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Until I Find You by John Irving
Sunday 18 September 2005
There's no disguising that the roots of the story have grown out of Irving's home turf. He released an essay to a chosen élite of American journalists explaining the similarities between the fictional quest of Jack Burns, abandoned son and famous actor, and his own search for the truth of his parental origins. Jack is a rather worldly nipper - who at the age of four acts, thinks or speaks like him? - bundled from Toronto to Amsterdam, via Copenhagen, Oslo and Helsinki, after his errant dad. His mother is a whizz with a tattooist's gun and the trail follows the back streets of Europe in the wake of the missing father's parlour visits. It's only later, much, much later, that we discover that all might not be what it seems: what passes for recollection may actually be subterfuge.
It was while writing Until I Find You that Irving discovered the identity of his own biological father. In addition, he has gone public about being seduced as a pre-teen by an older woman, a fate that also befalls Jack. Although he reworked the entire manuscript, changing the narrative from first to third person, such autobiographical themes still come at the expense of plot momentum. Yet, there's fun to be had here: Irving is, after all, a master of verisimilitude. He's at his best when convincing us with his own trippy realism, such as the homemade tattoo ink concocted from "soot on oil lamps... mixed with molasses" or the needles sterilised in clam pots.
Unfortunately, the book is most notable as an example of the growing trend for publishers to pander to their cash-cow authors. This 800-page tome is published by Bloomsbury - you may have noticed another recent shelf-creaking title from their stable concerning a plucky boy wizard. In My Movie Business, Irving's fabulous memoir on film adaptation, he practically confesses to being a control freak. "In the book-publishing business, I submit a novel to my editor. He suggests cuts, additions, line edits - none of which I am forced to accept," he asserts. "Then there's the catalogue copy, and the front flap and back-flap copy - over all of which I am given the last word. Imagine writing a novel and having someone else, without your approval, design the jacket?" Get a grip, John, that's precisely what most authors submit to. It's called editorial objectivity.
It's telling that Irving begins the novel with a quote from William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow. Maxwell, long time editor of the New Yorker, was older than Irving is now when he wrote it and he understood perfectly the power of restraint. Rather than working out the biceps with Irving's epic I'd recommended tracking down Maxwell's cool, small polo mint of a novella, which provides heartfelt riffs on memory's tricks and the echoes of significant loss in a way this simply does not. And all in just 135 sublime pages.
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