John Irving – The World According to Garp (1978)
The novel takes place over many decades, beginning with a nurse, Jenny Shields, who has no desire for a husband but does wish to be a mother. When TS Garp, a ball turret gunner, is admitted to hospital with severe brain damage from combat, Jenny takes advantage of his repeated sexual arousal by impregnating herself and naming her resulting son Garp. Raising Garp alone, Jenny takes a position at an all boys school and the novel traces Garp’s entire life. We learn of his early interest in sex, wrestling and writing fiction and see him write stories and novels, which are eventually published. Aside from his writing, Garp has a marriage full of deception with his wife, Helen, as both indulge in affairs but remain united in being good parents to their children. Garp in particular is determined to protect his children from harm at all costs.
Irving’s gift is in raising smiles but delivering unbelievable tragedy. A notable scene in A Widow For One Year saw Ruth Cole learn how her two brothers, Thomas and Timothy, were both killed before she was even born. Garp also contains a devastating moment that leaves physical and emotional scars on Garp and his wife, Helen. There is an air of fragility throughout the novel and while many writers would have us feeling safe that no tragedies will befall the characters whose lives we share, Irving can lead us down the same path before throwing a shocking twist into the mix when we least expect it. Garp is constantly aware of his own mortality and his fear of death drives him to do the best for his family, especially his children. Garp soon learns, however, that we simply can’t protect everybody we care for from harm no matter how hard we try.
As with other Irving novels there is a heavy emphasis on writing. Garp and Jenny spend some time in Vienna where a young Garp begins to hone his skills as an author. Garp spends a long time working on a story, The Pension Grillparzer, of which multiple extracts appear in the book, steadying the novel’s frantic pace. There is a suggestion that many elements of the novel are autobiographical with Garp’s novels similar to Irving’s in their theme and content, while his third book entitled, The World According to Bensenhaver, proves to be a success for Garp, just as The World According to Garp would be for Irving. A strange coincidence indeed! While constantly obsessed with anxiety about death, Garp continues to struggle with his writing for much of the novel. Ironically, Jenny Shields, who once frowned upon Garp’s love of wrestling, sex and writing becomes more famous than her son after publishing her only book, A Sexual Suspect. Jenny’s book propels her to the forefront of the Feminist Movement where she becomes a key figurehead sought by many women.
Through the relationships and tragic events, Irving’s characters are in constant development though Garp retains his fear of death and the need to protect his children until the novel’s climax. What fates await Garp, his family and his mother, Jenny, I will not reveal. What I can promise is there are many surprises along the way and the book’s most tragic moment stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page. It’s extraordinary but at the same time frighteningly believable. Lives can be changed irreparably in a mere second and Irving is one of the masters at conveying the delicacy of such a small moment in time.
The World According to Garp is an epic journey where mother and son seem to be vying for the reader’s attention until Irving finally does shift our focus to Garp. The novel’s portrayals of relationships – marriage, parenting, friendship, lovers – are all vividly expressed. Writers will find much to relate with in Garp’s personal struggle towards success while parents will undoubtedly relate to the fears we have for our children as they grow up in a world that is far from perfect. Mortality ensures that everything comes to an end eventually and this is not better reflected than in the line, “But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.”
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