It was around page 127 when John Irving's new novel Until I Find You took a turn for the worse. Considering that he stays on that lamentable course for the rest of his 824 pages, one wonders where exactly Irving was trying to go.
Those first few pages involve Alice, a tattoo artist who fell in love with an organist and tattoo-addict William, who fathered her son Jack, who becomes the central character. Alice takes 4-year-old Jack through major cities in Europe searching for William in various churches and tattoo parlors and along the way Irving doles out information about organs and tattoos while Alice always seems once step behind William in her quest to have him - do what, exactly? It's never quite explained.
There's a lot in here that will remind most Irving fans of The World According to Garp. You will have to try very hard, in fact, not to be reminded of much of Irving's other work. But writers as prolific as Irving certainly have every right to cover the same ground in new ways. What makes Until I Find You such a regrettable exercise is not that we've read too much about wrestling and sex before, it's that the novel contains no central conflict.
Jack and Alice settle in Toronto rather suddenly after their exhaustive search, where Jack is enrolled at an all-girls school that has just begun to accept boys. He is almost immediately molested by a group of girls led by Emma Oastler, who takes such a fascination with his penis that their relationship continues as they grow up through the length of the novel, becoming an entirely different kind of friendship. But Jack is not only abused by the girls at school, he's also repeatedly abused by an older woman from his wrestling class, and just about every other older woman he comes into contact with until he gets to an age where being taken advantage of transforms into being seduced. But nothing about Jack's development as a character suggests any impact or consequence because of all of this; it seems only to heighten his awareness that he's very attractive. The conflicts that would seem to arise don't and no relationship is drawn between the consequences of his magnetic sexuality and his long-lost father.
All of Irving's greatest books have sequences of bizarre, unbelievable acts and coincidences yet his language and style have always kept his work grounded and (if outlandish) still seem somehow plausible. Here, however, the coincidences are too many, the absurdity too pointed, and his style-as-savior too far off the mark. Character motivation is lacking throughout the flat arc of the story; from Jack's decision to become an actor to his declaration that Michele Maher, a high school girlfriend who takes up all of one chapter, will forever be the love of his life. It's ridiculous on some level that all of these unconnected scenes happen as this behemoth chugs along. What is more frustrating is that all of it is tied together too hastily at the end, with an equally absurd quasi-conspiracy that has no emotional impact.
What saves Until I Find You are the minor characters. Brief visitors like The Grey Ghost, a teacher at the all girls school that Jack attends who has the seemingly magical ability to appear and disappear without warning (A former combat nurse who has lost a lung, one wonders if she's not the ghost of another nurse from Irving's cannon); or the cast of tattoo artists with names like Tattoo Ole, Ladies' Man Madsen, or Aberdeen Bill, whom Alice visits during their search for William and who reappear later at Alice's large and unruly funeral. Even Jack's acting manager Myra Ascheim, whose sordid history of Hollywood wheelings and dealings is refreshingly pulpy, carries more intrigue and charisma than Jack.
But the inescapable problem is Jack. One could ask whether the writing is pointedly shallow to echo the main character or if the main character comes off as shallow because the writing is so superficial? The answer lies somewhere in between, to be sure. Either way, few will carry around Irving's latest epic without cursing his editor at least a little for not whittling this one down.