utch nor Edith really agreed with me" (p. 84). The other characters see much more in Severin than the narrator ever does; when the narrator asks Utch, "How is he (Severin) nice to women?" she hedges with, "Well, he's different" (p. 88), but later she admits that she is not only infatuated with him sexually but also in love with him. Edith reacts to the narrator's opinion of Severin, at one point, by telling him angrily, "He is not cruel. You should just stop trying to understand him" (p. 131). Edith seems to be more right in her assessment of Severin, finally, than the narrator, for Severin's actions, although they seem outwardly cold, are generally in the best interest of the other three. Severin decides to stop the affair, for example, when he realizes that Utch has fallen in love with him and that both she and Edith will be hurt as a result; this can be seen as an act of kindness rather than cruelty even if there is some truth to the narrator's charge that Severin is jealous. The narrator, then, is clearly wrong in much of his assessment of Severin and in his placing the entire blame for their collective misfortune on his shoulders. Given Severin's dominant position in the foursome, the narrator's misjudgment of him is perhaps his most crucial mistake, but his misunderstanding of the other characters is no less striking. The narrator insists very vehemently early in the novel that he understands his wife Utch, but later he is surprised both by her feelings and by her actions;

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103 he finally admits that he does not really know her at all. In a way, the realization that he does not even understand his own wife is the most crushing blow to the narrator's confidence in himself and to our trust in his reliability. Our initial faith in the narrator's understanding of his wife is made very strong for several reasons. First, our faith in the narrator's view of his wife gets tied up, early in the novel, with our faith in him as a clearsighted, moral historian who condemns the atrocities visited on Eastern Europe around World War Two, for Utch is a product of this era. Thus we tend to trust his assessment of his wife just as we tend to trust him as a moral commentator. Moreover, the narrator, even as he passes judgments on Severin, admits from the outset that he does not fully understand him. But he insists that he knows his wife thoroughly -even her feelings and motivations. For example, the narrator expresses his confidence in his knowledge of Utch in an argument with Severin: "Severin," I said, "You don't understand her. . . ." "If those Russians had not tried to move the cow, Utch would have stayed inside her." "She'd have gotten thirsty," Severin said. "Then she'd have climbed out." "She was already thirsty," I said. "You don't know her. If that Russian had burned the barn down, she would have stayed. . . . But Severin Winter did not believe me. What can you expect of a wrestling coach? (p. 18) Because he is so sure that he knows his wife, the mounting evidence that he does not erodes his confidence only very slowly. He begins to recognize certain characteristics which Utch and Severin share, for instance, yet he stubbornly maintains that they have nothing in common; when Utch agrees with Severin that the relationship between the four seems to be "just sex," the narrator tries to explain this away; he remarks, "I thought that she was just trying to help him out. He was always so

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104 insistent on setting himself apart from the rest of us" (p. 71). The narrator resists the conclusion that he misunderstands his wife because he knows that such a conclusion would be an indication of how little he understands anything. Because he has psychologically blocked out the small things which point up his erroneous view of his wife, the narrator is shocked when the evidence of his misunderstanding becomes too obvious to ignore. For instance, when the narrator finds out, much to his surprise, that Utch feels she could never stop sleeping with Severin, he is totally baffled. He remarks. All along I'd thought it was Edith and I who had the relationship which threatened Severin, though not Utch. All along I'd felt that Severin was disgruntled because he felt everything was unequal, that Edith and I shared too much-the implication being that he and Utch had too little. So what was this? (p. 146) And when the narrator later finds that it has been Utch, not Severin or Edith as he suspected, who has slit the crotch out of all his underwear as a sign of her hostility, he is totally at a loss. He is unprepared for her bitterness and for her accusations that he is to blame for her suffering by getting her involved in the foursome. She accuses her husband of failure to fulfill his role as her "protector"; she asks him, "How could you have let this happen to me? . . . You weren't looking out for me. You weren't even thinking about me!" (p. 215). When he learns how little he knows his own wife, the one person he thought he knew thoroughly, the narrator begins to realize how little he really knows about anyone. Utch tells him at one point, "You know you ; that's all you know" (p. 240). But even this, he will eventually realize, is an overstatement.

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105 The narrator thinks he knows Edith nearly as well as he knows his wife, but, again, he eventually learns how wrong he is. The narrator's judgment of Edith is clouded by those very qualities which he shares with her: the tendency to become emotionally attached and to romanticize his feelings. The narrator is convinced, even after the relationship between the couples has ended, that Edith and he have a "genuine attraction" for each other, that their relationship is based on their intellectual and "spiritual" compatibility. Early in the novel, the narrator describes Edith in nearly worshipful terms; he remarks on her "fine bones," "natural good taste," and "gracefulness," and concludes that "she was the classiest woman I've ever known" (p. 24). He denies such "class" to Severin, but intimates that this quality is part of the bond between Edith and himself; he remarks, for example, "Edith and I were brought up unsure of ourselves as snobs--in love with our mothers' innocence" (p. 36). Moreover, he convinces himself that Severin is mostly jealous of the intellectual relationship which Edith and he share as writers; he comments, "I'm sure much of his uneasiness about Edith's and my relationship was the intimacy we shared through our writing . . . That Edith and I could talk together was more painful to him than our sleeping together" (p. 86). The narrator prides himself on being Edith's foremost critic and imagines that she is attached to him as a mentor as well as a lover. But again, he eventually learns that his views of her and of their relationship are almost completely erroneous. The narrator's romanticized view of his relationship with Edith is first undermined when he learns that she might be trying to "get even" with Severin for having an affair with the crippled dance teacher, Audrey Cannon. When he tells Edith that Severin has taken Utch to the

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106 wrestling room (the scene of Severin's affair with Audrey), her attention to him cools so quickly that he suddenly realizes he has somehow misjudged both her and the situation between them. After Edith rejects him and sends him out of her bedroom, he thinks to himself: "There is nothing so confusing as finding out you don't know someone you thought you knew" (p. 185). It is extremely difficult for the narrator to accept Severin's contention that Edith's affair with him "was just to pay him (Severin) back," but when he tries to talk to Edith alone, she rejects him once more, and he concludes, "again I felt that the more we knew each other, the less we actually knew" (p. 208). Yet even after the couples stop seeing each other, the narrator tries to maintain his belief that Edith is in love with him and would demonstrate it if not for the overbearing Severin. During a chance meeting with the narrator at the bank, Edith tells him that he should forget their relationship, but the narrator rationalizes to himself, "She didn't mean it. She was clearly insulating herself from her real feelings for me; she had to, no doubt, because of Severin's nonstop, needling ways" (p. 217). It is not until the narrator makes a complete fool of himself that he finally admits his mistake about Edith. Late one night the narrator drags Utch to the gym to observe what he believes to be the renewed affair between Severin and Audrey Cannon; what they find, however, is Edith and Severin frolicking happily in the swimming pool. At this point the narrator remarks, "My only thought was that our misunderstanding was now complete" (p. 241). As the narrator slowly realizes how little he actually knows about the people around him and how badly he has misjudged the whole situation, we also become disillusioned; the trust which we place in the

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107 narrator early in the book is later undermined when we find out that we have been misled. This disillusionment is an integral part of the book's disturbing message concerning the difficulty of ever sorting out human motivations with any real success or of even determining the "facts" which supposedly make up objective reality. But what is finally more disturbing than the narrator's inability to know others is his apparent inability even to know himself. It becomes increasingly clear during the course of the novel that the narrator is blind to many of his own motivations and faults. As we have seen, the narrator tries to orchestrate the narrative to support his judgments, and while he does this, he unwittingly reveals how he rationalizes his own actions and how blind he is to those shortcomings in himself which he so readily assigns to others. The narrator resents Severin's charge that he is a hopeless romantic who allows his emotions to blind him to reality, but there is evidence to suggest that Severin may be very close to the truth. Perhaps the strongest indicator of this is the narrator's self-described approach to history; he admits boldly, as I noted earlier, that he "didn't really care about the history behind everything" so much as he cared "for what it provoked" in him (p. 160). Now this attitude seems rather attractive when juxtaposed to his father's cold, factual, unimaginative approach to all things, including history. But what the narrator does not seem to realize is that such a view, because it is so subjective, is prone to distortion and shortsightedness. In fact, his "historical" novels, it would seem, do indeed indulge in some distortion and romanticizing; we are presented no direct evidence from these books, but the reactions of several people to them are telling: his sentimental mother likes them, his cynical father laughs at them, and his publisher classifies some of them as "children's literature."

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108 It also becomes clear that the narrator is given over to a great deal more romanticizing in his everyday actions than he realizes or admits. It becomes evident, as I suggested earlier, that his feelings for Edith are based on a rather distorted view of their relationship. The narrator believes that Severin is jealous of him because his relationship with Edith is "genuine" and "intellectual" rather than merely sexual. The truth is, of course, that this kind of relationship exists principally in the narrator's mind. He enjoys thinking of himself as Edith's critic and mentor, but after the breakup of the foursome, he is shocked when Utch tells him, "Edith thinks you're a lousy writer. She doesn't believe you can teach her a thing" (p. 228). The narrator tries not to believe this and attributes it to Utch's bitterness, but the truth of her assertion is later confirmed when the narrator finds that Edith has long been working on important writing which she had not even bothered to show him or discuss with him. The extent to which the narrator romanticizes his relationship with Edith is epitomized in the closing scene of chapter eight. At this point, the two couples are facing the crisis of the breakup of the foursome, and the narrator imagines that he knows Edith so intimately that he can anticipate her reaction to that crisis. This romantic fantasy is abruptly deflated by what actually happens: I was wide-awake and I was sure that Edith was too. I smoked about my quiet house; I could see Edith smoking from room to room. I had to speak to her, to hear her voice. When I thought I had waited long enough, I tried our signal of letting the phone ring half a tone, then hanging up. I waited. I could see her moving to the phone, lighting a fresh cigarette; she would curl a long strand of hair behind her ear. I could feel the way her hand would lie on the receiver, waiting for my call. Her wrist was so thin, so angular. I dialed again. As usual, the phone didn't even ring once all the way through before the receiver was snatched up. "Edith is asleep," said Severin Winter, (p. 216)

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109 It is not so much that Edith has misled the narrator, we realize, as that the narrator has misled himself. Not only is the narrator blind to those things about himself which Severin points out, but also he is guilty of many of the very things which he criticizes in Severin. The narrator accuses Severin of being selfish and insensitive, for example, while maintaining that his own actions are guided by cognizance of the feelings and needs of the others in the group. But when the narrator tells Utch of his concern that the foursome might end, she accuses him of being worried mostly about losing his sexual partner, and he finds it hard to deny: When I told Utch about it, she said, "Don't try to tell me it's not sex." "Edith and I meant it's not just sex," I said. "At least not for us." But I think that such distinctions-like self-pity and dying for f reedom--were dubious to Utch. She had been brought up, better than any of us, to know the difference between what you are willing to do for someone else and what you do for yourself, (p. 73) The narrator also consistently accuses Severin of being insanely jealous but overlooks the fact that many of his own actions are motivated by the bitterness which jealousy spawns. The narrator insists over and over that Severin only wants to end the foursome because he is jealous; he tells Severin, "I see that you're jealous. Never mind how anything began. I see how you are now" (p. 205). Yet when Severin says that he is "fond of Utch" and "would never hurt her," the narrator reacts bitterly, exposing his own deep jealousy; he thinks, "Fond of her! That ass! Such fondness I have rarely seen" (p. 205). Furthermore, the narrator's bitterness toward Severin prompts him to seek ways to hurt or humiliate Severin; during a weekend outing, for example, the narrator tries to take advantage of the fact that he ends up in bed with Edith while Severin gets stuck with Utch, who is so intoxicated that she

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110 becomes sick. The narrator comments, "I very much wanted to make love to Edith at that moment because I knew that Utch and Severin couldn't" (p. 111). And finally, after the affair has ended, Utch talks the narrator into making love in the wrestling room which she and Severin had often frequented for such purposes. When Utch voices her satisfaction with their lovemaking, the narrator reveals his jealousy openly: she remarks, "I came," and the narrator responds, "You certainly did," and then adds "but there was no concealing the jealousy in my voice and she knew that I had shrunk from her" (p. 237). The narrator does accept many things about himself eventually, but he does this much too late to change anything; moreover, the major thing that he learns, ironically, is just how little he actually knows about himself or other people. The narrator's inability to see anything or anyone clearly, to ever know anything as an objective fact, forms the central problem of the book. This is essentially the same problem that Hannes Graff and Fred Trumper faced in Irving' s first two books. But the bleakness of the message which emanates from this problem in The 158 Pound Marriage is unparalleled in the rest of Irving' s fiction because there is very little here to offset the cynicism of the book's tone and theme; there is, for example, none of the humor and very little of the sympathy or sentiment found in all of Irving' s other novels. By the end of the novel, the narrator, beaten down by the course of events in his life, has virtually abandoned hope and given himself over to complete cynicism. His despair is evident as he describes his thoughts about a movie which seems to reflect the absurdity of the world: I thought of Shaggy Robert (hero of the movie) opening doors around the world, tramping around in the bodies of dead creatures, his face gradually simplifying into an expression of

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Ill stupid endurance. And this pointless, gory journey of always one more unwanted discovery was called survival and thought to be heroic, (p. 214) A bit later his son has a nightmare prompted by the violence he has seen in this same movie; the narrator's comments on this incident are laced with deep cynicism: "I told my delicate boy that the world wasn't like this at all. He wouldn't have that nightmare again, 1 said. Ah, the lies we fall asleep to" (p. 216). We feel a certain pity for the narrator and some empathy with him as a victim of the circumstances around him. But we know that the narrator has brought many of his problems on himself through his shortsightedness, and our respect for his efforts to understand his situation is mitigated by our knowledge that he has tried to hide the truth of things from himself and from us. But the message of The 158 Pound Marriage does not reduce to a simple moral condemnation of the unreliable narrator. The book is not a clever allegory in which guilt is finally assigned to the one who has tried to convince us of his innocence. Like The Good Soldier , The 158 Pound Marriage is a story about the difficulty of distinguishing between appearances and realities — a theme that has been the focus of works as diverse as Shakespeare's A Midsuinmer Night's Dream and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice . The narrator of The 158 Pound Marriage is guilty of misjudging others and himself because he assigns to appearances the validity of truth, but this does not necessarily make him wholly responsible for the story's tragedy. The narrator deceives himself, but we need not, therefore, doubt the sincerity of his love for his wife or his pledge to be her protector. The underlying cause of the characters' suffering is the problematic nature of human relationships

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112 which are affected by the inherent instability of human emotions. The tone of The 158 Pound Marriage is so dark because the story suggests that misunderstanding and the tragedy that results from it are built into the nature of reality. The essential problem which the characters in The 158 Pound Marriage face is not unlike that which confronts the characters in Irving' s next book, The World According to Garp . But in Garp we are given a cast of characters who learn to live successfully despite the tragedies which befall them. Notes ^Greil Marcus, "The World of The World According to Garp ," Rolling Stone 13 December 1979, p. 72. ^Marcus, p. 72. ^Marcus, p. 72. "^Carol J. Fesenthal, review of The 158 Pound Marriage , Literary Journal 1 December 1974, p. 106. ^John Irving, Setting Free the Bears (New York: Pocket Books, 1968), p. 336. ^John Irving, The Water Method Man (New York: Pocket Books, 1972), p. 16. ^Frederick Busch, Hawkes : A Guide to His Fictions (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1973), p. 168. ^Donald J. Greiner, Comic Terror : The Novels of John Hawkes (Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1973), p. 242. ^Marcus, p. 72. ^^John Irving, The 158 Pound Marriage (New York: Pocket Books, 1973), p. 79. All subsequent references will be to this edition; page numbers will be cited within the text.

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CHAPTER FOUR THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP In her laudatory review of The World According to Garp, Pearl K. Bell places Irving among a handful of contemporary novelists who "mark a break with recent literary fashion." She cites Gar£ for "a notable absence of apocalyptic fever and narcissistic lamentation" and praises Irving for standing "coolly aloof from modish innovations of entropy and alienation, from the orgiastic nihilism and eschatological prophecies of universal malevolence that have obsessed Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, William Burroughs. "1 Ms. Bell is certainly correct in seeing Gar^ as a departure from the prevailing trends in most serious contemporary fiction, but what she might have added is that Gar£, in several important ways, is also a departure from Irving' s own earlier works. To be sure, many things in Gar£, from familiar characters and incidents to typical motifs and idiosyncracies of style, are traceable to Irving's earlier efforts. Yet Gar£ is, finally, a kind of book very different from the other three. Most important, Gar£ seems to be more of a "statement" by Irving than the earlier books; it is a statement both in the sense that its moral vision, unlike that in the earlier books, is stable and sure of itself and in that Irving' s personal voice attaches itself to the message of the novel in a way that was--quite intentionally-missing in the first three. Almost as if he were trying to offset the darkness, the negativism of The 158-Pound Marriage, Irving gives Gar£ a tone that is unequivocally affirmative. This is accomplished through means that critics such 113

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114 as Terrence Des Pres have identified as "old-fashioned. "2 In Garp Irving gives us, for example, an old-fashioned hero in whom we can wholeheartedly place our faith and with whom we do not hesitate to sympathize. Garp is a comic novel, but it is also a tragedy which engenders those feelings of pity and terror which have traditionally emanated from that genre. The undeserved suffering which befalls the hero's family and his own untimely death, brought on by his own wellintentioned but sometimes "rash" actions, bespeak the traditional tragic dimensions of Irving' s characterizations here. Moreover, Garp arouses our emotions because it, like all tragedies, makes us care very deeply about its characters. Bell sees this as the central strength of Garp ; she remarks, "What does matter about The World According to Garp is the captivating originality of the characters, the closely drawn entirety of the life that Irving bestows upon them, and the infectious love he feels for these emanations of his head."^ In Garp , Irving gives us a cast of characters in whom we do not hesitate to believe; their judgments and actions are afflicted by normal human imperfection, but the motivation for their actions invariably springs from those verities that have long been championed by serious literature. To realize how much of a change Garp represents for Irving, one need only recall the preponderance of antiheroes, moral ambiguities, and nagging cynicism in the first three novels. Setting Free The Bears presented two protagonists who engaged our affection but no real hero in whose perceptions and judgments we could fully place our faith. Siggy's personal history is moving and morally disturbing, but it is also, we eventually realize, highly subjective and romanticized; thus his idealistic actions prompted by that history become somewhat suspect. Likewise, Graff's judgments are clouded by his idolizing of Siggy, and his

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115 actions, which are prompted by a misplaced faith in Siggy's romantic ideals, actually precipitate more harm than good. Thus the message which emanates from Setting Free The Bears is disturbingly ambiguous and tinged with a kind of fatalism that places it closer to what Bell calls "recent literary fashion." The Water Method Man presents a protagonist who lacks ideals; his energies are fully consumed by his struggle simply to make some sense of his existence; he is the typical antihero, at the mercy of circumstances that he neither controls nor understands. The uplifting conclusion of the novel saves it from slipping into cynicism, but the tone remains disturbingly dark and the overall vision remains unsettling. The 158Pound Marriage also presents an antihero protagonist, but where The Water Method Man pulls back from the brink of nihilism, this novel seems to plunge over the edge. While the world of Gar£ is plagued by many of the same absurdities and unresolvable human problems that we found in the earlier books, it presents a hero and a whole cast of characters who are equal to the task of living fulfilling lives in such a world. Garp is, as Irving himself has said, "life affirming. ""* Though it is largely the characters which make Gar£ an affirmative tale, other aspects of the novel reinforce its positive impact. And, again, these aspects reflect a dramatic shift away from the first three novels. Unlike its predecessors, for instance, Gar£ is a novel of "closure"; in a long and rather sentimental, nineteenth-century-style epilogue, Irving gives us a rundown of the entire life of each main character. By doing so, the narrator assures us that each character leads a life that is, however long or short, fulfilling and productive. Moreover, this epilogue provides a sense of "completeness" that was

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116 lacking in each of the earlier novels; Irving' s first three novels raise a number of questions that go unanswered, and the fate of the characters in each book remains, like the message itself, rather ambiguous. In contrast, Garp leaves virtually nothing in doubt; the characterizations in Garp are certainly related to Irving' s decision to provide such an extended epilogue. Bell seems correct in her assessment of the oldfashioned ending of Garp . She remarks. Without any maudlin falsity, he compels us to care about his imaginary creatures ... So confident is he that we do care that John Irving usurps the godly prerogative, in his oldfashioned epilogue, and spells out the eventual destinies of his surviving characters to their inexorable end. . . . Because he has engaged us so fiercely in the reality of his characters, nothing about them can in fairness be held back.^ Garp, his wife Helen, his son Duncan, and the transexual Roberta Muldoon are the kind of compassionate characters that we care enough about to want to know as extensively as possible. And the logic of this works in the opposite direction also: because Irving lets us know so much about the characters, we inevitably care that much more about them, and their story has that much more of an effect upon us. But by far the most important change that Irving makes in his storytelling in Garp is a technical one that underlies the effectiveness of all the other changes; for the first time in Garp , Irving uses a third-person omniscient narrator, the kind of narrator whose judgments benefit from his all-knowing position above the immediate action. In each of his first three novels, Irving used participant, first-person narrators: characters actually involved in the story's action and thus liable to bias and subjective mis judgment. Indeed, the very fallibility of the first-person narrator contributed to the ambiguity of the messages in each of Irving' s earlier books. On the other hand, Irving' s

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117 shift to an omniscient point of view in Gar^ helps to guarantee the effectiveness of the book's positive characterizations, its epilogue ending, its emotional appeal—all those things which make it such an affirmative story. Critics have consistently puzzled over the fact that Garp , despite its dealings with senseless violence and its incessant focusing upon human suffering, seems to convey none of the cynical, life-denying feeling that so often shows up. in contemporary fiction; but few have recognized that the book's point of view is largely responsible for this phenomenon. The omniscient narrator of Gar£ is, of course, anonymous, but he is hardly an "objective" narrator, merely reporting the thoughts and actions of the characters without attempting to influence the feelings of the reader. This narrator is, in fact, a blatantly prejudiced storyteller who views his characters with intimate affection and unabashedly makes heroes and heroines of them in our eyes; thus his judgments virtually determine our reactions to his characters and his story. Moreover, because this highly sympathetic narrator stands omniscient, outside the work, there seems to be virtually no "distance" between the author and the narrator. (This does not, of course, preclude some distance beween the author and the character Garp: an important and, for Irving, rather touchy point.) This lack of distance between author and narrator gives all the more power and authority to the narrator; his becomes truly a god-like voice for us. To properly analyze characters, themes, and message in Gar£, one must first come to terms with the power of its narrative voice. The life of T. S. Garp is the central subject of The World According to Gar£, but, in the spirit of historical completeness which informs

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118 the book, Garp's story does not begin in medias res. The narrator first introduces us to Garp's mother, beginning her history several years before Garp's birth. And it is here, long before the introduction of the central character, that the omniscient narrator establishes his voice as a determining influence over our view of his characters. By allowing us intimate knowledge of Jenny Fields' thoughts and feelings and by subtly displaying his own sympathies, the narrator draws us close to Garp's mother and distances us from those intolerant and misunderstanding characters who oppose and sometimes oppress her. Jenny's parents and siblings are depicted as superficial, phony, and unfeeling individuals who are concerned only with the family's social image and status. The narrator depicts these characters partly by describing their actions and allowing us to hear their own words. For example, the callousness of Jenny's mother is evident in a comment she makes about her daughter-in-law following her son's accidental death: "She's still young and attractive, and the children aren't obnoxious. After a decent time, I'm sure she'll be able to find someone else."^ Likewise, the dictatorial snobbery of the family is reflected in their reaction to Jenny's decision to become a nurse. The narrator tells us: When Jenny had broken the chain, had left Wellesley for something as common as nursing, she had dropped her family--and they, as if they couldn't help themselves, were in the process of dropping her. In the Field's family, for example, it would have been more appropriate if Jenny had become a doctor, or if she'd stayed in college until she married one. (p. 4) But the narrator also shows his disdain for such people as Jenny's family through direct editorial commentary. He adds an editorial confirmation, for instance, to Jenny's conclusion that her father is so aloof and detached that no one can know him intimately; he first tells us that when she discovered her father's private bathroom, "Jenny thought she

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119 had discovered the lair of a secret man living undetected in their house for years," and then adds a judgment in his own voice: "In fact, she had" (p. 5). A bit later the narrator mocks those who rashly misjudge Jenny's act of self-defense against the sexual advances of a soldier in a movie theatre. He first satirizes the reaction of the theatre personnel who suspect Jenny of an unprovoked attack on the soldier: "The theatre lackeys would not let her touch the fainted soldier, and someone took her purse from her. The mad nurse! The crazed slasher!" He then uses irony to point up the lack of understanding and sympathy among the cynical police: he tells us, "Jenny Fields was calm. She thought it was only a matter of waiting for the true authorities to comprehend the situation," and then adds in a distinctly sarcastic tone, "But the police were not very nice to her either" (p. 10). Such editorial comments, laced with irony and sarcasm, are scattered throughout the narrative, and they serve a distinct purpose: by demeaning the thoughts and actions of unsympathetic characters, these editorial interjections have the effect of raising the moral and ethical stature of those characters whom the narrator treats sympathetically. Our sympathies gravitate toward a character like Jenny Fields partly because the narrator uses the power of his voice to set her up as a kind of lone victim besieged by the malice and misunderstanding of an unreasonable and uncaring world. But the narrator also uses his omniscient voice to accentuate those personal characteristics of Jenny which are not evident to or appreciated by those around her. He lets us in on a number of her thoughts which reveal the depth of her human emotions; for example, he tells us that, unlike her parents who seem to mechanically cut off their love for

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120 her at a certain age, Jenny "felt if she ever had children she would love them no less when they were twenty than when they were two; they might need you more at twenty, she thought" (p. 4). The narrator also assures us that those who see Jenny's independence as a sign of her unfeeling "aloofness" are badly mistaken. He shows us that genuine emotions come naturally to Jenny by juxtaposing a comment which she makes to her sister-in-law following her husband's death with a quote from Jenny's autobiography: "'If you don't feel like mourning, what are you mourning for?' Jenny asked her. In her autobiography, Jenny wrote: 'That poor woman needed to be told what to feel ' " (p. 12). Again, it is the narrator's skillful use of his omniscient position, which allows him to know everything his characters think or say and to range freely backward and forward in time, that shapes our assessment of his characters. Throughout the book, the narrator will implement the power of his voice to draw us close to his positive characters and to set us over against those who oppose them. The same tactics which he first uses to endear us to Jenny Fields will later be employed to influence our feelings for her son and the members of his immediate as well as his extended family. The process of making Garp into a hero, in fact, has its roots in the early parts of The World According to Garp , long before the narrative of his personal history begins. For even as the narrator uses the power of his voice to build our intellectual and emotional attachment to Carp's mother, he begins a process of blending his voice with that of Garp. The narrator accomplishes this by sporadically interjecting short quotes from Garp's personal writings into the narrative. This has the

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121 effect of lending the authority of the narrator's voice to that of Garp so that their attitudes become nearly indistinguishable. Terrence Des Pres comments on this phenomenon in his review of Garp in The New Republic . He remarks, One of the more extraordinary things about this book of bad luck is Irving' s sense of thoughtful meditation, an effect enforced by the fact that everywhere in the novel we encounter quotations from Garp's writing, remarks spartan and exactly to the point, which become a sort of running commentary on the novel itself. A further consequence of this shared intelligence is loss of distance between Garp's voice and that of the narrator. In effect, the author of Garp is Garp.^ We first notice this "loss of distance" between the narrator's voice and Garp's own in chapter one, where the narrator repeatedly brings in Garp's opinions to complement his own editorial commentary; at one point, for example, the narrator remarks that, in her early hospital work, Jenny "was discovering that people weren't much more mysterious, or much more attractive, than clams"; he then follows this immediately with an ironic quotation from Garp's writing which corroborates his assessment: "'My mother,' Garp wrote, 'was not one for making fine distinctions'" (p. 6). A bit later the narrator employs this same process in reverse; he juxtaposes Garp's opinion of Jenny's snobbish brothers with his own sarcastic remark concerning their treatment of her; he first quotes Garp, "'Both,' Garp wrote, 'were of the opinion that the practice of law was vulgar, but the study of it was sublime,'" and then adds in his own voice, "They were not so comforting when they came" (p. 10). As the narrator sketches the history of Garp's young life, it is the power of his all-knowing point of view, complemented by the pithy aphorisms of the mature, reflective Garp, which continues to color our view of Jenny and her son. The narrator's portrayal of Jenny during Garp's formative years grows directly out of the characterization which

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122 he established in the opening chapter; he sums up that characterization quite bluntly, in his typical authoritative fashion, at the end of chapter one: "Thus was the world given T. S. Garp: born from a good nurse with a will of her own" (p. 31). Jenny's "goodness" and her determined independence, which he has made us respect and admire in chapter one, are precisely the qualities that the narrator emphasizes in his treatment of her thereafter. And he continues to strengthen our emotional attachment to her by maintaining the same division of characters which he had set up in chapter one: Jenny, the good-hearted, industrious individualist at odds with a host of less admirable characters who base their dislike or distrust of her on their failure to understand her. Moreover, this criticism of (and, consequently, our disapproval of) those characters who misunderstand Jenny is couched in the same ironic or even sarcastic tone that he displayed in chapter one. Prompted by the narrator to choose sides, we are drawn toward the selfeffacing Jenny primarily because she is set against a cast of characters who exude negative qualities such as empty snobbery and lack moral stature. The community of the Steering Academy, where Jenny chooses to be "simply one more school nurse among many" (p. 33), forms the environment for Jenny and her son during his early and adolescent years. And during those years, Jenny is persistently "at war" (in Garp's words) with the self-important snobs of that community. The narrator uses his typical sarcastic tone when he describes the snobbery of the Steering community; at one point, for example, he ridicules those who misjudge the pride which Jenny shows in her son:

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123 Not only were certain kinds of arrogance tolerated by the society of the Steering School, certain kinds were encouraged; but acceptable arrogance was a matter of taste and style! ^^t you were arrogant about had to appear worthy--of higher purpose--and the manner in which you were arrogant was supposed to be charming. . . . Pride was well loved in the community of the Steering School, but Jenny Fields appeared to be proud of an illegitimate child. Nothing to hang her head about, perhaps; however, she might show a little humility (p. 35) ^ A bit later, he uses the same tone in describing the community's reaction to Jenny's reading habits: "In a school community, someone who reads a book for some secretive purpose other than discussing it, is strange. What was she reading for?" (p. 36). But the narrator's most biting sarcasm is reserved for the family of Stewart Percy, for that family epitomizes the snobbery of a community which places "class" above all other considerations of an individual's worth. The narrator's depiction of Stewart Percy is filled with ironic disdain: Stewart Percy, although he did have a title, did not have a real job. He was called the Secretary of Steering School, but no one ever saw him typing. In fact, he had his own secretary, and no one was very sure what she could have to tvDe (p. 54) ^^ • Even the narrator's physical description of Stewart Percy emphasizes the phoniness which pervades the Steering community: He was a large, florid man with the kind of false barrel chest that at any moment can reveal itself to be merely a stomach-the kind of bravely upheld chest that can drop suddenly and forcefully burst open the tweed jacket containing it. (p. 55) The narrator strategically sets up the conflict between the genuine, selfless Jenny and the phony, self-important members of the Steering community, and it is his depreciating treatment of those who represent the Steering community that once again prompts us to sympathize with the beleaguered Jenny Fields.

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124 But it is not the narrator's voice alone which dramatizes the clash between Jenny and the Steering conununity. Once again, the voice of Garp frequently interrupts the narrative, reinforcing the judgments rendered by the omniscient narrator. This voice carries the ring of truth, for it is cast in the form of retrospective, considered aphorisms. For example, when the narrator describes the injustice of Jenny's having been "cheated out of the 10 percent discount" at the Steering School bookstore, he interjects a terse comment from Garp's later writing: '"My mother supported that bookstore,' Garp wrote. 'By comparison, nobody else at Steering ever read anything'" (p. 38). At another point, Garp's mature judgment is brought in to underscore the narrator's distinction between the self-reliant Jenny and the self-important Percy family: "Mother was practical, she believed in evidence and in results. . . . But the family who convinced me of my own uniqueness was never a family my mother respected. Mother believed that the Percy family did nothing" (p. 54). The narrator also uses a quote from Garp to sum up his own view of those like the Percys: "The curs of the upper class" (p. 60). The narrator draws the battle line between Jenny and those who represent the worst of the Steering community, but it is Garp's retrospective views of his childhood experiences which make us see that confrontation for what it is: a "class war." The conflict set up between the "good nurse" Jenny and the "snotty rude community" of Steering is a continuation of that moral division between characters, established earlier in the book, which forces us to sympathize with Jenny and her son. But it is soon evident that this conflict is to be seen as a metaphor for a much larger confrontation which informs one of the major themes of the book. The enemy which

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125 Jenny and Garp must face, we begin to realize, is not just the Percy family or the Steering community; they must contend with the very nature of the cold and hostile world in which they live. Steering becomes a kind of microcosm of the irrationality and prejudice which are so prevalent in the world. Jenny does her best to prepare Garp for the kind of world he must face--guiding his education, teaching him independence and self-reliance--but she knows the inherently precarious nature of existence in a world where human beings persecute and destroy one another. At one point, the narrator lets us in on Jenny's insight into the dangers of the world by giving us her thoughts as she views the relics of an honored Steering athlete killed in World War Two: Jenny resented the implications lying honored in that dusty case. The warrior-athlete, merely undergoing another change of uniform. Each time the body was offered only a pretense of protection: as a Steering School nurse, Jenny had seen fifteen years of football and hockey injuries, in spite of helmets, masks, straps, buckles, hinges, and pads. And Sergeant Garp, and the others, had shown Jenny that men at war had the most illusory protection of all. (p. 76) When Jenny visits the wrestling room at the Steering School to sign up her son for a winter sport, she has a strange experience which she does not fully understand but we recognize as a subconscious desire to be protected from a world in which she feels unsafe; alone in the hot, humid, womb-like room, Jenny has an odd sense of security; the narrator tells us, Thus alone, Jenny turned off the lights and heard the great blow heaters hum down to stillness. There in the dark room, the door ajar, she took off her shoes and she paced the mat. Despite the apparent violence of this sport, she was thinking, why do I feel so safe here? . . . Mostly it is this room , she thought--the red wrestling room, huge but contained, padded against pain, she imagined, (p. 85) The wrestling room later has the same effect on Garp; the narrator tells us that the room gave Garp "intense comfort" (p. 87). Metaphorically,

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126 the wrestling room is another version of the protection from the terrors of reality that so many of Irving' s characters seek; it is reminiscent, for example, of Trumper's desire to construct a "safe" world for his son. Jenny's choice of wrestling as a sport for her son, based upon her feelings of the safety of the wrestling room, is part of her effort to preserve, above all, her family. Both Jenny and Garp will always long for the kind of protection from the world which the wrestling room symbolizes; both will shun social contact and public involvement in their search for security. But each will eventually be drawn into the social and political chaos of the world, and precisely because of their involvement, both will make a contribution that they otherwise would not have. But also, each will be destroyed for making it. As Garp reaches the end of his years at Steering, Jenny becomes increasingly concerned about him, for she knows that he must eventually leave the relative safety that the enclosed Steering community has provided. And it is at this point that we begin to see more clearly the deeper psychological significance of Jenny's "odd" behavior. The narrator has already shown us that, despite how others judge her independence, Jenny is a sensitive and caring person. (These qualities are what will lead to her political involvement later in life.) And it is precisely because she is sensitive that Jenny feels the need for protection from a cruel world. Jenny's actions--her self-imposed isolation as a celibate young woman, her ingenious act of "artificial insemination," her choice of the "cold, prison-windowed wing" of the Steering School's infirmary annex for a home--are all psychologically predicated on her search for security through noninvolvement. For Jenny, involvement in the world increases one's vulnerability to pain and suffering; as a

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127 nurse, she sees how sexual involvement leads to painful diseases; as a woman she sees how social involvement leads to misunderstanding, prejudice, and exploitation. Jenny's "abnormal" approach to life is designed to avoid the pain which she would face if she lived a more normal life. Consequently, Jenny is alarmed as her son matures and begins to show signs of "normalcy"; when she realizes, for example, that Garp is beginning to be emotionally and sexually attracted to girls, she sees his attraction as a new "danger." The narrator gives us her thoughts as she talks with her son about the daughter of the new Steering wrestling coach: Her feelings for Helen were entirely motherly, and when her crude young son suggested the possibility of matchmaking--of his taking an interest in young Helen Holm--Jenny was rather alarmed. . . . she could only say to him, "You're only fifteen years old. Remember that." ... It had been a confusing day for her. She fell asleep, for once untroubled by her son's coughing because it seemed that more serious troubles might lie ahead for him. Just when I was thinking we were home free! Jenny thought, (p. 87) "Home free" for Jenny Fields means protecting her son from the dangers of physical, emotional, or intellectual involvement in a threatening world. Within the self-contained environment of the Steering community, Jenny can maintain her brand of protection, but when mother and son venture outside this environment and grow apart from one another, that protection begins to break down. Ironically, Garp's decision to become a writer, a decision that will ultimately lead him into the kind of emotional, social, and political involvement that his mother so fears, is largely precipitated by the over-protection which Jenny has provided. At age 18, Garp knows very little about the world outside of Steering. Consequently, the

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128 narrator tells us, "He was already thriving in a world of his own imagination; after all, he had been brought up by a woman who thought that solitary confinement was a perfectly natural way to live" (p. 117). It is no less ironic, of course, that Jenny's own decision to write her autobiography will thrust her, even more quickly than her son, into the dangerous world of social and political affairs. As two would-be writers, Jenny and Garp decide to go to Vienna following Garp's graduation, and it is there that both their lives begin to change. In Vienna, Jenny writes her autobiography, and Garp writes the best story he will ever produce; but, more significantly, in Vienna Garp gains the experience of the world which his mother's protection had always denied him. Much of Garp's experience in Vienna is benign or simply enriching; he "soaks up the culture" as Jenny encourages him to do, and he gains maturity and a sense of responsibility by serving as his mother's caretaker and guide. But certain of his Viennese experiences are traumatic, disillusioning, or emotionally painful for Garp, and these have such an effect on him that they influence both the course of his writing and the course of his life. Garp's first story, "The Pension Grillparzer," for example, is heavily influenced by his emotional involvement with a middle-aged Viennese whore; she impresses Garp with her strength and dignity before suffering and dying a horrible death as a cancer victim. Garp writes the first part of "The Pension Grillparzer" shortly after he meets Charlotte, and as he begins it he has only a vague notion of the story's central issue: a "dream of death." He fills the first part of his story about a traveling hotel inspector and his family with imaginative characters and humorous situations, but as he finishes the first

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129 part he wonders, "And then what? What can happen next." The narrator adds, "He wasn't altogether sure what had happened or why" (p. 155). The "vision," which Garp tells himself he needs to give his story meaning, comes to him when he witnesses Charlotte's suffering and death; the narrator describes the effect that her dying has on Garp: All around Garp, now, the city looked ripe with dying. The teeming parks and gardens reeked of decay to him, and the subject of the great painters in the great museums was always death. There were always cripples and old people riding the No. 38 Strassenbahn out to Grinzinger Allee, and the heady flowers planted along the pruned paths of the courtyard in the Rudolf inerhaus reminded Garp only of funeral parlors. (p. 163) A bit later, as he reflects on Charlotte's dying, he thinks of all the death that a war-torn city like Vienna has experienced, and this leads him to formulate an understanding of the grandmother's "dream of death" at the center of his story. The narrator gives us his thoughts: The history of a city was like the history of a family--there is closeness and even affection, but death eventually separates everyone from each other. It is only the vividness of memory that keeps the dead alive forever; a writer's job is to imagine everything so personally that the fiction is as vivid as our personal memories. . . . Now he knew what the grandmother's dream meant, (p. 167) The narrator tells us that the conclusion of "The Pension Grillparzer" is "haunted" by "death themes" (p. 167) and intimates that Garp's own life will be dramatically affected by his experience with death out of which the story grew. Helen puts this most bluntly in her assessment of the story; the narrator states, "Helen would later say that it is in the conclusion of "The Pension Grillparzer" that we can glimpse what the world according to Garp would be like" (p. 170). A troubling awareness of the reality of senseless death will follow Garp through the rest of his short life, and, paradoxically, this will contribute both to his

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130 productivity and to his own paranoia, fashioned after his mother's, about the dangers lurking in the world. Garp's career as a novelist is shaped largely by the conflicts which grow out of his early experiences and his writing of "The Pension Grillparzer." He finds, for example, that his attitude toward the job of fiction writing often clashes with his own sensitivity to the social and political injustice so prevalent in the world, and that his own writing often militates against his fervently held principles about the nature of fiction. Garp insists that the success of his first story lies in its devotion to pure "imagination," and concludes that the job of the fiction writer is to provide stories which are unconnected with the reality of actual events. The narrator sums up Garp's outlook at one point: "What was 'going on,' in Garp's opinion, was never as important as what he was making up--what he was working on" (p. 190). When his mother is drawn into the realm of politics following the publication of her autobiography, A Sexual Suspect , Garp is dismayed; the narrator comments, "One of the things that upset him about his mother (since she'd been adopted by women's politics) was that she was always discussing the news " (p. 190). Yet when Garp publishes his first novel, set in Vienna during the World War Two and the Russian occupation, it is praised for the "accuracy of its historical research," and dubbed by one critic "an anti-Marxist novel" (p. 195). Moreover, Garp knows that many of the book's characters, like an old woman dying of terminal cancer, had come not out of his imagination but directly out of his own experience in Vienna. Garp's next novel. The Second Wind of the Cuckold , turns out to be even more of a violation of his own dicta about writing, for it is loosely, but unmistakably, based on the sexual experiences of

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131 Helen and himself with another couple. Helen immediately recognizes the book for what it is; she tells Garp, "And you're always telling me that autobiographical fiction is the worst kind" (p. 225). Garp lamely insists to his wife, "It's not about us," but finally admits that "he had failed" (p. 224). The problem of separating fiction from reality, of separating imagination from experience, is one that Garp will never solve. His wife sums up the dilemma and angrily confronts Garp with it at one point: You have your own terms for what's fiction, and what's fact, but do you think other people know your system? Its all your experience-somehow, however much you make up, even if it's only an imagined experience. People think it's me, they think it's you. And sometimes I think so too. (p. 225) As Garp's personal life becomes increasingly complicated and plagued by tragedies, he will find it more and more difficult to separate not only his fiction from reality but also to separate his place as an imaginative writer from his place as a sensitive human being in a violent world. The irony of Jenny's transformation from a reclusive "lone wolf," as Garp had once described her, to a highly visible and controversial public figure contributes to Garp's problem of separating his voice as an imaginative writer from his personal feelings and experiences. Garp finds himself playing the same role that his mother had played for so long; just as Jenny had once tried to protect her son from the dangers of involvement in the world, Garp now worries about his mother's social and political involvement. The narrator explains at one point, "He suddenly saw Jenny as a potential victim, exposing herself through other victims to all the hatred and cruelty and violence in the world" (p.

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132 229). Despite himself, Garp's concern and affection for his mother draw him into the controversies with which she is deeply involved. Instead of writing stories, Garp answers his mother's hate mail; he writes, the narrator tells us, "long letters trying to talk these people out of their hatred" (p. 230). Garp despises his mother's involvement with such radical groups as the Ellen James Society, a fanatical feminist group of women who have cut out their tongues to protest the rape and mutilation of an eleven-year-old girl, but he ends up publicly defending his mother's support of them because he respects the sincerity of her intentions. Moreover, Garp's involvement with his mother's affairs becomes controversial in itself; soon his time is devoted to answering his own hate mail, and his energy is drained by the frustration and pain of being, as he tells an interviewer, "constantly misunderstood" (p. 189). But it is not just his involvement with his mother's affairs that distracts Garp from his writing; disturbing events in his personal life gradually arouse feelings of guilt about his devotion to imaginative writing which seems so divorced from the immediate problems of his world. Garp is deeply disturbed, for example, by his involvement in the nabbing of a young rapist who becomes, for him, a symbol of the violent perversion so prevalent in his society. When he later sees the young rapist, who has been set free because his ten-year-old victim had been too scared to testify against him, Garp is nearly paralyzed by his outrage at the injustice of the situation. The narrator gives us the scene: Garp took Duncan to a high school basketball game and was appalled that the ticket-taker was none other than the Mustache Kid--the real molester, the attacker of that helpless child in the city park. . . .

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133 "How'd you ever get free?" Garp asked; he felt himself tremble with violence. "Nobody proved nothing," the kid said, haughtily. "That dumb girl wouldn't even talk . " Garp thought again of Ellen James with her tongue cut off at eleven. ... He felt such a terrible sense of injustice that he could even imagine some very unhappy woman despairing enough to cut off her own tongue. He knew that he wanted to hurt the Mustache Kid, on the spot--in front of Duncan. He wished he could arrange a maiming as a kind of moral lesson. ... In the kid's expression, Garp thought he recognized the leer of the world. (p. 208) "The leer of the world," like his second son Walt's coinage "the under toad," becomes a code phrase for Garp's sense of the random cruelty and destruction which make the world, as the narrator remarks, "unnecessarily perilous for children and grownups" (p. 279). Garp becomes so preoccupied with the injustices in the world that he begins to feel a kind of guilt for even being part of that world; the narrator comments on Garp's feelings about rape: "He never felt like raping anyone; but rape, Garp thought, made men feel guilt by association" (p. 209). Garp's feelings of outrage and guilt push him deeper into the problems of others: he attempts to give advice and consolation to "Mrs. Ralph," the alcoholic mother of a friend of his son; he befriends "Roberta" Muldoon, a transsexual ex-professional football player, tolerating her desperate late-night phone calls for advice and comfort. And the more obsessed he becomes with helping people, with battling social injustice, the more his attempts to create imaginative art seem gratuitous to him. He tells Helen at one point, "Art doesn't help anyone. People can't really use it; they can't eat it, it won't shelter or clothe them--and if they're sick, it won't make them well," and the narrator continues a bit later, "He rejected the idea that art was of any social value whatsoever . . . There was art, and there was helping people. Here he was, fumbling at both--his mother's son, after all" (p.

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134 251). Garp's well-intentioned fumbling in the affairs of the real world turn his fumblings with writing into virtual paralysis. It is Garp's sensitivity to the intentional cruelty, violence, and pain that people inflict upon one another that draws him into involvement with the problems of the real world and away from his dedication to writing imaginative fiction. But it is the dreadful impact of accidental violence and destruction, visited directly upon him and his family, that temporarily silences Garp's voice as a writer. A bizarre and gruesome auto accident in his own driveway leaves his youngest son dead, his oldest son blinded in one eye, Helen's lover castrated, and Garp and Helen both seriously injured. The sense of loss and bitterness Garp feels about this inexplicable devastation of his family intensifies his concern for all those victims of the world's malevolence, but leaves him totally unable to write. He feels a new sympathy, for example, for the troubled women who come to his mother for aid and counseling; he had once thought of such women as "stooges who are living off her" (p. 189), but he now feels a certain empathy with them. The narrator comments, "With his jaw wired shut, with his wife with her arm in a sling all day--and Duncan with only half his pretty face intact--Garp felt more generous toward the other wretches who wandered into Dog's Head Harbor" (p. 384). His sympathy, however, gives way to cynical outrage whenever he thinks of writing. The narrator tells us flatly, "He didn't want to be a writer --not anymore. When he tried to write, only the deadliest subject rose up to greet him. . . . Whenever he thought of writing, his only subject greeted him with its leers, its fresh visceral puddles, and its stink of death. And so he did not write; he didn't even try" (p. 388). Garp eventually writes again, but when he does, the fiction comes

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135 not from his imagination but from his bitter memories and the profound outrage that attaches to them. Although Garp tries to deny it, his third novel, The World According to Bensenhaver , is little more than a vehicle for his personal anguish over the tragedy which befell his family and his rage against the pervasive cruelty of the world. Garp translates his own outrage at and fear of the brutality of the world into two male characters in his story: Bensenhaver, a policeman and body guard obsessed with retaliating against senseless violence, and Dorsey Standish, the paranoid husband of the female protagonist who is brutally raped and threatened with death in the first chapter. The narrator's description of the novel makes Garp's similarity to Dorsey Standish quite obvious: " The World According to Bensenhaver is about the impossible desire of the husband, Dorsey Standish, to protect his wife and child from the brutal world" (p. 444). Just two pages earlier the narrator had commented on Garp's sudden desire to get rich by selling his novel: "Garp actually felt that he could buy a sort of isolation from the real and terrible world. He imagined a kind of fort where he and Duncan and Helen (and a new baby) could live unmolested, even untouched by what he called 'the rest of life'" (p. 442). And when Garp's editor asks Helen, "Why does he suddenly want to be rich ?" she replies "I think he believes it will protect him, and all of us" (p. 442). Garp's paranoid desire to protect his family from harm grows out of his instincts as a husband and father; he becomes, as the narrator says of Garp's fictional husband, "too vulnerable to how delicately he loves his wife and children" (p. 447). But that paranoia turns his effort to sell Bensenhaver into outright cynicism; when his editor objects to publishing a book which he

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136 deems "lurid sensational violence and sex of no redeeming value whatsoever" (p. 444), Garp tells him bluntly, "Every business is a shitty business. I am trying to treat this book like business, and I want you to treat it that way, too. I don't care if you like it; I want you to sell it" (p. 442). And when his editor objects that, however well written, Bensenhaver is "still, somehow soap opera; its too much somehow," Garp responds, " Life is too much, somehow. Life is an X-rated soap opera" (p. 470). Just before the release of Bensenhaver , the Garp family leaves for a vacation to Vienna, assured by Carp's editor that people would buy the book "in droves" so that it would, indeed, make Garp a very rich man. But now Garp's fears are not allayed by such assurances; on the plane to Vienna, he remembers his son Walt's misunderstanding of his parents warning, whenever the family visited the beach, to "watch out for the undertow." Walt had confused the word undertow with "under toad," and ever after, as the narrator explains, "Between Helen and Garp, the Under Toad became their code phrase for anxiety. . . . Garp and Helen evoked the beast as a way of referring to their own sense of danger" (p. 475). Garp's fear turns out to be a kind of divination of things to come, for within a short time, his mother is assassinated and a member of the fanatical Ellen James Society makes an attempt on Garp's own life. Ironically, that attempt is prompted by the very thing that Garp had thought of as "protection" for himself and his family: his novel The World According to Bensenhaver . Just as Jenny is murdered because of the general misunderstanding of her book, A Sexual Suspect , Garp becomes the target of a group of irrational fanatics who misinterpret his novel. Jenny writes to her son, shortly before her death, "Like me, it appears

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137 you are going to be the beneficiary of one of the many popular misunderstandings of our time" (p. A77). Misunderstanding mixed with intolerance becomes a deadly enemy against which all of Garp's wealth provides no protection. Jenny's senseless death, like the death of Walt before it, paralyzes Garp as a writer; once again Garp finds his imagination stifled by his memories of the real horrors he has experienced; the narrator comments, "Whenever Garp would try to write, he would see only the dull, undeveloped facts of his personal life: the gray parking lot in New Hampshire, the stillness of Walt's small body. . . . Those images went nowhere" (p. 523). But the impact of his mother's death redoubles Garp's determination to battle the injustices in his society. When Ellen James comes to Garp for help because she is disgusted with the fanatical members of the society established in her behalf, he follows his mother's example by "adopting" her into his own family. The narrator reveals Garp's feelings following his decision: It had been a proper funeral for Jenny Fields, after all; some essential message had passed from mother to son. Here he was, playing nurse to someone. More essentially, Garp finally understood what his mother's talent had been; she had the right instincts — Jenny Fields always did what was right . One day, Garp hoped, he would see the connection between this lesson and his own writing, but that was a personal goal--like others, it would take a little time. Importantly, it was in the car north to Steering, with the real Ellen James asleep in his car, that T. S. Garp decided he would try to be more like his mother, Jenny Fields, (p. 511) To that end, Garp takes up his mother's work by heading the Fields Foundation: an organization devoted to helping troubled women by providing them temporary shelter or grants to pursue therapeutic activities. But, ironically, Garp's efforts to help others, like his efforts to provide protection for his family, simply make him more vulnerable to

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138 the hatred of those who misconstrue his intentions; he becomes the target of radical feminist groups such as the Ellen Jamesians who see him as responsible for turning Ellen James against her own sympathizers. The narrator comments on the paradoxical situation in which Garp finds himself: "For the very same reasons, Garp was liked by many feminists and disliked by as many" (p. 537). Helen senses the danger that Garp's activism brings upon him and attempts to convince him to turn his efforts back to his writing; she tells him, "You make people too angry. You get them all wound up. You inflame . You should lay off. You should do your own work, Garp. Just your own work (p. 541). Garp cannot deny the truth of Helen's admonishment and does turn his attention back to his job as an imaginative writer, but not before those he has "inflamed" by his political involvement make another attempt to assassinate him; this one is successful. In the last chapter of The World According to Garp , it is once again the power of the omniscient narrator's voice, so crucial to our view of characters and events throughout the book, that shapes our lasting impression of Garp as a hero and his story as a bitter-sweet tragedy. It is the advantage afforded by his omniscience, for example, that allows us to know of the assurances that Garp attempts to make to his wife as he lies dying, paralyzed by a bullet lodged in his spine: Garp looked at Helen; all he could move was his eyes. Helen, he saw, was trying to smile back at him. With his eyes, Garp tried to reassure her: don't worry-so what if there is no life after death? There is life after Garp, believe me. Even if there is only death after death (after death) , be grateful for small favors--sometimes there is birth after sex, for example. And if you are very fortunate, sometimes sex after birth. . . . And if you have life, there is hope you'll have energy. And never forget, there is memory, Helen, his eyes told her. (p. 576)

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139 And by giving us the thoughts of Garp's editor, the narrator reemphasizes Garp's insight into the nature of his world. He tells us, It was a death, Wolf thought, which in its random, stupid, and unnecessary qualities--comic and ugly and bizarre--underlined everything Garp had ever written about how the world works. It was a death scene, John Wolf told Jillsy Sloper, that only Garp could have written, (p. 576) Moreover, from his omniscient vantage point, the narrator provides that part of the novel which transforms Garp's history, so full of despair and death, into an uplifting and moral tale: an epilogue "warning us about the future" (p. 577). The narrator uses this epilogue to show us how each member of Garp's immediate and extended family can, following Garp's example, lead a fulfilling and rewarding life, despite the numerous tragedies that befall them. To punctuate the uplifting tenor of his epilogue, the narrator once again periodically interjects, via quotations, the voice of Garp and thereby mingles his own view with that of the hero; he quotes a note left by Garp, for example, which seems to capture the essence of Garp's story: "Life," Garp wrote, "is sadly not structured like a good old-fashioned novel. Instead, an ending occurs when those who are meant to peter out have petered out. All that's left is memory. But even a nihilist has a memory." (p. 582) But, of course. The World According to Garp itself is^, partly because of its epilogue, an old-fashioned kind of novel, and, accordingly, the narrator constantly brings our attention back to the virtuous qualities of the two heroic characters, Garp and Jenny Fields, whom he has sentimentalized throughout the book. He does this, for example, while speaking of Ellen James: She was a good poet and an ardent feminist who believed in living like Jenny Fields and believed in writing with the energy and personal vision of T. S. Garp. In other words, she was stubborn enough to have personal opinions, and she was also kind to other people, (p. 586)

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140 The narrator ends his epilogue, and closes the book, with an appropriate old-fashioned gesture: he seems to turn away from his story to address the reader, thereby blurring the distinction between fiction and reality, between the life of the fictional hero whose story he has given us and our own lives. He intimates that, just as Garp sought so desperately to "keep everyone alive forever," we all cling to life and seek protection from death; he then reminds us that in our world, just as in Garp's, "We are all terminal cases" (p. 609). Dealing fully with a book like The World According to Garp is a complex task for several reasons. First, Garp is simply about a great number of things; it is concerned with the nature of contemporary life and the importance of the family in modern society, but more specifically it is an examination of the nature of fiction and the problems of the imaginative writer in an era of social and political chaos. Moreover, inasmuch as Garp seems to reflect many of Irving' s personal views of life and art, Garp leads one to a larger examination of Irving as a writer, both in relation to his own work and in relation to his contemporaries. But perhaps the foremost complication in dealing with Garp involves its status, which none of Irving' s other works achieved, as a "popular" novel, a best-seller. It is extremely difficult to treat a best-selling novel without dealing with the phenomenon of the best-seller. In a critical sense, the popular label is sometimes an albatross around the neck of an author who, like Irving, hopes to be thought of as a "serious" writer. Indeed, for some critics, such as Richard Gilman, the relative popularity of any

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141 book seems to be a measure of its unimportance and lack of seriousness; such mistrust of public literary taste is hardly new, but as a categorical guide to quality, it is probably shortsighted. Others, such as Bryan Griffin, do not mistrust popular taste so much as they mistrust the critical community which they see as responsible for "creating" best-sellers out of mediocre or even trashy novels; Griffin cites Garp as an example of a typically "soulless" contemporary work, dependent on mere "eccentricities of style" for its appeal and popularized through what he calls "literary hype."® Now it seems less important to dispute the general premises of such attacks on popular literature than to suggest that Garp simply does not fit the description that those like Griffin give it and that its popularity can be accounted for in other and more positive ways than he suggests. Griffin insists that Garp is a "soulless" novel because it has, in his view, neither character nor narrative development and must, therefore, depend on empty indulgence in shock tactics to maintain reader interest; he complains. In a good world, the style serves the soul--not the other way around. . . . Like other formless novelists — Pynchon, Barth, Doctorow — he abandons any pretense at narrative (and therefore psychological) realism, and seeks instead to attract and maintain the reader's attention with random monstrosities and grotesque occurrences, chiefly sexual or violent in nature, frequently both. The idea, in other words, is to horrify or titillate the reader to such an extent that he or she will be compelled to continue reading, even without the promise of any realistic development of story or explication of character.® Irving' s own response to this criticism is pointed; he responds, Quite apart from "abandon! ing] any pretense at narrative," my work — Garp in particular--is chiefly narrative; as the novel should be, in my opinion. If gained momentum were not an expected aesthetic achievement of the novel, there would be no virtue in longer novels--the only good novels would have to be short. I think quite the opposite is true. Long novels are better than short novels because--provided there i£ narrative momentum-the re is more narrative momentum.

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142 But, of course, an author's claim that he intends to maintain reader interest through coherent narrative development is no more proof that he does so than someone's saying that a book is one "he cannot put down." In fact, proving exactly what "maintains reader interest" is undoubtedly a hopeless and perhaps pointless task. What can be shown about Garp , however, is that there exists a very solid logic between characterization and action — the main components of narrative. The characters in Garp are affected by random events (which seems to me more "realistic" than not), but their actions are clearly an outgrowth of their psychological motivations. 1 have already pointed out, for example, how the actions of both Jenny and Garp are consistent with the narrator's characterization of them early in the book. It may seem inconsistent that both of them become involved in political affairs and thus violate Jenny's determination (which she passes on to Garp) to protect her family, emotionally and physically, through isolation from the world; but actually we are fully prepared for their change by Irving' s early characterization of them (via the omniscient narrator) as caring, feeling, sensitive characters confronted by a society of callous individuals who perpetrate social and political injustice. The entire first chapter of Garp is designed, as I have shown, to establish Jenny and her offspring as good, moral, and strong characters, so their later heroic actions to help right the wrongs of their society are precisely what we expect of such characters. Irving has admitted that Garp's actions amount to a kind of "martyrdom," and certainly it is impossible to portray a character as a martyr unless he has first been established as an admirable and moral character of heroic dimensions. Indeed, the narrative coherence of Garp depends precisely on what Griffin contends

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143 it does not have: "explication of character" and "psychological realism. " This tie betwen motivation and action which gives the novel its narrative coherence also militates against Griffin's insistence that the novel is "formless." That Garp contains a great deal of "monstrosities and grotesque occurrences" is undeniable, but also beside the point; its structure has much more in common with the well-built nineteenth century novel than with those of postmodernists like Pynchon, Barth, or Doctorow. (Not surprisingly, Irving noted in a letter to me, "As for influence, I note Dickens, unashamedly."^^) The way Griffin deduces that Garp is a formless novel is simply a logical non sequitur. He first remarks, "Like so many extraordinary things, the story lacks, shall we say, credibility"; on the basis of Garp 's "incredible" plot, then, he links Irving with "other formless novelists . "^^ Qne need not even quibble with Griffin's judgment concerning the believability of Garp 's plot to expose his error here; one need only pose a rhetorical question: are the novels of an author like Dickens to be considered "formless" because they contain plots full of extraordinary coincidences and strange occurrences that lack, "shall we say, credibility?" One of the things that sets a book like Garp apart from the novels of Pynchon, Barth, or Doctorow is its form; the plot of Garp is a straightforward narrative, a history of one extended family told in relatively uncomplicated, chronological order. Moreover, like a nineteenth-century novel, and unlike most postmodernist novels, Ga rp ' s story is one of closure, of completeness and affirmation. Thanks to the epilogue attached to the end of Garp , there is nothing ambiguous about the story's ending or message; Irving has said of writing Garp , "I was very depressed when I

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144 finished The 158 Pound Marriage , and I thought--this sounds very simpleminded, but I said — I want to write about people I feel good about. The next book I write is going to be a life affirming novel, even though everybody dies."^^ Irving' s "simple-minded" plan for Garp is what gives impetus to the plot, to the form of the novel. Irving has written to me concerning the construction of novels, I just gave a lecture at Harvard on why I preferred 19th century novels to most 20th century novels. ... As for what you call postmodernism, well ... I think that Frenchman's [Allain Robbe-Grillet' s] argument about intending to "disorient" the reader is an easy rationalization for failing to engage the reader sufficiently; if we make things difficult for readers, we can claim to be artists by intending to make things difficult. To be frank, what a lot of crap. ^"^ The fact is that Garp employs a form (chronological, historical narrative, complete with epilogue) which is probably more traditional than that of most contemporary novels. How can a narrative which fits within an established tradition be considered "formless?" Seeing no characterization or narrative development in Garp , Griffin maintains that the novel relies on "low humor" and "conscious vulgarity" for its popularity. ^^ This conclusion is based, partly, I think, on his reaction to the offensive "hype" given the novel by its publisher. Greil Marcus is accurate in his assessment of the sensationalistic nature of Pocket Books sales promotion of Garp : Certainly, given a paperback ad campaign almost as offensive in its vulgarity as the campaign for Woody Allen's "Interiors" was in its avoidance of same, if you haven't yet cringed at the slogan BELIEVE IN GARP, you lead a sheltered life. . . . In an explosion of promotion so extensive (and, for a serious novel, so unusual) it drew a story in Newsweek and an outraged editorial from CBS News, the mass-market edition of Garp was launched this spring with: six different covers; an avalanche of print ads; radio spots; bus and subway ads; posters, headbands and wristbands (to bring out the wrestling motif); and hats. Had Irving been willing. Pocket would have no doubt had him wrestling on "Celebrity Sports Challenge. "^^

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145 But the point is, of course, that how a book is promoted proves nothing about its appeal per se . The popularity of Garp (in a larger sense than "number of copies sold") has less to do with its "titillation" of the reader through "conscious vulgarity" than it does with the reader's sympathetic emotional attachment to the characters. Marcus is right to note that " Garp is not a book for the fainthearted," but he is also right to add, "Most Seventies fiction is about disengagement; Garp is about engagement, with ordinary life, family life, public life, over the long haul, even if its characters are the sort of folk who would, were life to allow it, prefer to keep to themselves . "^^ We are attracted to Garp as a character because he is both admirable for his moral convictions and typically human in his failure to fully live up to those convictions. Garp is a kind of American Puritan in his devotion to industry, good health, and iomesticity; he even has the proper humorlessness of the Puritan; the narrator remarks at one point, Sports did not feel like recreation to Garp. Nothing felt like recreation to Garp. From the beginning, he appeared to believe there was something strenuous to achieve. ("Writers do not read for fun," Garp would write, later, speaking for himself.) Even before young Garp knew he was going to be a writer, or knew what he wanted to be, it appears he did nothing "for fun." (p. 73) Moreover, Garp displays fervent devotion to his family, his principles, and his vision. John Wolf's assessment of Garp after his death is sentimentalized and melodramatic, yet it is one that we are inclined to share; he tells Duncan, Your father was a difficult fellow; he never gave an inch--but that's the point: he was always following his nose; wherever it took him, it was always his nose. And he was ambitious. He started out daring to write about the world --when he was just a kid, for Christ's sake, he still took it on. (p. 592)

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146 Yet we also empathize with Garp because his failings, and the guilt and anxiety he feels about them, are typically human. Garp constantly feels guilty not only about his actual sexual improprieties but also about his "lust" in general. When Garp learns that Helen is pregnant with their second child, the narrator remarks, "Garp didn't want a daughter because of men . Because of bad men, certainly; but even, he thought, because of men like me" (p. 212). Garp even creates guilt in himself through his chronic anxiety; the narrator explains at one point: There was so much to worry about, when worrying about children, and Garp worried so much about everything; at times, especially in these throes of insomnia, Garp thought himself to be psychologically unfit for parenthood. Then he worried about that , too, and felt all the more anxious for his children. What if their most dangerous enemy turned out to be him ? (p. 275) Garp does, in fact, feel like an enemy to his own children after writing The World According to Bensenhaver ; the narrator tells us, "He felt some distaste, as a father, for writing something he would forbid his own children to read" (p. 454). Garp appeals to us, then, for some very simple and basic reasons: he has human dimensions with which we can identify, and his essential qualities spring from the traditional verities of concern for and devotion to those he loves. Marcus is right when he notes , Garp is, after all, a family story; as much as anything, Irving meant to write about how a family comes to be and about what holds it together. . . . Garp is a novelist but we understand him best as a husband and a father--for that matter, he's a more interesting husband and father than he is a novelist. ^8 But Garp is a family story in an even larger sense than Marcus suggests; it examines not just a family but, in a broad sense, the family as an institution. In Garp there are various kinds of families-traditional, extended, and "artificial"--and the contrasts between them

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147 make up a large part of the moral vision of the novel. The importance of a family, the book suggests, lies not in a blood tie between its members, but in the values upon which it is based. Much of the novel's satire is aimed at those "normal" families, like the Fields or the Percys, who place importance on "family blood" (or "genes," as Jenny and Garp call it) and inherited social status. But an artificial family like the Ellen James Society is also satirized because it is held together, not by positive values, but by hatred and fanaticism. In contrast to both of these kinds of families is the extended family of Jenny and Garp--including parents and children as well as adopted members such as Roberta Muldoon and Ellen James--which is bound together by loyalty, devotion, and tolerance. Yet Marcus is right to suggest that the preservation of Jenny and Carp's family--"what holds it together"--is perhaps the central issue in Garp . In this sense, Garp seems to fit into a pattern established in the earlier works. In Irving' s first and third novels, Setting Free the Bears and The 158 Pound Marriage , the destruction of a family is a central issue which contributes to each book's cynical tone; in the second novel. The Water Method Man , as in the fourth, Garp , the preservation of a family is a key motif out of which each book's positive outcome emerges. One indication of how important the "preservation of the family" motif is in Garp is the amount of symbolism devoted to it. Garp's sexual indiscretions, for example, are a recurring source of guilt for him, but this guilt seems to stem less from his sense of moral misconduct than from his sense, which he seems to inherit from his mother, that his "lust" is a threat to his family's coherence. One explanation for Jenny's reaction to her son's sexual involvement with whores in

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148 Vienna is that she sees this involvement as a threat to her relationship with him. She is unconcerned about the morality of her son's behavior or of prostitution itself; when Garp tells her that prostitution is legal in Vienna, she merely remarks, "Why shouldn't it be legal? Why can't a woman use her body the way she wants to?" (p. 136). But when she learns that her son is involved with prostitutes, she interprets it as a threat and reacts violently by slapping him; the narrator comments, "She had never struck him before, she just didn't understand this fucking lust, lust, lust! at all" (p. 136). When Garp's proposal to marry Helen threatens to take him away from his mother, Jenny again blames "lust" for destroying the closeness between them. The narrator reveals this in a discussion between Jenny and Helen's father: "I don't know why any one wants to live with anyone else," said Jenny Fields. Ernie looked a little hurt. "Well, you like Garp living with you," he reminded her. . . . "It's lust," Jenny said ominously. . . . "They're good kids," Ernie reminded her. "But lust gets them all, in the end," said Jenny Fields, morosely, (p. 184) Garp seems to inherit his mother's outlook, for during his marriage he feels the same fear about his own lust that she had felt: he sees it and the sexual affairs to which it leads as threatening to the stability, even the security, of his family. This is made apparent by the symbolism attached to that device which he uses to minimize the risks of his sexual indiscretions: the condom. At first it seems that condoms merely symbolize the guilt Garp feels for indulging in crude sexual gratification with young girls. For example, when Garp buys a package of condoms at the local drugstore, knowing he intends to use them after his "seduction" of a babysitter, he accidentally drops them in front of an old man who had once mistaken him for a rapist in the park, and the narrator remarks.

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149 It must have given him a twinge, then, to know what those rubbers were for when he dropped them in front of the gentleman from the city park and heard the old man accuse him: "Looking for innocence to violate and defile!" How true, (p 209) Following his affair with the babysitter, Garp disposes of two unused condoms by tossing them into a river, but he then fears that someone will find them and thereby trace him "back to the crime" which he has committed (p. 211). But eventually it becomes apparent that condoms symbolize much more than Carp's infidelity; they come to represent the threat which his affairs pose for him and his family. Following the assassination of his mother, Garp publishes, as the narrator remarks, "his first and only poem ... a strange poem, about condoms" (p. 553). The narrator goes on to explain: Garp felt his life was marred by condoms--man' s device to spare himself and others the consequences of his lust. Our lifetime, Garp felt, was stalked by condoms. . . . Condoms found Garp the way ants found sugar. He traveled miles, he changed continents, and there--in the bidet of the otherwise spotless but unfamiliar hotel room . . . there — in the back seat of the taxi . . . there--eyeing him, from the bottom of his shoe, where he picked it up, somewhere. From everyw here condoms came to him and vilely surprised him. (p. 553) Garp feels "stalked" by condoms just as he feels "stalked" by the Under Toad, for both symbolize those dangers of the world which always threaten, above all else, the security of the family. There is a connection between the way the condom serves as a symbol of illicit sexual conduct, and a major metaphorical incident in Garp : the devastating automobile accident in Carp's driveway which nearly decimates his family. The car crash can be seen, in fact, as a manifestation of the threat which both Carp's and Helen's extramarital affairs pose for their family. The death and injury inflicted by the crash seem to be a kind of retribution against Garp and Helen for placing selfish

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150 indulgence above their family responsibilities. The fact that Michael Milton's huge Buick is parked in Garp's blackened driveway is, of course, a direct result of Helen's affair, for he insists on seeing her one last time when she tells him the affair is over. And the affair itself represents, for Helen, a perversion of her priorities: she places her own wants ahead of the needs of her family. When Helen decides, as she sits in Milton's car, that the quickest way to get rid of him is to simply gratify his sexual need, she feels that she is rectifying a temporary lapse in her behavior. The narrator tells us, She set her mind to it as she might have done if it were the last task remaining to a messy business, which might have ended better but could also have turned out worse; she felt slightly proud that she had at least proved to herself that her family was her first priority. . . . Let him think what he wants to think, she thought. She was thinking of her family, (p. 370) But Helen's adjustment of her priorities comes too late to avoid the tragedy which is already set in motion; her effort to avoid a confrontation between Milton and her husband is turned into a gruesome scene of death and destruction when Garp plows the family car into the back of the giant Buick. Garp is also partly responsible for the accident which kills one of his sons and injures his entire family, for his irresponsible "driveway trick" prevents him from seeing the Buick parked in front of his garage. At one point, the narrator explains Garp's childish habit and Helen's reaction to it: The driveway turned sharply uphill off a long donwhill road. ... He would cut the engine and the lights and coast u£ the black driveway. . . . His driveway trick infuriated her; it was even contradictory. For someone who fussed and worried so much about the safety of children--about reckless drivers, about leaking gas, and so forth--Garp had a way of entering their driveway and garage, after dark, that terrified Helen, (p. 314)

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151 But, metaphorically, Garp's "driveway trick" and the tragedy to which it leads are connected with his own illicit sexual behavior. A comparison between a bizarre dream which Garp has shortly before the auto accident and the last words of his son Walt, just before his death, make this apparent. In Garp's dream, he finds himself totally absorbed in looking at pictures of nude women in a pornographic magazine as bombs drop all around his house and his family and a long line of children file past him into the shelter of the basement. The narrator explains: In his dream, Garp was looking at what the wrestlers called a wet, split beaver when he heard children crying. . . . They all came down the stairs and filed past him, where he struggled to hide from them what he'd been looking at. . . .If they looked at Garp at all, they regarded him with vague sadness and with scorn, as if he had let them all down and was powerless to help them now. Perhaps he had been looking at the wet, split beaver instead of watching for enemy planes? This, true to the nature of dreams, was forever unclear: precisely why he felt so guilty, and why they looked at him as if they'd been abused. . . . Little Walt was crying, they way Garp had heard him cry when he was caught in the grip of a nightmare, unable to wake up. "I'm having a bad dream," he sniveled. . . . But in Garp's dream, Garp could not wake the child from this one. . . . "Wake me up!" Walt cried, but the long file of children was disappearing into the bomb shelter. . . . Garp could do nothing; he said nothing; he made no attempt to follow them. . . . The bombs kept falling. "You're having a dream!" Garp screamed after little Walt. "It's just a bad dream!" he cried, though he knew he was lying, (p. 340) Now the immediate psychological meaning of Garp's dream is fairly obvious: his attention to the pornographic pictures (symbolic of his lust and his sexual indiscretions) distracts him from the bombs dropping all around his family (symbolic of the dangers of the world) and renders him incapable of helping and protecting them. But there is a connection between the symbolism of this dream and the metaphorical importance of the auto accident which is made clear by Walt's last words before his death. The narrator gives us the scene:

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152 They coasted up, into the black rain. It was like that moment when you feel an airplane lift off the runway. . . . "How can you see now ?" Duncan asked. "He doesn't have to see," Walt said. There was a high thrill in Walt's voice, which suggestd to Garp that Walt wished to reassure himself. "I know this by heart," Garp assured them. "It's like being underwater!" cried Duncan; he held his breath. "It's like a dream!" said Walt; he reached for his brother's hand. (p. 374) The symbolic connection between this "dream" and Garp's earlier prophetic dream--in which he was rendered helpless by his sexual guilt--makes it clear that he shares the "responsibility" for the accident in a deeper sense than is at first apparent. Both Garp and Helen are guilty of exposing the family to the dangers inherent in the scheme of things; Garp recognizes this when he thinks of the connection between their behavior and the habits of the Under Toad. When Duncan asks his father if he remembers "how Walt asked if it (the Under Toad) was green or brown," the narrator comments, Both Garp and Duncan laughed. But it was neither green nor brown, Garp thought. It was me. It was Helen. It was the color of bad weather. It was the size of an automobile, (p. 475) Typical of the tragic world of Garp , the "punishment" which Garp and Helen receive seems to exceed what they deserve. This accounts, of course, for much of the bitterness which paralyzes Garp for a time. But, because of their experience, they both devote themselves even more intensely to that endeavor which is always, within the world of Irving 's fiction, the most sacred: preserving and protecting the family. Besides being a husband and father, however, Garp i_s a novelist, a fact that is thoroughly impressed upon us by Irving' s inclusion of representative samples of Garp's works, and his role as an artist adds

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153 what is, to many, the most intriguing dimension of the book. Among those who focus their attention on Garp's role as an imaginative artist, the book is often referred to as "fiction about fiction." This is perhaps somewhat misleading, for Garp is, as I hope I have shown, about many things. But in as much as Garp is an examination of the nature of fiction and the fiction-making process, it becomes a kind of Kunstlerroman. As such, it is both a portrait of the artist (Irving) and a portrait of an artist (Garp). This is a delicate distinction (as so much of the criticism surrounding Joyce's work, A Portrait of the Artist, has proven), for it involves the troublesome question of "distance" between the views of an author and those of his protagonist; and, in the case of Garp , this problem is compounded by Irving' s use of a highly "editorial" omniscient narrator. But it is precisely the use of the ominiscient narrator that gives Garp , as I suggested earlier, the semblance of a statement by Irving, and, as such, the book seems to give us some insight into Irving' s views of art and the creator's relationship to his art. There is a blending of three voices--Irving' s , the narrator's and Garp's--in Garp , and it is the blurred distinction among these voices that gives this book a dimension missing from Irving' s other works. Terrence Des Pres is correct when he remarks, "Just here, in the relation of the writer to his fictions, The World According to Garp grows disturbing. "^^ This relation is complex because it is twofold: it involves Garp's relation to his fictions and Irving' s relation to his own. There are enough parallels between the circumstances of Garp's life and thos of Irving' s to make Garp seem a rather autobiographical book. Garp, like Irving, is a wrestler turned novelist who attends a private

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154 New England school as a young man and then gains much of his early experience--experience that shows up in his works--in Vienna. Moreover, Garp's first novel, about setting free the animals in the Vienna zoo, and his second novel, about two married couples having an affair, parallel quite precisely Irving' s own first and third novels: Setting Free The Bears and The 158 Pound Marriage . Irving has even said things about himself that match almost exactly what the narrator of Garp says about Garp. Irving says of himself in the Rolling Stone interview, for example, "I wrote every day the way I ran every day and used the weights every day. I was a very dull kid. But 1 really learned how to wrestle, and I really learned how to write. "^° Garp, the narrator tells us, was also dull as a child; he comments at one point, "It would be years before Garp noticed that he didn't have any friends" (p. 117). And Garp, like Irving, develops just two outstanding talents; the narrator remarks, "There were only two things in this world that T. S. Garp ever learned to do: he could write and he could wrestle" (p. 522). There are so many parallels between Garp's life and Irving's own, in fact, that Garp's insistence that "the worst reason for anything being part of a novel is that it really happened" (p. 457) becomes somewhat ironic. But this irony, which may be merely part of the parody in Garp , is less puzzling than Irving's own very serious and emphatic declaration that autobiography has no place in a fictional work. He makes some remarks in the Rolling Stone interview, for instance, that seem, in light of the parallels between Irving and Garp, rather puzzling; these comments follow upon his description of teaching Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse:

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155 I became so angry when I had to teach that book after Quentin Bell's biography came out. Not because the biography is lousy. It isn' t . But because the students were so willing to use that biography as an explanation for everything they read--and so many people read fiction that way it nauseates me. It's difficult to tell people what the reason for that is without insulting them--because the real reason is that people with limited imaginations find it hard to imagine that anyone else has an imagination. Therefore, they must think that everything they read in some way happened . ^^ Now the apparent contradiction between what Irving professes and what he seems to do in a book like Garp is partly explained by the qualification he places on the use of personal experience in fiction: "Any writer uses what little experience he or she has and translates it. It's the translating, though, that makes the difference . "^^ Yet I cannot help finding Irving' s disclaimers concerning the use of personal experience in his works rather puzzling; he has told me in a letter, "I won't help you with anything autobiographical. No one should believe a decent writer of fiction when he or she pretends to say anything true about his or her life. ... I don't give a damn about what 'really happened' to me. It misleads people (concerning ray novels) if they give a damn either. "^^ This seeming incongruity in itself, however, is perhaps only important to those who do "give a damn" about what "really happened" to John Irving; what matters in terms of examining Irving 's work, it seems to me, is that the parallels between Garp and Irving point up a paradoxical attitude which Irving has toward the nature and place of imaginative writing. I see an important connection between Garp's constant wrestling with the problematic nature of imaginative writing and Irving' s own. Garp sees the act of imaginative creation, much as Hannes Graff, Siggy Javotnik, and Fred Trumper had also, as superior to writing based on personal "memory," partly because "pure imagination" provides the

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156 artist a hedge against the terrors and chaos of everyday reality; psychologically, Garp's desire to write only imaginative stories can be seen as an extension of his effort to be disconnected from and thus protected from the real world. At one point in Garp , the narrator makes a revealing assessment of Garp's practice of making up stories for his children: Helen knew Garp was thinking up a story to tell Walt after dinner. She knew Garp did this to calm himself whenever he was worried about the children--as if the act of imagining a good story for children was a way to keep children safe forever, (p. 262) Moreover, for Garp, the act of imagining provides a meaningful structure that is lacking in the real world; the narrator tells us, "Memories and personal histories-'all the recollected traumas of our unmemorable lives '--were suspicious models for fiction, Garp would say. 'Fiction has to be better made than life,' Garp wrote" (p. 457). But, outside of "The Pension Grillparzer," Garp consistently fails to keep his own "recollected traumas" and his outrage at the injustices within the real world out of his fiction. Moreover, Garp is bothered by a paradox at the center of his own ambivalent attitude toward the place of literature: while he wants literature to be disconnected from social and political reality, he cannot thoroughly shed the feeling that the artist has a certain social responsibility. The narrator explains, He saw art and social responsibility as two distinct acts. The messes came when certain jerks attempted to combine these fields. Garp would be irritated all his life by his belief that literature was a luxury item; he desired for it to be more basic — yet he hated it, when it was. (p. 252) Garp's failure to practice what he professes to believe and his paradoxical feelings about the place of literature are, I suggest, a reflection of Irving' s own predicament as an imaginative writer within a contemporary world full of danger, chaos, and injustice.

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157 I am not suggesting that Irving worries incessantly about children or frets about the social injustices around him. (He might do both, but this, as he would no doubt point out, is irrelevant.) I am merely saying that just as Garp's work ends up reflecting his world as much as his "pure" imagination, so Irving' s work ends up reflecting much of the nature of everyday reality as we know it and live it. Terrence Des Pres may be correct when he suggests that it is "as if Irving would have the terror of his vision put into the keeping of Garp, as the title suggests. "^^ But R. Z. Sheppard is certainly right when he observes, "Irving 's popularity is not hard to understand. His world is really the world according to nearly everyone. "25 it is the connection between Irving's imaginative world and our own that gives Garp , and nearly all of Irving's work, its appeal and its impact. Again, Greil Marcus is correct when he observes, People have read Garp as a promise and a threat because Irving was able to combine horror with domesticity without compromising the reality of either. ... He was able to take something of the aesthetic of literary "black comedy" out of their arty, comic-book world and interweave them with the mundane and the recognizable; he brought together the dread and carnage that attend a war and the small, mostly private struggles that make up the dynamic of what we think of as ordinary life. 26 It is interesting, in this light, to compare one of Irving's own remarks about Garp with a comment by the character Jillsy Sloper about Garp's novel The World According to Bensenhaver . Upon finishing Garp , Irving wrote in a short note to his editor, "Finished Lunacy and Sorrow (the original title of Garp ) this a.m. . . . Novel 531 pages long, has all the ingredients of an X-rated soap opera: I hope it will cause a few smiles among the tough-minded and break a few softer hearts. "^^ JiUsy Sloper, the uneducated but wise old cleaning lady who works for Garp's

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158 editor, says of the "X-rated soap opera" Th£ World According to Bensenhaver , "Lawd, it feels so true . ... A book's true when you can say, 'Yeah! That's just how damn people behave all the time' Then you know its true" (p. 453). It would be going too far to suggest that Garp is the same kind of "failure" for Irving as Bensenhaver is for Garp (neither being a work of pure imagination) , but it seems obvious that Garp is heavily laced with Irving' s own experience of and feelings about the real world. And this is precisely , it seems to me, what gives the book its impact. Garp is "true" much in the way that Jillsy Sloper describes. The essential nature of Garp' s world parallels that of the real world: under toads, tragedy, and injustice lurk everywhere. And for that reason the message of Garp is also applicable to our world: in the midst of chaos and under the shadow of destruction, one can succeed if he lives with caution, purpose, and energy. The paradox at the center of Garp's view of fiction--that it should be a "luxury item" yet somehow socially "useful" to its audience--is connected with that examination of the creative act which gets so much attention throughout Irving' s novels. It is connected, for example, with the split between light humor and serious protest in the first novel. It is also connected with Trumper's realization that creation must be more than just an artificial device used to impose an order on or provide protection from the chaos of reality. This paradox is at the center of Irving' s works because it is at the center of his vision. And there is, finally, nothing very new about it, for it brings together the two traditional notions concerning the purpose of art: to "entertain" and to "teach". Irving' s fiction fulfills this two-fold purpose by giving us narratives that are original and highly imaginative, yet so

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159 closely connected with our own world that they affect us intellectually, emotionally, and morally. Notes ^Pearl K. Bell, "Family Affairs," Commentary . September 1978, p. ^Terrence Des Pres, review of The World According to Garp, The New Republic , 29 April 1978, p. 32. ^Bell, p. 72. "•Greil Marcus, "John Irving: The World of The World According to Garp ," Rolling Stone , 13 December 1979, p. 73. ~ ^Bell, p. 73. John Irving, The World According to Garp (New York: Pocket Books, 1978), p. 11. All subsequent references are to this editionpage numbers will be cited within the text. ' ^Des Pres, p. 32. ^Bryan Griffin, "Literary Hype," The Atlantic , 243 (1979), p. 51. ^Griffin, pp. 50-51. lOQuoted from a personal letter which I received from John Irving dated 3 October 1980, p. 2. ^^Personal Letter from Irving, p. 1. ^^Griffin, p. 51. ^ Marcus, p. 73. ^^Personal Letter from Irving, p. 1. ^^Griffin, p. 55. ^^arcus, p. 69. ^ ^Marcus, pp. 70, 72. ^^Marcus, p. 72.

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160 ^^Des Pres, p. 32. 20Marcus, p. 70. ^^Marcus, p. 71. ^^Marcus, p. 71. ^^Personal Letter from Irving, p. 2. ^^Des Pres, p. 33. 25r. z. Sheppard, "Life into Art," Time , 31 August 1981, p. 51. ^^Marcus, p. 72. ^ ^Sheppard, p. 51.

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SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY Allen, Walter. The Modern Novel . New York: Dutton, 1964. Barth, John. The End of the Road. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Barth, John. "The Literature of Exhaustion." Atlant ic Monthly, August 1967, pp. 43-55. ^ ^ Bell, Pearl. "Family Affairs. " Commentary . September 1978, pp. 70-73. Busch, Frederick. Hawkes: A Guide to His Ficti ons. SyracuseSyracuse University Press, 1973. Daiches, David. The Novel and the Modern World. Chicago: Universitv of Chicago Press, 1960. ' Des Pres, Terrence. Review of The World Acco rding to Garp. The New Republic , 29 April 1978, pp. 31-33. Des Pres, Terrence. Introduction to Three By Irvin g. New York: Random House, 1980. Ellmann, Richard and Charles Feidelson, eds. The Modern Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. Festenthal, Carol. Review of The 158Pound Marriage. Literary Journal 1 December 1974, p. 106. ^ ' Fiedler, Leslie. "The New Mutants." Partisan Review, 32 (1965) dd 505-525. ' ^P' Fiedler, Leslie. Waiting For The End. New York: Stein and Day, 1964. Ford, Ford Madox. The Good Soldier . New York: Vintage Books , 1927. Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction . New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1978. Graff, Gerald. "The Myth of the Postmodernist Breakthrough." TriQuarterly . 27 (1975), pp. 383-417. ' Graff, Gerald. "Babbitt at the Abyss." Tri -Quarterly, 33 (1976), pp. Greiner, Donald. Comic Terror : The Novels of John Hawkes . MemphisMemphis State University Press, 1973. 161

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162 Griffin, Bryan. "Literary Hype." Atlantic Monthly , 243 (1979), pp. 45-56. Griffin, Bryan. "Panic Among the Philistines." Harper' s , September 1981, pp. 41-56. Grumback, Doris. "Fine Print: 1978's Most Original Novel." Saturday Review , 13 May 1979, p. 42. Hassan, Ihab. "The Dismemberment of Orpheus." American Scholar , 23 (1963), pp. 463-484. Hassan, Ihab. Paracriticisms : Seven Speculations of the Times . Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1975. Hassan, Ihab. Contemporary American Literature : An Introduction . New York: Ungar Press, 1973. Hassan, Ihab, ed. Liberations . Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press , 1971. Hassan, Ihab. Radical Innocence . Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961. Hawkes, John. The Blood Oranges . New York: New Directions Press, 1970. Howe, Irving. Literary Modernism . Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications , Inc. , 1967 . Irving, John. Setting Free the Bears . New York: Pocket Books, 1968, Irving, John. The Water Method Man . New York: Pocket Books , 1972. Irving, John. The 158 Pound Marriage . New York: Pocket Books, 1973. Irving, John. The World According to Garp . New York: Pocket Books, 1978. Irving, John. The Hotel New Hampshire . New York: E. P. Dutton, 1981. Kenner, Hugh. A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writer . New York: Knopf, 1975. Kenner, Hugh. "Art in a Closed Field," in Learners and Discerners , ed. Robert Scholes. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 1964, pp. 113-133. Kenner, Hugh. Gnomon : Essays on Contemporary Literature . New York: McDowell and Obolensky, 1958. Kermode, Frank. "The Use of the Codes," in Approaches to Poetics, ed. Seymour Chatman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973, pp. 111-133.

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163 Klein, Marcus. After Alienation : American Novels in MidCentury . Freeport, New York: Books For Libraries Press, 1970. Levin, Harry. Refractions : Essays in Comparative Literature . New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. Marcus, Greil. "The World of The World According to Garp . " Rolling Stone , 13 December 1979. Poirier, Richard. The Performing Self . New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Poirier, Richard. "The Politics of Self-Parody." Partisan Review, 35 (1968), pp. 339-353. Poirier, Richard. "T. S. Eliot and The Literature of Waste." New Republic , 20 May 1967, pp. 19-25. Scholes, Robert. Fabulation and Metafiction . Urbana, Illinois: Illinois University Press, 1979. Scholes, Robert. The Fabulators . New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Scholes, Robert. The Nature of Narrative . New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. Schultz, Max. Black Humor Fiction of the Sixties . Athens: Ohio University Press , 1973. Sheppard, R. Z. "Life into Art." Time , 31 August 1981, pp. 46-51. Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation . New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966. Sontag, Susan. Styles of Radical Will . New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1969. Steiner, George. Extraterritorial : Papers on Literature and the Language Revolution . New York: Antheneum, 1971. Steiner, George. Language and Silence . New York: Antheneum, 1967. Steiner, George. "The Retreat From the Word." Kenyon Review , 23 (1961), pp. 187-216. Tanner, Tony. City of Words: American Fiction 1950 1970 . New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

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BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Wayne Leslie James was reared on a farm near Bucyrus, Ohio. He graduated from Colonel Crawford High School in 1968 and received his Bachelor of Arts degree with distinction in English from Otterbein College in 1972. He earned a Master of Arts degree in English from St. Cloud State University in 1974. He plans to teach English at the university level following his graduation. 164

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I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. R. Brandon KershnerTCnilrmari Associate Professor of English I certify that I have read this study and that in ray opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. ^ ^'^-^-ii/uZ^ /Pv-^A^ 1--V Andrew Gordon Assistant Professor of English I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Alistair Duckworth Professor of English

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I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Richard Green Professor of English I certify that I have read this study and that in ray opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. y .• Raymond Gay-Crosier Professor of Romance Languages and Literature This dissertation was submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and to the Graduate Council, and was accepted as partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. December 1981 Dean for Graduate Studies and Research