Fiction’s ringmaster

John Irving’s new novel, A Son of the Circus, teems with crazy life.

Maclean’s, September 5, 1994 

Dripping wet, John Irving stands on a dock jutting out from one of Georgian Bay’s Thirty Thousand Islands in central Ontario. Despite a heavy rain, he has conducted his daily exercise routine outside. His black-and-purple tank top and yellow running shorts are sodden. His hair is plastered wetly to his skull. For the past couple of weeks, the celebrated American author has been engaged in a sacred Canadian rite — some bucolic regeneration at the cottage. But this particular day is no lakeside idyll. Once inside the modest cabin (part of the family compound of his Canadian wife-and literary agent Janet Turnbull Irving, with whom he has a two-and-a-half-year-old son, Everett), Irving disappears to dry off.


So far, it is impossible not to think of the Georgian Bay island cottage described in Irving’s seventh novel, A Prayer For Owen Meany. But as the wind lashes the jack pines and drives the rain horizontally at the windows, Irving, who has reappeared in dry clothes, warns against mistaking fiction for autobiography. “The danger is that the fiction becomes plotless, characterless and storyless because the writer is drawing on a very small and limited bank of material from his or her own life,” says the 52-year-old author of books including The World According To Garp (1978) and The Hotel New Hampshire (1981). “This is a kind of trap for many writers. They begin to see themselves as that very dangerous thing for a writer, an artist. I think maybe a much healthier idea is for the novelist to see himself as nothing more than the slave of a good story, the faithful recorder of characters whose lives are far more important and interesting than his own.”


Few readers are likely to look for autobiographical antecedents in Irving’s superb new novel, A Son of the Circus (Knopf Canada, $32). The story’s protagonist, Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, is an expatriate Indian physician. As the story begins, Daruwalla has returned to his native Bombay from his adopted home in Toronto. But Bombay does not feel like home — India has baffled him since his adolescence, and it has seemed increasingly foreign with each return visit after his departure to attend university abroad. Meanwhile, the discrimination in his adopted country — both well-meant and malicious — makes his time in Toronto discomforting, too.


Daruwalla is an orthopedic surgeon at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. He is also a clandestine screenwriter of Indian detective movies and engaged in a medical project of his own devising: working to find the genetic marker for achondroplasia, the syndrome that causes the most prevalent form of dwarfism. The dwarfs have brought him back to Bombay.


A Son of the Circus covers 20 years, three continents, drug smuggling, transsexuals, the movie business, a pair of twins separated at birth, murder, religious conversion — and, of course, the circus — over 633 rich, intricately plotted pages. Every one was completely rewritten twice during the book’s five-and-a-half-year genesis. Irving describes that process in the title essay of his collection of shorter work, 1993’s Trying To Save Piggy Sneed, as “the necessary, strict toiling with the language; for me, this means writing and rewriting the sentences until they sound as spontaneous as good conversation.”


Irving says he did not realize when he started writing the novel how much of it would be set in India. It owes that to two inspirations. The first was Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children, which Irving read when it was still in manuscript form. It had a powerful effect on him as both a reader and a writer. A Son of the Circus is dedicated “to Salman,” but Irving hastens to point out that “that’s my friend Salman, not Salman Rushdie the political figure. This book would always have been dedicated to Salman, with or without the terrible thing that’s happened to him.”


Rushdie was having supper with Irving when he learned that his novel The Satanic Verses had been banned in India. Four months later, Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had condemned Rushdie to death for blasphemy against Islam. And although neither of those acts prompted Irving’s dedication, their echoes reverberate throughout A Son of the Circus. Giving offense is a main theme of the story. It is used principally as a comic device, but there is also a more serious aspect to it: people committing unintentionally offensive acts unwittingly offer a glimpse of their truest feelings and beliefs — it is a kind of thoughtless candor.


The book’s other inspiration presented itself when Irving unintentionally offended another expatriate Indian, a stranger waiting for a light to change on a Toronto street corner. “He looked about 62, and he was very well dressed, very dignified. He was a first- or second-generation immigrant, and a very successfully assimilated one. I found myself thinking, ‘There is a world in that man’s past which will never be visible to those of us who know him in his home here; we’ll just never see it.’ I was suddenly aware that he was aware of my staring at him and that it made him uncomfortable. In that instant, I thought his discomfort was almost decidedly racial. Maybe he was thinking, ‘That guy is going to roll down the window of that cab and spit at me or tell me to go back where I came from.’ I knew where the book would end. I knew my man would be there, after the journey back home which didn’t feel like going home, which wasn’t home any more, standing on that corner.”


Irving says all his novels started this way: he imagined a telling moment, then worked backwards to build the tale leading up to it.


Irving himself has had some experience of cultural displacement. Born in Exeter, N.H., his shuttling between a Toronto apartment (he and Turnbull Irving, who have been married for seven years, spend about a third of each year in Ontario) and a principal residence in southern Vermont has provoked some insights into cross-border cultural traffic and the Canadian view of Americans. “It is well understood in Canada how little Americans really know about Canada, but there’s something you don’t know about Americans in Canada — at least you never talk about it — and that is that Americans not only do very little thinking about Canadians, they do very little thinking about Americans,” says the author. “I have a very low opinion of nationalism, the nationalism that’s exhibited by my own country included. It seems to me that nationalistic instincts have never done anything but divided people and made very simple distinctions. But there’s a pettiness to the nationalism I read about here, often reflected in a kind of petty anti-Americanism. I find it amateurish, sophomoric, what I read about the United States here.”


Irving speculates with some distaste that A Prayer For Owen Meany owes some of its Canadian and European popularity to “a certain perceived anti-Americanism in the voice of its cranky narrator, Johnny Wheelwright [a disillusioned American who has fled to Toronto]. I wonder if readers who like that about Owen Meany, and who are super-zealous in their nationalism about Canada, will find the portrait of Dr. Daruwalla’s Toronto entirely to their liking.”


Irving offers a detailed reading list to underscore his declaration that he reads authors, not nationalities. Charles Dickens leads his list of favorites. (Trying To Save Piggy Sneed’s closing essay, “The King of the Novel,” is a spirited defense and passionate appreciation of Dickens’s work.) Then come — in no particular order— Gustave Flaubert, Günter Grass, George Eliot (“I reread Middlemarch every five or six years”), Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro (“I keep thinking if her stories were about 25 or 30 pages longer, and had all been published as books, she’d be one of the best-known writers in the world,”) and Graham Greene. His praise takes on another dimension entirely when he talks about the novels of Robertson Davies. “I am astonished that he is not better known than he is,” says Irving. “He is not only wonderful in all the literary ways, but he is incredibly accessible.” Irving has nominated Davies for the Nobel Prize several times.


Talking about novels and novelists seems almost anachronistic in an age when writing fiction is often seen as merely preparatory to selling the movie rights. Two of Irving’s books have been made into films. In 1982, director George Roy Hill completed the movie version of The World According To Garp, and Tony Richardson brought The Hotel New Hampshire to the screen in 1984. Irving has written a screenplay titled A Son of the Circus. He has also finished the screenplay for The Cider House Rules and written the first draft of a movie version of A Prayer for Owen Meany. He does not expect that any of them is likely to be produced anytime soon. But given the fact that his novels usually command the best-seller lists, he is not particularly worried that they could languish unproduced forever. ‘I could write two screenplays a year and not make as much money as I do writing one novel every five years. My only advantage in the movie business is that I’m not in the business — I’m not doing it for the money. I have a day job, and my day job is novels.”


Producers have eagerly sought Irving’s work as film fodder, but in order to buy anything, they have to sign a letter of agreement spelling out a few non-negotiable conditions: they cannot change the story, Irving gets to approve the director, the director must have final cut and cannot be interfered with. Some studios have even gone so far as to cast the film and spend money on pre-production before buying the rights to the story. But when they pull out their checkbooks to acquire it, they find Irving intractable on his central demands. “If somebody wants to go and spend half-a-million dollars impressing me with who they can get to star in it, and all of that, let them spend their money. Ultimately, they have to come back and say, ‘OK, now we want to buy it.’ And I’ll say, ‘But you’re buying this script [The Cider House Rules], right?’ ‘Jeez, not the part where the 12-year-old girl gets the abortion, we’ll leave that part out.’ And I just say, ‘Well, I have a day job.’”


And the product of that day job is probably superior to any screen adaptation of it. Reading John Irving’s novels is an experience that film cannot duplicate. Not everyone agrees with that assessment, of course. Despite the legions of passionate Irving readers, there are some critics Irving wishes would simply be more honest about their antipathy towards his teeming, complex tales. “I can sympathize with someone who sees a book by me coming and says, ‘Aaaugh! Not that guy!’ It would be so refreshing to read a really nasty review of a book of mine that starts, ‘I hate John Irving. Always have. And now this.’”