Not Just a Common English Name?

When I was 16 I read The World According to Garp for English class. That was the beginning, the beginning of the somewhat inexplicable influence of authors named John on my life. In the ensuing three years I read every John Irving novel I could get my hands on. I noticed trends in his writing, symbols and recurring themes; but mostly I just revelled in his stories, which were at times heart-rending, and often full of entrancing bizarreness.

In 2008 I encountered another essential authorial John when I picked up a Popular Penguin edition of Rabbit, Run. Since then I’ve delved further into the Rabbit series, Memories of the Ford Administration, Marry Me, and a shelf-full of others. Updike was the first author to convince me that, if well written enough, I could truly, viscerally, love a character who is devoid of any positive personality traits. This was a somewhat startling discovery.

In the last few months, it’s been YA author John Green, who, if I’m honest, I’ve loved since my stint looking after the Children’s/Teen sections at a prominent independent bookstore in Massachusetts. Few authors have mastered the intricacies of an authentic teenage viewpoint as well as Green. Jonathan Stroud with his sardonic Bartimaeus trilogy was also a mainstay during those years.

And then there’s the distinctively be-spectacled Jonathan Franzen. With the publication of Freedom I finally, though with some trepidation, picked up my copy of The Corrections.

I’m the type of gal who, when a book or film is highly recommended by many people, begins to doubt that it can be any good. In my experience popularity is rarely correlated with quality.

However, The Corrections was enthralling, keeping me ensconced on my parents’ living room loveseat for most of the Christmas holiday. Likewise, Freedom filled my August with its equally compelling portrayal of the emotional demolitions and redemptions of everyday lives.

One could argue that it’s the reality depicted by these authors that draws me. Even when delving into an unlikely premise, these Johns (and Jonathans) manage to reveal truths that make me feel that bit closer to understanding humankind; the emotions, ideas and fears that motivate us.

As John Green has said: “Literature is in the business of helping us to imagine ourselves and others more complexly, of connecting us to the ancient conversation about how to live as a person in a world full of other people.”

Many of these authors write subtle yet candid prose using characters with egregious personal flaws, prone to casual acts of cruelty or cowardice. These authors remind us not to equate character likeability with true-to-life representation; that our empathy for flawed characters may be the greatest indicator that a story has succeeded in making us imagine others complexly.

While all of these observations are true, I must admit there is still some part of me that believes it is their inherent John-ness that has given these authors their power to reach the imaginative and empathetic centres of my mind. There is something oddly mystical about the reading experience after all.

If anyone needs me, I’ll be on page 1 of Everything is Illuminated.

by Liz Gillett, vicbooks


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