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John Irving’s A Son of the Circus - Review by Dan Geddes

  A Son of the Circus

A Son of the Circus

John Irving

John Irving's command of his material is masterful. He will make you laugh out loud. The reader delights in finally learning the details of those long ago incidents that have long haunted the characters. The reader will often be rewarded with an "aha!" feeling as once mysterious events become clear.

A Son of the Circus is no different, and after reading 200 pages of the book, I was convinced it was Irving’s best, and all the more of an accomplishment for an American writer in that it was set largely in Bombay. I cared about the characters and was eager to know what would happen to them. The descriptions were vivid and brought everything to life.

A Son of the Circus is concerned with Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, a 60-year-old orthopedic doctor born in Bombay, now a Canadian citizen, who periodically visits his home town. Dr. Daruwalla’s unusual interests—seeking a genetic marker for dwarfism, and secretly writing screenplays for the popular Inspector Dhar movies—embroil him and his Austrian born wife, Julia, in numerous difficulties. These include: a murder investigation, murder threats against their family friend Inspector Dhar, the appearance of Dhar’s long-lost identical twin in India, their dwarf-friend’s efforts to rescue a child prostitute from a strip club, among more minor difficulties. If all this sounds outlandish, it is—but it is also vintage Irving. Irving is not hesitant about borrowing such time-honored devices as the Return of the Identical Twin, and milking it for the all the comic mileage it’s worth.

Irving has described himself as more of a "nineteenth century novelist," by which he means he stresses a strong story line and characterization, rather than intellectual ideas or stylistic experimentation. Dickens is probably his greatest single influence, and there is no lack of Dickensian coincidence or tidy denouement in his work. By the time of this, his eighth novel, Irving has announced his themes, as A Son of the Circus continues Irving’s tradition of the grotesque and the bizarre. The numerous violent and unusual incidents certainly make Irving’s works fascinating to read, but can leave an aftertaste of how contrived they are.

Consider some of the recurring themes of Irving’s work:

* a high frequency of violence (assassinations of Garp, Garp’s mother, and Dr. Daruwalla’s father, terrorist attacks in Hotel New Hampshire and Owen Meany; Rahul’s serial killing in Son of the Circus, and numerous other violent incidents in all the works);

* a high frequency of freak accidents, often involving dismemberment (Garp had the oral castration of Michael Milton, the loss of Duncan’s eye and leg; the Ellen Jamesians, who sliced off their own tongues; Garp and the dog bonkers biting each other’s ears off in separate incidents separated by 15 years; Hotel New Hampshire had the recurring bad luck of Sorrow, the family dog, who seems responsible for the plane crash which killed the mother and a sister; also the Father loses his sight in a terrorist attack ; Owen Meany saw the narrator’s mother killed by a softball, a dog killed by a football, and Owen killed during a basketball maneuver that also involved a bomb, a recurring motif of armlessness, amongst other carnage, Son of the Circus features numerous assaults against Martin Mills (one perpetrated by a monkey), and its own share of deaths involving sporting equipment (remember that Garp openly stated his own hatred of all sports involving balls), including a murder perpetrated with a golf club, and a freak death from a tennis racket (after the server double-faulted), a surfboard that kills a movie director during a traffic accident, a dwarf who uses racquet ball handles for violent purposes; numerous circus accidents;

* a recurring representation of homosexual and transsexual characters, often used for comic effect: Garp had the transsexual Roberta, and Duncan ultimately becomes attracted to a transsexual; Hotel New Hampshire had the homosexual brother, Frank (it also featured a cosummated incestuous attraction between the narrator and his sister); Owen Meany’s narrator is an middle-aged virgin, whose friends decide is a non-practicing homosexual; Son of the Circus features a transsexual serial killer, and identical twin homosexual brothers, and in-depth descriptions of the various types of transsexuals (cross-dressers vs. eunuchs vs. hijras, who have their male genitalia cauterized into a kind of vagina).

The major themes of sex and violence are supported by other recurring patterns, including recurring settings (New England, Vienna, and Iowa all feature prominently in Irving’s works), the introduction of small characters (Egg in New Hampshire), who are often unusually strong (John in New Hampshire, Bogus in The Water-Method Man, Owen Meany, Vinod, the dwarf-chauffeur), and many characters who are blessed by not having to work for a living, giving them ample time to play their parts in Irving’s bizarre plots.

These patterns certainly work for Irving, and he wouldn’t be able to pull them off without his assurance as a storyteller. He handles his plots—the arrival of Dhar’s twin, Rahul’s murder of Dieter and subsequent transsexual serial-killing life, Nancy’s life with Inspector Patel—masterfully. He unfolds revelations about all these incidents in a tantalizing order that keeps us reading.

But for all the excitement of our discoveries, the final third of A Son of the Circus is disappointing, not living up to all the earlier action. The arrest of Rahul, while involving some interesting and humorous planning by the principals, is pulled off easily. Rahul is the book’s villain, and we hoped s/he would put up more of a fight. Much of the final portion of the book concerns Daruwalla’s taking the crippled boy and prostitute girl to live in a provincial circus, and Daruwalla’s discovery of Dhar’s homosexuality; the momentum of the Rahul plot is lost. Also, Daruwalla’s desire to find a genetic marker for dwarfism is never explained (though it is later tied to the issue of the genetic origins of homosexuality). Perhaps the book has one too many subplots.

At any rate, Irving manages to resolve them all, or almost all of them (we never do learn who assassinated Lowji Daruwalla). He is perhaps conscious of the criticism that his works are contrived, and that things are wrapped up too neatly. We sense that Daruwalla is Irving’s personal representative in the work (the main characters of his novels usually are), and Daruwalla is also a writer, albeit a hack screenwriter. Daruwalla is accused of writing deus ex machina plots that are literally wrapped up by gods descending from the sky, or other ham-fisted devices. Daruwalla’s response is that "It’s a deus ex machina world" (543), and we sense that this is Irving’s position as well. Irving’s world is always of ordered mayhem. Very unusual things happen, but they usually happen for a reason (or many reasons). Often there is a knowable evil force in the world (Garp’s "undertow", New Hampshire’s "sorrow") that ties together the violent accidents, and against which the protagonists must struggle.

Daruwalla’s status as a hack writer is generally useful for Irving as a means of addressing criticisms leveled against his own work. Irving has not garnered the literary acclaim of other writers; his wide popularity (or the tactics he has used to become popular) works against his critical reception. Irving exaggerates this quality of himself by making his protagonist the hack screenwriter Daruwalla, who writes such popular (if hated) movies, which are too full of contrived incident. Daruwalla is at first surprised at this reception, because it was all meant as satire, but people took him seriously. Perhaps Irving feels the same way. The ability to create humorous incidents is perhaps the greatest of Irving’s many strengths as a writer. Maybe he feels that academic critics misinterpret him by not focusing on the "over the top" elements of his work as satire, instead seeing it as contrivance.

The Daruwalla connection also servers as a commentary on the unhappy plight of Salman Rushdie, who likewise has lived under threats because of misinterpreted satire. The book’s dedication "To Salman," its Bombay setting, Dhar’s living under death threats (in part because of the perceived sacrilegious aspects of his movie) all comment on Rushdie’s situation.

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To read him is to read the work of a master craftsman. Yet when finishing a John Irving book, I often feel empty, as if I was not left with anything other than a store of humorous memories. There are finely wrought motifs in his works, and a "vision" that the world (of fiction?) is one of ordered mayhem, but there are rarely any interesting ideas undergirding the work. I feel no idealistic conviction driving Irving to write, other than the desire to entertain, at which he triumphs. The very fact that I speak of reading "A John Irving work," rather than speak of reading "one of John Irving’s works" or "reading Irving" betrays that the works follow a pattern—indeed, an almost cinematic pattern, as if I had just seen "a John Irving production." For his readers, who see his name printed in much larger letters than the title of his books, know what they will get. It will be a good read, amusing to recollect, but unchallenging.

July 2000