The Magazine

Sex and the Novel

The world according to John Irving.

Aug 13, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 45 • By MICHAEL LONG
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THE DISSONANCE OF A JOHN IRVING NOVEL—the typically staid John Irving prose used to express the typically steamy John Irving topics—can be overwhelming. It’s like listening to a schoolmarm reading aloud the letters to Penthouse.

Irving’s novels are a parade of cross-dressers, kink freaks, transsexuals, obsessives, adulterers, and romanticizers of incest—with fantasists, fetishists, emotional nomads, and intellectual onanists. If your definition of a good book is a book about sex, then Irving is the place to go, because does this guy ever write about sex. Constantly. Continuously. Prodigiously. Intensely. Religiously—especially religiously. For Irving’s characters, sex is a sacrament. It is the gateway to other awareness, other possibility, other consciousness.

As it turns out, his characters pursue sexual gratification with a peculiarly modern devotion. They go to sex the way a lot of Americans seem to go to church—as a reflexive act, engaged in with little thought, but imagined to be good for the children. For John Irving’s characters, sex is the sect, and no one is devout.

The Fourth Hand, Irving’s tenth novel, is another exercise in sharply rendered prurience as the driving force of life. Patrick Wallingford, a roguish and immature television reporter whose stories are of the National Enquirer bent, has his hand bitten off by a lion. Just after the accident, he dreams a detailed vision of a love affair.

At the same time, a woman in Wisconsin—the woman of his dream—offers her husband’s body for transplant replacement parts, should an early death befall him, which it soon does. The hand changes owners.

The reporter and the widow are irresistibly drawn to each other; they believe their meeting is destiny. He tries to become worthy of the dream girl; she waits around for him. And in an unrelated plot—it’s more of an extended anecdote, really—the lonely, brainy transplant surgeon who performs the operation finds love, too.

If Irving had used a lighter touch, the book might have been a sex farce, like his 1972 novel The Water-Method Man. But every moment in The Fourth Hand is rendered in tones so earnest, it’s clear Irving intends this as A Serious Piece of Literature.

One wishes to ask him how seriously we are supposed to take a book in which even the most mature characters possess the sexual sophistication of a high-school boy on prom night. In The Fourth Hand, love arrives first, always, and only as sexual attraction. For instance, in Wallingford’s dream, his fantasy lover has a voice so provocative that it spontaneously arouses any man who hears it. And when the transplant surgeon hires a live-in housekeeper, she falls in love with him and parades her nubile self around the house naked to get his attention. Not once do two people meet, discover common interests, or flirt. They rut as rite; it is what acquaintances of the opposite sex do just after exchanging names.

John Irving has always been the voice of the libidinous male fantasy, but it seems to have thinned down over the years into nothing except libidinous male fantasy. His stock characters are trotted out—mystical physicians, circus people, seductresses, afflicted animals, poop-hurling joggers, baby-obsessed single women—but without a theme or plot that significantly connects them. They are only riffs on material he’s shown us before. (For instance, an early scene in a doctor’s office seems a deliberate echo of the encounter between Jenny Fields and the coma patient in The World According to Garp.)

And meanwhile, any touch of reality seems to have faded. In The Fourth Hand, no one worries about their sexual encounters’ possibility of disease or unwanted pregnancy—or what their sex lives might reveal about their lives the rest of the time. Wallingford impregnates a freshly minted Midwestern widow in a doctor’s office. Callous as that is of Wallingford, what kind of widow—what kind of woman—is so desperate to get pregnant, and so unmoved by grief, that she rapes a stranger for his fatherhood potential within hours of the death of her dedicated husband?

Surely that deranged woman would act deranged in a few other situations. But in The Fourth Hand, Irving’s characters engage in sexual distraction and even procreation with all the forethought and consequence of people choosing a candy bar in the checkout line.