John’ Irving’s Owen Meany: A Review

(Original post date: Friday, February 15, 2008)

Heeding the advice of an esteemed colleague and an esteemed sister-in-law, I forced myself to keep reading John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. It was tough going. Irving just doesn’t resonate with me… it was the same way with The Cider House Rules. In the end it was an interesting story, but it wasn’t a story that compelled me to keep reading… it was something I pushed through. It was this way with Owen Meany, too, with one huge difference… while I finished reading Cider House as I had begun, indifferent, I bawled at the end of Owen Meany.

It isn’t that I like the character of Owen Meany. He is, through most of the book, too sure, too unafraid. The cover of the paperback says that Owen Meany thinks he’s an instrument of God and that this assumption is correct, as if this explains Owen’s uncanny certainty. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, however, even instruments of God struggle with doubt. In the Old Testament, Moses struggles with doubt when God calls upon him to help free the Jews from slavery in ancient Egypt even though God puts His money where His mouth is with all manner of disgusting and fearsome plagues. In the New Testament, Jesus is plagued with doubt even though he knows he is the son of God and is in full awareness that his sacrifice will offer salvation to mankind. But Owen Meany, for the majority of the novel, does not appear to struggle with doubt. How can this be? Can this pint-sized, oddly-voiced character be more sure of himself than Moses? Than Jesus? Is he human? More? Certainly Irving expects his reader to empathize and even sympathize with Owen when he is ignored by his parents, manipulated by his peers, and bullied by adults who obviously have problems of their own. And yet he draws direct comparisons between Jesus, who has doubts, and Owen, who does not, and who observes that Jesus was “used,” just as he will be used. It’s a bit much for me.

For this reason, it is difficult for me to feel any attachment to this character. It is only when Owen is finally seized by self-doubt that I am able to really care what happens to him. Only then am I able to relinquish my doubt that Owen is as human as the rest of us… and that, of course, is when Irving yanks the rug out beneath the reader’s feet by yanking Owen away from his best friend, away from the woman who loves him, away from the world who never understands him, and away from the reader. It’s a sucker punch that delivers the message, “and THAT is what you get for doubting in the first place.” Ouch. It’s not that I like Owen Meany, but I do come to believe in Owen Meany, which is obviously what Irving intended… misguided messiah-complex or no.

The novel reminds me strongly of M. Night Shyamalan’s film Signs, and not just because of their shared themes of faith and predestination, though these similarities are strong. They also share emotionally loaded baseball imagery and language, specifically the phrase “swing away” as advice that carries life-changing ramifications for those who utter it and those who take it. They share the unforseen death of someone young, beautiful, and loved, and the scar this person’s death leaves on everyone she leaves behind. They share clergy struggling with crises of faith and potentially career-changing doubt. And perhaps most importantly, they both address the question of predestination versus free-will by having main characters overcome a life-challenging threat using an aforementioned but seemingly unrelated skill… a technique that leaves their audiences little room for doubt that “things happen for a reason.”

Usually, if I finish a book in tears, it’s a sign that I liked the book. I wish I could say that about Owen Meany. I’ve come to believe in Owen Meany, but as with Signs, I am walking away from the experience feeling a bit manipulated. I like to come to my own conclusions about things, and neither of these stories leaves much room for that. In the end, I’m glad I stuck with it… thank you to both Marcella and Apryll for urging me to finish it… but I think I’m going to need some time to process this one.

Any thoughts from those of you who’ve read it?

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