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Friday, April 23, 2021

John Irving Maintains His Classic Certainty and Portrayal of Common Sense in ‘The Place of No Words’

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The Place of No Words by John Irving

Sometimes you can find things by striking a match, and sometimes you can find things by sitting outside on the patio and watching a yap-yap like a cat who’s had too much of a good catnip-yow-yow.

“The Place of No Words” reminds us of those smaller niches of truth and falsehood and wonder and illusory sentiment that make life worth living. But it also reminds us that the distinction is often a matter of inches.

In “The Place of No Words,” there are two pieces of land: one over New Jersey, which comes to resemble the scene in A Christmas Carol where a glimpse of the shining holiday city whisks readers past Ebenezer Scrooge into that sweet, happy place, which has its own mysteries, too. In the Land of No Words, the lowly peasant girl Celeste lives in a cellar with the rest of her family — Celeste, her father, Mom, and Uncle David — doing everything but bowing and scraping and cleaning and washing. Only Celeste dreams. The plot centers on her friendship with her innocent neighbor Joe, a squat middle-class boy with a disability and, when he gets a good hiding, more than a few pet tricks.

Celeste’s other imaginations frolick too. The sequence of dreams in which Celeste and Joe run away is a new kind of genre: a romantic fantasy novel for the post-feminist generation — not in the collective sense, but as a sequel. “I loved how he was silent, so silent he seemed to hover,” Celeste muses about the thin little man who often tries to scrub the mirrors from the ceiling.

On the surface, “The Place of No Words” is a novel about magic and science, and then again it isn’t, which is the point. Irving himself may aspire to a line of fiction that has literary pretensions but, in practice, spends most of his time trashing common sense. Irving has shown his strong suit as an imaginative novelist (“The Cider House Rules,” “The World According to Garp”) but he hasn’t exactly made a lasting mark as a literary novelist. Like the evening sun on the rickety park bench or the chiming bells in the building across the street, his books tend to become bookends on and off.

Like a hero stepping into a clock’s face and whacking everyone with a red hammer, Irving the man has some strong touches, but largely what he can do is show us soft spots to the cold sharp stick of his fiction. “The Place of No Words” is a rarely rough child of nature. It doesn’t quite hit on all the reasons why life is to be found in those places. But it has more than enough things to like.

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