A Novel of Obstetrics


by John Irving. Morrow, $18.95.
JOHN IRVING’S NEW novel has a first printing of a quarter of a million copies and an initial advertising budget of $200,000. With success already assured, neither he nor his publisher can strenuously object to the disparagements of reviewers. Mr. Irving has already (so I gather from press reports surrounding his recent visit to Vienna, a city that has had a good deal to do with the formation of his culture) complained that Europe has not taken him as seriously as his native continent has. In particular the British have had grave reservations about the worth of The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire. (The earlier Water-Method Man has been pretty generally praised.) The reservations naturally have everything to do with the rather wide differences between European and American notions of what a novel ought to be.
In the American novel there is at work what may be termed a principle of discontinuity. This operates chiefly in the area of violent action. I have read novels, though not by Mr. Irving, in which a husband and wife sit affectionately at dinner and after the dessert the wife or husband takes a hatchet to the other and spreads his or her entrails over the tablecloth. Such things happen in real life, though there is usually a powerful motivation of suppressed hatred. Or drink or drugs are at work. In American fiction such horrors tend to be gratuitous, unforeseen, inexplicable. The excuses for them are that the modern world is a terrible place, that worse things happen in war, and that the devil is always waiting to mess up expectations of human decency. In The World According to Garp, you will recall, there is a notorious dismemberment. In The Hotel New Hampshire there is a nasty case of rape and a nasty punishment for it. Mr. Irving likes to administer shocks so as to persuade us that life can be terrible. This is probably in order, but in art shocks should have something to do with a moral or aesthetic pattern, not with gratuitous accident. That, in the European view, is what art is about.
I picked up The Cider House Rules in some fear of occasionally being nauseated for my own good. Phis, thank God or Mr. Irving, did not happen. We can be morally depressed by the main theme, which is the terrible truth that some children are born unwanted or, being unwanted, are not permitted to be born, but the depression is balanced by our knowledge that there are people like the hero, Dr. Wilbur Larch, a saint of obstetrics, as ready to bring the unwanted into the world as to abort them. The setting is the St. Cloud’s orphanage in the state of Maine, and readers may wonder what this has to do with the title, or the other way round.
There is another locale nearby, a commercial apple orchard where cider is pressed, and the seasonal workers there have to follow rules about smoking in bed and so on. I think the point of the title is that there have to be rules for everything and that apples can be metaphors for human souls as well as for human sin, which sprang out of the eating of an apple (Adam and Eve broke the rules of the first cider house). This gloss may be too naive. Umberto Eco, commenting recently on his novel The Name of the Rose, said that titles ought to mislead (The Three Musketeers is about a man who becomes the fourth musketeer), so that the author shall not seem at the outset to be imposing his own interpretation on what should be a machine for generating a multitude of interpretations. But he refers to a kind of novel that is raw material for deconstructionists. The Cider House Rules is not like that at all; it is in the plain, realistic tradition. The trouble is that it is a little too plain for nearly six hundred pages: we long for tougher intellectual or aesthetic engagement than Mr. Irving is ready to give us. His characters are just not interesting enough.
We may make an exception of Dr. Wilbur Larch, who, with the aid of a couple of adoring if aging nurses, runs the St. Cloud’s orphanage. He is a cloudy kind of saint, addicted to the inhalation of ether, his life spent in dealing with the consequences of sex, guilty about his one youthful sexual escapade, which gave him the clap. He breaks the law by performing abortions, but he considers that it is better that this should be done expertly and cleanly than by filthy operators in back streets.
Some of the children permitted to be born in the orphanage, unwanted by their mothers, are adopted, others not: the St. Cloud’s orphanage becomes, like the Hotel New Hampshire, an eccentric center for the raising of a large, heterogeneous family. Homer Wells, who, like Garp, is a kind of symbolic orphan, is one child. Attempts are made to adopt him, but they are all unsatisfactory. One, in which a very athletic couple try him out first on a camping holiday, is tragicomic, for Homer sees his intending foster parents drown under ridiculous circumstances. Homer’s world remains the orphanage, where he reads Jane Eyre aloud to the children at bedtime and learns under Dr. Larch’s instruction to become a very expert obstetrician, though he never takes a degree or a diploma. What he refuses to do is to perform an abortion: the fetus has a soul; life is sacred.
Homer bestrides the two worlds of the orphanage and the apple orchard. Through his relationship with Candy and Wally, who come to the orphanage for an abortion, he gets into apple farming. The war comes, Wally’s plane is shot down over Burma, Homer falls in love with Candy and has a son by her, Wally returns crippled and impotent. The moral problems of Homer—his attitude to abortion, his betrayal of Wally—come together when his son, Angel, falls for the black girl Rose Rose, who must be saved from an impossible pregnancy.
At the end everything comes right for everybody except Melony, a tough girl orphan, who is delivered as a cadaver for dissection but is decently buried in the Maine earth. Homer replaces Dr. Larch at the orphanage, Wally and Candy grow big in the apple world, and Angel grows into a novelist. “To Candy, a novelist was also what Homer Wells had become—for a novelist, in Candy’s opinion, was also a kind of impostor doctor, but a good doctor nonetheless.” That probably depends on the novelist.
THERE ALWAYS HAS to be a strong subjective element in literary criticism, even more so in that hurried and debased branch of it called reviewing. If I do not like this book, it is because it seems to me to lack art. An artist would have thought of compression, not the wind-filled prolongation that makes for the best seller. (Burgess’s law of the American best seller states: The longer the novel, the more people will buy it. If it were short, they could read it too quickly and hence think they had thrown money away. Bulk makes it a piece of furniture.) It also lacks qualities that I think desirable in fiction—wit, irony, even good, honest, knockabout humor. The only remotely memorable piece of intended humor is a dirty limerick about the Duchess of Kent, which I, as an Englishman, would have to find unfunny even if it were not. The characters, with the exception of the doctor, who is too closely identified with his function to be interestingly complex, are mostly animated pasteboard. Homer, whose speech is chiefly limited to “Right” (it might as well have been “Garp”), the brutal Melony, the war casualty Wally and his wife, just do not generate enough drama to sustain the substance of a book as long as this.
Henry James, in a letter to the young Hugh Walpole, who had as much art as Mr. Irving and became quite as successful, said something worth pondering:
Don’t let any one persuade you— there are plenty of ignorant and fatuous duffers to try to do it—that strenuous selection and comparison are not the very essence of art, and that Form is [not] substance to that degree that there is absolutely no substance without it. Form alone takes, and holds and preserves, substance— saves it from the welter of helpless verbiage that we swim in as in a sea of tasteless tepid pudding, and that makes one ashamed of an art capable of such degradations. . . . There is nothing so deplorable as a work of art with a leak in its interest; and there is no such leak of interest as through commonness of form.
Mr. Irving may comfort himself in the face of James’s lofty aesthetic by reflecting that James never wrote a best seller. Or, if he wishes, excuse himself by saying that the subject of discharged dead fetuses has found an exact stylistic analogue.