I did it! I finally read A Widow for One Year by John Irving. I finally understand the title that’s been sitting on my shelf for what seems like forever. It took a half a day longer than I thought it would, and it felt like I had run a 10K when I finally finished the last page, but I did it!
This was the first time I made my notes directly in the book. This was an old paperback in bad shape, so I didn’t feel bad marking it up. I forgot to put a color code in place before I started, so my highlighting colors don’t mean a lot. I attempted to make orange consistently mark foreshadowing, and pink marked statements about abstract nouns. I still used some post its to mark sections I thought I would want to reference.
It felt pretty good to highlight in the book, but since I felt like I just wanted to get through this novel and finish it, I didn’t spend time writing any notes in the margins. I think if I enjoyed the book more, I might have really enjoyed the process, so now I think I want to try this process again with another old paperback. I have an old copy of a book I love that I’ve been wanting to re-read. For the moment, I’ll keep that as a possible future read.
Things I Learned
A Widow for One Year was kind of all over the place. It reminded me of a clip show from an old TV series, when they would make an episode out of clips from other episodes. It contained aspects of all of the novels we have looked at so far: It used fictional books as part of the story like The Manual of Detection and The Madness of Crowds. It had the meta levels of a writer writing about a writer writing about writing like The Woman in the Library. It had the realism, sex, and adultery of Madame Bovary. It had the sexually obsessed parents of Unspeakable Things. It had the head-hopping omniscient narrator, and social commentary of Little Fires Everywhere. This vast tome had a bit of everything. And yet, it was completely different from all of those other novels in its emotional rawness and ability to surprise.
The thing that stood out for me the most in A Widow for One Year by John Irving was the excessive use of blatant foreshadowing. This is another reason the novel felt like a clip show, or like I wrote on Tuesday, ADHD as a novel. Irving starts a sentence in the present ant by the end of the paragraph you’re in the future or past and then he gets to the next sentence of the action in the present and then he’s off again. This created a strange constant pendulum swing of time. The distant omniscient narrator can see forever into the future and the past and will randomly let the reader in on this information. Such as, “In a year’s time, the police would crack down on the “illegals”; soon there would be empty window rooms around the red-light district.” This future knowledge doesn’t even affect the main characters, but there you go, future told.
Irving addresses this in a somewhat meta comment on his own writing, using a quote from Graham Greene. “On the subject of childhood, Ruth preferred what Greene had written in The Power and the Glory: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Oh, yes—Ruth agreed. But sometimes, she would have argued, there is more than one moment, because there is more than one future.”
Tragedy’s influence: This novel starts years after a tragic accident in which two teen boys die. Their deaths tear their family apart and influence the actions of the family members and the people around them for their whole lives. He emphasizes the effect of this tragedy through giving special importance to photographs hung around the house, each with a story that the characters tell to one another to keep the dead boys alive in their thoughts.
One of the things that Irving does well in A Widow for One Year is to bring the reader into taboos: mostly sexual taboos. Keeping the reader focused on sex and taboo sexual behaviors so when the events of the plot happen they are real surprises. Like a magician’s slight of hand, Irving has the reader looking at sadism and statutory rape, while never suspecting the deaths on the horizon.
This reminded me of the Joyce Carol Oates Masterclass “The Art of the Short Story.” In Lesson 4. Ideas: Exploring Taboo and Darkness she says, “If one can face the darkest elements in oneself and things that are secret and buried, I think there’s a great deal of power.”
Her first example is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray about homosexuality during a time that sodomy was illegal and a homosexual could be put to death. She used it as an example of a writer confronting taboo that could not be written about openly and said, “Being elliptical gives you a lot of power that being head on and direct would not have.”
But Irving’s use of taboos isn’t elliptical at all. It’s graphic and realistic and shoved in the reader’s face again and again. Oates goes on, however. She mentions memoirs about alcoholism, depression, and being a widower, and says they “hit a nerve of candor.” She also says that “tapping on secret audiences is the consequence of writing about taboos.”
Talking about the body: Irving’s focus on boobs and talking about penises is both casual as if people always openly talk about their bodies, and then repetitive to the point that I wondered about his odd boob obsession. This casual nakedness being normal and yet odd starts near the beginning of the novel when Ruth is four years old. “As usual, she took only a passing interest in his nakedness. “Your penis is funny,” she said.
“My penis is funny,” her father agreed. It was what he always said.
By the time I neared the end of the book I was pretty tired of reading about Ruth’s boobs and came across this exchange. “It may have been his anniversary, but he was looking at your breasts,” Hannah said.
“He was not!” Ruth protested.
“Everyone does, baby. You better get used to it.”
As a reader, I never got used to it. It looks like other readers didn’t either: there’s a thread about it on Reddit.
I think there’s definitely something to be learned from the vulnerability of nakedness, and the realism of humans as sexual beings, but I also think Irving got a little hung up on it in this novel.
Applying What I Learned
At this early stage of my revision, I’m trying something I’ve never tried before. Starting at the end of my draft, I’m putting two scenes at a time into Scrivener and then brainstorming fifty other options. So I copied my final two scenes into a Scrivener file taking the time to write summaries and titles for the scenes and using the meta-data to color code the emotional arc and label the scene value. Then I brainstormed fifty other possible endings. Then I copied the two scenes before that and did the same. I’m really enjoying the brainstorming and near the end of fifty new ideas, the ideas are getting interesting. Going through this process is helping me really understand the infinite combinations of choices that make up every novel. I can also see how a first draft is like my mini-trampoline that I love, it’s a surface with springs, to bounce off of again and again.
Let’s look at how I can apply some of the big-picture elements of Irving’s A Widow for One Year to my novel revision.
Time: Though I was not a fan of how Irving used foreshadowing in this novel, is there a way of changing the chronology of my draft that would be a better way to tell the story? If I altered chapters between the present and five years ago leading up to and after the homicides, that could be very interesting.
It would show three different versions of my main character: 1. the recovered version in her new normal life 2. the confident rising star detective of the past and 3. the after homicide descending version, losing herself, not able to solve the case, crossing the line, getting fired, and hitting rock bottom. It’s a good idea. I might give it a try.
I could write all of the backstory about the homicides as scenes from my MCs POV. She, of course, wouldn’t see that she was spiraling, or crossing the line, but the reader would see her becoming more obsessive, and making bad decisions. This technique would change a lot of dialogue and exposition to scene which is also more immersive for the reader.
Tragedy: Like the characters of A Widow for One Year, my MC had a tragedy in her life when she was young that affects her motivations and decisions. I can use photographs, objects, and memories, stories she tells, sayings she uses, and ways she responds to people to show how much this tragedy has shaped her life and the lives of those around her. Irving’s example can help me emphasize this effects of the tragedy more through out my novel.
Taboo: I like the taboo exploration-distraction technique idea. In my novel the taboos are: paganism, mysticism, sacrilege, bisexuality, random acts of violence, psychological manipulation, and corruption. I may need to zero in on some specific aspects of those taboos that make people really uncomfortable and aren’t written about very much. And brainstorm how I can really lean into the taboo to surprise with a plot event.
Talking about the body:
I don’t think I talked about bodily functions all that much in my novel. After reading Irving, I’m wondering if I don’t need to get into the body more—not the obsessive, creepy breast fixation—but each of my women may be at a different stage in her cycle and it would affect her in a different way.
One of my characters is pretending to be older, to be a woman that would have gone through menopause. Having a tampon or pad in her purse would give her away. Also having her period would give her away, so cramps, bloating, headache, taking Pamprin, or a similar drug; these would all be signs that she is a younger woman. Being on the pill, could also give her away.
My MCs best friend is sexually open and likes to shock her by being crass, so she would openly talk about having her period, having her period while having sex, embarrassing moments of bleeding in public, etc. These are taboos that people don’t write about that much, though it did come up in Little Fires Everywhere.
Maybe having her period came up in the victim’s wife’s defense. Maybe she couldn’t have committed a grizzly homicide because she had cramps and was tired physically and mentally from having her period. It made her sluggish and anemic. That could be an interesting societal issue. I wonder if there’s legal precedence. I’ll look in my women and the law book.
Though I found Irving’s obsession with breasts really obnoxious and annoying and his obsession with sex disturbing, I think that avoiding sex and bodily function is also wrong, so finding a balance is important. Humans have basic needs, food, water, shelter, elimination, sleep, exercise/physical labor (purpose) and sex (connection). So my characters need all these things too.
As you can see, though A Widow for One Year was not one of my favorite John Irving novel, reading it as a novelist was both informative and inspiring.
This week I’m reading To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, in paperback from the library for The Modern and the Postmodern (Part 2) online course section called, “Intensity and the Ordinary: Art, Loss, Forgiveness.” While I’m still working on the big picture aspects of my developmental edit, I’m curious to see where this novel will take me.
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