Until I Find You – John Irving



The latest BoysBookClub saw us tackling the 800 odd pages of Until I Find You by John Irving and I wonder if there is any other way to sum up this book than to ask whether Irving is the closest we’ve got to a modern day Dickens? as this is how I felt reading this – complex multi-layered, grown up storytelling with an incredible array of characters that rewards the efforts of the reader.  It is one of the most enjoyable books that we have read in the book club.  Despite it’s length I had no problems reading the book and devoured it in great chunks laughing and feeling great melancholy in equal measure (a bit like Any Human Heart by William Boyd that this book resembled in parts).  The book worked on many levels for me, the fun of reading it and the sparkling array of characters but also the way the themes unfolded across the book and left me thinking about them long after I’d finished the book which is always a good sign. The book charts the life of actor Jack Burns as it unfolds across the years as he seeks to establish the truth behind his upbringing, his relationship with his mother and his search for his absent father.  In many ways a simple premise but that does not do justice the way the story is told and unfolds. The main themes that I took out of the book were:

  • Life’s journey and how we see things or are told things together with the difference between objectivity and subjectivity.  Probably most of us assume we are being objective in our dealings with people and relationships but we can’t be, we can only be subjective based on our own own experiences and what the people who we come across in life reveal to us.  I thought that this was beautifully portrayed by the Jack Burns character.
  • Memory – the book explores what is real and what is not, what do we tell people about the past.  I can’t remember a book that dealt with this issue so well and the way the story twisted between when Jack began to realise that his memories were based on events told by his mother Alice that might not have been real.  Also how do we remember things? do we write them down, take photographs or, in the case of people with tattoos do we ink those memories and journeys into our flesh as was revealed (in more ways that one) by Jack’s father William and his full body of tattoos.
  • Truth, which is closely linked to memory and the concept of objectivity/subjectivity.  What is truth and who decides what it is?What played out throughout the book was to show the unfolding effect that lopsided truth telling can have on the people around you, particularly your children.  All of us will have told truths, half truths and lies to our children and I’m sure most of us will have done this for what we believe to be the right reasons, usually to protect them, but what happens when they realise that what you are telling them maybe doesn’t add up to how they see the world?  Does it mean that you are building a house of cards that can very easily come crashing down?
  • Sex and damage were huge themes throughout the book – some people use many things to deal with emotional pain and damage in their lives, drugs, drink, addictive behaviour of all types which of course can include sex and tattooing and it was interesting how often tattoos both show damage e.g. the ripped hearts etc but that they also often reflect painful memories that form part of our personal journeys through life.
  • Abuse (which was inextricably linked to almost all of the sex in the book).  This was uncomfortable reading in many aspects, not least because I found many of the situations that Jack found himself in absurdly funny.  The abuse was also perhaps unusual in that it was primarily carried out by women in the book.  The abuse of Jack in the early years was also predicated on the belief that Jack was going to turn out to be like his father, a womaniser but this turned out to be a lie so all of Jack’s sexual adventures and desires for older women was built upon the house of cards of memories and truths that were not reality.
  • Identity, all of that things I’ve described above help us to define who we are and who are the people around us.  Jack had no real idea who he was and became an actor that simply reflected back onto the people and situations around him, he had no real identity or core stability due to the damage caused by the abuse, lack of truth and false memory that had been his life.  He acted to his audience of one, his absent father, but that audience was almost mythical.  It made me think about what we all need to be stable, happy people.  We do need an identity that we are comfortable with otherwise we become like Jack mere actors upon the stage of life rather than actually living life.  Perhaps it’s only when we find ourselves (as in the title of the book) that we shape an identity that we, the people around us and those we come into contact with can trust and be comfortable with.
  • Dysfunction/ normality Jack clearly had a dysfunctional life, as did many if not all of the myriad characters throughout the book but again is this not how it is for many of us, perhaps not as dysfunctional as Jack’s granted but I think this book asked the question what is normal and who decides that?  Even if you are not normal that does not mean you lose the rights or capacity for all the good things and emotions that ‘normal’ people maybe take for granted.
  • Complexities of families and relationships – I think that Irving, perhaps like no other writer around at the moment, is so good at drawing out and alluding to the abnormalities/dysfunction that exist in so many families but that also family life is so complex when perhaps all that we need is to be loved and to understand what love is.  I think that this is a theme that gets explored in many of his books and perhaps has something to do with Irving as a person (although I don’t know anything about his background so am only guessing here).  William, Alice, Jack, Emma, Heather and Lesley – you could not get an odder, more complex or more dysfunctional family and yet they were all bound together by the deep bonds of love however misguidedly that was displayed.  I found this one of the most poignant recurring themes throughout the book.

When you write the themes down like this I makes you think blimey that’s some big stuff there and each one could involve serious discussion and I think that this is one of the great things about this book there is just so much in it that you could discuss and think about from the themes to the characters – it’s all in there.  This leads me on to the characters and Wow, I’ve obviously not counted them all but there are dozens and dozens of them all beautifully drawn and none of them confusing in when the appeared in the book, which can often be the case in some books with minor characters appearing later and you’ve got to backtrack to work out who they were.  There is a real skill in being able to have so many characters and to get them to fit the story without confusion.  In the book club we have often complained about the lack of characters in books but this one had them in spades.  Tattoo artists, prostitutes, musicians, actors, wrestles, teachers, medics, chauffeurs, bikes, movie execs, counsellors, policemen etc etc and they are just some of the categories under which there were numerous fantastic individual characters.

Apart from the various tattoo artists at the start of the book the characters I was most drawn to were Jack, Alice, William, Emma, Mrs Oastler, The Wurtz and the Grey Ghost.  I think you could write a thesis on Alice in particular and she was one of the most interesting female characters I think I’ve come across in a book.  In the book club we often talk about whether books are mare or female and I’d love to get a female perspective on this book, both from the point of view of the abuse which as mentioned was primarily carried out by women, but also on the female characters and Alice in particular.  William, Jack’s father and a genius organ player with a full body tattoo, did not reveal himself until right at the end of the book but again was a fantastically drawn character, both in terms of when you actually met him but also how he was portrayed right from the opening page and how your opinion of him, what he looked like, who he was etc, changed as the book developed.  As I was reading the book I was desperate for Jack to find him but for the vast majority of the book it did not look like this would ever happen.  As I reflected on the book while writing this it strikes me how unusual it must be to have one of the main characters introduced on the first page but that you don’t actually meet until about page 800.  There are so many great characters that I couldn’t possibly hope to do them justice in this review.

A few other points to mention, this was a book that was simply packed with great farcical comedy that was often incredibly poignant which is a difficult thing to pull off but you will find yourself chuckling to yourself at regular intervals.  Irving also has recurring themes that crop up across his novels, wrestling, Vienna and bears !  Wrestling was definitely in the book and Vienna was mentioned but I was disappointed by the lack of a bear.

Tattoos and organs and the culture around them were brilliantly described.  I really like tattoos, the history of them, what they signify etc and I was totally in thrall to the detailed descriptions of the significance of certain tattoos, the signature designs of certain artists and the whole world community that the book described.  Allied to this was the weird world of organs, a subject about which I know nothing but again you had this idea that, in the same way tattoo fans will seek out certain signature artists around the world, the same is true of organists who look to play at different churches and cathedrals depending on how many stops the organ has etc.  I ahve no idea what a stop is though or why it’s significant.  The was a real passion (and an OCD / addiction element) to both of these worlds that Irving described and that William was immersed in and I can’t remember ever reading about music in a novel that portrayed the power and moving quality that music can have.  The whole town in Zurich coming to William play each week was a particularly fantastically euphoric moment in the book, mixed in with a dose of farce of course.

However despite all I’ve said would a judicious use of an editor have helped to tighten things up a bit, reduce the length and get rid of some of the rambling ambling sections of the book that potentially distract from making it an absolute classic?  Perhaps yes, however I think that Irving was purposely trying to show how life does amble and ramble and how we develop as characters as life unfolds.

Finally the title of the book Until I Find You – who is the You ?  The tattoo of the words (as depicted above) was on Alice’s breast with a broken heart (damage again) but it was not William that she was looking to find so we were perhaps led to believe that it was the love of her life but I think that it relates to us in that until we find ourselves and are comfortable with the truths/untruths/memories that we hold then we will never be at peace.


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