The Globe and Mail, Saturday, May 29, 1993
Trying To Save Piggy Sneed
Knopf Canada, 250 pages, $24
John Irving does not like interviews. He has avoided them whenever possible. And in the few cases where he’s agreed to be interrogated — although unfailingly polite to the point of solicitousness — he does not enjoy the process. That reluctance to reveal himself might explain the publication of Trying to Save Piggy Sneed.
It’s a welcome but odd volume, especially for Irving. The man’s stock in trade is fiction — unusually rich, long fiction. He writes teeming novels that manage, through a combination of sharply observed quotidian detail and superb craftsmanship, to illuminate the immense questions that have baffled humans since the beginning of time. This book comprises half-a-dozen short stories and a pair of essays. The stories date from the first portion of Irving’s career, mostly, prior to and just after his breakthrough with The World According To Garp in the late 1970s.
The essays are defenses of Irving’s approach to and reasons for writing. The title essay explains how and why Irving became an author. The closing piece, “The King of the Novel,” is an homage to his artistic mentor and ideal, Charles Dickens. It’s as much a sly, well-articulated statement of purpose as the initial essay.
The stories sandwiched between the essays explore familiar Irving themes. “Interior Space” tells the twinned tales of a doomed walnut tree, the persistence of venereal disease and hilarious revenge. In “Almost In Iowa,” the protagonist and his traveling companion — an ancient but worthy Volvo — run halfway across the country only to have their escape dead-ended by thoughtlessness.
While dozens of schools of thought contend in graduate English programs all over the continent, viewing literature as everything from political paradigm to pseudo-sociological cure-all, the true purpose of storytelling has been forgotten or, in extreme cases, deemed non-essential or even as a work if imagination created only by the reader.
Not so, thankfully, in John Irving’s case. He makes up stories for the same reason all of us do, to examine something closely, to move each other, or to put immense themes into a context we can stand back from, so that, as Ernest Hemingway said, we can “see the world clear and as a whole.” But the reason we’re reading John Irving’s books and not the other way around is because he makes better stories than most of us could hope to. That’s a combination of terrier-like devotion to making the language work as beautifully and efficiently as it can be made to, with a well-defined moral sense that rises naturally from his characters and the situations they’re in.
Those same cardinal virtues are presented here in tightly disciplined form. The short stories uphold the banner of brilliant fiction, without calling undue attention to the person who created them. As always in Irving’s work, the characters and the stories are the only things that matter, and their creator has the grace and good sense not to mess that up by giving himself a walk-on or too many extreme close-ups.
Irving is one of the few novelists who takes the responsibilities of acting as Supreme Being for the worlds he creates as seriously as we would hope the Supreme Being takes responsibility for this one. Too many novelists, playing God, prove all too human. Granting themselves the powers of creation, destruction and holding the levers of fate, they can’t resist the temptation to aim the spotlight at themselves — often unwittingly — but rarely is it done without being clumsy or obvious. If you’re absorbed in a novel, the last thing you want is for the person who’s stage-managing the illusion to stick his head in from the wings and ask you how you think it’s going.
If you haven’t read anything by John Irving, this is an excellent place to start. It will give you a shakedown cruise through the kinds of worlds he can create, in addition to some welcome insights into our exceptional good fortune to have someone so wonderfully stubborn and anachronistic working in our midst. Irving proves that although the techniques for creating novels were perfected about 150 years ago, it does not necessarily follow that fictional prose — in the classic, 19th-century sense — is outmoded.