Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving
Few writers have earned as much of my respect as John Irving. Yet I have never read two of his books consecutively, and until now never any closer than six months apart. So having received two of his novels, Last Night in Twisted River – his newest novel – and The Water-Method Man – published thirty seven years prior – for Christmas, I wanted to undertake an examination of Irving as both a younger writer and as a seasoned author.
Which I did. And there's some of the changes one might expect from the age of the man and the maturation of the wordsmith. There's also much of the same man behind both books.
But approaching this novel with the intent of studying Irving the author, I did not expect it to be a book about writing, which it is – at least in part. One of the main characters becomes a writer (or, Irving might say, is always a writer who finally starts writing), and particularly near the end of the book much is made of Daniel Baciagalupo's writing methods.
I'm not much of one for biographical readings of books. I don't care if anything in any of Irving's books actually “happened” to him. But there's no way one can read his descriptions of Danny's habits without believing that, really, Irving is to a great extent describing himself.
And the writing method fascinates me.
Is a book still fiction if it's heavily based on actual events? Does how much a writer is informed by reality even matter, if the story is well written? Who gives, as the old logger Ketchum would say, a mound of moose shit if a writer bases his characters on people in his life?
Maybe it is a load of Hemingway-dogma to say that a writer writes what she knows. But doesn't a writer have to be influenced by circumstance, by experience, by perception? Even if writers, as Danny (and presumably Irving) believes, are always on the outside looking in, don't they somehow have to be writing either about what's on the inside or how it is to be on the outside?
Why all these questions? Could writing, the need to scribble ideas in a tangible, transferable fashion, simply be a way – flawed or not, successful or not – of making sense of the questions around us? Of addressing the uncertainties that surround us always, and prodding into the certainties?