609 pages @350 wds/pg
In a school community, someone who reads a book for some secretive purpose, other than discussing it, is strange.
Imagination, he realized, came harder than memory.
"In this dirty minded world, you are either someone's wife or someone's whore. And if you're not either people think there is something wrong with you."
A woman half dressed seemed to have some power, but a man was simply not as handsome as when he was naked, and not as secure as when he was clothed.
Maybe television causes cancer, Garp thinks; but his real irritation is a writer's irritation: he knows that wherever the TV glows, there sits someone who isn't reading.
COMMENTARYThe disturbing world of Garp
You can find online a video of John Irving discussing how both he and Stephen King have striven not to please, but to appall. Once you get over the shock of discovering literary icon Irving and horrormeister King are mutual admirers, you might realize the truth of Irving's statement. And there is no greater evidence for it on his side than in his breakthrough 1976 novel, The World According to Garp.
As I've outlined elsewhere (see the John Irving commentary), I had indeed been appalled—but not in a good way—by that novel when I'd first read it. It had seemed sensationalist, cruelly laughing about tragic lives, and arbitrarily, by turns, both supporting and mocking feminism and other progressive causes.
But I had been very young then and when I re-read Garp, with a few more years behind me, I found it was none of those things. Rather, it was upsetting in a good way. I'd been disturbed earlier because it addressed serious human issues differently from much of the latter twentieth-century literature I'd become comfortable with.
Largely it was the sexual content that people once found shocking in Irving's novel. Read it today though—when the bestselling lists are topped by books about sadomasochism and psychopaths—and you may find it far less so. In fact, even when Garp first came out you could read more explicit and outlandish accounts of sex in the novels of literary figures Gore Vidal, Philip Roth and Norman Mailer, not to mention the steamy potboilers of bestselling writers like Jacqueline Susann, Harold Robbins and the ilk in that era.
In any case, the disturbing content in Garp has never been so much the sex, but the politics and attitudes surrounding sex and gender.
There's Jenny Fields' disdain for men and what she calls lust, upon which she builds a movement. Her use of a wounded soldier to get pregnant with the titular character T.S. Garp. Her introduction to prostitutes by her son. The feminists who cut out their tongues to identify with a rape victim who does not want such support. The trans-gendering football player. The philandering of Garp's wife that culminates in a heartbreaking accident at the novel's emotional fulcrum.
Ah, that accident at the centre. We never see it coming. Irving works hard to bring a hundred and one streams of plot and character quietly together into this one tragic confluence, without us noticing it.
It's a demonstration of writing skill that after Garp we learn to look for in Irving's work, with varying effects. Small overlooked details, casual remarks, seemingly coincidental events unobtrusively building and building—till they suddenly, unexpectedly come together in a scene that turns the novel inside out. Irving even plays with our expectations on occasion, seeming to pull everything together and then having the sychronicities just miss and the climax dissipates. Only to then hit us a bit later when we're not looking. Classic misdirection.
But in The World According to Garp, there's another trick—though that seems too cheap a word to describe the literary sleight of hand involved.
We don't see the accident coming but, more strangely, we don't see it actually happen or and see it receding. Not at first anyway. It takes many pages afterwards—pages of dread, pages of reflection, pages of humour even—before we realize the full extent of what has occurred and then the awful tragedy hits us emotionally like a truck. It's an amazing example of sustained storytelling I don't think I've seen replicated anywhere else.
That's usually considered the book's climax but the story continues with further developments including further deaths, which are achieved with appropriate drama but more distance. The supposed tragedies are even somewhat satisfying in completing the stories fittingly on some level.
Throughout most of the novel, Garp is the kind of writing I normally do not care for. The storytelling rambles, taking detours for multiple subplots and switching points of view among the characters, and inserting observations and asides that can only be attributed to the author.
Worse, the main character, Garp, is himself a novelist and to a large extent this is yet another writer writing about a writer learning to write. He even includes a fairly lengthy sample of Garp's novel within this novel—a particular self-indulgence I abhor. Yet, it all works. Irving avoids the obsession and self-aggrandizing that usually comes with novels about novelists, of interest only to other novelists. (Another one that accomplishes this is, coincidentally, Stephen King's Misery, though in a far different manner.)
The World According to Garp is actually a novel about something. About many things, really. Love, lust, sexuality and death certainly. But also tolerance, political movements, family, the secrets we keep, how we relate to each other about them—all those kinds of big topics you find in classic novels.
It is quite a big novel (as long or longer than Irving's beloved Dickens masterpiece Great Expectations, by my measure), covering much more than just the passage of Garp, encompassing much of modern American life. Whether you call it a picture of America or North America or the Western world in general, it's an intensely exaggerated version of the world we live in. I don't know if there's any particular message we're intended to get from it, other than to consider how strange and wonderful it all is.
And to be disturbed enough to learn what we can from it.