Coping With Irving Sprawl: One Novel? Or Two and Change?

Until I Find You: A Novel, by John Irving. Random House, 824 pages, $27.95 Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

Until I Find You: A Novel, by John Irving. Random House, 824 pages, $27.95

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Until I Find You, John Irving’s massive new novel, is of a type that you often hear referred to as “sprawling”-which, when you think about it, just means “extremely long and somewhat disorganized.”

Except, in this case, calling it “John Irving’s sprawling new novel” would be understating.

Splatting new novel, perhaps. Or spludding.

I say this with the utmost sympathy for Mr. Irving, the author of some fine novels of perfectly normal length, such as The Water-Method Man (1972), The 158-Pound Marriage (1974) and The Cider House Rules (1985).

I blame his editors.

Of course, if you’re publishing a best-selling author, knowing his novel will make the best-seller lists regardless of length or quality, and knowing also that pissing him off with editorial suggestions would be a bad career move, you might hesitate to explain to him that fully one third of the book isn’t only unnecessary, but destructive: John, the book’s obese; it’s drowning in its own fat.

Yeah, I can see how that might be a difficult conversation to initiate-but dammit, that’s an editor’s job. Leaving it to critics is like trying to shove the stink back into the skunk.

Until I Find You is a life of Jack Burns, perennial boy without a father who grows up to be a Hollywood movie star. Jack was born and raised in Toronto by his single mother, Alice, a tattoo artist. His father, William Burns, was a gifted organist so obsessed with tattoos that eventually they would cover every inch of his body. But William left Alice before Jack was born.

When Jack was 4, “Alice announced that she would work her way through northern Europe in search of Jack’s runaway dad. She knew the North Sea cities where he was most likely to be hiding from them; together they would hunt him down and confront him with his abandoned responsibilities.”

Until I Find You begins with this year-long voyage undertaken by Alice, with Jack in tow, zigzagging northern Europe from Copenhagen to Stockholm to Oslo to Helsinki to Amsterdam. In each city, they apparently just miss finding William, but Alice is able to learn his destination. All this is recounted strictly from the 4-year-old’s perspective.

In the book’s last third (approximately), this journey is repeated in its entirety by Jack, alone now and in his 20’s, who discovers that his memories of the first trip may have been grossly manipulated by his mother. They might, in fact, be about as accurate as the reflection in a funhouse mirror. The original story of the North Sea voyage to find Jack’s father is turned upside down. Every single fact he thought he knew might have been a lie. Nothing was the way it was told to him. Nothing was how he “remembered” it. The descriptions he hears of his father, if accurate, would necessarily make his mother a liar, a monster and a total stranger to him-not unlike the person he pictured as his father.

“In this way,” Mr. Irving tells us, “in increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us-not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss.”

The two bookend journeys in search of the missing father are the heart of the novel; the middle section is where the sprawl comes in. It’s also where comparisons will be made (again) to Dickens, for Mr. Irving has a similar gift for invention-the rare art of making up narrative as opposed to disguising or adapting stuff that happened to you or somebody you know or have read about. Jack also shares with many Dickens characters (David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby) a childhood marked by repeated abuse.

In this middle section, Jack enters St. Hilda’s, an all-girls’ school that has begun to accept a few boys. He’s virtually hypnotized by the girls:

“The girls never stood still …. Sitting down, they bounced one leg on one knee-the crossed leg constantly in motion. The extreme shortness of their gray pleated skirts drew Jack’s attention to their legs and the surprising heaviness of their upper thighs. The girls picked at their fingers, at their nails, at their rings; they scratched their eyebrows and their hair. They looked under their nails, as if for secrets-they seemed to have many secrets.”

That first day, Jack meets Emma Oastler, an upper-class student who becomes his enemy and physical tormenter, progresses into his sexual abuser, then his avenger against another sexual abuser, and ends up his roommate, virtual sister and best friend.

As he grows into a man, he is both nurtured and tortured by an assortment of girls and women, a couple of whom leave an imprint (especially Emma and Miss Wurtz, his third-grade teacher and acting coach), and most of whom leave nothing discernible. An awful lot of them spend time holding his penis. (An absurd amount of space is devoted to discussing the diminutive size of that penis.)

And even though Miss Wurtz, it turns out, was once William Burns’ lover, it’s hard to find an essential connection between this middle part and the two journeys on either side of it.

After boarding school and college, Jack goes off to Hollywood, where he becomes famous playing transvestites (but why?) in terrible movies, then slightly better movies, then good movies. He sleeps with numerous women and avoids his mother, who’s in a long-term sexual relationship with Emma’s mother (why?) and won’t answer Jack’s questions about his father. He stays in touch with Miss Wurtz, his third-grade teacher (why?). When Emma dies, he wonders why he doesn’t feel anything and whether he can feel anything, or if he can only act.

The middle section contains so much lovely writing and so many comical vignettes that it’s with real regret that I say it’s utterly gratuitous.

It occurs to me that with some really sharp editing (are you listening, Random House?), there may be two very satisfactory novels to be had here instead of one borderline awful one. The first one-the child’s stolen memories, his stolen father-is nearly finished if you remove the incoherent center. It even ends rather beautifully; I’d have been moved if I hadn’t been so relieved to reach the last page.

I can’t say how the Dickensian novel should end, or even what it’s about (look, Random House, I’m not going to do all the work for you), but there’s wonderful potential there: the lively writing, the great comedy, the signature Irving characters. And also, you know, it’s a normal-sized novel. Eliminate the references to Jack’s “smallish penis” (or at least insert a reason why) and then you’ll have something.

Two somethings.

Nan Goldberg recently moved to Maine and continues to write regularly for New York metropolitan-area newspapers.

Coping With Irving Sprawl: One Novel? Or Two and Change?