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13 Facts About A Prayer for Owen Meany

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istock (blank book)

Author John Irving’s novel about a boy with a “wrecked voice” who believes he’s an instrument of God is a staple on high school summer reading lists. Here are a few things you might not have known about it.


Irving always writes the ends of his novels first, and Owen Meany was no different: He wrote the penultimate paragraph of the novel first, and added the last paragraph two days later. “I never write the first sentence until I know all the important things that happen in the story, especially—and I mean exactly—what happens at the end of the novel,” he wrote after the book was published [PDF]. “If I haven’t already written the ending—and I mean more than a rough draft—I can’t write the first sentence.”

In the case of Owen Meany, Irving didn't write the first sentence (“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany”) until at least a year later. “I may one day write a better first sentence to a novel than that of A Prayer for Owen Meany, but I doubt it," Irving wrote. What makes the first sentence of A Prayer for Owen Meany such a good one is that the whole novel is contained in it.”


The author was home in Exeter, New Hampshire for Christmas in the early ‘80s, where he and his childhood friends were remembering other friends who had gone to Vietnam and never come back, or who had come back but were very messed up from it. “Suddenly one of my friends mentioned a name that drew a blank with me—a Russell somebody,” Irving wrote. “Then another one of my friends reminded me that, in Sunday School, we used to lift up this little boy; he was our age, about eight or nine, but he was so tiny that we could pass him back and forth over our heads.”

That jogged Irving’s memory. Russell had moved away before they had become teenagers, and had been killed in Vietnam. “I was amazed,” Irving writes. “I said one of the stupidest things I’ve ever said. ‘But he was too small to go to Vietnam!’ My friends looked at me with pity and concern. ‘Johnny,’ one of them said, ‘I presume he grew.’ That night I lay awake in bed, pondering the ‘What if...’ that is the beginning of every novel for me. What if he didn’t grow? I was thinking.” Irving would later incorporate the memory of passing Russell over the heads of kids in Sunday School into a scene in Owen Meany.


In the novel, Johnny’s mother is killed by a baseball hit by Owen Meany—which, Irving said in an interview with the Denver Post, is an homage to the Robertson Davies novel Fifth Business, in which the protagonist’s mom is killed by a snowball. “I love that novel,” Irving said. “And Owen Meany has the same initials as Oskar Matzerath—the hero of Günter Grass's novel The Tin Drum.” (And, like Irving’s Meany, Oskar Matzerath refuses to grow.) “Many writers become writers because of something they read,” he told the Post. “Homage is simply recognizing and acknowledging your ancestors.”


If Johnny’s abrasive cousin Hester in Owen Meany sounds familiar, it might be because you’ve read Irving’s 1985 novel The Cider House Rules. “Certain minor characters repeat themselves,” Irving told Readers Read in 2005. “Melony in Cider House is reborn as Hester in A Prayer for Owen Meany, and they are both reborn and enlarged upon in the character of Emma in Until I Find You.”


The physical description of Owen Meany who is first described as looking embryonic, not yet born, was a passage I lifted from the physical description of the orphan Fuzzy Stone who dies of respiratory failure in The Cider House Rules, the novel before I wrote, A Prayer for Owen Meany,” Irving said at a 2006 charity event with Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. I am unaware if it's possible to get in trouble for plagiarizing yourself but I did. If you look at the physical description of Fuzzy Stone and the physical description of Owen Meany, they're almost word for word the same.


In an interview with Powells, Irving said he looked into both the quarry business and being a body escort to write Owen Meany. “I feel I have to be the dutiful journalist,” he said. “I have to put myself in the hands of someone whose life that is and learn it. You just have to know that stuff or you shouldn't write about it.”


The author writes Owen’s weird “wrecked voice” in all caps. When asked to describe what the voice sounds like to him, Irving told the Denver Post that “There's gravel damage, rock dust, granite quarry residue, in Owen's throat; he probably has what they call ‘singers' polyps.’ It is a damaged-sounding voice; it has to strain. It's always a little harsh-sounding—never soft. It's irritating to listen to—like the effect of those capital letters, I thought. It's an insistent voice—one that demands to be heard.” Another important reason it was necessary: In the novel's climactic scene, where he saves a group of Vietnamese children at an airport from the grenade-wielding half-brother of a dead soldier, Owen has to have a voice the Vietnamese children will pay attention to, which is why he also has to be small,” Irving said.


Johnny’s mother is killed by a baseball, hit by Owen; his dog is killed when he’s hit by a truck chasing a football; and Owen dies after lobbing a grenade out a bathroom window—a move he and Johnny had perfected by practicing basketball dunking for years. “I think sports are altogether too important to American society,” Irving, a former wrestler, told the Denver Post:

We certainly celebrate sports, and sports heroes, more than we honor the arts, or any number of intellectual achievements. We are a sports culture. … This is a novel about the damage Americans do to themselves; sports are a part of that damage. If world news were covered as extensively, and in such detail, as the ceaseless March Madness over college basketball, wouldn't Americans be better informed about the world, and our place in it, than we are? … It's not literally, of course, that sports are killing us; but what we pay intense attention to it, and what we ignore is surely doing us some harm. And, as a former wrestler who is bored to tears by basketball, I thought: What possibly good reason can there be for insanely practicing sinking a basketball when you're Owen Meany's size? Well, how about saving the lives of children? In my view, there's no other good reason for it!


In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Johnny Wheelwright escapes Vietnam after Owen cuts off part of his trigger finger with a diamond wheel—but Irving didn’t qualify for service because he was a Kennedy father.

“In 1963, relatively early in the Vietnam War, President Kennedy issued an executive order saying if you were the father of a child, and that child's necessary means of support, you were not to be drafted into military service,” Irving told the Denver Post. The author got married and had a son while he was still in college, so he went from a student deferment to a Kennedy father deferment. But that didn’t make him feel lucky. “I felt disappointed. I wanted to be a writer; therefore, I wanted to see what the war was like,” he said. “Years later, of course, I realized how lucky I'd been. That child—he's in his 40s now, with children of his own—reminds me from time to time about it. Whenever we get in an argument of some kind, he says, ‘Don't forget who kept you out of Vietnam.’” The deferment ended in 1970.


Still, despite the similarities between Irving and John Wheelwright—they share a similar childhood history, didn’t go to Vietnam, and both, as adults, live in Toronto—Irving emphasizes that he’s not Wheelwright. “I wouldn't be playing fair if I did not admit to sharing some of his opinions emotionally, but the point about Johnny Wheelwright is that he has no distance; he has no perspective,” Irving told the New York Times in 1989. “He is puerile. His sense of political outrage is strictly emotional.”

He doesn’t share John Wheelwright’s religious fervor, either. “I'm not religious,” he told the Denver Post. “In writing A Prayer for Owen Meany, I asked myself a fairly straightforward question—namely, what would it take to make a believer out of me? The answer is that I would have to meet someone like Owen Meany. If I'd had Johnny Wheelwright's experience in that novel, I would probably be a believer too. But I haven't had that experience—I only imagined it.”


The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, and The Cider House Rules all hit number one on the bestsellers charts—and Owen Meany, released in 1989, might have, too, if not for Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which got a sales boost thanks to the fatwa against him. “I called Salman briefly after he went into hiding back then,” Irving told Parade. “I told him congratulations, since we were one-two on bestseller lists all over the world. Rushdie laughed and came right back at me. ‘You want to switch places?’”


Irving told Nashville Scene in an email interview in 2008 that “It's ironic to me that the three of my eleven published novels most taught in A.P. English classes in high schools, and in colleges and universities, are the same three novels that have been banned in various schools—and in some libraries. (A Prayer for Owen Meany is the most frequently taught at the high-school level; The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp get more exposure in colleges and universities.)”

He had mixed feelings about the required part, he said:

I remember—this was mainly in high school—hating some of the novels I was required to read, though in most cases these required books introduced me to many of my favorite authors. In the area of Vermont where I live, I visit schools where my novels are taught; I've attended a fair number of A.P. English classes, just to talk to the kids and answer their questions. I'm lucky, as a writer, that I've always maintained a very young audience; that my novels are taught in courses, both in high school and at colleges and universities, helps to keep the age of my audience young. That matters more to me at sixty-six than it once did.


Irving, who penned the screenplay for his the film adaptation of his novel The Cider House Rules over the course of 13 years—all the while writing novels—decided he was too busy and “had neither the desire nor the stamina to revisit the Vietnam years” to try to adapt a screenplay for a film version of Owen Meany. “Therefore, when Mark Steven Johnson approached me not to write a screenplay of A Prayer for Owen Meany but to allow him to write and direct the picture, I was very happy to let him try,” Irving said in a statement posted on Ain’t It Cool News. But he had some conditions: “I said I wanted to read the shooting script and decide at that time if I wanted them to use my title and the names of my characters. Mark agreed.”

Irving liked the script, he said, which was quite different from the novel: Everything about Vietnam had been excised and the ending was changed. “I felt it would mislead the novel's many readers to see a film of that same title which was so different from the book,” Irving said, and so he asked that the name be changed. The resulting movie, which starred Ashley Judd, Jim Carrey, and Oliver Platt, was called Simon Birch and hit theaters in 1998. “Simon Birch is really Mark Steven Johnson's story—with Owen Meany's beginning,” Irving said. “I think it was, therefore, a happy resolution for both Mark and me that he was able to make his film, which clearly was ‘suggested by’ (as credits say) A Prayer for Owen Meany, but which is clearly not A Prayer for Owen Meany.”

Afterward, rumors circulated that Irving had hated the movie. “Mark took an unfair bashing in the American press,” Irving told The Guardian. “People wrote that I hated the film and took my title away. That is untrue.” He told The Guardian that the book is unfilmable because “film is two-dimensional. What you see is real. To visualize Owen's miracle is to make it unbelievable. It would be like those biblical movies of the 1950s and early 1960s. When the Red Sea actually does part, the audience just doesn't believe it.” The book has since been adapted into a stage play, a college production, and a BBC radio play.

Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0
New 'Eye Language' Lets Paralyzed People Communicate More Easily
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0

The invention of sign language proved you don't need to vocalize to use complex language face to face. Now, a group of designers has shown that you don't even need control of your hands: Their new type of language for paralyzed people relies entirely on the eyes.

As AdAge reports, "Blink to Speak" was created by the design agency TBWA/India for the NeuroGen Brain & Spine Institute and the Asha Ek Hope Foundation. The language takes advantage of one of the few motor functions many paralyzed people have at their disposal: eye movement. Designers had a limited number of moves to work with—looking up, down, left, or right; closing one or both eyes—but they figured out how to use these building blocks to create a sophisticated way to get information across. The final product consists of eight alphabets and messages like "get doctor" and "entertainment" meant to facilitate communication between patients and caregivers.

Inside of a language book.
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

This isn't the only tool that allows paralyzed people to "speak" through facial movements, but unlike most other options currently available, Blink to Speak doesn't require any expensive technology. The project's potential impact on the lives of people with paralysis earned it the Health Grand Prix for Good at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity earlier in June.

The groups behind Blink to Speak have produced thousands of print copies of the language guide and have made it available online as an ebook. To learn the language yourself or share it with someone you know, you can download it for free here.

[h/t AdAge]

How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library

Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]


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