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Book Report: The Cider House Rules

For most of the summer, Your Humble Blogger was reading three books. It’s fairly common for me to be in the middle of three books at once, but not for more than a month. Part of that was that I didn’t really do much reading in the summer, what with children to raise up and paid employment to be done. Another part was that I interrupted the books more than usual, with preparing for a bunch of auditions. Most of it, though, was that the three books were all long and dense.

The upstairs book was Robert Elsmere, a Very Serious novel about religion and rationality. The downstairs book was JPS, a non-fiction book about religion, commerce, litchratchoor and institutions. And the outside book was The Cider House Rules.

Is Cider House a Very Serious novel? It’s about religion and rationality, at least in part, and institutions, and it has some Very Serious things to say. It does have a lot of funny stuff in it, of course, although the funny stuff is also pretty grim, in comparison with the other books of his I’ve read. Which, admittedly, are his earlier, funnier books. But still.

It’s a fascinating book, fascinating perhaps in that almost-negative sense, the snake-related sense. The sense that it would be better not to be fascinated by it. Or not—I am torn between feeling that absolutely everybody should read this book and feeling that it isn’t a very pleasant book at all.

It is, I think, a very persuasive book. About abortion, mostly, but about… well, about sex, I suppose. About human frailty. About the comprehensiveness of human frailty. Our hero, after all, is an ether-addicted irascible man who doesn’t love anyone (except, eventually, Homer) and who does not and cannot provide warmth and human connection. Our other hero is a monstrously self-absorbed young man who seduces his best friend’s wife, fails to recognize or consider the love of others. They are both felons and accomplices to felony. They are both emotionally stunted, cold and distant; they learned to substitute politeness for kindness, and their compassion is (like the writer’s?) tinged with something like contempt for humanity, individually and in groups. And they are the good guys.

What John Irving is getting at (in my arrogant opinion) is the point Dr. Larch makes to himself at all times: we are, each of us poor humans, capable of astonishing stupidity, venality or cruelty. Astonishing selfishness or arrogance. Astonishing evil. And I mean astonishing—the stories that make your jaw drop and people say they don’t believe it. And that fact about us should keep us from feeling better than each other, one to another. So when a woman comes to him for an abortion, he gives her an abortion.

And at the end, when Homer comes to agree—when he has committed enough sins of his own, and when he is presented with a case where he is willing to perform the abortion, despite not wanting to, then he says to himself that if he is going to do it now, in this instance, that he feels is necessary, then by damn he’s going to perform them whenever a woman asks for one, because he is not the guy to make all the choices.

It’s a moment of terrible clarity, the sort of moment that I doubt actually happens in real life. But I don’t think that Mr. Irving means for that moment to describe what does happen. I think he means for us to want that kind of clarity to happen, and to struggle along without it.

I’ve talked (and should probably develop further) about how fundament the question who decides is, in our political lives. John Irving, it seems to me, is saying that people are very bad at deciding, and that the more individuals can recognize that, and keep their decisions their own damned selves, the better. Now, there are difficulties with that, too, but it’s certainly a powerful point.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Damn, I'd forgotten John Irving. Used to love reading that guy's books. Cider House Rules was amazing.


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