The Dickensian Second Coming

“The chain of events, the links in our lives – what leads us where we’re going, the courses we follow to our ends, what we don’t see coming, and what we do – all this can be mysterious, or simply unseen, or even obvious.”

One does not embark on reading a John Irving novel lightly…

Is Avenue of Mysteries my favourite John Irving novel? No. Is it still worthy of a 5-star rating? Is it still better than 99% of the books I’ve read in my lifetime? Yes…because it is a John Irving novel.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I am a writer and an avid reader because of John Irving. He is one of my all-time favourite authors in the world, and I am absolutely and consistently blown away by each and every novel he writes. He quite frankly is the modern day Dickens; somehow he has managed to write 14 novels, all with vastly different characters and plots but with a distinct Irving style that is sharply recognizable and unlike anything any other authors have put out. Irving is a truly unique voice in literature, and he painstakingly crafts narratives that are sweeping and vast, but with these minute details and intricacies that he reveals with enviable patience and calculated insight. Honestly, a John Irving novel is not a book you can pick up flippantly, or decide to read just for the hell of it – you have to be prepared, emotionally, physically (his books are looong and heavy, especially if you have them in hardcover!) and mentally to embark on a journey that will sometimes be tedious and daunting but will definitely be rewarding!

In his long and established career, John Irving has produced some incredible novels. My personal favourite is A Prayer for Owen Meany, a novel that I actually read twice in the span of one month when I was in grade 12. That novel changed my whole life – it gave me this drive and determination to become a writer because I felt this desire to make something as brilliant as Irving did. I know now that I will most likely never achieve that, but John Irving has always been on this pedestal for me because he is the absolute pinnacle of everything I find impressive and enthralling about literature…he is everything I have ever wanted to be as a writer myself.

John Irving cares about his characters and his stories. I read once that he actually writes all of his novels out by hand, which I have major respect for – as I said, he is thoroughly connected to the stories he creates, and he is committed to delivering tales that are massive in scope but intimate in description. Irving at once provides readers with the idea that they have been on a lifelong journey with his characters, while simultaneously making them privy to the tiniest, most private thoughts of those characters’ minds. Somehow he manages to both create stories that are HUGE and very very small. He is a true genius in that sense, and his characters are more real and fleshed out than some of the actual people I know.

I’m lucky enough to be getting the chance to see John Irving in person at the beginning of September, at one of my favourite buildings at my former university, and this is what encouraged me to pick up Avenue of Mysteries this past week. I actually bought the book when it first came out, in 2015, so needless to say, it has been sitting on my bookshelf, unread, for quite some time. That’s because, like I said before, you have to be in the proper mood to read an Irving novel. It’s the same as with Dickens – you don’t just pick up a Dickens novel off your shelf randomly because it’s such a huge commitment and you know it will take so much effort and brain power to read. John Irving novels are the same – you have to be ready to read something incredibly dense, but to also read between the lines. John Irving reveals things out of order, a tiny snippet at a time, and so you have to be ready, as a reader, to pick up the pieces and patiently wait for everything to come together.

With that in mind, I’ll say that Avenue of Mysteries is a remarkable novel…but then again, every John Irving novel is. Having said that, Avenue of Mysteries is not the John Irving novel I would rush out to recommend to others because it somehow didn’t feel that concise or cohesive. It felt a bit scattered to me, from the beginning, and I think that only readers who are familiar with Irving’s style and appreciate how disjointed his narratives can sometimes be will be able to appreciate Avenue of Mysteries. In many ways, I felt that it harkened back to Owen Meany (for example, Juan Diego’s sister Lupe distinctly reminded me of Owen Meany, from the way she spoke to her sometimes flawed premonitions about the future), but it wasn’t as polished of a novel. I understood that Irving’s focus was the inconsistency of dreams and memories, and I know he intended to make the novel feel like a real mind fuck for the reader (excuse my harsh language, but can anyone think of a synonym for “mind fuck”?), but I just can’t help but feel that if you don’t know Irving, you won’t get this novel at all. I wasn’t disappointed by that because I do believe I know Irving and I didn’t struggle with this text for that reason, but at the same time, I think Avenue of Mysteries is a bit less accessible and generally appealing than other Irving novels. It feels like a novel written by Irving for diehard fans of Irving!

Again, I will state that Avenue of Mysteries is brilliant, in its Irving-ian way. This also means that it’s pretty brilliant in a Dickensian sort of way too, and once again, I was struck by just how similar to Dickens’ style Irving’s is. At the same time, Irving is not playing an imitation game; he’s not trying to emulate Dickens’ style, he just writes in the same sort of style naturally, and seemingly effortlessly. I can pinpoint one aspect of Irving’s style that is so Dickensian in nature: his repetition of concepts associated with his characters. Juan Diego is never simply Juan Diego – he is always “Juan Diego, dump reader”. Edward Bonshaw is never just Edward Bonshaw – he is always “Edward Bonshaw, the parrot man” or “Senor Eduardo”. Irving creates these characters with unique facets and talents and personalities, and then he labels them, and constantly reminds the reader of these labels so that they become intimate friends and allies of the characters. However, Irving is calculated about when he chooses to use these epithets – he reiterates them at crucial moments, in the middle of specific paragraphs, in order to remind his reader of particular pieces of his characters’ identities at moments when they are most relevant and significant. Nothing is coincidental or random in an Irving novel, and this is something Dickens does too, particularly in his largest novels like Our Mutual Friend, and it creates the sense that, as an author, he knows his characters better than he even knows himself. Irving somehow manages to recreate this sort of feeling without seeming to steal from or cheat Dickens. I’ve never known a writer to so closely resemble one from the past the way Irving does Dickens. And then, of course, there’s the fact that his novels are very verbose (which is something that I clearly appreciate and can relate to as a writer)! There are times when reading an Irving novel that you have to stop and ask yourself, What is he trying to say? And then you can rewind, unpack, dissect and finally move on…it is a process that takes time and an inherent love for literature of the most literary kind. Reading an Irving novel is not, ever, an easy task…but then, the best things in life often aren’t the easiest, right?

I recommend that everyone read an Irving novel in their lifetime, but I also know that very few readers will. He’s certainly not for everyone, and Avenue of Mysteries is the ultimate example of that – it is a novel that you will either really love or absolutely hate because it is everything an Irving novel is on steroids…it is the most Irving-est of all the Irving novels. I for one LOVED it, but then again, I love anything and everything Irving touches.

My Favourite Quote from Avenue of Mysteries

“‘What did the Virgin Mary ever actually do? She didn’t even get herself pregnant!’” ~ Lupe

❥❥❥❥❥ (out of 5) ~ If it’s by Irving, it will always get 5/5 from me!

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

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