Steven Wu's Book Reviews
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A Prayer for Owen Meany
by John Irving

A book review by Steven Wu
December 10, 2001

Rating: 3 (of 10)

I really, really didn't like A Prayer for Owen Meany for 450 pages. At page 450, after a surprisingly powerful scene, things began picking up. Then things began flagging again. Only at the very end did the book make a final swing for the better--and then it ended.

What was so terrible about A Prayer for Owen Meany? First is the style of the book; Irving tells the story of Johnny and Owen through a series of disjointed, out-of-sequence vignettes. While such a style is not inherently bad, Irving does a horrendous, hackneyed job of transitioning between these vignettes. For instance, at one point Irving writes, "Maureen Early was a dreamer who squirmed in her seat--whether she was watching her father overact or watching Owen Meany approach home plate." And Irving then proceeds to talk about Owen Meany's home run, after a completely unnecessary link to an unrelated episode. There are enormous numbers of these clunky transitions, and they do wonders to jerk me out of whatever narrative flow Irving was trying to achieve.

Also, while I found some of the vignettes amusing, none of them were particularly compelling. This was partly due to Irving's tendency to use his characters as a political platform for his own beliefs. It really doesn't add much to a character to have him deliver--even if it is in Owen Meany's distinctive ALL CAPS SPEECH--an essay about why the Vietnam War was a Bad Idea. (The chapter called "The Voice" is particularly bad about this.) And Irving mouths off about a lot: Johnson's foreign policy, Nixon's foreign policy, Reagan's foreign policy, religious faith, religious doubt, political loyalties, political fallibility, etc. etc. ad nauseum. Unfortunately, Irving's views aren't well-developed, nor were they particularly well-written. To have characters express these ideals, across several pages, when they're basically saying "Reagan is dumb" over and over again, became very annoying.

Finally, too many times Irving introduces plot elements that break the continuity of his characters, simply for the sake of advancing the plot. For instance, whereas Irving first builds up the character of Harriet Wheelright as an indomitable spirit, he has Owen Meany immediately overpower her. Again, during both the Christ Child and Ghost of the Future episodes, Owen Meany is unaccountably powerful, for seemingly no reason other than authorial fiat. While I suppose this is one way of laying a foundation for a character, it also removes almost any credibility that Irving might otherwise have built up.

That being said, the very end of "The Finger" chapter is an incredibly harrowing, emotionally disturbing sequence of events, and the final pages of the book are quite exciting, though they are also clearly contrived, what with the sudden re-appearance of a character only recently introduced. Ultimately, I can't recommend A Prayer for Owen Meany to people who expect their reading to be enjoyable. While I'm sure there are plenty of deeper themes in the book that I haven't seen, I really don't think it's worth it to waste my time trying to divine what the author should have expressed more clearly.

See my (brief) reading log for A Prayer for Owen Meany, which was written as I struggled through it.

Copyright © 2001 Steven Wu

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Steven Wu's Book Reviews