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A Prayer for Owen Meany

Someone explain it to me...

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1CarlosMcRey
Mar 21, 2009, 7:02pm Top

I have to admit I almost feel like I'm picking a fight by posting this, considering the degree of acclaim that I see expressed for the novel on LT. A Prayer for Owen Meany was a pretty enjoyable read, but I have to admit I felt a little underwhelmed. Overall, I thought I had a good grasp of what Irving was doing or intending, even if it didn't always move me. There happen to be a couple of points that I do feel a little fuzzy on, and I'd sort of like to have them explained to me.

1) Is it really that terrible that Owen's parents believe he is the product of an immaculate conception and that they tell him so? John, the narrator, certainly seems to think they're monstrous for doing so. His awareness of this and subsequent reaction come after the main miracle regarding Owen, so you'd think John might be a little more open to the possibility of the miraculous.

Which leads me a bit to the second point...

2) Is John supposed to be likeable? If Irving is setting him up as an unreliable narrator, it's too subtle for me to pick up on. But he seems like such a shell of a man that he left something of a vacant space in the emotional heart of the novel for me. This actually does contribute to one of Owen's prophecies: the revelation of who John's father is did turn out to be disappointing, largely because John is such a nonentinty.

So, any thoughts?

2J_Royce
Edited: Jun 22, 2009, 2:16pm Top

I don't think this critique is picking a fight, even though I did like this book. Prayer for Owen Meany seemed like a flawed work to me, but one with brilliant flashes that made up for the weaker spots.

To me the religious aspects around the main character seemed a bit problematic, and I can't say I fully appreciated what the author "meant."

But the Baby Jesus play was one of the funniest things I've read, and the culmination was touching and memorable. Not the most logical or sensible story, but it was memorable and had meaning.

As for Question #2, I almost felt like the narrator was invisible. Certainly a nonentity. Maybe this was to emphasize the spiritual undercurrent--but I have no idea and wonder myself.

3Bookmarque
Edited: Jun 22, 2009, 2:15pm Top

I can't help you as I've never been able to read the thing. Tried twice. Thought it was awful, put it down. I've only ever gotten through one Irving novel after trying several. He's too heavy handed for me most times.

4CarlosMcRey
Jun 25, 2009, 10:25pm Top

As for Question #2, I almost felt like the narrator was invisible. Certainly a nonentity. Maybe this was to emphasize the spiritual undercurrent--but I have no idea and wonder myself.

I'm reminded a bit of Monty Python's "Every sperm is sacred." As in, "God loves nonentities, too."

5Macon
Edited: Jul 24, 2009, 7:28am Top

#1 Did Johnny really only hear about it after the main miracle? I thought it came beforehand? If it was after, then yeah, I agree. If it came first, then I think Johnny's reaction makes perfect sense.

Edited to add: I just checked, and you're absolutely right

I don't think I've really got to grips with all the Owen = Jesus stuff.

#2 This one, I'm sure about. There are three quotations at the start of the book. Here's the second one, by Frederick Buechner:-

"Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there was no room for doubt, there would be no room for me."

I think Johnny's been on the receiving end of exactly such an experience - and it has pretty much destroyed him, leaving him as a husk, railing about American foreign policy. That's why he's a non-character, for my money. I think we're supposed to feel sorry for him more than like him.

And Irving is well aware that the reader will see Johnny as a mere bystander / non-entity: It's NO ACCIDENT that he casts him as Joseph in the Nativity play.

6Booksloth
Jul 24, 2009, 6:06am Top

Interesting conversation about one of my favourite books. Just marking it so that I can find it again later - off out right now but can't wait to join in. (Not that I expect to be much help.)

7Booksloth
Jul 25, 2009, 5:04pm Top

I really don't have all the answers here - nor would I want to have, because I believe it's the subjectivity of reading that is one of its biggest pleasures. What touched me about the book isn't necessarily what touched - or failed to touch - others. I'll try to give my own answers, as far as I can, to the OP's questions but they're not necessarily the answers you would get from Irving himself.

I suppose firstly it's important to make it clear that I love Irving's work and this book in particular, though I would agree with many readers that OM's constant TALKING IN CAPITALS is a bit annoying. I learnt to ignore it though. Why do I love Irving? I find his writing measured and it feels to me as if every word was carefully chosen and is the best word for its purpose. I find his characters to be enough like me for me to empathise with them yet different (and often slightly odd) enough for me to find them interesting. They're not all people I would wish to make friends with (he's very good at not necessarily making his protagonists 100% sympathetic) but I do enjoy watching what they're up to.

So question one - my view only: Is it really that terrible that Owen's parents believe he is the product of an immaculate conception and that they tell him so? John, the narrator, certainly seems to think they're monstrous for doing so. His awareness of this and subsequent reaction come after the main miracle regarding Owen, so you'd think John might be a little more open to the possibility of the miraculous.

To me, that is just a question of whether or not you have a regard for the truth. I think children are entitled to the truth as far as they are able to understand it. I put that bit in italics because I do think age matters. I don't think it's a crime to tell them about you-know-who (fat guy, red coat, December) when they are tiny, but I think that's quite a far cry for telling lies about the child's own background, even into early adulthood.

Is it also a religious question? As an atheist, I can honestly say that it just sounds stupid to me, for those with a more religious 'bent' themselves I would have thought that lying about things like immaculate conceptions would be a fairly serious matter. I don't know that though.

On more practical matters (yes, now we're on to sex education) I can't help thinking 'You are the result of an immaculate conception' is not that far away from 'You were found in a cabbage patch' only with more chance of raising the child to believe they are the son or daughter of god. That can't be a good thing, can it? As to the idea that John should be more easily convinced after what happens with Owen, again to me, that was a good thing and made Owen's 'miracle' much more convincing. John believes in what he has seen with his own two eyes (or at least, heard first hand). Why should that make him 100% gullible? The existence of one event that is hard to explain with logic doesn't mean we should never question anything again.

I'm very much behind what Macon says in #5 about John's reaction to 'miracles'. He isn't someone who is easily taken in about that kind of thing - simply doesn't believe in them. That's why he is so shattered by being confronted by what appears to be a genuine miracle.

Question two: Is John supposed to be likeable? If Irving is setting him up as an unreliable narrator, it's too subtle for me to pick up on. But he seems like such a shell of a man that he left something of a vacant space in the emotional heart of the novel for me. This actually does contribute to one of Owen's prophecies: the revelation of who John's father is did turn out to be disappointing, largely because John is such a nonentinty.

I don't really think any of Irving's characters are meant to be either likeable or unlikeable. They are supposed to be realistic, with both faults and virtues. I'm not sure what the OP means about John being an unreliable narrator. Whereabouts in the story did you feel he was being unreliable? To me, he is just telling the story the way he sees it.

I think Johnny is supposed to be a fairly negative character - not necessarily in a bad way, just the sceptic to Owen's believer, the shadow to Owen's light - the fact that Johnny isn't easily convinced is what makes the story more convincing, in the same way that stories about seeing spaceships are more convincing when told by police officers or pilots than by UFO-watchers. To me, John is there to ask the questions rational readers should also be asking.

Still, as I said earlier, this is all just my opinion. I don't believe a good book should ever have just one answer, but that everyone should find their own meaning. I'm sure mine won't be the same as everyone (possibly anyone) else's.

8CarlosMcRey
Aug 21, 2011, 5:37pm Top

It's really weird, but I think I had this epiphany about A Prayer for Owen Meany which allows me, on some level, to appreciate it. When I read Prayer (way back when), I remember thinking that there was about 100 pages too much novel. That was about the span between when I realized how the story was going to end and actually getting to the ending. I think, in part, I was reading it as a sort of horror story, where you usually get of final revelation which resolves the mystery that has been going on until then. But it occurred to me today that there's a real parallel between the mechanisms of the novel and the mechanism of religion as a way of relating to God.

That is, and I'll try to be brief since I haven't conceptualized this fully enough to go on too long coherently, but I think when you look at the Gospels, you're basically seeing a type of story meant to convey the message of Jesus' divinity. The point isn't so much the final revelation of, wait, the tomb is empty, he really is divine. The concept of Jesus' divinity is supposed to be addressed in every part of the story, not just by the final twist at the end. I don't quite have the theological or literary background to address this, but I think it can be sort of encapsulated in the concept of The Stations of the Cross, that is the recreation of the life or path of Christ as a way of becoming closer to God. And, so I think the way that the Gospels tell the story of Christ is reproduced in the practice of Christianity.

Now, I think with a novel, too, one can talk about a mechanism. That is, a novel is a way of telling a story, and it has certain conventions and techniques that a writer adopts or deploys when choosing to tell a story in novel form. (Again, you'll have to excuse my lack of sophistication in this matter.) And what Irving is doing is sort of a blending of the two in order to tell a story about his own faith. That is, what he set out to write is a sort of personal Gospel, expressing his relationship to God in a novel which would seem to be about growing up in the Northeast during the Vietnam era but is in some way drawn from the experience of reading the Gospels. (I think.)

I guess, to try to put it a little more succinctly, that both the Gospels and Christian worship or practice share similar structures or strategies or just sort of beats, and by incorporating those into a story coming-of-age story in a contemporary setting, Irving is relating sort of a personal gospel.

I can sort of appreciate the novel from that perspective, though I don't know I would necessarily enjoy it any more as it's not a tradition that particularly resonates with me.

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