John Irving’s lyrical flourishes frustrate as much as they delight, while the ‘anything-can-happen’ magic realist plot is more suspect than spellbinding
Avenue of Mysteries By John Irving | Doubleday, 460pp, £20
Avenue of mysteries? More like a maze, and one in which all but the most determined or – let us be fair – entranced readers are likely to feel trapped with no hope either of reaching the centre or finding their way out. Irving is a North American practitioner of magic realism. In this novel there is a mother-and-daughter team who both set out to seduce the hero, Mexican-American author, Juan Diego Guerrero, but who, in ghostly fashion, disappear from photographs and mirrors. The daughter, when experiencing orgasm in bed with the crippled Juan Diego, mysteriously cries out in an Aztec language. This is unusual for an English-speaker, but in magic realism land anything can happen, anything is permissible. The trouble is of course that when anything can happen, it is difficult to make anything that happens matter. Readers of Irving must be grateful for such probability as they get.
Summarising the plot of an Irving novel is like mapping a path through a dense jungle. Verbiage like vegetation soon chokes it. Enough to say that Juan Diego and his sister Lupe grow up as “dump kids” in a Mexican town. Juan Diego teaches himself to read in Spanish and English – don’t ask how. Lupe, on account of some constriction in her throat, makes sounds which only Juan Diego can understand. In compensation she can read people’s minds – don’t ask how. Their mother doubles as the cleaner in a convent and – surprise, surprise – a prostitute. Juan Diego is a cripple on account of being run over by a truck. Lupe meets her end there, horribly but conveniently. Juan Diego goes off to the Iowa Writers Workshop, Irving himself being one of its graduates. Then, having become a famous author, he heads for the Philippines in search of the grave of the father of an American he once knew (though ignorant of his name). On his way he is taken up – or over – by the mother-and-daughter team. Once there, he will encounter ghosts.
He is middle-aged by now and travels armed with beta-blockers and Viagra. He resents having to take the former because they inhibit his dreams, and he makes his novels from experiences in dreamland, which are also his memories. So a lot of what we learn of his past comes from these dreams – dreams in which, much of the time, Lupe is still alive and communicating with him. One suspects that his novels are much like Irving’s, though I’m not suggesting that Irving dreamed this one.
The novel is energetic. Irving delights in his invention and virtuosity. The cast of characters is huge. Most of them are odd – but then, viewed from certain perspectives, who isn’t? Some of them – a couple of priests , for instance – are credible. Though these two are sympathetic (even if one of them goes in for self-flagellation), the Catholic Church itself comes in for a good deal of stick. The sex-scenes are energetic, the daughter being something of a sexual gymnast. Some of them will surely be candidates for the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex Award. On the other hand they are more comic than believable. It’s possible that Juan Diego only dreams them, but then, in this kind of novel, anything is possible.
Irving assures us that “Behind every journey is a reason”, an observation which invites the rejoinder “You don’t say!” or, perhaps, “so what?” He is given to making such statements. For example: “You don’t get to choose the chronology of what you dream, or the order of events in which you remember someone.” (Golly, that never occurred to me before; thank you, Mr Irving, for enlightening me.)
Still, you can take this sort of thing and still find much to enjoy in the exuberance of Irving’s performance. This is an example of the novel as play. It bears only a slight resemblance to life. There is nothing here to make you feel, nothing to make you think. It’s an extravagant show, full of special effects. Those who like this sort of stuff will like it a lot, happy to join in the revels. Others will throw it aside halfway through (if they have got that far), saying, bleakly, “what’s the point?” There is no good answer to that question.