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Thursday, October 2, 2008

The World According to Garp

The World According to Garp
by John Irving
(4/5 stars)

I first read this book about five years ago when I was just exploring the works of John Irving, who has since become my favorite writer. I tried to post a customer review on Amazon back then but through some glitch the review never posted, so I can't be sure what I thought of the book back then, except I know I enjoyed it.

Anyway, for reasons that don't need explained right now, I'm rereading all of Mr. Irving's novels starting at the beginning with "Setting Free the Bears" (a decent first novel that displayed the author's potential though on its own it's not the best) to the dreadful "Until I Find You" which I will somehow have to struggle through a second time--or maybe it won't be so bad now that my expectations have been thoroughly dampened.

Right, so "The World According to Garp" was Mr. Irving's fourth book and I'm fairly certain the one that launched his career as a major writer with more than a "small but serious" audience. This is also the first of Mr. Irving's books to use the Dickensian 'cradle-to-grave' method that follows the main character from conception all the way to death. This similar device is later used for varying levels of success in "The Hotel New Hampshire," "The Cider House Rules," "A Prayer for Owen Meany," "A Widow for One Year," and the aforementioned dreadful "Until I Find You."

In this case the character we're following from conception to death is T.S. Garp. What do the initials TS stand for? (No, not Tough Sh*t.) They don't really stand for anything. Garp's mother was a nurse at a Boston hospital during WWII named Jenny Fields and wanted a child without the hassle of having a man in her life. This being before sperm banks and artificial conception, she decides to have sex with a brain-damaged and dying ball turret gunner named Technical Sergeant Garp. This less-than-immaculate conception gives birth to TS Garp.

Garp's mother loses her job at the Boston hospital but eventually finds work at the illustrious Steering School an all-boys school at the time. While growing up there, Garp nearly falls off the roof of the infirmary trying to shoo away pigeons and has his ear bitten off by a dog belonging to the airheaded Percy family. The eldest daughter of those Percys--the very easy Cushie Percy--gives Garp his first sexual experience at eighteen. Meanwhile, Garp also meets the lovely though nerdy Helen Holm, the daughter of Garp's wrestling coach. She loves to read so he decides he'll win her love by becoming a serious writer.

After graduating from Steering, Garp decides to travel abroad to Vienna to work on his writing. (Why Vienna? Because in his first five books Mr. Irving always uses Vienna or the greater Austria countryside as a location probably because he went there when he was about eighteen. Mercifully Mr. Irving grew out of that habit.) His mother tags along to begin work on her controversial autobiography. Meanwhile, Garp learns all about the legal prostitution system in Vienna--prostitution is another Irving staple along with wrestling, private schools, and bears--including a prostitute named Charlotte who dies of cancer. This helps propel Garp into finishing his first major work, a short story called "The Pension Grillparzer."

When he and his mother go back to America, his mother is a major feminist celebrity while Garp marries Helen Holm and the two of them settle down in suburban New Hampshire to raise two boys. There's trouble in their marriage from wife-swapping, babysitters, and a France-loving student, which leads to a terrible tragedy I can't go into without spoiling things.

After this tragedy, the Garps move in with his mother and he writes the book that launches his career from a "small but serious" audience to major commercial success with "The World According to Bensenhaver" an "X-rated soap opera" that explores themes of rape, violence, death, and the need for a parent to protect his children. This book is a direct result of the terrible tragedy I can't describe and afterwards Garp suffers from writer's block for years.

The family moves on to the Steering School, where Garp replaces Helen's father as wrestling coach and Helen teaches English. At the same time a long-standing feud between Garp and a society of women called the Ellen Jamesians comes to a head. The Ellen Jamesians are a fanatical group of women who cut their tongues out to "honor" a young girl named Ellen James whose tongue was cut out by a rapist. What precipitates the feud is Ellen James herself coming to live with Garp and denouncing the fanatics. Again I can't describe what happens next though I've left a clue if you remember what I said about how the book is structured.

Anyway, this was Mr. Irving's first big hit and some might argue his finest work. (I prefer "The Cider House Rules" myself.) Not only does it manage to cover an entire person's life in about 600 pages--depending on the edition--but it covers a broad spectrum of issues from "feminism" to marriage to writing. If you are a writer, like myself, then this book is a must-read for its insights into the fiction-writing process, the most important insight being the difference between what is true in actually happening and what is true in spirit. Mr. Irving uses that archaic omniscient style no one is supposed to use anymore to great effectiveness, though sometimes he goes a little too far in stating the obvious or heavy-handed foreshadowing.

The reason I don't give this 5/5 stars--or a perfect rating on any scale--is because there's one issue that always bugs me. It relates to the Garp Family Tragedy I can't reveal. I can say the problem with that is the setup for it is so obvious, illogical, and contrived that it never ceases to bother me. I'm a strong enough believer in Mr. Irving's work to think he could have managed to get the same result a little more effectively than that.

It's a minor blemish on an otherwise great work that's a good read and an important read that at the same time isn't a complete bore to read--except the wrestling parts. Mercifully unlike his previous novel "The 158-Pound Marriage" there's not nearly so much of that boring wrestling shop talk that bores me to tears. Maybe you'll enjoy those parts more than I do.

Anyway, after first reading "The Cider House Rules" and other works by Mr. Irving like this one I became sort of a disciple of the man's genius to the point where in 2004 I wrote a tribute story called "Spring in the Land of Broken Dreams." You can read that here

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