The Imaginary Girlfriend is a short autobiography by American author John Irving. In it, he explains the interwoven roles of writing and wrestling in his life.
As always with Irving, the book is absorbing from the off, and it’s tempting to use the anecdotes here to explain why most of his novels seem to have an underdog narrating them. It’s because he loves the work of Dickens so much. I kid. It might be because it is a role he has created for himself, and maybe he likes to write what he knows.
The tone is chatty throughout, but I did wonder at points exactly who he wrote the book for. Some of it reads like gemmed up old diary entries. There is a lot of name-dropping, which tends to happen at the weaker points in the book. It’s a little disappointing in fact that such a small volume should have any disappointing bits. (Though I am painfully aware that I am in no position to call this out!)
That said, we the audience know that Irving is a writer, and a good one at that. The clever trick is to make the things we don’t know the most interesting parts of the book: the descriptions of his time as a college wrestler and his experiences as he went on to referee and coach the sport.
The cover is a tortured reference to our expectation that the roles of wrestling and writing will turn out, in the end, to be entwined. In the end, I didn’t feel that was what the book was about. At least, it’s not about that entanglement of writing and wrestling in terms of “how to grapple with your drafts” or “pin down your deadlines”. Rather, it’s about the business of being a writer.
John Irving is not known as a wrestler or a wrestling coach. But by the account given here, he was pretty good at it. He describes his limitations as a wrestler but also his appreciation for the sport. You don’t have to be the greatest at doing something to enjoy doing it, you can simply do things for the pleasure of getting closer to others doing it well.
The coach never wrestles. All the coach can offer his student is strategy, born from his experience of wrestling. This is the advice that Irving himself is given by his coaches (in both writing and wrestling): given your tendency to do X and that the rules of the game are Y, you should probably do Z.
The Imaginary Girlfriend is stuffed full of anecdotes where he follows this advice and where he doesn’t. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s the places that it takes him that provide the absorption. By providing this unique story of how he became a writer, Irving provides the best advice of all: the way to become a writer is to write.