Monday, April 19, 2010

The World According to Garp

by John Irving

Excellent book! And it's about so much more than just lust and marriage and a father's fears. To me, what the book is "about" is more of trying to know oneself and live one's life in spite of the labels and opinions other people force upon you. But, again, that's only part of what the book is "about."

It's superbly written; Irving is a true storyteller. Each of his characters are expertly fleshed out for the reader.

My dad and I were discussing the book and naturally jumped to the Garp-as-Jesus connection. As my dad pointed out, "You can't begin the book with a virgin birth and have him die at 33" without making that kind of connection. So we were going through his disciples (I'm not sure we came up with 13: Jenny, Ellen, Helen, John Wolf, Dean Bodger, Charlotte (who Dad pointed out is Mary Magdalene), Alice Fletcher, Harrison Fletcher, Duncan, Ernie Holm, Roberta, Mr. Tinch, I think Donald Whitcomb should be in there too...), and I was pretty proud of my John Wolf-as-Judas connection. Wolf was the one who exploited the tragedy in Garp's life, as well as the connection to his famous mother (I'm not saying that Jenny is God). Plus Wolf gets Ellen James' "Why I'm Not an Ellen Jamesian" essay published and the fire between Garp and the Ellen Jamesians was intensified.
But, as intriguing as these connections are (and there are more), I don't like to make Biblical connections to other literature. It bothers me, probably because it seems to happen so much (and I had a short story professor who would drill Biblical references into my brain). Also, it makes it seem like the Bible is the standard by which we judge all fiction, which I certainly don't agree with.

Initially all the quotes from Garp and his mother's writings bothered me, but it didn't become an issue because the book follows both Garp and his mother (less so) as writers. I get annoyed when authors make references to works that don't exist, but because the two characters wrote books and we see their writing process, I was ok with it.

My one complaint is that the book is too much. It spans the entirety of Garp's life, plus an epilogue concerning his family. It's not that I think the book is too long, it's just a lot to take in, especially at the end. In the last three chapters, it feels like Irving throws everything but the kitchen sink at his readers. Unfortunately, most of that "everything" is death.

In the novel, there is a lot of emphasis put on the public wanting to know if Garp's writing is "real" or autobiographical, and there is an almost obsessive need among readers to know more about Garp. Personally, I've never felt that way. I take fiction as fiction, and typically I don't delve much into the author's life. It doesn't matter to me if they draw on real-life experiences or not. But I did read the the John Iriving's afterward in this edition. I love that the "Under Toad" came from his youngest son. It is a wonderfully fitting metaphor and a very strong image too. There is an innocence about it, which I think makes it all the more anxiety inducing.

The critic in me feels the need to find flaws in this book, but the avid reader in me wanted this book to go on forever. "The World According to Garp" is an exceptional book. There are hardly any slow sections in the book and it keeps the reader engaged in so many ways. I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys a good story full of realistic life drama.

I look forward to reading more John Irving in the future.
Also, I had no idea that this book was made into a movie, and I fully look forward to seeing it.

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