I am not sure when I first read John Irving’s The World According to Garp. I know that I was young, like middle-school young. I know that I pulled it down from the massive shelf of books that my grandparents had in their basement. I suspect I was searching through those books for covers that showed something salacious – some scantily clad women or some romantic scene that I thought would be played out within the selected books’ pages – to tantalize my teenage libido. My guess is that the cover to Garp showed something like that and, for this reason, I took the book home with me.
That, today, I would consider The World According to Garp wildly age inappropriate for someone in middle school didn’t cross my or anyone else’s mind when I was working my way through its pages. No doubt I was pleased with myself for attempting to read an “adult” book – my motives for doing so notwithstanding, and I guess my parents were happy to see me reading anything that didn’t feature Batman, Superman or other so-called “four-color heroes.”
I can hardly imagine what I understood from the book on my initial reading. Having revisited it on a couple of occasions in my adulthood, most recently earlier this spring, I can barely articulate what I get out of it now!
One thing that I certainly took away from the book was my love of the prose of John Irving. Upon first completing that novel, I knew that I loved Irving. That is an affection that has stayed with me my entire life and I look forward to the publication of each of his works. A Prayer for Owen Meany remains, far-and-away, my favorite of his books, but The World According to Garp cracks the top five mainly because you always have a special place in your heart for your first, don’t you?
The World According to Garp tells the story of T.S. Garp, novelist and seeker, whose complicated relationships with the women in his life propel the book through multiple vignettes, each more outlandish than the last. Each stage in the main character’s life is passed in association with women and Irving populates his novel with a fascinating collection of them. One of the critiques of the book is that, while the women may be fascinating, they may not be entirely realistically drawn. That’s a pretty fair assessment, I think. Where Garp is a fully realized creation, even the most important women in the book can be stereotyped to a certain extent. Likely, Irving knew this and, skilled writer as he is, employed stereotypical women for a reason: to make his point about sexual relationships and sexual politics in the 1970s.
As one might expect, Garp’s most powerful connections are with his mother and his wife. From his mother, Jenny Fields – the author of the account of her own life entitled A Sexual Suspect, Garp discovers that not all popular writing is good writing and that radical feminism was a growing tide to be reckoned with in late 20th century America. From his wife, Helen Holm – English professor and intellectual, Garp discovers that even those who know and love you best may not always fully understand you.
A motif that Irving returns to in many of his works is introduced here: writing-within-writing. Apparently suggesting to J.D. Salinger that, if you’re going to write about someone writing something brilliant and make that idea a cornerstone of you narrative, you better actually show the goods, Irving supplies examples of Garp’s prose throughout the novel. The stories the main character writes are esoteric and inscrutable but, thematically, always tied to Irving’s main purpose: that of showing his main character trying to understand his path through life.
At its core, The World According to Garp asks the fundamental question: what does it all mean? That Irving leaves the answer to the question up to the reader is hardly surprising. Great works of fiction – and The World According to Garp is surely one – pose the questions and prod the reader to engage upon them before letting the reader make up her or his mind on their own.
Some of the themes that will permeate Irving’s books are on display in The World According to Garp. Life is charged by sexuality. People are slaves to it or liberated by it. Men need to know who their fathers are to be whole. Life can be violent. Death can be a sweet release. These ideas, powerful and clear, are addressed, time-and-again, in Irving’s books and, in later works, to better effect. But they are first on view here and watching the author work with them is exciting. Also on full display is Irving’s ability to create Dickensian characters who populate the imagination long after the reading of the book is complete. Interweaving the stories of a myriad cast of characters into the life of a single protagonist is a strength of the author and it really stared in The Wold According to Garp. Characters are introduced for a reason. No characters’ story is unimportant. They are all tied into Irving’s broader themes. Upon completion of The World According to Garp, the reader knows that Irving is something special.
Hell, I understood that in the 8th grade. And, while I’ve not loved everything I’ve read by him, I have loved him enough to sample everything he’s ever published.
The World According to Garp is a complex novel about significant themes. I cannot say that I agree with Garp’s conclusion – that everyone is a terminal case – but I can say that I don’t know upon my re-reading of the book that Irving agrees with that conclusion, either. Bad things happen in The World According to Garp, the types of bad things that can destroy people, that can make them run and hide from the world, that can batter them senseless. Garp might experience moments of retreat and there are certainly times when he’s cut off from both his writing and his voice, but he never gives in. He never considers himself a terminal case.
In the end, The World According to Garp is a hopeful novel. In fact, all of Irving’s works are and that conclusion keeps me coming back.