The Cider House Rules
by John Irving
Morrow, 560 pp., $18.95
The House of the Spirits
by Isabel Allende, translated by Magda Bogin
Knopf, 368 pp., $17.95
The Magic Kingdom
by Stanley Elkin
Dutton, 317 pp., $16.95
“Sturdy, old-fashioned storytelling”—it carries a heavy burden indeed in that expression “old-fashioned.” The linear plot has a long history, not only in the life of the culture, but for each of us personally; being “told a story” connotes in each of our infantile histories the memory of placating, soporific experience, as self-indulgent and satisfying as thumb sucking. Over the centuries, this kind of pleasure, compounded agreeably of pretended apprehension and secure anticipation, was not thought incompatible with serious commentary on adult matters like money and morals, the tale and the teaching bound together by the denouement in some sort of terminal snugness. But in the early years of this century, it seemed likely that we would get away from such tired formulas and shamefaced conventions of storytelling—would do away, not only with the “lived happily ever after” conclusion but with the contrived obstacle course leading to it. Partly the old conventions seemed to be used up; partly the idea of earning moral and material kudos in return for demonstrated virtue appeared ridiculous in the modern world; partly the linear plot was uncongenial with a central development of modern concern, the expansion of self-consciousness.
Thus for the greater part of the present century, the reputable forms of fiction have diluted or actively avoided “mere” storytelling, in favor of some more active device of reader involvement. We have had puzzle novels, which the reader had to reassemble and interpret; visionary novels,in which the narrative, if any, was a mere screen to be seen through; mirror novels reflecting multiple consciousnesses; psychological novels, in which the action was all interior; and antipsychological novels, in which inner action had to be inferred from an impersonal description of external facts. The list could be extended, and exemplary names assigned to the various types; but it is enough that narrative has been in relative eclipse—which is why its return nowadays is heralded with the reassuring, yet ambiguous, adjective, “old-fashioned.” Still, though linear plot and tailored character are centuries old and have been once rejected, it is too glib to think their potential has been altogether exhausted; indeed, just the opposite could be happening. The sorts of novel that were supposed to render linear narrative obsolete seem to be undergoing some obsolescence of their own. One ought then to look afresh at what is being done with the old form—just in case.
John Irving’s The Cider House Rules is a fine example of the kind of novel that brought linear plots and their cutout characters into disrepute in the first place. It has an intricate plot in the old sense of an intrigue, as well as several subplots, all of which it pursues with relentless disregard for elementary probability and complete indifference to the mental or emotional life of its actors. Homer Wells is introduced to us as an orphan born in an obscure asylum in Maine, and put up for adoption several times, unsuccessfully, until he becomes the protégé of, and …