English major. Love to read
I have read a lot of John Irving - some very good, some not so good. My favorite book of all time is A Prayer for Owen Meany. He can't write another one of those and I knew that when I started this book. Nonetheless, the characters are very well drawn, quirky, very human and quite Owenesque. I liked this book, the story is solid but it was missing the tight, clearly crafted writing that I think of when I think of Irving. I am glad I read it, but I am not going to run out and tell everybody to read it.
People say I resemble my dog (and vice-versa). He can hear sounds I can't hear, but I'm the one who listens to audiobooks.
Life's a Circus -- for a book that is nearly 27 hours long, there is very little that is about the circus. Most of it about various aspects of life in Bombay as filtered through the lens of the main character, Dr. Daruwalla, who is actually a visitor to Bombay from Canada despite being born and raised in India. Through his eyes, we see the three-ring circus that is life in general.
So while we do have the circus, acting as a social welfare institution for Indian orphans, we spend as much or more time with dwarf taxi drivers, serial killers, movie detectives, real detectives, twins separated at birth, three different TV/TS types, closeted gay men, vengeful ex-hippies, violent chimps, exhibitionist country club dowagers, Zoroastrians, Jesuit priests, child prostitutes, AIDS -- just another day (or in this case, a quarter century) in John Irving's grotesquerie of ordinary life.
But it's fascinating, irresistible, charming -- three more words to sum up the qualities of the book.
The setting is unusual for John Irving (except for a brief interlude in Vienna), and it would be easy to say that telling a story about India, exploring the social structure of Bombay, would be one of the best aspects of this book, especially since Irving tells us in his foreword that he has spent an insignificantly small amount of time there.
But what I liked best about the story is how so many elements are intertwined and eventually come together -- the career and ultimate capture of the serial killer and how it figures in the cinematic careers of Dr. Daruwalla and his foster son who stars in his movies, the separation and reunion of the twins and how that brings in a discussion of closeted homosexuality and religion, the connection between Dr. Daruwalla's study of dwarf genetics and the HIV virus, the transfer of orphaned and damaged street children to the circus as a reflection of Indian social structure, and how all of that shapes Dr. Daruwalla's lifelong search for a place he can call truly call home.
27 hours is a long time for an audiobook. You need a couple of things to carry you through. One is a well-written book, and John Irving delivers with crisp, well-paced sentences, paragraphs, chapters, creating a forward momentum that sucks you in and makes you want to listen all the more.
So too does David Colacci's narration. Over that long period of time, he maintains the same upbeat tone, capturing the pace and mood of Irving's writing just right, never sounding smarmy, never going too far with the Indian accents in reading the dialogue. 27 hours of oddball characterization and unlikely turns of event over a scant plot line could've been painful if not for his pitch perfect performance.
The book is indeed in need of renaming. Even with the circus figuring partially in the proceedings, there is really nothing or no one that can be viewed as a son of the circus, not even metaphorically, except in the broadest sense of the life being a circus. Even so, Dr. Daruwalla, the only character central enough to the story to be a candidate for son of the circus, is the one character who is not living a circus style life, not even metaphorically.
Then there is Dr. Daruwalla's secret life as a screenwriter. Of the many grand metaphors in the book that often seem larger than the realities they are meant to symbolize, the most consistently executed is one where art imitates life and life imitates art, within the doctor's screenplays. So the most apt title, one that may be more alluring to readers not necessarily drawn by the author's name, would be "Inspector Dhar and the Winking Elephant Murders".
I have to come back to the length of the book, having recently roasted Michael Chabon for his gratuitously lengthy and wordy Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (even though I find myself in an extremely small minority of critics of that highly praised and prized novel). Son of the Circus is the counterpoint -- equally lengthy, but not an exercise in word vomit. Irving writes in clear, concise, straight ahead prose that creates an appropriate pace for a book of this length.
That said, it is still too long. There are at least two, maybe three novels here -- a trilogy of books of average length. I suppose it amounts to the same thing, no difference if the books appear in the same binding or separate volumes. But the more pressing issue is the detail into which Irving writes some of the ancillary stories and characters. Where a sentence would have sufficed, he writes a paragraph, where a page would have sufficed, he writes a chapter.
But it's not gratuitous. He tells a complete short story about each character that could have been distilled into a quick recap, but it is still highly entertaining and creates richer characters with more complete back stories. It's just that I kept thinking about some advice I once go about writing fiction, that I as the writer have to know every character's full story even if I'm not necessarily going to tell it. I wish Irving had kept some parts of their back stories to himself.
Listening to A Son of the Circus is like going for a very long, meandering walk with a crazy uncle. Lots of stories of the past, woven only slightly together, driven by insane coincidences, following spur of the moment tangents to other distant places -- and yet, when the crazy uncle is John Irving, with his unmistakeable warmth and humor at full force, it's a walk worth taking.
This is a novel I've failed to read all the way through for eighteen years (I'm ashamed to admit this) and I'm a devoted Irving fan. It takes perseverance. But listening to it did help me connect the characters (and keep them all straight) for the first time. Definitely better listened to in audio format than read.
For Irving fans (and I think you have to be or I don't think you'll make it through this one): Recommend.
My favorite Irvings are Owen and Cider House. Everything else is judged according to those yardsticks. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. At the outset he tells us his main character is uncomfortable in his native country. That discomfort is then allowed for the reader as he takes us deep into the mire that is modern-day India. Fantastic.
I've read a lot of John Irving, but most of it was years ago. I'm not sure if my tastes have changed or if this was a particularly lackluster novel for him, but I actually quit listening with only a few hours left to go, because I was so disinterested in the characters and the story, itself.
I would have liked to give this book three and a half stars. It has in it some extremely humorous episodes, involving discrepancies between different world cultures. It has in it an intriguing murder mystery, ultimately solved.
The problems with it have to do with a large diversity of plots and stories and people, and far too much writing. Especially at the end, after the murderer has been caught and brought to justice, it becomes very tedious. In spite of my early delight with it, I was really happy when the author finally decided to end the book. It would have been much better to stop listening just about 2/3 of the way through.
There are two gurneys in the mad doctor's surgery, each with an unconscious body. Huge syringe in hand, the doctor approaches the nearer of his two subjects, a 10-year-old boy. The syringe already contains drops of a tincture that will forever stop maturation, and the doctor eases the needle into the boy's brain to withdraw the juvenile essence at the perfect, penultimate moment. Up into the syringe streams the love of all things repulsive and disgusting; the emerging sexual obsession; the fascination with all that's kinky, shocking, or sick.
Still holding the syringe, the doctor approaches his other subject, a seemingly ordinary man, but one's who's been prepared with a serum of world-class writing skill and a spectacular breadth of imagination. Carefully he inserts the needle into the man's brain and depresses the plunger. Into the man's brain flows Joy of Awfulness. Decay, disease, excrement, vomit, deformity, psychosis, child molestation, mutilation, rats, snakes, vulture-plucked corpses, fungi, all in no particular order.
He releases the little boy, who scampers off unaware that he's become a much better person, someone his mother can actually love unreservedly. He watches the man, waiting with excitement for him to awake. To awake as ... John Irving.
Five stars for stunning writing, one star for loathsomeness.
AUDIO: If sought, small imperfections can be found, but they are microscopic relative to the challenges and range of the novel. David Colacci has created a masterpiece in his own right.
It's not the book, it's not the plot, it's the sheer magnificent storytelling...
And just like a star of the circus, he makes the apparently impossible appear effortless.
Like the best vacation you've ever been on, at first I wasn't sure I would even enjoy the trip. And then suddenly, the all-too-soon conclusion was before me; a rather melancholy journey "home" was forced upon me.
I do like a quirky book, but I like a bit more than just quirky. Quirky isn't a bad quality, but it isn't a big enough concept to support an entire book. Maybe a quirky short story would have been amusing.