"There's a precious amount of having-one's-cake-and-eating-it-too shit going on around here."
John Irving's third novel tells the story of wife-swapping among New England academics. The unnamed narrarator describes how he and his wife, Utch, became entangled in an affair with Edith Winter, a fledgling writer and her husband Severin, a wrestling coach. For most of the novel, their actions exist in a consequence-free bubble, and it easy to imagine that it could go on that way for ever. The narrarator explains how each couple met, how they interact with each other, the tensions that are forming. In the end, the narrarator is a an unreliable one; he simply does not have enough information to judge the situation properly.
The most well-developed and well-described character in the novel is undoubtedly the brooding, dark wrestling coach Severin. He is so thoroughly alive, so real, that he reminded me of something Norman Mailer once said about The Deer Park:
"A character is someone you can grasp as a whole, you can have a clear idea of him, but a being is someone whose nature keeps shifting... In the Deer Park Lulu Myers is a being rather than a character. If you study her closely you will see that she is a different person in every scene. Just a little different."
It is because of this depth of character (which, frankly, outshines all of the other characters of the novel) that the turn, which occurs a little after the halfway point, is so unsettling. The last few pages of the book glide by with a sort of inevitability, as everyone reacts predictably to the situations they put each other in. The novel seems like a hodge-podge of art history, erotica, trivia, and personal experience. The first person narrative confines the story to very narrow margins, and that is where it stays. It does not sprawl, but it also doesn't give the satisfaction of a wider perspective.