Oh frabjous day calloo callay! John Irving is back on form. I was ready to throw in the towel after dragging myself through the execrable Setting Free The Bears a few months ago (see below), but – praises be – Irving is now reinstated in my mind as one of the great storytellers. Hurrah!
I know there is a certain predictability to his prose, and a definite sense of deja-vu in almost all his novels. But the thing is.. the characters are good, and the prose is good, and the foreshadowings and foregone conclusions are enjoyable. I like it all: the motley crew of surreal, disfigured, unlikely people; the exceptional amongst the ordinary. Especially when it’s a fully-fledged well-developed fantasy of human error and difference (Garp, Owen Meany, Cider House), rather than a half-baked folly (Setting Free the Bears).
The title, The Cider House Rules, refers to a set of rules pinned up in a house in an orchard where migrant workers make cider every summer. The main character is an orphan called Homer Wells and, as is so often the case with Irving, this novel spans almost his entire lifetime. The novel is not so much peppered as curried with exhaustively researched references to medical procedures, text and jargon – Homer Wells grows up under the tutelage of the head of the orphanage, who is also a doctor and an abortionist.
It’s the sort of thing one expects from Irving – the visceral, bodily violence and violation; he is a master of the everyday grotesque. (Probably worth mentioning here that I’m absolutely pro a woman’s right to choose. Unwanted children are the unhappiest and most prone to neglect. Care, respect and compassion for the living should be paramount. No shades of grey about it.) Nevertheless, the prominence of the theme within this novel surprised me. But why should it? In fact, it’s amazing to me that I haven’t come across any other novels that tackle the subject so head-on.
I have heard people suggest that Irving is an antifeminist writer. But I think that is to fundamentally misunderstand him. I think he is simply fascinated by the human body and its potential for metaphorical significance, shock and awe; and the female body simply has more avenues to explore. His natural bent towards the grotesque is not a comment on women, because he dissects and mortifies male flesh with equal relish. The Cider House Rules is perhaps the most body-conscious of all Irving’s novels (that I’ve read so far). There is Melony, the violent giant; Fuzzy Stone with failing lungs; the orphanage staff getting older and older; Candy, the image of physical perfection; Wally, once perfect but later an impotent cripple; scores of pregnant women; prostitutes and horses; Mr Rose and his lethal knife skills… the list goes on. They all have in common a physicality that defines them absolutely.
A few attributes make a character, like a 2D cardboard cutout. One gets the feeling that characters simply stand for something bigger and more complex than themselves. The world of the novel is a world in which huge ideas are played out on a small stage. This is almost always the case. Perhaps Irving is simply drawing our attention to this device. Does this demonstrate skill or lack of it? Is it a purposeful comment or a weakness of style? I’m not sure I care. It’s great fun. A microcosm of the world, viewed through the eyes of an orphan abortionist who lives and works at an orchard by the sea. I could go on indefinitely, but enough is enough. Read.