It would seem that publishing novels for five decades and winning a National Book Award (for The World According to Garp) isn't as confidence-boosting as one might imagine. How else to explain the curious Author's Note at the end of John Irving's latest door-stopper of a novel?
A dinner-party guest "seemed offended by what I represented: the long, plotted novel," he explains. "I was a dinosaur – or worse, a reactionary... I'd done the unthinkable, or the unacceptable: I had told her a story."
This defensive postscript suggests that Irving believes the novels are not the problem, but the readership. There are expectations of postmodern tricksiness in one corner; a love of humane Dickens and Hardy in the other.
So Dickens-loving Irving begins at the beginning: the mid-1950s, and a logging settlement in New Hampshire. Twelve-year-old Danny and his father, the camp cook, live in a dangerous environment: Danny's mother was killed by broken ice and logs when he was a baby, and now a young man, barely 16, has drowned. Then, when Danny comes across his father and his assistant, Injun Jane, in the dark together, he mistakes Jane for a bear and hits her, killing her.
Danny and his father flee and the novel leaps ahead to Danny's adulthood, when he is a writer; unsuccessful at first, then with a real hit. Here, the novel's narrative trajectory – flight from harm and discovery – becomes something on which to pin a great deal of biography. Flash-forwards and flash-backs to Danny's abortive marriage, the birth and death of his son, Joe, as well as his relationship with his father and all the women he meets, do not save this story from being less of a life shown than a life told. Irving is right to be defensive: his tale may begin with life and vigour but it is soon submerged in the telling.