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Rant #47
(published July 5, 2001)
On John Irving
by Fritz Swanson

All the time I am hearing people call John Irving gimmicky.

I suppose I am not sure how to approach a critique of Irving as "gimmicky." My only question would be to determine what, exactly, a "gimmick" is.

Writing is composed of abstraction. Everything is an abstraction. One might even argue that visceral experience is itself a kind of abstraction. I need only point to the old saw of the colorblind man: does he see a more true green than the rest of the world or the other way around? That is, what is the nature of the real experience?

I ask these questions because a fundamental definition of "gimmick" would, I think, be "an abstraction that appears in a piece of art which stretches the credulity of the piece's whole gestalt." Webster tells me that gimmick is a deceptive maneuver, and when I see that word applied to art I take it to mean that the deception of the whole piece is in some small part failing. That is, when gimmick's are used in the "real" world they are deceptions against a background of truth. But when they appear in the context of an entire fiction they are merely out of place lies within the context of a larger set of lies. Again, it is about Gestalt: the configuration of a set of elements into a pattern which is so whole that it cannot be described by the sum of its parts.

So, Gimmicks as I understand them (that is, Gimmicks in literature as a strong pejorative term that described the breaking of what John Gardner called the Dream-state of the Story— and as an aside, John Gardner should be defined as the father of the modern college level fiction writing workshop.) include:

1. Dennis Hopper's blasted-hand prosthesis in Speed. In an otherwise straight piece of filmmaking, that damn hand sticks out like a badly blown off thumb. It is so clear, everytime we cut to it that the thumb is there under a pile of clay.
2. The shark in Jaws. A beatiful horror film, lovingly crafted, elegantly edited, featuring what amounts to a shopping cart as the monster.

Essentially, my understanding of Gimmick is of a cartoon playing against the backdrop of the real. Roger Rabbit appearing unintentionally in Ordinary People. It is an unproductive contrast. (We won't enter here into a discussion of the value of such gimmicks in and of themselves)

But I think there is an alternative description of Garp that actually negates thisunderstanding of Gimmick. A student described it to me as follows:

"So over-the-top on everything, quirky to the nth power, quirky until quirkybecomes the norm..."

Quirky Becomes the Norm.

If that is true, then I wonder what the gimmick of Garp is playing against? I think what a lot of people chafe against in Garp and in all of Irving's work is that it plays Gimmicky against the backdrop of the reader's own perception of "realism" in fiction.

First let me say this: I think, given the definition I have presented, Gimmicks per se don't appear in GARP. Right? Naked people in hell aren't gimmicky in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch because that is fundamental to the whole thing. There is no contrast in Poe when everything is dark and grimy and awful, despite the fact that "real" life is more multi-chromatic. Gestalt is a big deal here.

And I think you describe it accurately. Quirk becomes the norm in an Irving novel. And I would say, sure, that's his gestalt.

My main point here is to point out that the inconsistency operates in the reader's expectation, not in Irving's own world. Which, in part, is the whole point of the book. There is a World According to Jenny Fields. There is a World According to TS Garp. There is a World According to John Irving. Irving's work is hardcore Allegory. Serious, non-flinching, blood on the floor folk legend.

Irving and Stephen King (a dark duo if there ever was one) grow out of a New English populist tradition that looks directly back at the work of Dickens and Washington Irving and Nate Hawthorne and says "That is what we want out of our world."

Irving is odd because, unlike King, he plays with your sense of what section of the bookstore he should be in. He has always identified himself as The Great Middle-Brow Writer of America. Irving would, I think, prefer it if American Lit had skipped over the bulk of the twentieth century, for better or for worse.

Like Salinger, Irving imagines that there have been few writers of note between him and Melville.

All of Irving's work has to be approached in that light.

Certainly, his gestalt might be set at too high a pitch for the trained tastes of a university literature major. We have been sausage-pressed into a quiet little tube of mashed realism. Basically, anything more raucous than a mild titter of laughter generally can deafen the average lit major today. Oral-instigated dismemberment borders on the blindingly loud for most people's tastes.

I think, essentially, in order to study literature our tastes have been steadily tuned down to a finer and finer sense of action and movement. Like moles who have modified their eyes to greater and greater sensitivity to even the slightest fluctuation in spectrum and intensity of light, the actual presence of the outer world can blind us.

To us, Irving can seem raucous, over the top, Gimmicky. Blinding almost, like an atom bomb.

Over the top.

But of course, Gimmicks aren't really the issue here. It's the over the top thing. It's the feeling in the pit of your literary stomach when you see Irving drifting to the precipice of a sudden drop off. Didn't we banish circuses and carnivals and rollar coasters long ago? Corn dogs (so very multi-valent in this discussion) and chilly and elephant ears and the sickeningly sweet smell of beer-vomit; all banished with the hicks and hoboes that come with them.

And then we all shake our heads. We see the best seller list and we picture a whole shelf of John Irvings or worse. Stephen King, Amy Tan, Neal Stephenson and on and on into genre—sci fi, mystery, romance. Irving is one Hiroshima in a pile of fission-fusion H-Bomb's with yields that start at World Killer and go on up.

And we in the academy tut tut at the state of modern literature.

Or, perhaps not even the academy which has opened its doors to so much of the LOW. Rather I should say that the professional writing programs, our eyes squinched tight against the blinding light of our own quiet work, hunched in our cavernous offices, windowless lives, acolyting our way through Ford and Carver and Gass, are the culprits in this petty crime.

Millions of people seem to love Irving and King and all the rest. And we cluck our tongues and shake our heads.

What is WRONG with those people?

And we imagine, well, surely, we can divest ourselves of science fiction and mystery and romance... those people are smelly geeks and crazy to boot. We shouldn't feel too bad about THOSE people. they were gone early on, after their second session of Dungeons and Dragons.

But IRVING. He's supposed to be ONE OF US. What is WRONG with him!? And with his FANS!?

Like a hobo at a garden party. He's wearing a three piece suit and a nice hat. Maybe he's an eccentric millionaire or someone's cooky uncle. You smile, you approach to talk with him. But then, you start to see the frayed cuffs and scuffed shoes against a backdrop of white lace and egg colored sweaters. And then the fucking smell hits you.


Who invited him? Somebody, PLEASE ask him to leave. Oh my god, is he eating the canapes'? Call the Police, call the Police!

I just think that maybe, briefly, we might get over ourselves. Forget what the book is supposed to be. Forget about the whole idea, insulting and horrifying, of the GUILTY PLEASURE BEACH BOOK. Lets strip away this bullshit.

Do you like it? Or not? I am cool with either answer. I can understand. Just get it out in the open. Don't try to confuse issues. Don't say it's Gimmicky when what you really mean is that you don't have the stomach for common entertainment. Like some stuck up indy rock kid, you can't stand anything that is more popular than you. Or if you have a legitimate complaint (like maybe you feel that Owen Meany is too programmatic) then make it. But cut the codewords.

GARP, as a book, is definitively without Gimmick. It is everything it promises. Exactly. It is at a perfect pitch. Perhaps the pitch raises so high that it can drift out of hearing for some. I can respect that. I can understand. But the fault is not with the whistle. Rather it rests with the ears.

And that isn't a pejorative statement, either. As much as I want it to be.

No one blames the man for not hearing the dog whistle.

No one blames the dog for not seeing in color.

But sometimes, someone is famous because they are in tune with a fuck-all lot of people. I am sick of people resenting the famous and calling them names. And sometimes people are obscure, not because they are a well kept secret, or because their genius goes unnoticed before the smelly unwashed glare of the masses, but because they have lost their sense of pitch and of joy and of laughing out-loud at inappropriate times, and of crashing white garden parties and eating the fucking food.

This is my defense of John Irving.

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