John Irving is a master of the messed-up. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a careful, tightly-managed piece of stage magic wrapped up into a book. The eponymous character in this book has a distinctive, almost shrill pre-pubescent voice, even into adulthood. It’s impossible to convey that on the page, but Irving tries by rendering Owen’s dialogue in ALL CAPS—during Owen’s few speeches, these can run to paragraphs or a page. I don’t visualize things when I read (I can’t picture Owen’s creepy child proportions, no matter how hard I try), but I can imagine his voice. I imagine the voice of Linus from A Charlie Brown Christmas, slightly higher-pitched and perhaps louder.
Why is Owen’s voice different? There is a reason according to the plot. Thematically, however, Owen’s voice is the most striking signal of his otherness. Owen’s appearance can be described, but such descriptions are transitory—they come and go throughout the text, and it is easy to forget them (or, as in my case, fail to reify them properly). Voice, though … voice sticks. Even if one is not reading aloud, or being read to, one can imagine a voice as one reads silently. And those blatant capital letters scattered across the pages do a brilliant job reminding one that Owen Meany is Different. We don’t find out how different until the very last pages, when everything Irving has left simmering for six hundred pages finally comes to a sharp boil.
There’s a payoff to reading this book. From the beginning, the narrator—John Wheelwright—hints that there is an element of fate to the story. We know that Owen isn’t going to make it out of this alive, and gradually we learn that in the process he will also make himself a hero. What’s creepy is that Owen is aware of this, and as the story progresses, it becomes clearer that Owen is manipulating events to bring his vision of the future to come to pass. From his admission into the army to his practising of “the shot”, Owen devotes his entire life to preparing for his single, shining moment of sacrifice.
It takes a long time to get there. Irving doesn’t let us take any shortcuts. Instead, he provides a slow biography of Owen and John, with an emphasis on their eternal friendship despite Owen’s involvement in the death of John’s mother. Along the way, Irving lays the foundation for what comes at the end of the book. More than that, however, Irving is building a case for Owen’s type of faith. Owen believes—in God, in himself, in the future—and works tirelessly, shrewdly, uncompromisingly in support of that faith. He first scoffs at doubt, then confronts it, then embraces it and emerges from it with a stronger conviction.
I think, at its core, A Prayer for Owen Meany might be a ghost story. Ghosts make appearances in various, symbolic forms—the ghosts in Dan’s annual performance of A Christmas Carol, the voice of Owen Meany that haunts the secret corridor at 80 Front Street, just to name a few. Owen’s glimpse of the future it itself a kind of ghost, echoing into the past. When John finally meets his father, it’s like a ghost coming back from the dead—and to punish his father for revealing himself, John scares him with a fake ghost of his mother.
I’m tempted to single out John as the weak link in this book. As far as a character goes, he’s rather lacklustre. The older John of the Toronto, 1987 scenes is about as interesting as dishwater, and the younger John isn’t much better. I’m not sure this criticism is particularly apt, however; Irving does go out of his way to provide John with plenty of backstory and plot of his own, including the matter of his parentage, the death of his mother, and his own ambivalent feelings towards Vietnam and America. My dissatisfaction with John is more likely because Owen just overshadows him at every turn. But I suppose this book demands a first-person narrator; it needs that closeness and element of fallible human speculation that a limited omniscient narrator just can’t provide.
Another difficult aspect of the book would be its tendency to switch frequently—and without warning—among different times. It jumps from the main narrative to John in 1987 to moments in between with fearsome alacrity. One paragraph it’s 1964, then it’s 1967, and then we are back to 1964. This can be frustrating and bewildering at times, but it indicates the amount of planning and preparation Irving must have done to have everything coalesce in the proper manner. Instead of telling a completely linear tale, Irving somehow knows which moments need to be adjacent to strike the right mood and sense of character.
For all of those reasons above, I’m just gobsmacked by the literary quality of A Prayer for Owen Meany. As a reader and a writer, I just find the execution of this book impressive. Even if I hadn’t enjoyed the story (which I did), I would still have to rate this highly for the inordinate skill it displays. And, of course, my enjoyment is partly a result of that same skill’s ability to manipulate my emotions. There are parts of this book that made me gasp, made me groan, or made me cry.
Owen’s “gift” to Johnny late in the book was perhaps the most emotionally-heavy moment, for me, of the entire story. Irving foreshadows the hell out of the ending, so while it is tragic it wasn’t necessarily shocking. Owen’s “gift” shocked me (and while I have read this before, I had no recollection of that moment). It was a twist that Irving kept carefully concealed, but it made a lot of sense—and it’s so an idea that Owen Meany would conceive. But that’s not even why I’m so moved. It’s those last few paragraphs, when Owen tries to comfort John, to tell John he loves him and that everything will be OK … that, juxtaposed with what he does, is the epitome of pathos and tragedy. I had to stop reading, briefly, not because I was crying or upset but because I was just … floored … by the act and the emotions behind it.
A Prayer for Owen Meany is a complex but well-crafted novel. It has a slow-paced, meditative story that reflects the tension and conflicting emotions in the American zeitgeist during the Vietnam War. Irving touches on life and loss, fear and faith—all the good stuff you need for a truly deep, memorable experience. This is one of my favourite Irving novels and an amazing book in general. It is an impressive and intense performance disguised as a novel.