Until I Find You by John Irving
I wanted very much to like this. Having a soft spot for the sprawling, melodramatic, Dickensian style of Irving's middle novels, The World According To Garp and A Prayer For Owen Meany, I wasn’t at all daunted by the prospect of his hefty eleventh novel, an 800 page beast of a book that revisits many themes that will be familiar to Irving's readers. New England public schools, the Amsterdam red light district, wrestling rooms, absent parents, prostitutes and 'bad' boyfriends; they all crop in Until I Find You.
Repetition has always been a tactic of Irving's – his 'signature eccentricities,' the recurring motifs and locations. There was a comforting quality to much of this, allowing his multiple-character narratives to veer into ever more outlandish areas. And that’s initially the case here, but unfortunately the feeling soon wears off. This is a novel severely lacking in direction; disappointing for more than the absence of bears.
In the late 1960s, at the age of four years old, Jack Burns spends months traipsing round the port cities of Northern Europe with his mother, in search of the man who impregnated then abandoned her. Jack's mother is a Scottish tattooist of some skill, as was her father before her, and in the business she is known as Daughter Alice. The elusive William Burns – Jack’s father – is a gifted musician, an organist, and an ink addict, known in the trade as a “collector,” slowly covering every inch of his skin with the musical notes of his favourite hymns. For all their efforts they never find him.
Returning to Canada, Daughter Alice sends her son to St Hilda's, a public school with only a small minority of male students. Despite being lost in "a sea of girls," Jack – as a result of his diminutive stature - ends up taking the female leads in school dramatic productions, and as a result grows up to be an actor, a movie star in fact, with a fondness for cross-dressing parts. But his father’s absence still casts a shadow over his life, tainting his relationships with women and gradually alienating him from his mother. Jack is scared he’ll end up like his father, but as he has little idea what that would truly mean he moves from one anonymous sexual encounter to another, making few real connections.
Jack's sexual education takes up a good proportion of the novel, to the point where Jack''s penis seems to be becoming a character in its own right. But, for all Jack’s many liaisons, his closest relationship remains with writer-to-be Emma Oastler. With Emma he shares a bond that, while not exactly platonic, is more sisterly than sexual.
Until I Find You arrives in the UK on the back of some personal revelations about Irving’s family history. Given his work, it comes as little surprise that Irving never knew his father; what’s more startling is Irving’s sudden willingness to discuss his early sexual encounters with an older woman, encounters that he now realises bordered on abuse. In the novel, Jack has a similar damaging experience with Mrs Machado, a (much) older woman. In fact, the amount of overlap between Jack’s narrative and what we now know of Irving’s own life is considerable. This is particularly interesting given the fact that Irving has always made an issue of the relative merits of autobiographical vs. ‘imagined’ fiction.
In addition to these admissions it’s also been made known that, at a late stage in the writing process, he made the fairly dramatic decision to change everything from the first person to the third person. Knowing this and given the book’s great length, it does make one think of Wonder Boys and that massive manuscript spiralling wildly out of control. This is especially true in the case of the Amsterdam sequences, where, at one point, he treats his readers to potted history of the town’s old cathedral; his research has clearly been impeccable but one questions the necessity of including quite so much of it. Like so much in this novel, it could have benefited from a thorough edit. There are episodes of vintage Irving in Until I Found You; several funny and touching passages, some pleasantly offbeat characters, but they’re buried deep, lost in surplus words.
This is one of Irving’s most sentimental novels and yet one of his least moving. In the past he’s proven more than capable of controlling the way he reveals information to his readers in order to maximise emotional impact, but the technique fails him here. The death of the novel’s most sympathetic and well-developed character midway through is not the devastating episode it could have been, and the inevitable but (very) delayed reintroduction of Jack’s father is an anticlimax. Given the epic build up it would have difficult to wrap things up in any way that wasn’t. True, knowing that Irving was never able to have this reconciliation of sorts with his own father gives these scenes a certain added depth, but the novel needs to work on its own terms and it just doesn’t manage that.
This book is a mess, there’s no getting away from that, but it keeps you turning the pages – impressive in itself given there’s more than 800 of them. There are some poignant observations about the way childhood memories can betray in later life and, as always with Irving, though you can see what’s coming, “you never see everything that’s coming.” I wanted to like this, I really did. Like Jack I kept looking for something – that click, that spark, that Owen Meany moment where everything comes together, but I never found it.