The World According to Garp
Author: John Irving
Original Publication: 1978
#303 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”
T.S. Garp’s first initials stand for “Technical Soldier”, a nod to the father he never met. Nurse Jenny Fields, in want of a baby but not a husband, takes advantage of the perpetual sexual arousal of a comatose soldier in her care and impregnates herself, naming the resulting son after the young man. Jenny takes a job in the infirmary at an all-boys school and Garp is raised on the campus. He becomes interested in writing fiction and wrestling, and although he loves his mother very much, he spends a good deal of his life rebelling against her way of doing things. Jenny is no-nonsense; Garp is a dreamer. Jenny is disinterested in sex of any kind; Garp is hypersexual. When Jenny writes a book called A Sexual Suspect, beats Garp to becoming a published author and also becomes a feminist icon, Garp becomes an anti-feminist of sorts in his own writing.
The book follows Garp throughout his life, detailing both the everyday and extraordinary situations he finds himself in. In one scene, he is fixing dinner for his family. In the next, he is running down a suspected child molester in the park. In a particularly comic scene, he mistakes an elderly man for the molester, tackles and depantses him and takes a deep sniff of his genitals, to see whether he was the culprit. He and his wife have a functional if permissive relationship (they both have multiple affairs), but Garp’s best friend is a former tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles who is now a post-op transsexual. The major theme of the book seems to be futility – Garp becomes a very devoted father, but is extremely overprotective of his children and fearful of them being hurt. The children, of course, get hurt. Garp fears death, but death eventually comes for all of us. “In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” No matter how much one prepares and worries, the inevitable will always happen.
The book is interspersed with samples of Garp’s writing, which becomes darker as Garp’s life is met with tragedy. I hesitate to give away too many of the details of the book – I thought that it was a very creative and engaging story, with a lot of twists. The characters are all wonderful; particularly Garp’s children. In many stories, children are merely backdrops. In this one, the children were beautifully characterized. I particularly liked the use of family inside jokes – in one scene, Garp catches his young son peering into the surf, looking for something in the water. (Garp has spent years warning his children about all name of calamities, large and small; this one being the undertow.) Garp asks Walt what he is looking for, and he says “I’m looking for the Under Toad. Is he big?” Garp is amused to realize that his son has been looking all his life for a huge and sinister toad that might grab you and drag you out to sea. The Under Toad becomes his and his wife’s code word for general trepidation or unease – I could feel the Under Toad lurking…
The question I am unable to answer with regard to The World According to Garp is simple – is Garp a usual sort of man, or an unusual sort of man? Certainly he came into the world in the usual way, but under unusual circumstances. He has a usual sort of family – a wife, three children – but interacts with them in an unusual way. It was just those sorts of juxtapositions between the ordinary and the extraordinary which made Garp so relatable as a character – as much as any of us shoots for unique, most of us are fairly ordinary. As much as any of us aims to fit in with society, we’re all a little strange in our own ways. To quote a passage from the novel, wherein Garp’s long-suffering publisher has given Garp’s “awful” manuscript to the char-woman for her opinion:
“A book feels true when it feels true,” she said to him, impatiently. “A book’s true when you can say, “Yeah! That’s just how damn people behave all the time.” Then you know it’s true,” Jillsy said.
Fun Fact: John Irving’s mother, Frances Winslow, had not been married at the time of his conception, and Irving never met his biological father. As a child, he was not even told anything about his father, and he told his mother that unless she gave him some information about his biological father, in his writing he would invent the father and the circumstances of how she got pregnant (implying that whatever he made up would be far worse than whatever the truth was.) Winslow, not rising to the bait, replied “Go ahead, dear.” His mother was later quoted as saying that there were parts of Garp that were too explicit for her.
Bother if: I thought that this was a very good story, and after the first third or so (post Garp’s childhood at the all-boys’ school), I found it difficult to put down. I look forward to reading the other two Irving novels from the list (The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany.) There is so much more to this book than I have described above, and it bears discussion. I thought that it was very much worth the read.
Don’t Bother if: There are parts that are quite explicit – both sexually and with regard to violence. One of Garp’s novels describes a rape and murder in fairly graphic detail, and a car accident is also described in explicit terms. There is a lot of death and injury. There are extramarital affairs, there are self-mutilating feminist cults, there are murders. I can see where Garp might be a little on the intense side for many readers. While Garp has a comedic way of looking at the world, his world is by no means lighthearted.