It’s been about five months since I’ve done one of these. My how time flies. I’ve almost exclusively used “literary” writers for this series. Today I want to examine the prose of John Irving. He’s had a lot of commercial success, but he straddles the literary/commercial divide more than many give him credit for. This is the opening line from A Prayer for Owen Meany.
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
I don’t remember how I picked this book up, but I distinctly remember reading this opening line and being hooked. We’ll look at its structure and how it establishes so much in so little space.
We’ll start with the obvious. The sentence starts with “I,” so we are getting the voice of the narrator. But immediately, the whole sentence is about someone else. We can be pretty sure (especially with knowledge of the title) that the main character of the novel will be this other person. It’s like The Great Gatsby; the narrator will tell of his past with the main character.
“I am doomed to remember…” This opening phrase establishes that the story is going to be tragic in some way. The word “doomed” is no accident. If we look to the end of the sentence, we see “God” and “Christian.” There were a lot of words Irving could have chosen here, but “doomed” is consistent in tone and given a lot more power when reaching the end of the sentence. This isn’t a mere haunting memory. In the context of God, the word “doomed” tends to have one meaning: doomed to hell during the Final Judgement. The opening clause says: pay attention, this is serious.
The follow-up is “a boy with a wrecked voice.” It immediately forces a lot of questions into the reader’s mind. Wait. He’s only a boy? What could have been that bad? Why is his voice wrecked? This sounds even less threatening.
Irving em dashes into a sequence of clarifications. The clarifications serve the dual purpose of fleshing out the main character and raising the stakes of the forthcoming novel. Each detail gets a little more confusing and intense.
The boy is the smallest person he ever knew. Even more so than the voice, how could this boy be threatening at all? Then the kicker comes. The boy was the instrument of the narrator’s mother’s death. Now we really wonder: who could this boy be to have caused such a thing? And even then, we’re told there’s something more. The mother’s death isn’t even the reason the narrator is doomed to remember. This sequence ramps up the tension more and more until we get our relief at the true reason.
The boy is the reason he believes in God. Semicolon. We then get further clarification. He’s Christian because of this boy. It’s almost a let down when the reason turns out to be so anticlimactic. But, in a sense, this makes it better. What traumatic event happened that it surpassed his mother’s death by this boy?
And we’re hooked. By the end of the first sentence we have so many unanswered questions. Moreover, the sequencing of the questions makes them feel unanswerable.
When examining why prose works, it’s often useful to think why similar attempts don’t work. Think how boring this opening would have been if Irving merely wanted to establish the narrator’s voice and tell a few facts about Owen Meany.
I recall a boy with a wrecked voice. He was the smallest person I ever knew, and yet he was also the instrument of my mother’s death. I believe in God because of Owen Meany.
I could see many people starting their novels this way. Without comparison, it might seem fine. It still establishes point of view. It still lists some traits of Owen Meany. It still raises many of the same questions. But it lacks some extremely important points. There’s no dramatic tension. The questions feel easily answerable in this form.
I could see myself saying, “Eh. Some boy killed this guy’s mother. He now believes in God. I guess I’ll find out what happened soon enough.” These are serious matters, but the prose doesn’t feel serious. It almost has a comical tone in this form because, one, it lacks the word “doomed,” but two, because the juxtaposition of these sentiments is such a sudden and stark contrast with no build up.
Seeing these fake several sentences also brings up another point. It isn’t the right voice for the narrator. The narrator of this novel used an extremely complicated sentence structure: full clause, em dash, three negative clauses separated by commas building to a positive clause, semicolon, full clause clarification.
We’ll later find out that the narrator is an English teacher (and maybe writer? It’s been 15 years since I read this), but the astute reader will already have ascertained a linguistic sophistication and high education level for the narrator. The clunky sentences I wrote give none of this voice or information.
Who knew one sentence could contain so much?