The Red Couch: A Prayer for Owen Meany discussion

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By Shawn Smucker | Twitter: @shawnsmucker

REDCOUCH

This post may contain spoilers. To learn more about A Prayer for Owen Meany, read the introductory post.

“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.”

Sometimes I think I could say the same thing, that I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

My freshman year in college was a difficult year for me, for many reasons. Late one November night, with only a week or two remaining in the semester, I found myself in a hall full of laughing students. They played card games and told jokes and flirted shamelessly … and I felt so outside of it all. I sat quietly in a chair in the corner, watching, as if I wasn’t even there.

I stood up. I put on my coat. I walked through the door and into the cold. I followed one of the long paths through the woods that surrounded our campus, and as one way leads into another way I came down to the small river that ran through the woods. Recent rains had caused the river to swell up to the edge of its banks, and the ground there was muddy and puddled. I splashed through to a swinging bridge, and I walked out to the middle. I sat down and watched the freezing cold water rush just beneath my dangling legs.

I sat there for a long time that night, and I thought about a lot of things.

But mostly I wondered, “Where are you, God?” 

* * * * *

The theme of absence permeates A Prayer For Owen Meany, beginning with Irving’s story of Watahantowet’s missing arms, symbols of his helplessness in the face of the encroaching white man. And it continues with the armless dummy, and the way Owen Meany removes the armadillos front legs. It’s in John’s amputated finger and in the penultimate scene, when Owen’s arms have been torn away.

But as the book progresses, from beginning to end, the absence picks up a counterbalance. The areas of nothingness begin to take form, gather shape, and we begin to see the journey that Irving is leading us on, a journey from absence to presence.

* * * * *

It was the fall of 1995, two months before that quiet night I spent staring down at an icy river, and I stumbled through weariness to the first 8am class of my collegiate career, “Intro to English,” a required class for all freshman English majors. I carried in my backpack, among other things, a thick novel with an armadillo on the blue-gray cover.

A Prayer For Owen Meany.

My professor was Dr. Downing, a blond, middle-aged Californian wearing bright pink lipstick and a wide belt around her stomach. Energy shot out of her like light, and she practically danced along the front of the class, now giggling with excitement, now serious with emotion. She was wonderful. But then again, of course I would remember her fondly: she introduced me to one of my favorite books.

There are certain books you read, and you know them the way you know someone you met once at a dinner party and then never saw again. Maybe you cross paths with someone who knows the person, and you try to remember what they were like, but only a vague recognition remains. A general profile. A sense of who they were.

Then there are the other books, the rare ones, the ones that become close friends.

* * * * *

This idea of absence evolving into presence becomes most obvious at the midway point of the book, when Owen and John are walking through a fog, discussing the statue that they cannot see (a statue from which Owen would eventually remove the arms).

YOU ABSOLUTELY KNOW SHE’S THERE—EVEN THOUGH YOU CAN’T SEE HER? he asked me.

“Yes!” I screamed.

WELL, NOW YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT GOD, said Owen Meany. I CAN’T SEE HIM—BUT I ABSOLUTELY KNOW HE IS THERE!

In the same way, the other absences in the book begin making way for presence. The armless Watahahtowet and Owen’s removal of the armadillo’s front legs help to communicate Owen’s friendship to John. Owen’s act of amputating John’s finger saves him from the horrors of the Vietnam War. Even the armless dressmaker’s dummy becomes a tool used to help John identify his father.

* * * * *

Is there any other book where the reader can almost completely understand the book’s premise, plot, and major themes so precisely by only reading the first and the last 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.”

And then, the desperate plea at the end.

“Oh God—please give him back! I shall keep asking you.”

This is it—this presence in absence. This is what makes A Prayer For Owen Meany such a beautiful, poignant, memorable read. This is what makes the ending so powerful: there is the absence of Owen Meany, but it is precisely that absence that has led John to a place of continued presence.

__________________

Meet Shawn:

1464601_10152048305393290_1082240186_nShawn Smucker lives in Lancaster, PA with his wife Maile and their five children. He is the author of “Building a Life Out of Words,” the story of his journey into writing full time. He and his wife also wrote, “How to Use a Runaway Truck Ramp,” a book about their family’s 10,000-mile journey around the United States in an old blue bus named Willie. He blogs at shawnsmucker.com.

 

 

Questions to Consider:

  • In what way did the themes of absence and presence resonate with you?
  • Owen speaks and writes in capital letters, emphasizing the potency of his strange voice. At the academy, he is even referred to as the Voice. Why is Owen’s voice so important? What other occasions can you think of in which Owen’s voice played an especially meaningful role?
  • Reverend Merrill always speaks of faith in tandem with doubt. Do you believe that one can exist without the other or that one strengthens the other?
  • Do you think Owen considers himself Christ-like?
  • What clues did Irving give about Owen’s final heroic scene?
  • John assists Owen in rescuing the children, but John always plays the supporting part in Owen’s adventures. Based on the scenes in Toronto in the 1980s, do you think John ever escaped his support-ing role?
  • What parts resonated with you and what parts challenged you?

*Some questions suggested by or adapted from this discussion guide.

Reminder:

Our September book is Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline, just in time for fall fashion. Come back Wednesday, September 3  for the introduction to the book. The discussion post will be Wednesday, September 24. For on-going discussion each month, join The Red Couch Facebook group.

Disclosure : Amazon Affiliate links included in this post.  If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

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  • as i have said many times before and will say many times again, this is the only novel I’ve ever read that made me genuinely sad to have finished it because I did not want it to end. Love this post, thanks Shawn!

    • shawnsmucker

      And that not wanting it to end is probably why I’ve read it so many times.

  • I enjoyed this book, though admit my interest/sympathy for John waned as the book went on. The character of Rev Merrill was such a reminder that doubt is part of faith, but of the danger of stopping in the doubt. Definitely a thought-provoking book – I’d never read it and am glad I finally did!

    • shawnsmucker

      There is something about present-day John that pushes the reader away, or at least pushed me away (and you, too, by what you’ve written). He seems very cynical by the end, especially when it comes to politics and, to some extent, the church as well. I think it’s very true to life because this tends to be what you get with people who live in the past as much as he does. He seems to be a man whose best days are long, long behind him.

      • Such good perspective about present-day John. I tend to feel more sorry for him than annoyed but wonder what my perspective would be like if he was a living, breathing part of my life.

  • Thrilled you are here, Shawn. Those are some powerful words: ” … I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

    • shawnsmucker

      Thanks for having me, Idelette. I never pass up an opportunity to talk about Owen Meany.

  • Michelle Luck

    I’ve always found that where we are in our lives when we read so much affects how we read…. I was looking forward to this book after the glowing recommendations by book genius Leigh Kramer, but I found it hard to get into and slow going through the middle – mostly because my life was so busy and was reading in 10 and 15 minute patches. I finished the last 200 pages in the early hours of the morning, knowing I had a big day ahead, but I had to keep putting the light back on to read just a few more pages. I was spellbound by the ending and the way everything knitted so beautifully together, but not in a neat clichéd way that so many books tie together. I wish I had been able to read the first half in a way that perhaps would have given it justice, and I can’t wait to read again, but I also feel sad that I’ll never get to read it again for the first time. I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt that way about a book before…

    • shawnsmucker

      Excellent point, Michelle. I think one of the reasons this book had such a profound impact on me was because I was in college and could become completely absorbed by it. And feeling sad that you can never read it again for the first time? Yeah, I get that.

    • I’m so glad you ultimately enjoyed the book, Michelle. Sometimes I wish I could experience this book for the first time again. It’s one that continues to resonate all these years later and often in different ways each time I read it.

    • Wairimu Thuo

      This is encouraging because despite by best efforts and the fact that I trust Leigh Kramers recomendations…I am still stuck somewhere in the middle. I will try again

  • Sandy Hay

    A Prayer for Owen Meany is the history of my generation. Not being male I didn’t have to think about war in the same way. But right out of college i married Rich (who’s still my husband 46 years later) who went to Vietnam all of 1970 as a USAF pilot. We didn’t think about draft evasion . We knew Rich would end up in Vietnam and we knew he didn’t want to be in the Army. So we fortunately could go the flying route. We didn’t really think about death. Vietnam for Rich was a job, in a far away country with airplanes and guns and alcohol and cigarettes to help keep one sane. …. At first Owen voice in CAPS was annoying but as the book progressed I looked to forward to what he had to say. so the CAPS didn’t bother me anymore. Owen was profound and sometimes profane and in your face and I couldn’t avoid him and this made me think. I looked back on those years and wondered how I could have lived in such denial . But then most of us didn’t disrespect authority. Sadly their word was truth. Owen’s voice, even after his death, resonated in John’s head. Owen was still his driving force. John made all his decisions on those CAPITAL WORDS…the presence in his absence….Madeleine L’Engle called her periods of doubt her agnostic periods. Many people are stuck here and die here. Rev Merrill’s doubt lasted a very long time. He was finally able to say, “…to believe in God, which I do, raises more questions that it presents answers.”

    • Such fascinating perspective, Sandy. Thank you for sharing Rich’s (and your) experience with Vietnam.

  • Ned

    One of the clever, brilliant devices that Irving uses in this book arises in the first chapter. With it, Irving basically is showing us his hand, and telling us a prime mechanic that drives the story – the use of “props”. Like Dan, our author places a “bag” down in front of us, knowing we cannot resist opening it up and discovering what is inside. In this case, the bag is the book. Dan also explains that “the development of certain techniques of the theatrical arts, how certain dramatic skills, can enhance our understanding of not only the characters on stage, but of a specific time and place….Dan always brought along a certain “prop”, something interesting, either to hold or focus the students attention, or to distract them from what he would finally, make them see.” Irving is telling us exactly what he is doing, and yet knowing this takes nothing away from the magic we behold. The imagery of missing arms, the baseball, the dressmaker’s dummy, etc, etc., are all “props” and early on, Irving is telling us through Dan to get ready but not to focus too much on them. When we read Dan’s words in this passage, John Irving is speaking directly to us and setting us up for what is to come.