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  Until I Find You
John Irving
Random House, 2005
Rating: 3.0
 

Posted: November 14, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

The unexamined life, Socrates famously opined, is not worth living. But it's also true that there can be such a thing as too much examination. This is especially true for writers, many of whom, at some point in their careers, decide that since they've been rewarded or praised in the past for writing about what fascinates them, why not give in to the temptation to write about that most fascinating subject of all -- themselves? Alas, all too often the writer proves too close to the material, unable to retain enough objective distance to allow the events of his or her life to inform a more universal tale.

Case in point: Until I Find You, an epic-length work of fiction by John Irving that draws deeply from the writer's life. Like Irving, its protagonist, Jack Burns, falls victim to the sexual predations of a much older woman at a very young age. Also like Irving, Jack grows up having never known or met his father, and learns later in life that what he thought he knew about that father is a fiction perpetrated by his mother. As if that weren't enough, Jack, again like Irving, eventually wins an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Clearly, Until I Find You is Irving's most personal novel (not to mention his longest). But Irving is never quite able to make Jack's life compelling for the reader. The central conflict, to the extent that there is one, is that Jack, an accomplished actor, is always "acting" -- he never seems to quite grasp who he is. Having been taught by his mother to believe that his father was an amoral philanderer, handsome Jack falls into a series of mostly inconsequential relationships and sexual encounters, holding back something of himself either out of fear of becoming his father or out of a resignation that he already has.

Fair enough, but Jack spends so much of Until I Find You as little more than a cipher that it's hard to empathize with him -- just because he's not connected to himself doesn't mean that the reader should find no toehold of common ground from which to become involved in his life. And the fact that Jack becomes a rich, oversexed film star -- and one largely apathetic about his numbing parade of sexual encounters, to boot -- doesn't help us to get any closer to him. (Gee, what a hard life.)

Irving populates Until I Find You with his usual assortment of outsiders and physically (and mentally) impaired or damaged types, but here they serve less as a metaphor for the outsider in all of us and more as obligatory color. Jack's mother Alice is a tattoo artist, and Jack's father William an itinerant church organist on a quest to tattoo almost every square inch of his flesh. Okay, we get that love, or sex, can penetrate the skin and imprint us in ways that will never disappear. But other instances of deformity or different-ness don't resonate as clearly. What's the significance of Jack's attraction to the faint harelip of his best friend Emma, or another girl's limp?

For that matter, what's the significance behind the fact that from an early age, Jack's professional trademark as an actor is his tendency to portray women or cross-dressers? Is this an attempt to reconnect with a mother who's forever distancing herself from Jack as he grows into a painful reminder of the man who broke her heart? Is it a subconscious rejection of his seemingly preordained lot in life as a sexual predator? Worse, Irving introduces threads -- an unhealthy attraction to older women, manifested most bizarrely in a brief sexual fling with an unattractive cafeteria worker; a troubling episode with a teenage girl whom Jack "allows" to seduce (and then blackmail) him -- that never lead to much, except to remind us that Jack is emotionally adrift.

Irving keeps the reader from losing interest by virtue of his lyrical prose, as well as an impressive tableau of settings and characters. But it isn't until well past the halfway point that things begin to get interesting, as Jack slowly learns that his early memories of life as a four-year-old, accompanying his mother as she hunted down his delinquent father, aren't necessarily in line with the truth. When Jack retraces the steps of that earlier quest, on a new one to find the truth on his own, the book takes on an immediacy it has otherwise lacked.

Even then, however, it never transmutes into urgency, not until the inevitable meeting with his mentally unstable father and an intense emotional bonding with the little sister (actually, half-sister) he never knew he had. And by then, it's too little, too late to make an intermittently engaging book into a powerful one. All of Irving's familiar elements are in play, and that's enough to keep most readers lightly involved. But Until I Find You is ultimately a troubled novel that never sufficiently pierces the skin or leaves a permanent mark.

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 Ratings Key:
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 3.0-3.9: Well done
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