Obsession versus repetition

My favorite novel of all time is A Prayer for Owen Meany. I love how this novel comes together, how content forms plot, how Irving uses every detail without waste. I love the humor. I love how close it comes to melodrama. I love that, when I read it back in 1992, it turned me into a reader. I went back then and read all of John Irving’s novels, even 158-Pound Marriage and Setting Free the Bears, and I loved a lot of it: Garp was a favorite, as was Cider House Rules.

I read Last Night in Twisted River recently, and while I like it, it reminds me so much of Owen Meany it’s a little of a let down. There are things I can chalk up to obsessions–spoiler alert: a boy kills a mother figure accidentally–but there are other things that just seem repetitive: calling Catholics mackrel-smackers, that the woman’s death happens with a “blunt instrument” as the “instrument of death.” The bears.

I can look at a lot of my stories and see I’m dealing with similar issues in them: the relationships between men and women, how teenagers forge identity, family interactions between generations, etc. I heard someone say one time (either a great writer, or a douche at a grad school party) that we all just keep writing the same story over again. At what point do working from our obsessions equal phoning it in? And at what point do we ever learn anything from those obsessions and move on?

And if we are just rewriting the same stuff, is it silly to hope we’re at least improving on it?

Students say to me a lot, “I don’t want to do the same thing again. I want to try something new.” While I admire this ingenuity, along with it is an arrogance in thinking you got it right the first time. Someone asked me recently if I see a lot of change in my work and I told them I don’t story by story, but I think if I look at a span of time, or from the first story written in a collection to the last, I do. But those aren’t changes in themes or subjects so much in narrative structure.

If I think of it that way, I see changes between the two Irving books, but then it becomes a question of language, and how to keep that fresh and specific to a story. I’m grappling with all this as I start another story set in Iowa with a teenage girl, another story about identity and love.

And all this to say too that if John Irving wants to keep writing the same novel, I’ll happily keep reading them. Although nothing will ever top Owen Meany in my mind.

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