Sunday, March 30, 2008

Owen Meany - Chapter 8

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, Chapter Four, Chapter Five, Chapter Six and Chapter Seven.



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


We'll get the obligatory political commentary out of the way first...
So what if civil liberties were suspended for six months? So what that there could be searches without warrants? So what if people could be detained without counsel for up to ninety days?
Okay. Enough of that.


Bob and I spoke a bit last week, in comments, about whether present-day John is displaying signs of mental instability. That may be too strong a word for it, but I agree that his own descriptions of his behavior, at least in terms of his "addiction" to the news and inability to relate easily with the people around him, are not the words of a man at peace with himself or the world.

Certainly, the loss of his finger--and, more to the point, the circumstances under which the amputation occurred--have had an impact on his present-day outlook. We can better understand his insistence that he did not "flee" to Canada to escape the draft, and the complexity of his feelings toward those who did.

To say nothing of the complexity of his feelings toward Owen.

The two passages that stood out to me in this chapter show a John who, when not overwrought by his political convictions, is very aware of the passage of time; a lonely man who accepts--perhaps as inevitable--but does not embrace, the life he has come to lead.
Now we're the grownups we were in such a hurry to become; now we can drink all the beer we want, with no one asking us for proof of our age.
...pine pitch on your fingers is the same everywhere; and the kids with their hair damp all day, and their wet bathing suits, and someone always with a skinned knee, or a splinter, and the sound of bare feet on a dock ... and the quarreling, all the quarreling. I love it; for a short time, it is very soothing. I can almost imagine that I have had a life very different from the life I have had.

The final pair of quotes I chose from Chapter 8 have to do with Owen's personal life - his relationship with Hester.
I had the strangest feeling that anything between them was possible: that they did it and had always done it with abandon; that they had never done it, but that they might be doing something even worse--or better--and that the real bond between them (whether they "did it" or not) was even more passionate and far sadder than sex.
"I USED HESTER'S PHONE," he said.

"I'm surprised she didn't beat the shit out of you for that," I said.

"SHE DID," Owen said; he turned his face away from the glowing light of the TV. "I WOULDN'T TELL HER WHAT THE PHONE CALLS WERE ABOUT, AND SHE THOUGHT I HAD ANOTHER GIRLFRIEND."

"Why don't you have another girlfriend?" I asked him; he shrugged again.

"SHE DOESN'T BEAT ME UP ALL THE TIME," Owen said.

Owen grew up disconcertingly fast; we had several long, leisurely chapters about his childhood, and then suddenly the boys hit puberty and we started skipping whole years between anecdotes. It's harder to really "get" Owen as a grown man.

It's harder to have sympathy for his oddities when they begin to have real-world effects beyond the recasting of pageants and plays.

He has engaged in criminal behavior - and paid the price in several ways.

He has entered into a long-term adult relationship that is, at the very least, so fraught with issues on both sides that, while it presumably offers some comfort to both Owen and Hester, is clearly not a refuge or a safe haven for either of them.

And, at the close of the chapter, he makes and carries out a decision that has permanent physical and psychological consequences for John.

The one thing we do know, absolutely, about Owen is that his actions are driven by a profound and unshakable certainty in his faith, both in God and in his own role as God's instrument.

6 comments:

Bob March 30, 2008 10:18 AM  

Yes, John's mental state is much more understandable now.

At the same time, Owen's is, in my mind, less so. The matter-of-fact way that he sets out the maiming of John's hand ... well, there's a thin line between "profound and unshakable certainty" and, ummm, crazy.

Also, as usual, I notice the political parallels between Vietnam, Iran-Contra, and the present. Well, more than just those particular moments in our past.

Owen is so spot on when he says:

THAT'S WHAT POWERFUL MEN DO TO THIS COUNTRY - IT'S A BEAUTIFUL, SEXY, BREATHLESS COUNTRY, AND POWERFUL MEN USE IT TO TREAT THEMESELVES TO A THRILL! THEY SAY THEY LOVE IT BUT THEY DON'T MEAN IT. THEY SAY THINGS TO MAKE THEMSELVES APPEAR GOOD - THEY MAKE THEMSELVES APPEAR MORAL.

and

THE ONLY WAY YOU CAN GET AMERICANS TO NOTICE ANYTHING IS TO TAX THEM OR DRAFT THEM OR KILL THEM.... IF YOU ABOLISH THE DRAFT, MOST AMERICANS WILL SIMPLY STOP CARING ABOUT WHAT WE'RE DOING IN OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD.

As is John when he asks:

Why aren't Americans as disgusted by themselves - as fed up with themselves - as everyone else is? All their lip service to democracy, all their blatantly undemocratic behavior!

But that's just me. :)

Jennifer March 30, 2008 10:30 AM  

Oh, that's right.

Tax them or draft them or kill them was another one of the quotes I meant to use today; I must have missed the bookmark when I flipped back through the chapter this morning. Thanks for adding it :)

I agree that Owen is much harder to read now. Although, in drawing your conclusions on the faith/insanity continuum, remember that Owen is absolutely positive that he is going to die in Vietnam, and that John is "meant" to be there with him.

I think, if John had not appeared in the recurring dream, Owen still would have tried to keep him from being drafted, but I don't think he would have gone to such lengths.

Of course, then there's the whole issue of how sane it is for Owen to accept his own fate as inevitable, yet try to change John's.

Bob March 30, 2008 10:33 AM  

I have a friend who lost the last two joints on one of his fingers, and he keeps the severed part in a jar of alcohol in his freezer ... I wonder what will happen to John's severed finger?

pidomon March 30, 2008 12:20 PM  

This is what I get to being late to the party 2 weeks in a row I huess.

After I finished the chapter I too thought it was odd that his dream was unavoidable but somehow he thought he could alter John's fate in the dream.

And I also underlined the passage about Johns musing on Owen's and Hesters relationship.

But I don't think Owen as a man and Owen as a boy are that different.
It is just when he was younger it was easier for him to make situations more to his liking and as an adult he can't.

He feels he knows his fatge but can't manipulate the situation to make that fate happen as easily as had when he was younger.

I also liked Grandma's rant when John Kennedy died and how she would rather be killed my a maniac then put in a home.

Jennifer March 30, 2008 12:23 PM  

Crap.

That was another one that I had marked, and missed. The "killed by a maniac" part. I totally meant to talk about that.

Good thing you guys are here :)

Interesting point about Owen being, fundamentally, the same person, but being up against situations that are harder to change.

lisa April 02, 2008 9:43 AM  

I finally finished the chapter. The main thing that struck me (also because it's fresh in my memory of five minutes ago), is what's already been pointed out about Owen accepting his role in the dream as fate, but trying to change John's.

I really don't understand why Owen is trying so hard to control everything--from arranging his own reassignment, to trying to keep John out of Vietnam. I always thought of faith as a letting go of the need to control. If he believes he knows what will happen, why not just let it unfold? And does he really believe it if he is trying to change the outcome as far as John is concerned? Maybe he does believe it, but his love for John is stronger than his faith.

I think if people believe something will happen, they will consciously or unconsciously take steps to make it happen. That can be useful, but it can also be dangerous. And it can be epecially scary in politics. I've heard people talk about current events (Iraq) in terms of Biblical prophesy. As if what is happening now is all part of God's plan leading up to the second coming of Christ. Okay, let's say a Commander-in-Chief believed that. How hard would he try to avoid a war, if he believed war was an inevitable part of God's plan? Especially if he thinks (knows) God is on his side? I'm not saying that's exactly what's going on now, but I know that sentiment is out there, because I've heard it.

I'm really not trying to compare Owen to George Bush!

Let's see, what else. Oh, Canada. It was important to John that people know he didn't flee to Canada to escape the draft. But what he did was effectively the same thing. So I wonder why it's important to him that people not see him that way. Maybe the last chaper will explain. I can't remember how he ends up in Canada.

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