John Irving’s The World According to Garp
I thought I needed some more John Irving in my life, so I checked out The World According to Garp (his fourth novel; The Cider House Rules was his sixth). I did not, as it turned out, need more John Irving in my life. What I should have done was re-read The Cider House Rules.
Don’t get me wrong — Garp is a good enough read, entertaining and engaging in its own right, but it’s no Cider House. (Although there is one funny allusion to Cider House in Garp; when someone jokes about naming a book Kings of New England, another character replies, “That’s another novel.”) You can certainly still feel Irving’s authorial control of the novel as it moves into its plot twists and turns, and Irving again demonstrates his knack for quality character building. He’s a very able novelist, and he knows his form intimately. Perhaps my favorite part were the stories embedded within the narrative, providing sort of a third dimension to the novel and allowing us to learn more about the title character, T.S. Garp, who wrote them.
Despite the tragedy and disaster that dog the characters, it’s a funny novel. As Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in a New York Times piece, “There we are, numb with shock and sick with concern, and suddenly we are laughing. And not feeling all that guilty about doing so either.”
Another review of the book put it this way: “People live and die in bizarre and wondrous ways, perform acts of love and lust, and are besieged with self-doubt in ways that on one hand resonate with our own reality, yet are so far beyond our experience as to baffle and amaze. Perhaps that is what John Irving does best — create a fictional world populated with characters with whom we identify and commiserate, love and hate, deplore and admire.” I agree wholeheartedly with that last bit; although these characters didn’t sink into my soul the way others have, they were striking and commanded a great presence on the page. I can measure how well I like a book by how much sleep I sacrifice reading, and The World According to Garp kept me up much too late.