Reading a very long, very boring novel – in the instance, that is, that you are professionally obliged to see it through to the end – has a lot in common with the grieving process. First the denial that the flat prose and plotlessness of the opening chapters could possibly be sustained over 889 pages. Then the anger when you realize that they can.
For the near half-century since the huge international success of his fourth novel, The World According to Garp (1978), John Irving has occupied an ambiguous position in American letters, neither quite literary nor lowbrow, the indeterminate if highly remunerative middle ground between John Updike and Leon Uris. For generations of reviewers the go-to comparison has been to Charles Dickens, as a shorthand for an expansive, richly populated comic realism, unapologetically archaic but kept alive, in Irving’s case, by regular defibrillations from the surreal.
Irving’s fiction often has an autobiographical bent, and his latest (and reportedly last big) novel, The Last Chairlift, is no exception. Like Irving, our narrator, Adam Brewster, is a novelist and screenwriter, born in the early 1940s to a charismatic mother and an unknown father, and educated at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire – details Adam also shares, in various configurations and guises, with TS Garp and John Wheelwright, the narrator of Irving’s seventh novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). In those earlier novels, however, Irving’s raids on the biographical store cupboard feed the maw of his plots, whose energetic (if sometimes facile) intricacies stand in contrast to the chronological plod of Adam’s life story. And so anger gives way to bargaining – Can I get through this if I read three chapters a night? – then to depression, as it becomes clear, perhaps 200 pages in, that this chairlift is going nowhere.
The novel is told from the perspective of Adam in his late seventies, though the present day, save for a few proleptic gestures, only really comes into view at the end. In contrast, for example, to Owen Meany‘s braided time frames, The Last Chairlift is resolutely linear. In retrospect Adam views his life as “an unmade movie”, but not “for the usual self-congratulatory or self-pitying reasons” – that is, that he considers it particularly dramatic or noteworthy. “My life is a movie because I’m a screenwriter,” he explains. “I’m seeing the story unfold as if it were already on film.” Accordingly, the novel is divided into three Acts. The first tells the story of Adam’s early years, growing up in New England as the son of Little Ray, a lesbian ski instructor who prefers to keep her son’s paternity a secret. For now we know only that his conception was a one-off event, with an underage male chosen chiefly on the basis that his penis was small. “My mother had sex just once – because she wanted a child, just one.” Ray hooks up with Molly, a “girl jock” and trail groomer at Stowe in Vermont, where Ray spends the ski season. Despite her extended periods away, with Adam left in the care of his grandparents, Ray and Adam remain close, to the extent that, aged thirteen, he experiences his “first good kiss” courtesy of his mother: “She was suddenly sitting in my lap, with her legs straddling my hips and her hands pressing my shoulders into the bed.” Adam is Ray’s “one and only”, the “love of her life”. Although, in adulthood, he lures from one dysfunctional sexual relationship to another – as recounted, comically, in Act II – the incestuous edge to his upbringing is presented neutrally, even approvingly: like Garp, the novel is a paean to the alternative family, set against the shifting sexual politics of the eight decades it covers. No matter what disasters befall him, Adam is adored, by his mother, by Molly, by his tomboyish cousin Nora and her mute girlfriend Em, and by Elliot Barlow, the young Adam’s wrestling coach and English teacher – and, like Roberta Muldoon in Garpan athletic, transgender, near-beatific substitute parent figure – whose mariage blanc to Ray furnishes the strenuously farcical set piece that closes Act I.
The problem lies in the narration’s insistent exteriority. The unmade movie comparison is apt, but not for the reasons Irving suggests. Adam pooh-poohs the “usual” reasons people think their lives are inherently cinematic. “Don’t they mean their lives are too incredible to be real – too unbelievably good or bad?” Incredibility is, though, precisely the hallmark of Adam’s life story. Good journalistic manners would dictate that I issue a spoiler alert at this point – if only the term had much validity in the case of a novel that rejects plot in favor of incident. Adam is sexually assaulted by his mother, in a good way. Nora is shot dead while performing at a Greenwich Village comedy club. Adam’s mute and delusional nappy-wearing grandfather is killed by lightning at the wedding of his gay mother to her cross-dressing beard. (Along with wrestling, film-making, absent parents and weird sex, freak accidents are an all-too-common Irving preoccupation.) Plenty of things happen in The Last Chairlift. They just happen successfully, as remarkable but isolated and essentially arbitrary events, rather than as links in a causative chain or as the structural supports of a larger aesthetic edifice. The result is damp kindling: a terminal lack of narrative momentum.
What does make The Last Chairlift more cinematic is Irving’s difficulty in establishing his characters’ interiority. “I’m first and foremost a novelist,” Adam tells us, “but even when I write a novel, I’m a visualizer.” He’s not kidding. His family and friends are invariably seen from the outside. It is telling that several of the main characters are usually referred to by pet names based either on their jobs or on their most obvious (ie comical) attributes. Molly is “the ski patroller” or “the trail groomer”, Elliot is “the snowshoe” or “the little English teacher”. Adam’s grandfather is “the diaper man”. This might, at a stretch, be excused as a credible (if irritating) rhetorical tic on Adam’s part, but given what meagre work it does to establish his character – he does not come across as the sort of golf-club bore likely to refer to people by jaunty sobriquets – it is tempting to lay the bad habit at the authorial door, as a weakness for elegant variation and for reducing characters to their externalities. Adam, Little Ray and Elliot are all, like Owen Meany, tiny – at four foot nine, Elliot had dodged the draft for Korea because “they didn’t make uniforms that were small enough” – but, other than as a vague correlative for the generalized distaste for overbearing masculinity, the preoccupation with smallness fails to animate any of the novel’s larger concerns. The smallness is small: a quirk that stands only for itself.
A weakly plotted novel can always play the literary card: it is character-driven. But The Last Chairlift falls short in that respect too. What drives it, weakly, is incident. It is incident-incidental, character-lethargic, plot-comatose. Nowhere is its allegiance to surface qualities more evident than in relation to the works of art it contains. Moby-Dick is a recurrent concern: listening to his grandmother read it to him not only made Adam “want to be a writer…it essentially shaped and screwed up the rest of my life”. Precisely how Moby-Dick screwed up his life – especially by comparison to being straddled and snogged by his mother aged thirteen – is left underdeveloped, and further references to the book are largely restricted to chapter synopses pitched at the Cliffs Notes level and a bewilderingly persistent gag about a character mistaking it’s for a pornographic novel. Likewise, many of the fictions written by Adam and other characters – most notably Adam’s three movie fragments, rendered in full screenplay format, the latter two each running to 100 pages – are narratorially disowned as bad art. (“I kept mine Log Peak screenplay to myself; it got worse and worse.”) Adam has good reason to disown Log Peak – the main virtue of the screenplay sections are the greater proportion of white space they afford on the page – but the disavowal is a cop-out: for the reader, there is no way of distinguishing between Adam’s failure and Irving’s underpowered ekphrasis, his reluctance to inhabit either his character or his character’s imaginings. Adam’s bad screenplays just read like Irving’s bad screenplays with a disclaimer attached.
Act III covers Adam’s middle years and old age, as, one by one, his family and friends are taken from him. Two near-identical snowbound death scenes serve to literalize what had to this point been allusive: where the chairlift is headed for us all.
The fifth and final stage of grief is acceptance: by Adam’s autumn years I had, I admit, begun to grow a little fond of him, though this may just have been a literary form of Stockholm syndrome, my having been shackled to the cold radiator of his consciousness for 800-plus pages. With its unadjudicated bloat, what The Last Chairlift Most resembles a retiree’s life diary, an unedited brain dump before the memories fade. “Autobiography just isn’t good or bad enough to work as fiction”, Adam tells us. “Unrevised, real life is just a mess.” If only John Irving had heeded his creation’s advice.
Nat Segnit’s Retreat: The risks and rewards of stepping back from the world was published in June
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