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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Irving In India?

Everyone likes watching those videos where thousands if not millions of dominoes fall, one knocking down the next, creating images and making a spectacular display. You know what no one likes watching? The dominoes being set up beforehand, and being picked up afterward. Unfortunately, nearly half of John Irving's eight novel, A Son of the Circus consists of the author tediously setting up his dominoes and then picking up the pieces afterward.

The novel's protagonist is an Indian orthopedist named Farrokh Daruwalla, born in Bombay, educated in Vienna (it's an Irving novel, just be glad he's not a wrestler too), residing in Toronto, and home nowhere. Part of the problem with the novel is that Farrokh is not as well-drawn as Irving's other protagonists, like Garp or John Berry. The doctor is meant to be instantly relatable, an Everyman, but he really doesn't bring much to the story.

The novel takes place during one of Dr. Daruwalla's apparently infrequent visits back to India, where his adopted nephew is the star of the most successful and most loathed movie serial in all Maharashtra. In Bombay, the actor is known only by his character's name, Inspector Dhar. Dhar and Daruwalla are members of The Duckworth Club, despite their only occasional residence. The Club's history is gone into at some length, and quite needlessly, just one of many sidetracks Irving gets lost on.

Daruwalla apparently moonlights as the screenwriter for his nephew's films, and the latest one has caused quite a stir, as it has apparently inspired a prostitute serial-killer. Which is odd, since the movie's killings are based on a few 20-year-old murders the doctor was present for.

Have I mentioned yet that Dhar is the son of a low-rent Hollywood couple, and that he has an unknown identical twin who just happens to be heading into Bombay to become a Jesuit missionary? Or that Dhar and the doctor are driven around by a ex-clown dwarf who runs an orphan-rescue operation and attacks would be thieves with squash handles? Or that the novel includes extensive accounts of Indian eunuch-transvestite prostitutes, otherwise none as hijras?

And despite the zaniness, the first two hundred pages are boring and tedious. The problem is a lack of charm. Irving is on foreign ground here, away from his beloved New Hampshire or even Vienna, and that might explain why he constantly feels the need to over-explain Indian practices to his readers, often breaking the narrative flow to do so.

Irving's chief talents are in the Dickensian vein, he is great at creating a whole host of characters and giving them all unique though admittedly absurd and unlikely background stories. His plotting typically brings everyone and everything together for a resolution, and every question raised throughout the novel is answered, with long-running family mysteries being resolved and tied off neatly. Here though there is simply too much stuff, and enough is either forgotten or implausibly resolved to make you wonder whether or not Irving even had an editor for this novel.

For instance, the early parts of the novel make much of Daruwalla's fascination with dwarves. The doctor is apparently an amateur geneticist trying to find a genetic marker for dwarfism, in doing so he has apparently collected many samples of dwarf blood. This comes up exactly zero times within the course of the plot. There is also the matter of the murder of the doctor's father, which is introduced when the doctor receives phone calls from a woman bragging that she bombed his father's car. At the end of the novel this remains unresolved, and the phone calls continue.

The novel's main narrative concerns the hunt for the serial killer, who branches out from prostitutes to kill a member of the Duckworth Club. Dr. Daruwalla and Inspector Dhar become involved in the investigation, while Farrokh is trying to keep Dhar's missionary twin, a self-flagellating zealot named Martin Mills, from meeting his twin and from causing chaos in the streets as he tries to save every beggar and child prostitute he encounters by bringing them to the circus. These 300 pages or so are wildly implausible, but entertaining enough to speed through. The novel's best part is the sting operation in which Daruwalla writes a script to allow Dhar to ensnare the transsexual serial killer during a dance on New Year's Eve.

That sting is the last domino to fall, and the last 100 pages of the novel consist of irritatingly unrelated anecdotes concerning Farrokh's departure from Bombay and his attempt to finally assimilate to a Toronto which seems to wish he weren't there. AIDS makes an intrusive and haphazard entry into the narrative, and the novel closes on a surprisingly low note, considering Irving's history. The novel's epilogue is not much of one, and depressing due to its extensive accounts of premature deaths.

I spent the first 200 pages of A Son of the Circus fighting the urge to stop reading, pressing on only out of trust in Irving (I have read and enjoyed six other Irving novels.) Then for a long stretch, when the dominoes were mid-fall I thought that Irving had done it again, but the end left me wondering what I'd just read, and why. The novel gets a 4.7 out of 10.

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