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“The Imaginary Girlfriend is a miniature autobiography detailing Irving’s parallel careers of writing and wrestling. . . . Tales of encounters with writers (John Cheever, Nelson Algren, Kurt Vonnegut) are intertwined with those about his wrestling teammates and coaches. With humor and compassion, [Irving] details the few truly important lessons he learned about writing. . . . And in beefing up his narrative with anecdotes that are every bit as hilarious as the antics in his novels, Irving combines the lessons of ...
“The Imaginary Girlfriend is a miniature autobiography detailing Irving’s parallel careers of writing and wrestling. . . . Tales of encounters with writers (John Cheever, Nelson Algren, Kurt Vonnegut) are intertwined with those about his wrestling teammates and coaches. With humor and compassion, [Irving] details the few truly important lessons he learned about writing. . . . And in beefing up his narrative with anecdotes that are every bit as hilarious as the antics in his novels, Irving combines the lessons of both obsessions (wrestling and writing) . . . into a somber reflection on the importance of living well.”
–The Denver Post
In my prep-school days, at Exeter, Creative Writing wasn’t taught—the essay was all-important there—but in my years at the academy I neverthe- less wrote more short stories than anything else; I showed them (out of class) to George Bennett, my best friend’s father. The late Mr. Bennett was then Chairman of the English Department; he was my first critic and encourager—I needed his help. Because I failed both Latin and math, I was required to remain at the academy for an unprecedented fifth year; yet I qualified for a course called English 4W—the “W” stood for Writing of the kind I wanted to do—and in this selective gathering I was urged to be Creative, which I rarely managed to be.
In my memory, which is subject to doubt, the star author and most outspoken critic in English 4W was my wrestling teammate Chuck Krulak, who was also known as “Brute” and who would become General Charles C. Krulak—the Commandant of the Marine Corps and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No less a presence, and as sarcastic a critic as the future General Krulak, was my classmate in English 5, the future writer G.W.S. Trow; he was just plain George then, but he was as sharp as a ferret—I feared his bite. It was only recently, when I was speaking with George, that he surprised me by saying he’d been deeply unhappy at Exeter; George had always struck me as being too confident to be unhappy—whereas my own state of mind at the time was one of perpetual embarrassment.
I could never have qualified for Exeter through normal admissions procedures; I was a weak student—as it turned out, I was dyslexic, but no one knew this at the time. Nevertheless, I was automatically admitted to the academy in the category of faculty child. My father taught in the History Department; he’d majored in Slavic Languages and Literature at Harvard—he was the first to teach Russian History at Exeter. I initiated a heightened level of intrafamily awkwardness by enrolling in his Russian History course. Dad rewarded me with a C1.
To say that Exeter was hard for me is an understatement. I was the only student in my Genetics class who failed to control his fruit-fly experiment. The red eyes and the white eyes were interbreeding so rapidly that I lost track of the generations; I attempted to dispose of the evidence in the drinking fountain outside the lab—not knowing that fruit flies could live (and breed) for days in the water pipes. When the unusable drinking fountain was declared “contaminated”—it was literally crawling with wet fruit flies—I crawled forth and made my confession.
I was forgiven by Mr. Mayo-Smith, the biologist who taught Genetics, because I was the only townie (a resident of Exeter) in any of his classes who owned a gun; the biologist needed me—more specifically, he needed my gun. Boarding students, quite understandably, were not allowed firearms. But as a New Hampshire native—“Live Free or Die,” as the license plates say—I had an arsenal of weapons at my disposal; the biologist used me as the marksman who provided his Introductory Biology class with pigeons. I used to shoot them off the roof of the biologist’s barn. Fortunately, Mr. Mayo-Smith lived some distance from town.
Yet even in my capacity as Mr. Mayo-Smith’s marksman, I was a failure. He wanted the pigeons killed immediately after they’d eaten; that way the students who dissected them could examine the food contained in their crops. And so I allowed the pigeons to feed in the biologist’s cornfield. When I flushed them from the field, they were so stupid: they always flew to the roof of his barn. It was a slate roof; when I picked them off—I used a 4X scope and a .22 long-rifle bullet, being careful not to shoot them in their crops—they slid down one side of the roof or the other. One day, I shot a hole in the roof; after that, Mr. Mayo-Smith never let me forget how his barn leaked. The fruit flies in the drinking fountain were the school’s problem, but I had shot the biologist’s very own barn—“Personal property, and all that that entails,” as my father was fond of saying in Russian History.
Shooting a hole in Mr. Mayo-Smith’s barn was less humiliating than the years I spent in Language Therapy. At Exeter, poor spelling was unknown—I mean that little was known about it. It was my dyslexia, of course, but—because that diagnosis wasn’t available in the late 1950s and early ’60s—bad spelling like mine was considered a psychological problem by the language therapist who evaluated my mysterious case. (The handicap of a language disability did not make my struggles at the academy any easier.) When the repeated courses of Language Therapy were judged to have had no discernible influence on my ability to recognize the difference between “allegory” and “allergy,” I was turned over to the school psychiatrist.
Did I hate the school?
“No.” (I had grown up at the school!)
Why did I refer to my stepfather as my “father”?
“Because I love him and he’s the only ‘father’ I’ve ever known.”
But why was I “defensive” on the subject of other people calling my father my stepfather?
“Because I love him and he’s the only ‘father’ I’ve ever known—why shouldn’t I be ‘defensive’?”
Why was I angry?
“Because I can’t spell.”
But why couldn’t I spell?
Was it “difficult” having my stepfather—that is, my father—as a teacher?
“I had my father as a teacher for one year. I’ve been at the school, and a bad speller, for five years.”
But why was I angry?
“Because I can’t spell—and I have to see you.”
“We certainly are angry, aren’t we?” the psychiatrist said.
“I certainly are,” I said. (I was trying to bring the conversation back to the subject of my language disability.)
1. How would you describe the narrative voice in The Imaginary Girlfriend? What kind of reader do you think John Irving had in mind while writing this memoir?
2. What is the significance of the title?
3. What kind of relationship does The Imaginary Girlfriend
suggest Irving has with the past? How is his attitude toward the past conveyed in content and in tone?
4. Considering that many of the events and people depicted in The Imaginary Girlfriend are from distant eras of Irving's life, and that he seems to have a remarkably lucid memory, why do you think he draws so much attention to the names and faces he doesn't remember?
5. Farrokh Daruwalla, one of the central characters in Irving's A Son of the Circus, "suppose[s] that the auto-biography of a novelist almost qualifie[s] as fiction—
surely novelists wouldn't resist the impulse to make up their autobiographies." Do you think this assumption applies to The Imaginary Girlfriend?
6. In the beginning of The Imaginary Girlfriend Irving writes: "When you love something, you have the capacity to bore everyone about why—it doesn't matter why." How is this distinction between love and reaons for love evident in Irving's depiction of the wrestling world? Do you think it also relates to his approach to reading?
7. How would you characterize Irving's feelings about formal education, first as a student and later as a teacher? How do these attitudes compare to his thoughts on being in the wrestling world, as a wrestler and as a coach?
8. Wrestling and writing are two of the passions—and disciplines—that have shaped Irving's life. How does Irving go from thinking he "could be a wrestler or a writer, but not both" to finding a way to reconcile the two activities?
9. Irving writes, "My life in wrestling is one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline. I believe that my life as a writer consists of one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline, too." While most of us are probably very skeptical about Irving's writing being based on this proportion of talent to discipline, the concept is intriguing. How does this claim affect your understanding of Irving as a person? Does it change your perception of the writing process?
10. John Irving's writing style is distinctive in many ways—including his "archaic" use of the semi-colon.
In The Imaginary Girlfriend he also uses a large number of parentheses. How do these parenthetical remarks impact the tone of the book?
11. In The Imaginary Girlfriend Irving reports, "Tom Williams once told me that I had a habit of attributing mythological proportions and legendary status to my characters." Do you think this appraisal of Irving's fictional characters applies to his portrayal of the people in his own life?
12. Irving describes himself as being on the outskirts at different stages in his life—as a dyslexic "faculty child" at Exeter, as a "halfway decent" wrestler at Pittsburgh, and as a married father in graduate school at Iowa: "What I remember best about being a student at Iowa was that sense of myself as being married,
and being a father. It separated me from the majority of the other students." How does this vision of himself as being somehow in the minority seem to have affected his life and his writing?
13. Most of what we hear about Irving's family is in regard to wrestling—and yet because wrestling is clearly one of the loves of Irving's life, we get a sense of his life as a father: "Brendan, like his brother before him, had won the New England Class A title. It was the happiest night of my life." How do Irving's descriptions of sharing wrestling with his sons—
from his obvious pride in their accomplishments to his interest in their changing weight classes—help give us a picture of Irving's own development?
14. John Irving's novels are traditionally very long, both because of their rich description and their epic scope. The Imaginary Girlfriend is, by comparison, much shorter.
Why do you think this is the case? How does The Imaginary Girlfriend fit into the memoir/autobiography category? How does it challenge the classification?
15. If you have read any of John Irving's novels, did you have ideas about what The Imaginary Girlfriend—which offers a glimpse into his writing and non-writing lives—would be like? Do you see any seeds of his fictional characters, storylines or themes in The Imaginary Girlfriend?
Posted May 19, 2003
John Irving can pretty much do it all. The Imaginary Girlfriend has the exactness of description equal to that of Tobias Wolff and the plot structure and orginization found only in Irving's (better) novels. (If you want to read Irving's non-fiction, The Imaginary Girlfriend is the book--stay away from My Movie Business!)
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