Saturday 22 October 2016

Books: Clichéd novel with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in

Fiction: Avenue of Mysteries, John Irving, Doubleday, tpbk, 460 pages, €21

Published 03/01/2016 | 02:30

Avenue of Mysteries
Avenue of Mysteries

Why are there so many prostitutes in literary fiction? The percentage of the population that sells sex must be small in real-life; why, then, are novels so densely populated with "women of the night"?

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Is it sexism, prurience, laziness, male-fantasy fulfilment? Couldn't tell you. But it's one of the most irritating clichés in literature, as trite and laughable as those old action movies crowbarring in a few scenes of a stripper taking a shower. Avenue of Mysteries, the 14th novel from John Irving, goes one better (or worse). Main character Juan Diego Guerrero not only has a prostitute for a mother, but is later adopted by a different prostitute - transgender, at that.

This is a bad start, from my perspective, and I wasn't hugely enthusiastic about the book in the first place. I know Irving is a multi-awarded, beloved author and an Oscar-winning screenwriter. But I remain unconvinced after reading this overlong, patience-stretching story of Juan Diego Guerrero, a middle-aged author, travelling to the Philippines to repay a kind of moral debt, and replaying his memories of a Mexican slum childhood, and the life journey in-between.

It's not that Irving is a bad writer, or anything near it. But I've never liked this sort of picaresque, magic-realist style and story. These books are often hackneyed, not believable, juvenile, exhausting.

It's funny, because in genre - crime, horror, whatever - I don't mind implausibility, formulae, outlandish situations. But in "serious literature", I want it a bit more, well, serious.

Avenue of Mysteries is the kind of thing where, because anything can happen (and often does), there's little dramatic tension or emotional depth. It's hard to care too much about a character when, for all you know, they might pull off a mask at the end and reveal themselves as Scooby Doo on an acid trip. (That doesn't happen. It might have improved the book if it had.)

You think I'm exaggerating? Here are some of the novel's many ridiculous and/or hackneyed and/or silly incidents and cast: Juan Diego grows up at a landfill site. He rescues books from the fire and teaches himself to read - in two languages. The hooker mother(s), we've already covered.

Juan Diego has a damaged foot and permanent limp. Did I mention that his sister Lupe is a psychic? Well, she is. They live in a circus for a while. Someone gets killed by a lion.

There are self-flagellating priests and Jesuit priests. (Padres in novels must always be either self-flagellating or Jesuits; I think it's a law or something?) A character has a letter scarred in his forehead, like a grown-up Harry Potter, put there in the most fantastical and biologically far-fetched way.

There's much more of this stuff. In the present day, meanwhile, Juan Diego is on drugs that stop him dreaming - I'm pretty sure that would drive you insane within three days, but howsoever. He muses about writing a lot, somehow making it seem even more boring than it actually is.

He has an unlikely sexual tryst with a mother and daughter. One of them speaks an ancient Aztec language while doing the Vince Barnes. Both might be vampires.

Clichés abound, both in character type and dialogue. Someone actually says, "There comes a time, in every life, when you must let go". I'm trying, and failing, to picture Irving writing that with a straight face. There are far too many italics, peppering the text like children screeching for attention.

I could go on; I'd better not. Because you, dear reader, may be one of the millions who love Irving's work. And, going by what I know of the rest of his oeuvre, you'll probably love this, too. But I kind of hated it.

There's an annoying phrase popular with social media morons nowadays: "This. Is. Everything." Well, this. Book. Has. Everything. But. The. Kitchen. Sink.

And that is Way. Way. WAY. Too. Much.

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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