Books: What's the point of being discreet?

My Movie Business by John Irving Bloomsbury pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
It is interesting to note that John Irving's books are not copyrighted in his own name, but under "Garp Enterprises Ltd". This indicates not only that the man is a single-handed multinational publishing industry, but also tacitly acknowledges that everything he has done since 1978 is simply vying for second place. But this book, his 12th publication, is an exception. From the outset, there is no question that this is an attempt to secure 12th place.

"When I feel like being a director, I write a novel," Irving tells us in huge type on the back cover. When he feels like being a trainee grip, on the other hand, he writes a memoir. In My Movie Business, as in his previous attempt at the genre, The Imaginary Girlfriend (an extraordinarily flat account of his career as a wrestling coach), Irving is on auto-pilot.

Both books give the impression of having been dictated, rather than written. Irving is in chat mode, telling you a few of the relatively interesting things that have happened in the course of his career. With their lack of structure, their primary school essay-style use of large type to try to mask their brevity and their casualness of manner, both books come across as contract-fillers - attempts to pad out multi-book deals without the effort it takes for a novel.

A nice little chat with a writer of the stature of John Irving isn't necessarily a poor prospect. Were he willing to undress himself (and others) a little, he might have something interesting to say. After all, indiscretion is to the memoir what characterisation is to the novel.

Unfortunately, both of Irving's memoirs are fully clothed (the earlier in a Lycra wrestling suit, if you can stomach that thought). There is no indiscretion, no self-revelation beyond insincere mock-humility, and little emotional honesty in either book. Perhaps this lack of emotional insight gives us a clue as to why Irving's novels teeter on the brink of kitsch. Irving uses event as emotion. The upheaval in his fictional characters' lives is always explicit rather than implicit. There is no distinction in an Irving novel between plot and interior life. His characters are what happens to them, no more.

While the best novelists can create drama from people reacting to ordinary events in extraordinary ways, Irving trades in people reacting to extraordinary events in ordinary ways. Although amazing things take place, everyone in Irving's universe is at heart Tom Hanks. The result of this Hollywoodish adherence to "likeability" is that, however exotically seasoned they may be, Irving's books always taste like comfort food.

Since Irving himself has lived a life no more or less eventful than the rest of us, this trait perhaps accounts for why he is such a poor autobiographer. Not because quiet lives make for unsatisfactory material, but because his technique is insufficient to scratch below the surface of his own character. He can only tell us what has happened to him - a legitimate style in a plot-driven novel; a disastrous one in a memoir.

All one can glean about John Irving's character from this book is to be found between the lines. It is in this subtext that Irving has produced something interesting. Having written a series of novels that suffer from cloyingly nice protagonists, only in his recent autobiographical work has he dared to centre a book on an unsympathetic character.

The majority of My Movie Business relates in wearisome detail the gestation of Irving's script of the forthcoming film of The Cider House Rules. However much he attempts to assure us of his admiration and respect for the director, Lasse Hallstrom, the book reeks of defensiveness and unease. By publishing the scenes in his screenplay that he thought ought to have made the final cut, but on which he was overruled by Hallstrom, Irving comes across as a novelist profoundly unhappy with his diminished status as a screenwriter. He has even managed to publish his complaints before the film has come out. As a result, despite everything he says about the director, My Movie Business reads as a tetchy attempt to pre-emptively have the last word over a compromised film.

By the sound of it, the chairman of Garp Enterprises Ltd is finding it increasingly galling to be unseated for the filming of one of his products. When you arrive at the back cover of this book for the second time the quote which greets you now has a different ring. "When I feel like being a director, I write a novel," Irving is still telling you, but this time with the emphasis on the second word, in a rather high-pitched voice, slightly too loudly, with a red face, a fixed grin ... and could that really be a whiff of jealousy-induced body odour creeping up from the shirt collar?