Setting Free the Bears

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A performing bear in the streets of Limburg, 1930.
I’ve just been thinking again about Setting Free the Bears (which I read this last summer) and decided to post this (can you tell I REALLY don’t want to be doing my homework?).  It’s a slightly edited email I sent to two teachers at my high school just before leaving for college about John Irving’s Setting Free the Bears (which neither of them had heard of and I thought might be useful in the development of one of their classes. It didn’t really turn out to be, but oh well. More people should know about this book.)

It’s by no means a perfect book, but it’s certainly interesting, particularly in terms of its language and structure, which Irving is very aware of and plays around with a lot (to great effect, I think). Thinking about it more, though, I’m not sure it’s really useful in a course about pilgrimages. . . It’s certainly about a journey (lots of journeys, really), but no real pilgrimages.
The two main characters spend the first part of the book cruising around Austria on a motorcycle while planning to set free the animals from the Vienna zoo and attempting to reconcile themselves with the guilt of not having lived through the war as their parents did–they struggle to find something to define themselves by as they reach adulthood, the way the war defined their parents’ transformation into adults. That part of the book ends with the tragicomic death of the narrators best friend before the bust can be carried out.
The middle part of the book takes a break from the main action as the narrator transcribes excerpts from his friend’s journal which contain alternately the plans for the zoo bust and his “highly selective autobiography,” which explains how his parents made it through the war, how they met, how he was born, and, really above all, why the zoo bust matters so much to him. In the last bit, the narrator dedicates himself to carrying out the crazy plans for the zoo bust as a sort of tribute to his dead friend all while thinking about the journey his friend’s body is making to get home.
So, really, it’s much more about the shadow of the war and the attempt by young people to find a way to define themselves, particularly to distinguish themselves from their parents and their parents’ generation, to establish themselves as separate, and to come to terms with and establish a connection with (or maybe break any connection with) their own histories.  Reading it when I did, it really hit me hard; I’m about the age Siggy and Graffe are, a little younger maybe, and beginning to feel some of the same feelings, think some of the same thoughts that they do. The idea of hopping on a motorcycle and escaping it all is, of course, very attractive, too.
And then there’s the language and the tragicomical aspect. The book is filled with an ironic black humor (and some of the best uses of understatement I’ve ever encountered) and employs language both wildly imaginative and at the same time terribly concise, clear, and grounded. I couldn’t help but love it from the first paragraph (“I could find him every noon, sitting on a bench in the Rathaus Park with a small, fat bag  of hothouse radishes in his lap and a bottle of beer in one hand. He always brought his own saltshaker; he must have had a great number of them, because I can’t recall a particular one from the lot.” It’s not long before you discover that this is Siggy (a character who most certainly deserves a far more celebrated place in the canon of dissatisfied, wild, unrelenting, heroic Youth than he currently occupies) and that those saltshakers are all stolen.) The language and structure are wonderful, sometimes whimsical, always inventive (“the mouseful field scurried” is a description I desperately wish I had written). While not perfect (it’s pretty clear in reading it that this is a raw talent, lacking fine-tuning (which I’m sure comes later in his more famous work)), it possesses a wildness and naïveté which are both beautiful and disarming.
What I suppose I’m trying to say (and goodness gracious I’m so sorry I’m not sure how this ended up being so long!) is that while it’s definitely not on the same level as Garp and Owen Meany and other things of Irving’s I haven’t read yet (which I’m sure will blow me away when I do, if I’ve reacted like this to his first, admittedly flawed book) and while it probably doesn’t really fit in with your whole idea of pilgrimage, Ms. Hamilton, it’s a wonderful book, particularly, I think, for people around my age inclined towards worrying about their place in it all. So if nothing else comes of this, just know I think it’s a pretty good thing to recommend to somebody looking for a book to come on the heels of stuff like Catcher in the Rye or, I don’t know, This Side of Paradise. (I read it directly on the heels of the 5th Game of Thrones book, so I don’t know what I’m talking about.)
Anyway. It’s hectic and outrageous and imaginative and imperfect and wonderful and, if nothing else, deserves a little more recognition than it currently gets.
P.S.: The copy I read (which my dad bought in 1979) has a fun quote on the back from Kurt Vonnegut in which he calls it the most nourishing, satisfying novel he’s read in years and says he “admire[s] the hell out of it.”

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