Book review: Setting Free the Bears

Setting Free the BearsSetting Free the Bears by John Irving
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I first read this book when I was about 14. It seemed amazing back then, as it was an excursion into history and kinda-sorta sex and the road and motorcycles and that whole enthusiastic, Dickens-hipster thing. Yeah, daddy-o.

The problem about reading it with an older eye is that it hasn’t aged particularly well. The text is clunky and overcomplex, the characters pretty one-dimensional – Gallen is basically a big-hipped R. Crumb figure with less intrigue – and the whole atmosphere is a little too keep-on-truckin’ to be read without cringing.

Plotwise, it’s broken into then-and-now sections, where a plot to release animals from a zoo is salted through with personal history and general observation. There’s a desire to evoke wartime Vienna in all its rebelliousness – but Irving adds too much improbability. It just doesn’t ring true, and half the time the reader spends more time fighting through the drudgery than they do enjoying the story.

A bunch of my gripes with this book probably are because it’s not the first Irving I’ve read, though it was the first novel he wrote. I think his sense of construction became a lot clearer in following works – and perhaps less artificial and showy. But here, the intercutting of WWII history with the modern (well, 1960s) day is a bit hamfisted, and seems to exhibit a little too much desire to impress the reader. These are things handled better elsewhere in his work.

Add to that and it’s just not funny. At least, not intentionally. Humour is the one thing I associate with Irving, and it seems in short supply here. You can see the text reaching, but it sounds a bum note every time.

I didn’t know until now that the book had been Irving’s Masters thesis, rejigged after the fact. It reads like it. If you want to read more of Irving, this isn’t the place to start.

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