John Irving’s fourteenth novel revisits many of the themes and characters of his previous novels. Is one of the main characters a writer? Yes. Are there characters who – even at this point in the history of the world – would be considered outré in terms of their sexuality? Yes. Does sex play a large part in proceedings? Yes. Does much of the plot centre on children and, for a bonus point, is there an orphanage involved? Yes and yes. Is there a circus? Yes. Does the spectre of AIDs raise its terrible visage? Yes. Some readers may be surprised to learn that there is no wrestling involved and also Irving has spiced things up this time around with a little supernatural element. Interesting, you might say. Or you might not.
The writer in question is one Juan Diego, who grew up in Oaxaca, Mexico and, alongside his sister, was known as one of the dump kids. In that he lived in a shack by a dump, ostensibly looked after by El Jefe, the dump boss, who may or may not have been his father, but who may well have slept with his mother, Esperanza, a prostitute on Zaragoza Street, who also worked as a cleaning lady for the local Jesuits, one of whom – Father Pepe – takes an interest in Juan Diego and his sister, who reads minds but has a vocal disfigurement that means only Juan Diego can, for the most part, understand what she says. But we don’t just spend time with Juan Diego the child, we also spend time with Juan Diego the man, en route to Manila, to finally carry out the dying wish of a young man he met as a child. He is befriended by two ladies, a mother and daughter, both of whom have read his work (although the daughter hasn’t quite read everything yet) and both of whom seem to want to lure Diego into bed. As he moves from the US to various points in and around Manila, forgetting and then choosing to take various bits of medication (Beta Blockers, Viagra), the contemporary narrative often serves as a device to allow Diego the freedom to return to his past, and we return with him – the adult Diego sleeping on this plane or that, talking aloud to neighbouring passengers, the child Diego given books, taken to live in a circus, moving to the US in the company of a gay couple.
Now. As a younger reader, we can with hand on heart say Irving was one of our very favourite writers. We lapped him up. The five book run from The World According to Garp to A Son of the Circus was flawless. Among the later books, A Widow for One Year and The Fourth Hand were not without their charms too. More recently – Until I Find You, Last Night in Twisted River, In One Person – we’ve tried to like Irving as much as we once did. But it’s all got a bit like a stale marriage. We’re trying too hard to like what we once found so thrilling. The warmth that we once found in Irving we now find elsewhere (Brady Udall, we’re looking at you). And there are moments in Avenue of Mysteries that feel unintentionally comic (for instance, as the novel is set in Mexico, Irving uses a lot of Mexican words but he isn’t a writer like, say Cormac McCarthy, where you’d be expected to work things out from context; Irving has a terrible tendency to repeat words and phrases, using the Mexican word and then translating, much as Alan Partridge once said, “Haute Cuisine – Hot Food…”. It feels a mite patronising is what we are saying when we know Irving is probably doing it out of consideration for his readers).
And when you start to pick at the stitch, you discover that, in fact, there are lots of things in Avenue of Mysteries that are not very likeable – a great many of which arise from Irving trying to be considerate (but one can’t help but feel that the consideration is driven by an idea that his readers are, you know, forgetful idiots). For instance, he repeats himself repeatedly. Things people have said at previous points in the novel, events that the reader needs to know are thematically linked to what is being spoken about at that given minute, again and again you get the sense that Irving doesn’t want his readers to have to work at all. For instance, the travelling around Manila becomes a contrivance to allow Juan Diego to sleep and dream and share with us his past. He has a tendency to forecast to such a degree that it robs the narrative of all surprises. And we like surprises. Here he is virtually defending what we want to criticise:
“The way you remember or dream about your loved ones – the ones who are gone – you can’t stop their endings from jumping ahead of the rest of their stories. You don’t get to choose the chronology of what you dream, or the order of events in which you remember someone.”
That’s as maybe in a dream but, in a novel, you know what? You do get to choose the order of events. Later, when Juan Diego wonders, “Why was he so easily (and repeatedly) carried back to the past?” As a reader, you think: because that is the book John Irving is writing, and Juan Diego is a cypher for what Irving is setting out to do here. But what (we wonder, like Juan Diego) is John Irving setting out to do? What question prompted the novel?
“Juan Diego was a novelist who paid attention to the chronology of a story; in his case, as a writer, the choice of where to begin or end a story was always a conscious one.”
Juan Diego has a career that is not dissimilar to Irving’s, and there do seem to be jokes throughout referring to Diego’s previous books that seem in many ways to reflect Irving’s own books – and like a great many older career novelists, Irving has new things to say here (not least the fact that all readers of novels seem to be women these days – there are some men left reading novels, we can assure you) – but the point of the novel eludes us, especially when Irving seems to want us to see his point.
So what are we saying? We are saying that Avenue of Mysteries is not a bad book although it is something of an aimless one, a wandering, meandering, circuitous novel that swallows its own tail (its own tale?) long before we eventually arrive at the climax. The supernatural element made us wonder if Irving has taken to reading Murakami as it has that curious, detached obliqueness you find in Murakami and, as also with Murakami, has no real explanation beyond its own existence. If we were so arrogant as to offer Irving advice? We’d say write shorter books. Pull the drawstring of your narrative tight and then test it between your fingers to see if it pings. At the moment, your books do not ping. They twang like a loose guitar string. And you’re relying on the sentimental attachment readers have to your better books. Which is goodwill that readers don’t tolerate for long…
Any Cop?: Not among his best but not quite plumbing the depths of Until I Met You (if you want to know where it fits in the grand scheme of things).