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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Book Twenty-Two

The twenty-second book we read this year was The World According to Garp, by John Irving, for the Literary Salon at the bookshop. Mr. Irving had published three previous novels, and this was the one that made him a best-selling author. It was first published in select parts, and then complete, between 1976 and 1979. We were first made aware of it some summers later by an enticing young neighbor, and we were enticed into reading it. This is one of those books that is good enough to read again, whether enticed a second time or not.

The story begins with Garp's mother, who will continue to play a major role in the plot. One of our old literature professors allowed her class to choose a modern book to read, and this was the book chosen. However, after reading the first chapter, she disallowed it. Why? We can only speculate that she took offense to Mr. Irving's serious but humorous treatment of sexuality and women's rights. Perhaps the character didn't espouse the professor's particular brand of feminism. It was her loss, and to her discredit: who can teach literature that refuses to read certain, well, literature?

The book starts with a jolt and carries that intensely serious humor right through to the finish. We follow the entire life of Garp, from conception to after death, from an omniscient viewpoint that allows Mr. Irving to flash-back as well as flash-forward to present his protagonist in full. Everything makes sense, and there is nothing that is not somehow connected to something else in the novel. Garp is a fiction writer, so we are also privy to many of his autobiographical comments. The close of the first scene, which introduces his mother, establishes the manner of citation which will punctuate the book:
"My mother," Garp wrote, "was a lone wolf."
We get to read Garp's first novella in its entirety, from which some of the ideas Mr. Irving will use in his next book, The Hotel New Hampshire. A good example of the omniscient style concerns this story:
Helen would later say that it is in the conclusion of "The Pension Grillparzer" that
we can glimpse what the world according to Garp would be like.
In this way the storyline follows a thematic thread rather than a chronological one. This facilitates the flash-forward technique, as when we are shown a rejection letter Garp receives from a publisher, after which:
Almost fifteen years later, when Garp published his third novel, that same editor at Tinch's favorite magazine would write Garp a letter. The letter would be very flattering to Garp, and to his work, and it would ask Garp to submit anything new he might have written to Tinch's favorite magazine. But T.S. Garp had a tenacious memory and the indignation of a badger. He found the old rejection note that had called his Grillparzer story "only mildly interesting"; the note was crusty with coffee stains and had been folded so many times that it was torn at the creases, but Garp enclosed it with a letter to the editor at Tinch's favorite magazine. Garp's letter said:
I am only mildly interested in your magazine, and I am still doing nothing new with language or with form. Thanks for asking me, though.
Garp responds with exactly the same wording as in his rejection letter, and Mr. Irving wins the appreciation of every writer who has ever received a rejection letter.

We also get a synopsis of Garp's second novel, and see some of the correspondence between Garp and his editor, as well as Garp and his readers. Then later we get to read the first chapter of his third novel, which is followed immediately by:
"What do you mean, 'This is Chapter One'?" Garp's editor, John Wolf, wrote him. "How can there be any more of this? There is entirely too much as it stands! How can you possibly go on?"
The book is characterized by the editor as an X-rated soap opera, with the hope that the visceral reality of the language and the intensity of the characters justifies it. And, of course, this is the book that makes Garp a best-selling author. One of those intense characters is a husband and father who is overprotective of his family, and especially his children, just as Garp is. Garp makes a practise of chasing down drivers who speed through his neighborhood and then asking them, if they must speed, to do it somewhere else. It was this that made a young man realise that breaking the speed limit in anyone's neighborhood is not only against the law, it is also disrespectful to the people who live there. Along with his joy for living, it is this overprotectiveness that goes the furthest in making Garp a sympathetic character.

Mr. Irving's plot borders on being over the top, yet, much like Garp's third novel, it is redeemed by his style and characterisation. The World According to Garp is at once absurd and brutally real. There is a film adaptation of the novel which, having seen it, makes difficult reading the book without imagining Robin Williams. All the major events in the novel stuck with us from that first reading, though they seemed somehow bigger. The novel is sizeable, at 609 pages in paperback, yet the incidents pass quickly. And though they pass quickly, they are never meaningless or forgotten, for they accumulate until they reach a critical mass. And the point, though not the details, of the climax has already been alluded to and foreshadowed, so what happens may be a surprise, but we are not surprised that something happens. But this novel is not about building up to a climax, it is about creating an entire world, and showing that world through the eyes of one character, and forming an incredible fiction which makes one close the book and sigh, and marvel at such a life as Garp's.


  1. I love John Irving and Garp is one of his best books, though I haven't read all of them so there is potentially something even better but it would be hard to believe. I saw the movie before reading the book too and had a hard time not seeing Garp as Robin Williams. I suppose there are worse actors we could be stuck with.

  2. As Irving has aged, I think his books have become less quirky and less absurd. Still a fine writer. I thought Robin Williams did a pretty good job of capturing the essence of Garp. My second favorite of his novels is probably Owen Meany.