Favorite Fictional Characters, #51: OWEN MEANY
It is likely that some portion of my affection for A Prayer for Owen Meany stems from the setting. Irving's Gravesend is a not-even-thinly-veiled Exeter, and all of us who grew up there recognize the geography throughout. The locations that make this such a deeply personal book for the author make it deeply personal for those of us who are as intimate with the streets and landmarks as he is, and who love it as he does. The book, excellent in so many ways, is also a love letter to that most quintessential and perfect New England town.
Beyond that, the book is a masterful narrative, weaving together disparate strands of character in a plot that builds like a cathedral, each exquisitely carved stone considered before placed in mortar. Only when stepping back from the whole, regarded from a distance, do we see the brilliance of the work. Irving covers a lot of ground here, from the empty tragedy of war to the tortures of faith to the quest for identity. Friendship, family, truth, loss, all have a place at this sumptuously arrayed table. Even on fourth and fifth readings, new themes emerge, and the characters reveal aspects of themselves I had previously missed. It is an emotional, draining read, but like all endurance sports, the reward is both in each step as well as the sum total of the experience.
Owen Meany, of course, is a Christ figure. Irving never hides that fact, and at the very end makes it explicit. Like Christ, he sacrifices himself to save those he loves, not in a physical sense, but in a spiritual one. Irving gives his tiny apostle unshakable faith, but also doubt, revealed only at the end. Along the way, the Granite Mouse (the Sarcasm Master, the Voice) interacts with his world as a force of Nature as much as of God, indomitable will housed in a tiny, broken body. He takes on authority and (almost) always wins, he gropes for connection to loved ones, he writes, he reads, he unleashes a withering critique of a sadistic, imperfect world. He knows his destiny, and both embraces and resents it as he does all things, in full throat.
There's more, so much more, and I cannot do it justice. It is my favorite novel because it makes me feel and think in equal measure. It also makes me want to write, and to never write again.