I’m a re-reader as much as a reader. I don’t know if I could do the math without a slide rule and a calculator (not to mention a better memory) but for every five or so books I read, I suspect at least one of them is a re-read.
Every other year for instance, I re-read all of Jane Austen. Almost every year I re-read The Grapes of Wrath. Amongst many others I know I’ve enjoyed the novels of Jon Wyndham more than a time or two, ditto for Susan Howatch, Monica Dickens and great grandfather Charles Dickens (particularly Great Expectations) and I have an almost unnatural fascination with Barbara Tuchman’s masterpiece A Distant Mirror; Life in the Calamitous 14th Century. There are many, many more – some I remember almost line for line, some, no matter how many times I read them, remain a nail-biting mystery until the end.
But right now I’m re-reading one my most re-read reads, A Prayer for Owen Meany, for the I-don’t-know-whatth time.
Each time I’m drawn to different aspects of the John Irving novel that seems to top so many lists of reader favourites, though I’m always cozily happy to luxuriate in the sense of living so close to the centre of the action, as Irving’s fictional storyteller Johnny Wheelwright lives just a few blocks north of where I reside, in the absolutely genuine enclave of Forest Hill.
(I’ve written before of my fantasy Toronto-based novel, with characters all named after various neighbourhoods: Rose Dale, Don Valley – sometimes ‘Dawn’ Valley, depending, – Lea Side, Forest Hill naturally, and plucky heroine from the wrong side of the tracks – and real intersection in the worst part of town – Jane Wilson. Must get around to it some day…)
But this re-read-through has me more spellbound than usual at the parallels between that time and this. In fact, both of the times in which the novel is set – the narrator’s current perch in 1982, and his childhood memories of the late 1950’s through the 60’s – bear painfully apt comparison to the times in which we currently struggle.
For Johnny Wheelwright (the grown up) living an American’s ex-pat life in Toronto, trying to avoid the headlines detailing Reagan’s presidency in the era of Iran Contra and Star Wars (the political-missile type, not the movie-type) is a daily agony (and an actual impossibility – he’s irresistibly drawn to the papers) comparable perhaps only to the headlines he would have been reading about the presidencies of Kennedy and Johnson and the horrors of the Vietnam war, back in his hometown of Gravesend Maine in the 60’s.
The Johnny Wheelwright of the 80’s observes horrified the pronouncements of the Great Communicator, noting: “… the American people will never hold him accountable for what he says ; it is history that holds you accountable, and I’ve already expressed my opinion that Americans are not big on history. How many of them even remember their own recent history?”
And the answer even now as America fights yet another war that cannot actually be won, has to be – not many.
But for all of Wheelwright’s observations about life perched in Toronto watching history unfold south of the border, it is the titular character who is at the centre of the story; Owen Meany who is the real ‘observer’, the insightful and mystically other-directed ‘pronouncer’, and never have his words seemed more prescient than in a passage where he reacts to the Kennedy/Monroe scandal and the loss of his own personal innocence in all it literally meant and all it figuratively represented.
He says about Marilyn Monroe (all in caps – the diminutive Meany had a horribly “wrecked voice” – but a powerful one) “… SHE WAS LIKE OUR WHOLE COUNTRY – NOT QUITE YOUNG ANYMMORE, BUT NOT OLD EITHER; A LITTLE STUPID, MAYBE A LOT SMARTER THAN SHE SEEMED. AND SHE WAS LOOKING FOR SOMETHING – I THINK SHE WANTED TO BE GOOD. LOOK AT THE MEN IN HER LIFE – JOE DIMAGGIO, ARTHUR MILLER, MAYBE THE KENNEDYS. LOOK AT HOW GOOD THEY SEEM. LOOK AT HOW DESIREABLE SHE WAS! SHE WAS FUNNY AND SEXY – AND SHE WAS VULNERABLE, TOO. SHE WAS NEVER QUITE HAPPY, SHE WAS ALWAYS A LITTLE OVERWEIGHT. SHE WAS JUST LIKE OUR WHOLE COUNTRY.”
He goes on… “MARILYN MONROE WAS ALWAYS LOOKING FOR THE BEST MAN – MAYBE SHE WANTED THE MAN WITH THE MOST INTEGRITY. MAYBE SHE WANTED THE MAN WITH THE MOST ABILITY TO DO GOOD. AND SHE WAS SEDUCED OVER AND OVER AGAIN – SHE GOT FOOLED, SHE WAS TRICKED, SHE GOT USED, AND SHE WAS USED UP. JUST LIKE THE COUNTRY. THE COUNTRY WANTS A SAVIOUR. THE COUNTRY IS A SUCKER FOR POWERFUL MEN WHO LOOK GOOD. WE THINK THEY’RE MORALISTS AND THEN THEY JUST USE US. THAT’S WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO YOU AND ME,” said Owen Meany. “WE’RE GOING TO BE USED.” Doesn’t that just give you a shiver? Doesn’t that just give you the all-day shudders in horrifying recognition? And not just the part about Americans being overweight…!
We’re living in the time of the ‘Decider’. The time of a war entered into on base lies, with no real understanding of the enemy, the culture invaded, the needs of the civilian population, or the real issues of re-construction. And as for an exit strategy – well, one just has to wonder how long the current conditions will continue in ignominy before the U.S. retreats, leaving that part of the world, and as a result the entire world, in a worse condition than they found it. Even now, the reports are in: the world is a more dangerous place than ever before. Far from defeating terrorism, the current Administration has stirred it up like a giant hornet’s nest, doubling, tripling – multiplying the anger, hatred and desire for revenge in terrorist outposts from Hell to Kandahar.
But maybe worse than all of the above is that whatever comparisons can be drawn between these times and those Administrations, the citizens of the U.S. (and by extension, Canada) are no Marilyn Monroes: silly, sweet, idealistic and looking for someone to look up to, to trust and to lead. We’re still overweight, but our new ‘signifier’ isn’t. We have a new representative of our times, our values and our countries and the worst possible news is that it’s Paris Hilton.
Don’t believe me? Ask Paris herself.
“I think every decade has an iconic blonde,” she told Britain’s Sunday Times correspondent Giles Hattersley earlier this summer. “Like Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana – and right now, I’m that icon.”
Apparently Giles sees the resemblance too, remarking on how Hilton “… signifies the base desires of the age: money, sex and low body fat.”
Or more simply put – insulated narcissism.
And Owen Meany has an explanation for that too.
“THE ONLY WAY YOU CAN GET AMERICANS TO NOTICE ANYTHING IS TO TAX THEM OR DRAFT THEM OR KILL THEM. IF YOU ABOLISH THE DRAFT MOST AMERICANS WILL SIMPLY STOP CARING ABOUT WHAT WE’RE DOING IN OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD.”
Maybe the best possible thing the American people could do would be to demand the draft be reinstated.
It would be nice if they could reincarnate Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn Monroe read and traveled and hobnobbed with intellectuals; she took acting classes and married Arthur Miller and had a crush on Albert Einstein. She was political and involved and went to a psychiatrist and had an inferiority complex and tried to be good. As far as I can remember, Marilyn Monroe endorsed nothing other than Chanel No. 5 and Dazzledent Toothpaste.
Paris Hilton likes to be read to. She likes pink. She likes purses. She likes other girls’ boyfriends. She will sell anything (including her own porno movie) if you will give her enough money.
This is the icon of the decade.