Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Fourth Hand

by John Irving

The downside of living in a city: The wait list for Irivng's latest novel In One Person is 180 people long. Well, not a problem, Irving has plenty of other novels. I tend to steer clear of prolific writers (I think 13 novels deserves the title prolific, and that's not including his screenplays) on principle. That principle being that contemporary prolific writers are too commercial and, well, not worth reading: Nicholas Sparks, Danielle Steele, James Paterson. But Irving is a truly great American novelist.

After reading The World According to Garp, it quickly became one of my favorite books. I think Irving has a fantastic writing style. There is a clear narrative voice, but it is crafted in a way that is not intrusive or obtrusive. It's like sitting down and being told a story by some really likable guy.

All this being said, the plot is...weird. It's too borderline sci-fi for me, with the hallucinatory blue pills and the interconnected dream premonitions. And, to be honest, I didn't even know that hand transplants were real or even possible. But what I really love about Irving is how thoroughly he constructs human relationships. I think if this book were written by anyone else, I probably would have given up on this book, but because it's Irving I stuck it out.

Patrick Wallingford is an interesting fellow; he's neither likable nor wholly unlikable. Irving's constant switching between calling him "Patrick" or "Wallingford," or sometimes "Patrick Wallingford" embodies Patrick's identity crisis and his self-determined journey to become a better person. I take issue with his feelings for Mrs. Clausen. First of all, that he continues to refer to her as Mrs. Clausen I actually find a little creepy. Although, she is such a part of the Clausen clan and never quite Patrick's, I understand that choice. But, his love for Mrs. Clausen just doesn't seem sincere. It comes out of a dream and bizarre circumstances, and suddenly he's madly in love. I think really what it is, is that he's more in love with being a father and the idea of family. I don't like how he basically steps in as a surrogate Otto Clausen and then gradually assumes his life: his hand, his wife, his cabin, his clothes; it's a little, again, creepy. But his acceptance by the family at the Packers game is almost heartwarming. However, all my issues with Patrick were somewhat resolved in my favorite chapter, chapter 11, "Up North." It is in this penultimate chapter that the novel seems to settle and Patrick himself seems to settle, and it's full of lovely, simple moments with Mrs. Clausen and little Otto. That is where the novel seemed most genuine. The final scene of the novel I certainly didn't love, and I have mixed feelings about the way Irving writes about sex. Generally I like that the unrealistic romance is taken out of it; I just wanted a more delicate way of closing their story, I suppose.

The Fourth Hand is a good book; it's no Garp, but it's good. The personal relationship are the best part, and I'm willing to overlook most of what I did not enjoy about the book because of his writing style.

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