My only previous John Irving experience was reading The World According to Garp as a teenager, which I hazily remember being fun - though it didn't lead me to more John Irving. As for The Hotel New Hampshire, here are four seemingly-unrelated thoughts:
1. My movie-buff father confessed to me earlier this year that he "just doesn't get" Wes Anderson. He tried The Royal Tenenbaums, he tried Rushmore (two of my favourites), and he gave up. I got the sense that his frustration was, "People don't talk like that; young people don't talk like that; too eccentric, too weird, too forced." Anderson's notched-up, alter-reality - which I adore - made no sense to him. 2. When Quentin Tarantino was 15 years old, he was arrested for trying to shoplift a book. It was The Switch, by Elmore Leonard - the two main characters of which (Ordell and Louis) were later reprised in Rum Punch, the Elmore Leonard book which Tarantino made into Jackie Brown (see Book #3). 3. As a young reader, my favourite writer was Gordon Korman (Remember him? I Want to Go Home, Who is Bugs Potter?, Our Man Weston) 4. Years ago, a bookworm friend of mine was leaving my house and asked for something to read. "I want J.D. Salinger, but grown-up." My book sense told me to send her home with John Updike's Pigeon Feathers, which she later reported was exactly what was needed.
My Pocket Book copy of The Hotel New Hampshire was a valued gift from another dear friend, whose inscription reads: "Everyone needs a smart bear. Welcome to the Hotel New Hampshire. I hope you like it here." And I did... but I have mixed feelings. Checking into the Hotel New Hampshire (as it were) is a slightly loaded proposition, in the same way that I can imagine The Big Lebowski, or The Mighty Boosh, or the films of Wes Anderson can be for the uninitiated - because they are so beloved, and so quoted from, that for those on the inside, they're a kind of language unto themselves.
So there was a “sacredness” I couldn't help but be aware of during my time with the Berrys - Irving's cartoonishly oddball family, whose company I often rejoiced in but whose hyper-eccentricities (the sole gay character sleeps only with a dress-maker’s mannequin, for instance) and insider-slogans (“Keep passing the open windows,” “Sorrow floats,” “Life is serious but art is fun!”) wore me down a little with their cuteness. The Hotel New Hampshire is the madcap story of the five-sibling Berry family told through three incarnations of the eponymous hotel, and the first Hotel New Hampshire, which is nearly half the book, filled me with delight, and had me laughing out loud in a way that very few books do (I had a chest cold, so each time the laughing led to a coughing fit - and at Hotel New Hampshire #1, there was something on every page that got me joyfully hacking away). At its best, The Hotel New Hampshire lived up to its own proposal that "The single ingredient in American literature that distinguishes it from other literatures of the world is a kind of giddy, illogical hopefulness."
I couldn’t help but be reminded of Salinger’s Glass family (the most charismatic of the Berrys is even named “Franny”). Precocious siblings, a dysfunctional but loving family, quirkiness galore, suicide. Whatever else it may be, “Life is never boring in the Hotel New Hampshire.” At the height of my delight, its verve and irreverence returned me to my childhood thrill of reading Gordon Korman - and if a friend of mine told me she wanted “Gordon Korman, but grown-up,” I'd send her home with The Hotel New Hampshire. It sent me off with many catchphrases that make me smile (“You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed!,” “In the Hotel New Hampshire, we’re screwed down for life!,” and of course, “Everyone needs a smart bear.”) It left me needing to reread The Great Gatsby, and wanting to give A Prayer for Owen Meany a try - while knowing that, in the end, I might "just not get" John Irving. But above all, it left me wishing that a 15-year old Wes Anderson had been arrested for shoplifting a copy of The Hotel New Hampshire - because it's Anderson's translation of Irving's weirdo-world that I would most love to see.
ps. Synchronistically fun for me alone and maybe for fans of The HNH: the very day I finished Irving's book I watched Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black, which opens with Jeanne Moreau's titular bride attempting to throw herself out of an open window. A few days later I saw Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (another dividend, incidentally, of reading Patton Oswalt's Silver Screen Fiend - see Book #2) and watching the extras, I laughed aloud to discover that when Wilder was growing up in Vienna, his father was a hotelier - and that furthermore, as a young newspaperman Wilder was sent one afternoon to interview Freud (the other Freud). He was denied an audience on account of Freud’s contempt for the newspapers - nonetheless, it never feels like coincidence to notice these very different works of art talking to each other in the most unexpected ways.