After reading the prefatory Author’s Notes, I felt some trepidation about reading this book. Irving starts by saying the book isn’t about India; he says he doesn’t know India. And yet this is a book wholly set in India, and the protagonist, Farrokh, is Indian. Farrokh is, however, an Indian for whom India is foreign, much as Irving states he found India to be foreign: “obdurately” and “unyieldingly.”
While I am not familiar enough with the thinkings around voice and appropriation to be able to set out in footnoted detail why this feels weird to me, the fact is that is does feel weird. One reason why I generally prefer reading women’s writing is that in general the female characters are more realistic. I may or may not like those characters, but they tend to be more believable to me. It seems to me to follow that characters of colour will likely tend to be more realistic when written by PoC.
It’s a rare thing, then, for me to read a book written by a white person in which the protagonist isn’t white. While I do think we have to stretch our imaginations to encompass the experiences of others in order to create meaningful work (or else all of my characters would have to be white, cis, female, bisexual, working class, atheist, abuse survivors with mental health issues), it struck me as cheating for Irving to use a whole country and all its cultures as an exotic backdrop while freely admitting he knows nothing about it. He makes much of the fact that his Indian friends helped him and assured him it was okay (wow).
I did go ahead and read it. I mean, it’s John Irving, right? A classic? Aren’t we supposed to be reading all his stuff? And a lot of it was a good read, complex and interwoven and surprising as his stories are.
But he exoticises so much: the “dwarfs” with whom Farrokh is obsessed; the circus, ditto; the plucky multilingual crippled beggar boy; etc. And the casual sexual violence against women and girls, especially girls. The prepubescent girls whom he refers to as child prostitutes (rather than, more accurately, sexually exploited and abused children). And his overall characterisation of Indians as mercenary, excitable, incompetent, and just not really very smart. My own personal feeling about this is it’s a punch-down. If you as a white writer want an exotic locale to use as background and to mock, then instead of using a country about which you know nothing (and with a history of colonialism, on top of that), just make something up. An imaginary world—heck, even an imaginary country in this world—would have served just as well as a backdrop for the themes of emigration, alienation, and outsiderness.
Those themes are usually very interesting to me, as I have emigrated twice and these moves have shaped my life profoundly. However, Irving’s treatment of them—rather crudely encapsulated in Farrokh’s father’s assertion that immigrants are immigrants all their lives—seemed weirdly shallow. Farrokh doesn’t seem to feel at home anywhere (neither Canada nor India, the two countries where he lives), but there is also no indication that he is making any effort to make a home or build community or take responsibility for changing the circumstances of his life in order to feel more at home. Nor is he a character who thrives on outsiderness. Instead, belonging is treated as some mysterious, magical state which he believes he will never achieve, and so he gives up. And in the end, the character also gives up on India, finding it just too strange, and goes to live permanently in Canada; I was irritated by this plot twist precisely because of the white writer’s default assumption that Canada is, of course, less “foreign” than India, even for a character who was born in India. Puh-leez.
I won’t read this one again, although I’ll probably try other books of his. I’ve read some in the past and enjoyed them (The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Water-Method Man), but that was a long time ago. I don’t know if this book is really so different from the others or whether I am just a very different reader now. It’ll be an interesting experiment.
A Son of the Circus. John Irving. 1994.