Excerpted from The Imaginary Girlfriend by John Irving. Copyright © 2002 by John Irving. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The World According to Garp, which won the National Book Award in 1980, was John Irving's fourth novel and his first international bestseller. Irving's novels are now translated into thirty-five languages, and he has had nine international bestsellers.
1. How would you describe the narrative voice in The
Imaginary Girlfriend? What kind of reader do you think
John Irving had in mind while writing this memoir?
2. What is the significance of the title?
3. What kind of relationship does The Imaginary Girlfriend
suggest Irving has with the past? How is his attitude
toward the past conveyed in content and in tone?
4. Considering that many of the events and people depicted
in The Imaginary Girlfriend are from distant eras
of Irving's life, and that he seems to have a remarkably
lucid memory, why do you think he draws so much
attention to the names and faces he doesn't remember?
5. Farrokh Daruwalla, one of the central characters in
Irving's A Son of the Circus, "suppose[s] that the auto-biography
of a novelist almost qualifie[s] as fiction--
surely novelists wouldn't resist the impulse to make
up their autobiographies." Do you think this assumption
applies to The Imaginary Girlfriend?
6. In the beginning of The Imaginary Girlfriend Irving
writes: "When you love something, you have the capacity
to bore everyone about why--it doesn't matter
why." How is this distinction between love and reaons
for love evident in Irving's depiction of the
wrestling world? Do you think it also relates to his
approach to reading?
7. How would you characterize Irving's feelings about
formal education, first as a student and later as a
teacher? How do these attitudes compare to his
thoughts on being in the wrestling world, as a
wrestler and as a coach?
8. Wrestling and writing are two of the passions--and
disciplines--that have shaped Irving's life. How does
Irving go from thinking he "could be a wrestler or a
writer, but not both" to finding a way to reconcile
the two activities?
9. Irving writes, "My life in wrestling is one-eighth talent
and seven-eighths discipline. I believe that my life
as a writer consists of one-eighth talent and seven-eighths
discipline, too." While most of us are probably
very skeptical about Irving's writing being based
on this proportion of talent to discipline, the concept
is intriguing. How does this claim affect your understanding
of Irving as a person? Does it change your
perception of the writing process?
10. John Irving's writing style is distinctive in many
ways--including his "archaic" use of the semi-colon.
In The Imaginary Girlfriend he also uses a large number
of parentheses. How do these parenthetical remarks
impact the tone of the book?
11. In The Imaginary Girlfriend Irving reports, "Tom Williams
once told me that I had a habit of attributing
mythological proportions and legendary status to my
characters." Do you think this appraisal of Irving's
fictional characters applies to his portrayal of the
people in his own life?
12. Irving describes himself as being on the outskirts at
different stages in his life--as a dyslexic "faculty
child" at Exeter, as a "halfway decent" wrestler at
Pittsburgh, and as a married father in graduate school
at Iowa: "What I remember best about being a student
at Iowa was that sense of myself as being married,
and being a father. It separated me from the
majority of the other students." How does this vision
of himself as being somehow in the minority seem
to have affected his life and his writing?
13. Most of what we hear about Irving's family is in regard
to wrestling--and yet because wrestling is
clearly one of the loves of Irving's life, we get a sense
of his life as a father: "Brendan, like his brother before
him, had won the New England Class A title. It
was the happiest night of my life." How do Irving's
descriptions of sharing wrestling with his sons--
from his obvious pride in their accomplishments to
his interest in their changing weight classes--help
give us a picture of Irving's own development?
14. John Irving's novels are traditionally very long, both because
of their rich description and their epic scope. The
Imaginary Girlfriend is, by comparison, much shorter.
Why do you think this is the case? How does The
Imaginary Girlfriend fit into the memoir/autobiography
category? How does it challenge the classification?
15. If you have read any of John Irving's novels, did you
have ideas about what The Imaginary Girlfriend--which
offers a glimpse into his writing and non-writing
lives--would be like? Do you see any seeds of his fictional
characters, storylines or themes in The Imaginary