Sunday, March 09, 2008

Owen Meany - Chapter 5

If I were a book, I would be A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving.

We're taking a chapter a week, posted on Sunday mornings. Click for the posts on Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three and Chapter Four.

(Take the Book Quiz yourself at the Blue Pyramid.)

I was, it must be said, fairly uncomfortable with the way that Chapter 5 depicted the foibles of both Mary Beth Baird and Barb Wiggin as so very closely related to their gender, as opposed to their particular personalities.

This was especially evident in the final appearance each of these characters makes in the Pageant story arc.

Mary Beth is sobbing, overwrought, pathetic; making the adult John reflect, unkindly, on the kind of wife and mother she would one day become, and making the 11-year-old John want to hit her.

Barb Wiggin is, to be sure, a thoroughly unlikeable character. Yet it is not at all satisfying to see her "put in her place" by manly Dan, particularly when her reaction, her backing down, is attributed to the "marginal" authority she wielded in her previous employment as a stewardess.

I thought my discomfort with the handling of these two characters would be balanced by the brief foray into the world of the Dowlings, a one-trick pony of a couple whose mission is to challenge sexual stereotypes. But in the end, they were pathetic as well; "small-town world-changers" who were tolerated, joked about, ridiculous. Tedious eccentrics.

I do not, fortunately, take issue with Irving's handling of the other female characters; Mrs. Meany is certainly eccentric, and by no means portrayed in a flattering light, but she is who she is. She is not a caricature of stereotypical female behavior, she's just a female character.

Hester, Grandmother Wheelwright, John's mother; even Lydia and Germaine ... all are characters who happen to be female. They have strengths and weaknesses, and they hold up their parts of the story without falling into tired old stereotypes.

I did enjoy John's assessment of the different people who were available to him when he needed to talk (in present-day Toronto).

...the Rev. Mr. Foster offers scant sympathy for my worries, which, he says, are only in my mind. I love that "only"!

And the canon:
He is not exactly condescending, Canon Mackie; he is inexactly condescending.

I think it is a valuable thing, knowing the perspective of the different people you might discuss a situation with. You don't have to agree with someone, nor they with you, for the conversation to be productive, or instructive.

The conversation--well, John's rant--that followed, about Americans and the way they are perceived from abroad was, of course interesting to me as well, having lived outside the United States nearly as long as John, at that point, had.

But what made me laugh out loud a little was the canon's response:

"John, John," Canon Mackie said. "Your anger--that's not very Canadian, either." The canon knows how to get to me; through my anger.

"No, and it's not very Christian, either," I admitted. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry!" the canon said cheerfully. "Try to be a little ... different!" The man's pauses are almost as irritating as his advice.

I have never sought to be Costa Rican; I live in Costa Rica, yes, but not because I reject the United States or my identity with it. So while the whole issue of John trying (and, in the canon's view, failing) to be more Canadian was interesting, that wasn't what got my attention. It was the canon's response, and John's reaction to it.

"Don't be sorry!" the canon said cheerfully. "Try to be a little ... different!" The man's pauses are almost as irritating as his advice.


I am frequently to be found admonishing people not to be sorry for who they are or what they feel. And, in text, I am most assuredly given to little ... pauses as a means of conveying the rhythm of the words as I hear myself speaking them as I type.


pidomon March 09, 2008 10:07 AM  

Well (surprise) I didn't read into what you did with Mary Beth and Barb Wiggin.

And as far as the exchange between Dan and Barb if Dan was the one who had died I feel certain John's mom would have had the exact same conversation in defending Owen.

I too liked John's tale in present day Toronto but what struck me was how he was told (and was) living on the past.

That struck a chord with me.

And the direct interaction of Owen and his parents was very revealing.

I hope the book gets into a little more detail on Mr. (and particularly) Mrs. Meany and how they came to this relationship with their son.

Phy/Bob March 09, 2008 11:37 AM  

As usual, you and pido have already made the best observations, so I'll try to add something germane.

The gender issues did catch my eye as well, and were somewhat disturbing to me, but not as much so as they were to you. I guess I need to spend more time reading Liss and PD's posts. :)

Once again, I am as intrigued by the "present" of the story as the tale of the young John (and, of course, Owen). John's expatriate status, and view of the United States as an American outsider, is so spot on for today's situation.

It's also a sad commentary that twenty years (or is it 30) later, the United States is still engaged in the same old, same old. Of course, that's pretty much been true since ... oh, the Monroe Doctrine and "Manifest Destiny".

It's an incredible ... coincidence ... that you have chosen this book (and, yes, I know the book chose you ;) ) to begin your book study series, because John's Toronto observations are so relevant to today.

I also laughed at Canon Mackie's response that you quoted, and thought of you.

In my experience, your admonishments are always merited, and your ... pauses ... are never irritating.

Finally, Irving's description of the Christmas Pageant had me tearing up from laughter at times.

On to Chapter Six!

mom March 09, 2008 3:27 PM  

I have been a silent witness to the conversations about this book, and have been enjoying that role. I have been too hard hit with personal and professional issues of late to make time to do the chapter-by-chapter reading. (Not to mention that I am already in two book clubs and keeping up with them.)

I first read A Prayer for Owen Meany in 1989, a few weeks after having been introduced to John Irving through Cider House Rules.

I don't often reread even books that I have liked because there are always dozens of new ones on my "want to read" list. But in June 2006 I reread A Prayer for Owen Meany because it was one of my friend Sam's favorite pieces of literature - and Sam was going to lead a book discussion about it.

I read the book again and went to the discussion. It was a good discussion among five people of different ages, sexes, life experiences, etc. and Sam handled his role well.

To my great sadness, Sam died of a massive heart attack scant weeks later - I never saw him again. In fact, he died while I was in Costa Rica visiting Jen, so I didn't even learn of his death until weeks later.

That places a shadow on my memories of the book. But if I do make/create the time to read the chapter that you are reading in the coming week, I will try to become a speaking participant, not a silent observor. In any case, know that I am following the book as seen through your eyes with interest.

lisa March 09, 2008 10:16 PM  

I didn't have that reaction about Mary Beth Baird or Barb Wiggin. I really didn't see that at all in terms of gender issues. I would have to think about that. I do like how he portrays Grandmother though. In every little detail, like how she winces when the butcher messes up his lines, and nobody else notices.

Interesting how in the future John is told by Canon Mackie that he lives in the past, but in the past (the main storyline, that is), it's all about the future--Owen's foreshadowing of events, and the impression you get that everything is building up to something.

deborah March 12, 2008 12:26 PM  

I'm a little late to this discussion and finished the book for the second time about 2 weeks ago.

Thinking about the issues with Barb and Mary Beth that you had, it is a little bit like the madonna/tramp issue in relation to Owen. Mary wanted to mother him and Barb wanted to sexually humiliate him. I wonder if Irving set up the possible extremes in reaction to the manchild that Owen is?

Anonymous April 27, 2008 1:43 PM  

Okay, I'm a day (or more) late, as usual, but I just finished Chapter 4 and I'm reading Owen the character as preternaturally mature and really very creepy all in all. I find myself more frightened of him than liking him. He seems alternately supernatural or just deluded. The Grandmother is the typical starched WASP woman attempting to hold on to the shreds of her aristocracy. I noticed that John never refers to it as "Grandmother's house" or "my home" but always by "80 Front Street" a quite impersonal way to refer to one's childhood home. He does it with no other place "Owen's room", "Dan's dormitory". The cousins are Americans--loud, boisterous, rather violent. John is Canada, willing to join in the fun but always afraid of being hurt and never really comfortable with the games. Owen is a Kind God, trying to redirect the natural inclinations of the cousins toward more peaceful games.
John's mother, Tabby, seems to be an ingenue but wrapped in the mystery of her two uncharacteristic moves--John and her trips to Boston. Those two actions, which so contradict her other behavior, become her defining characteristics because of their incongruity with the rest of her life.

Oh, and baseball "America's passtime" kills Tabby, while American football kills Sagamore. Sports kill? Sports as the mechanism for the death of innocence and the death of fun and joy--both brought about by Owen albeit indirectly. Owen as God, indirectly placing America's passtimes as killing the joy and innocence in the world?

Anonymous April 27, 2008 1:44 PM  

oops. This comment should have been on the previous book post. Sorry.

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