I'm not going to defend John Irving. I liked The World According to Garp, but almost nothing else he's published since then. (I was at least able to finish The Cider House Rules.) His new novel, Until I Find You, is getting mixed reviews, and it's quite possible all the bad things being said about it (see especially this review by Marianne Wiggins) are true.
However, in his review in The Boston Globe, Kurt Jensen says this:
. . .One senses Irving's attempt to achieve comic effect with such human oddities, and to some extent he succeeds. Yet there is nothing interestingly funny -- much less comically smart -- about any of it. The literary effect is one of extraordinary aesthetic banality.
What exactly makes something "interestingly funny" except for the fact that it is funny? Presumably, if it's funny it's also interesting, or it wouldn't be funny in the first place. Is this a way of saying that what Irving does is funny, but no more than funny? If so, this seems to me a moral judgment--Irving's fiction settles for mere comedy and doesn't dress its humor up in something more profound--and has nothing to do with the aesthetic quality of Until I Find You, banal or otherwise. If it does indeed achieve a "comic effect," it is, at least in this respect, perforce aesthetically successful.
By insisiting that the novel should be more "comically smart," Jensen seems to be asking that it "say something" with its comedy, that it in fact transcend the aesthetic altogether. Or at least that it transcend its own comedy. I won't claim that John Irving is a first-rate comic novelist (although the creation of a kind of Dickensian comedy is certainly the best thing he does), but Jensen's objection is less to Irving's comic method per se than to comedy in general, which, if inadequately leavened with "human interest." can only be, apparently, "aesthetically banal." Again Jensen confuses the moral and the aesthetic.
To be fair, Jensen wants Irving's characters to be more interesting, more "credible." I can imagine readers finding Irving's characters to be "flat," but in some ways this is the inevitable consequence of the kind of comedy he works in. Asking that these characters be more realistic, more rounded, would be to ask that Irving abandon his comedic strategy altogether. As David Markson says in a previously cited interview, a writer writes the way he does because he has to, and this is the way Irving writes. One can have more or less tolerance for it, but it doesn't really do anyone any good to request he write in some other way.
Furthermore, here is Jensen's idea of what makes for credibility in a fictional character:
Credible complexity in a character can be achieved in at least two ways: Either distinctiveness is a matter of the sometimes gaudy and eye-catching methods of personality -- stark red hair, deep sag to the breast, the tortured lisp of the poorly born -- or it can be a presentation of the sometimes invisible but momentously significant suasions that inhabit us all -- the ''not-thought" in thought, the unseen in the visible, the places into which the imagination must reach.
If anybody knows what the second half of this sentence means, please let me know. Although I'm pretty sure I don't usually look for the presentation of "suasions" in most characters I come across, whether they be "not-thought" or actually thought. As to the first kind of complexity: If this is a "credible" method of character-creation, why does Jensen go on to say that "If the novelist cannot, or is not inclined to, perform the second with his words, he may take recourse in the first" and reprove Irving for doing so? It must not be so credible after all.
Maybe Jensen should just have declared he doesn't have a taste for the kind of novel Irving has written, or that Irving's approach doesn't work so well this time around, and forgotten about making his own rules for writers.