Review of John Irving’s “Until I Find You”

It may be pertinent that I was an Irving virgin. I was resentful most of the time I was reading this book. The first third, I was annoyed at the improbable weirdness of the characters and events (a tattooist who is dragging a four-year-old all over Europe, including Amsterdam’s red light district, in futile pursuit of a man.) The second half, I was irritated by the relentlessness of the ordeals that the protagonist, Jack Burns, endures with maddening passivity. In the third half, I couldn’t believe the novel was still not over. This may be the longest novel I’ve read that wasn’t by a long-dead Russian.

Yet, a day after I’ve finished the book, I find myself a little weepy, even in tropical paradise (hi, writing from Sri Lanka!). I am increasingly in awe of the success of Irving’s vastly sprawling but tightly constructed storytelling. I cannot quite believe it, but in the end, not a single one of the trillion pages feels extraneous.

The story, as much as a synopsis could be meaningful, is as follows: William Burns is a church organist who knocked up a woman called Alice (a tattoo artist) and deserted both of Alice and child, Jack Burns. Alice is permanently scarred by this desertion and brings Jack up alone(-ish). Jack gets molested and statutory-raped a bunch. Then he becomes a Hollywood star. Then something else happens. Make sense? It will.

I feel haunted by the intensity of Jack’s character, which is to Irving’s great credit, given what an unrelatable kind of person Jack will be to the vast majority of readers: devastatingly attractive and weirdly hollow. I am overcome with relief at the novel’s resolution — a relief whose dimensions are equal to the grief that preceded it. Really good, intellectually and emotionally satisfying redemption — deeply cathartic but also authentic to life — is hard to come across nowadays. Irving pulls it off.

The loss of innocence isn’t necessarily an event characterized by visceral and cataclysmic discomfort. It could sneak up on you quietly, lullingly. Consent requires a self solid enough to be aware of what there is to protect, a soul capable of drawing a permeable boundary around itself. Before the violation of innocence, the self is liquid, spilling, trusting, at once with the happiness and thrill and sadness and grotesque of the world, moving between it all smoothly, unflinchingly, as tiny hands go from grabbing fistfuls of dirt and caterpillar and snail to the dry, fragrant warmth of a mother’s hair. In that liquid world, innocence that does not yet know itself as a precious and fragile quantity. After the violation of innocence, all that one can do after is to watch the rest of one’s world unfold in the pattern of that original wound.

Pain and grief come later. Maybe they do not come at all, not acutely, not in neatly articulable color. You cannot say that you would have preferred to encounter your sexuality in a context that is developmentally appropriate, or merely non-criminal. You cannot go back and inject the grief of a fully measured loss, magnified by the response to injury that ripples out in time, into your younger consciousness. You can only measure extent of damage done by the counterfactual: what your life and idea of self and body and self-respect and the primal trust in your own judgment (taken for granted by others) may have been like if they had been left intact.

This is part of what accounts for the infuriating darkness of the sin of sexual abuse, and “Until I Find You” illustrates this with unsparing brilliance: one cannot easily articulate its damage except through the ponderous work of imagining what may have been instead — a task that can require the very faculties that the abuse compromised — and to bear the awful psychological weight of this awareness in order to properly indict the perpetrator.

This is a hard point to make, and Irving’s tremendous imagination and virtuosity succeeds. A+.

 


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