Writer on the Couch

John Irving’s undigested psychodrama.

Incest, mutilation, orphans, wrestling, prose only a mother could love—yes, it’s another John Irving novel. And Until I Find You—full of the author’s characteristic storytelling drive, macabre imagination, and lumpy sentences—arrives with an added frisson: the pre-publication announcement of its autobiographical roots. Jack, the hero, is sexually handled and molested by older girls and women by the age of 10; he longs for a father who left before he was born; he joins the wrestling team at a New England prep school; his eventual fame is compromised by a sense of vacancy and abandonment and a search for sexual and personal security that eludes him. These basics will be familiar to readers of Irving’s earlier novels, so it is not surprising—though it is clearly meant to be titillating—to learn they are autobiographical in origin. In fact, one suspects that the PR release of this “confession” (and the news that, while he was writing the book, Irving did at last find out who his father was) is designed to forestall the criticism such a dreadful, though clearly heartfelt, mess like this deserves.

Even by Irving’s own standards, this novel is sloppy and long. With The World According to Garp in 1978, Irving made his mark with an imagination given to gothic intensity. Yet he also had a gift for evoking the currents of intimacy; many readers were deeply moved by the efforts of the author to explore the nature of love in a kind of taxonomy of friendship, lust, romance, and familial attachment. A quarter of a century later he still cares about love, and his imagery is, if anything, even more surreal. More evident now—perhaps because this novel is constructed as a psychological journey—is what has been missing all along in Irving’s work: a synthesizing intelligence applied to the raw material of the psyche.

The first chunk of this huge novel is a case study in the problem, which is that Irving is drowning in dream material that he doesn’t know how to analyze. He doesn’t even seem to recognize that it demands analysis. Repetition is used as a substitute for revelation. We follow the travels of 4-year-old Jack as he accompanies his mother to the countries of the Baltic in a search for the man who impregnated and abandoned her. The mother is a tattoo artist; the father is a church organist given to seducing young girls and losing his postings as a result. The mother met the father when he got a tattoo from her father in Scotland, and the organist is one of those tattoo addicts who cannot rest until his entire body is covered with ink. In no fewer than six cities—Port of Leith, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki, and Amsterdam—the nearly identical search recurs. Mother finds the local tattooers, with names like Tattoo Ole and Doc Forest, learns of the recent whereabouts of the organist, finds his church and his naughty story, and then moves on in further pursuit. Compounding the queasy obsessive quality of the repetitions, the narrative is herky-jerky in the extreme. At times we see things from the 4-year-old’s view; at other times a distant narrator steps in to offer guidebook-style lore about the different locales (“The Oude Kerk, the Old Church … was probably consecrated in 1306 by the Bishop of Utrecht …”); and sometimes a coy, questioning narrator teases us with foreshadowings of plot twists to come. The search culminates bizarrely in Amsterdam’s red-light district, but the father is not found.

All this psychologically dense material (along with loads more—much of the rest of this novel’s 822 pages centers on the hero’s sexual initiation at the hands of an older girl who later becomes like a sister to him) simply appears, like so much tidal wash on the beach. Here is a glittering fish, there a moon jelly pulsing, there an elegant tangle of kelp and witches’ purses and jingle shells.

Without insisting that only Freud can analyze the mess of our unconscious lives—though he did name that mess for all time—it is useful to turn to Freud for a moment, to his famous analysis of the dreams of the Wolf Man, for instance. It is in the effort to discover patterns and to analyze them that the dream of white wolves sitting in a tree comes to life, acquires meaning. It is a truism that, just as other people’s pets are not lovable, other people’s dreams are not interesting; surely if the patient were to sit next to you on the train and tell you his dream, you would not care a whit.

Because Irving does still have the storyteller’s gift of making you want to know what happens next, you keep listening for a while, startled by the sheer inventiveness of his imagination. An organist plays sacred music at midnight to serenade the prostitutes of Amsterdam. A “Rose of Jericho” tattoo, which partially conceals the image of a woman’s labia in its petals, is tattooed on a woman’s hip. Perhaps the most fascinating, and yet disappointingly unexamined, feature of this novel is the central trope of tattooing. There are references to the strangeness of having the names of loved ones on the skin, of what it feels like to make and then sometimes to erase history on the page of the skin. We spend time in tattoo shops watching the instruments being handled, and we attend a funeral with hundreds of tattoo artists. We learn, intriguingly, that a body covered entirely by tattoos is very susceptible to the cold. But what Irving never does with any of this information and suggestive imagery is to stay with its questions long enough to make them yield some larger significance. The instances of tattoos and skin in this novel are legion. But their meaning is absent.

The final scenes of the tattooed father raving in his asylum might suggest that Irving thinks there is no meaning to be found, that he is asserting life’s chaos and the futility of discovering a true self. But the ending is supposed to signal Jack’s hopes for transformation and stability: At the close, he plans to stay with his father by buying a house near the asylum and, perhaps, to take antidepressants. The book, in its quest for the lost father, has proceeded all along as if things do matter, and as if it were important to know in what way.

Michael Ondaatje comes to mind as a contrast; specifically, the use of skin in two of his novels, In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient. In both books, the novelist applies enormous intellectual pressure to the ideas of self, identity, disguise, the permeability of the skin, what is held in, what is kept out—and he does itin ways that deepen the books’ power.

By posing puzzling images to the reader—as an analysand poses the puzzle of his dream—the novelist must play the roles of both patient and analyst. Ondaatje makes it clear that he is writing about race, about armor, about the visible and the invisible signs of the self. All novelists must make meaning in order to keep faith with their readers, even if the meaning is only provisional or skeptical. I’m not speaking against mystery—all great novels are rife with mystery—but I am saying that the writer must take responsibility for the material that has welled up within him and has been placed on the page.

Without the author to direct us, we speculate wildly. Is human detachment from the self and others one of this novel’s themes? Is Jack’s fixation on the Rose of Jericho tattoo connected to his (or his narrator’s) inability to observe an actual woman’s genitalia during a sexual encounter? Are Jack’s early fantasies triggered by women’s underwear reinforced when, as an adult actor, he specializes in cross-dressed roles? Or—and?—is he trying again to detach from his own body and become a female one instead? That sexually aggressive “older sister” character who later becomes a chaste bed partner of Jack’s—are her obesity and inability to have intercourse (she actually dies “in the act”) pure accidents or authorial punishments? Has the author been obliquely directing (understandable) rage against women in all his novels, by maiming, shaming, and killing off his female characters so reliably? If so, it must be unconscious—because the male characters, and the narrators, express overt sympathy for these women. In Until I Find You, love and pity are invoked for the neglectful slut of a mother, her lesbian cock-teasing partner, the fat and nasty-tempered “sister,” and even the horrifying wrestler and sexual predator, Mrs. Machado—as well as numerous lesser harpies.

Irving could have made rage against women and post-traumatic displacement from the self his great themes in this book. But at the end, the patient is still babbling with no analyst in the room.