My enthusiasm has been waning in recent years, though, and having just finished his latest, Last Night In Twisted River, it’s fallen a little further. Not that it’s a bad book, not at all. But there are things about it that are highly irritating, and since one of them is to do with writing, I’ll focus on that.
The central character in the book, Danny, grows up to become a successful novelist, and as Irving describes them, each of Danny’s novels is based on a significant incident from his life. To give just one example, in the 1960s his girlfriend offers to bear him a child so that he can be exempt from service in Vietnam under a law passed by President Kennedy. He becomes a so-called ‘Kennedy Father’ – and subsequently writes a novel called The Kennedy Fathers in which the main characters go through exactly the same experiences.
There’s lots more in this vein, and it’s not the first time Irving has used this device: a character has striking and unusual experiences and then writes novels that retell them, with only minor variations in the details. It’s almost as if Irving is trying to tell his readers that you don’t need any imagination to be a writer – just have an interesting life and write about that.
Of course, every novel is autobiographical to the extent that everything that makes it onto the page comes out of the writer’s head. But (speaking for myself, at least) most of us mingle experience and invention, and keep on doing so until the end product has no obvious real-life counterpart. If one of my friends read a scene I’d written and said “I remember that party” or “You’ve described x to a tee”, I would regard myself as having failed as a novelist.
Irving is clearly aware of what he’s doing – at one point Danny even expresses anger that critics insist on regarding his novels as autobiographical. Maybe I’m missing some subtle point, and the reader is supposed to pity Danny for his lack of self-awareness. But to me it just reads like a non-writer’s idea of the way writers come up with their plots.