Monday, July 13, 2015

The Hotel New Hampshire

Perhaps John Irving will now calm down and return to his typewriter. He has, in recent weeks, told so many readers of so many magazines so much about himself and the various meanings of his new novel and why the reviewers aren't going to like it or him that the book itself - quite a good one, incidentally - all but snores under a pile of symbolic spinach. Mr. Irving, like a Nabokov in jogging shorts, commits pre-emptive criticism.

We are told that even a child can understand ''The Hotel New Hampshire,'' and that critics will resent this because they prefer unintelligibility; that the novel is a fable and will therefore disappoint the low American appetite for realism; that the three hotels - in New Hampshire, in Vienna and on the coast of Maine - represent childhood, adolescence and responsible maturity; and that Mr. Irving has been influenced by everybody from Donizetti to Turgenev to Freud to Carl E. Schorske.

Tireless Explainers

As if that weren't already enough advice, the characters in ''The Hotel New Hampshire'' are tireless explainers. ''Everything is a fairy tale,'' says Lilly. ''There are no happy endings,'' says Father. ''You've got to get obsessed and stay obsessed,'' says Iowa Bob. ''Happy fatalism,'' says Frank. ''If Father could have bought another bear,'' says John, ''he wouldn't have had to buy a hotel.'' ''What?'' says Egg. ''Keep passing the open windows,'' they remind themselves and each other.

''Keep passing the open windows'' is repeated over and over again, and it is excellent advice, especially if, like the Berry Family, you spend most of your time in hotels. Stop at a window and you may jump out. The Berry family is on intimate terms with violent death. ''Sorrow floats'' is also repeated, far too often. Sorrow, in this case, is a stuffed dog; love and doom likewise float. ''Thus the family maxim was that an unhappy ending did not undermine a rich and energetic life.''

Of course, there is a rape. This wouldn't be a John Irving novel without a rape or a bear or Vienna or body-building or social privilege. There are, in fact, two rapes and two bears, as there are two Freuds and two blind men and two faces to the stuffed Sorrow. ''Retrieving Sorrow is a kind of religion, too,'' we are told. A child I asked didn't understand that sentence.

Win and Mary Berry, in the summer of 1939, buy a motorcycle and a performing bear from a man named Freud. When the bear dies, they buy an abandoned girls' school and turn it into a hotel. When the hotel fails, they sell it to a circus and fly the whole family off to postwar Vienna, where this same Freud, the wrong Freud, has another hotel, occupied by prostitutes and implausible terrorists. When the terrorists fail to blow up the Vienna State Opera, the Berry famliy, what's left of it, comes home. Two are dead, one is blind, one has been raped, one is homosexual and one will commit suicide. Their third and final hotel is a rape crisis center.

I haven't mentioned the Black Arm of the Law, the King of Mice, Chipper Dove, lesbianism, incest, schlagobers or ''The Great Gatsby.'' Win Berry, the father, is a reincarnation of Gatsby, a dangerous dreamer whose ''pure love'' is for the future, whose ''imagination was his own hotel.'' In seeking to protect his children, he exposes them to a series of terrifying accidents, pure lethal chance, the arbitrariness that is our contemporary substitute for evil. Gatsby is America, denying history, trapped in the receding future. He is also a figure of death, the man in the white dinner jacket, the last stupid romantic, a bewildered guest in his own bleak house.

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