Monday, May 25, 2009

"A Prayer for Owen Meany" by John Irving

Summary: John Wheelwright recounts his childhood with his best friend, Owen Meany. Owen, a little person with an alarmingly unique voice, has always guided John's life through Owen's belief in God's purpose for him (Owen). After Owen accidentally kills John's mother with a foul baseball, Owen dedicates his life to fulfilling God's plan for him.

Musings: Like so many books, I have a story for why I chose to read this one. I first read it my senior year of high school. There are always a few weeks between the end of AP testing and graduation for seniors, and my AP Lit teacher chose this book as our "treat" in those in between weeks (a 600-page treat, I think sarcastically now, but I enjoyed it both times). One of my honors students is reading the book currently, and her questions (to which I had but the vaguest answers) inspired me to reread it.

Irving has created a good old-fashioned story with memorable, if not realistic, characters. Owen, with his odd voice (written in all caps in the novel) and unwavering belief in his divine purpose, is mysterious, infuriating, and an underdog you can't help but root for. John, the narrator of the novel, plays second-fiddle to Owen throughout his life. Where Owen is certain and relentless (and successful) in his pursuit of his Purpose, John is doubtful and mediocre. John serves as a foil to Owen, but even after Owen's death John is unable to grow beyond his position of a contrast to Owen. As an adult, John is pathetically stuck in the past and unable to create meaningful relationships with other people; he relentlessly criticizes the U.S. government while hiding in Canada. John's inability to mature causes the reader doubts. Owen gave his life pursuing his Purpose, but his martyrdom, while saving a few innocent lives, failed to "save" the people closest to him.

The nature of religious belief is a prominent theme throughout the novel. John tells us Owen is the reason he believes in God, but this knowledge does not seem to have brought much comfort to John. Irving seems to be criticizing the very nature of belief. We say we believe in miracles, that we accept God by faith alone, but if a genuine miracle occurs--something beyond the nature of science--we dismiss it as hocus-pocus. Can real miracles occur today? What constitutes belief?

John's current problems with the U.S. government, Owen's religious certainty, and the "sainthood" of John's mother can get heavy-handed, but the novel's greatest strength lies in the way unique characters and small events all come together to form meaning at the end. The nature of Owen's death, while alluded to frequently throughout the novel, still comes as a satisfying surprise.

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