The Quintessential John Irving

Born on March 2, 1942,in Exeter New, Hampshire, John Wallace Blunt, Jr. rose to prominence as among the topnotch American writers of his generation. He captivated the world over with his compelling mixture of engaging storylines and, often, dark humor. However, not many would recognize him by his birth name. We know him now as John Irving, taking his stepfather’s name. Irving never got to meet his biological father who was a writer and executive recruiter; Irving’s parents separated while his mother was still pregnant with him. The path to success, however, was not as straightforward as one would expect. His debut novel, Setting Free the Bears (1968), while warmly received by literary pundits, was not as commercially successful. The same fate, unfortunately, would befall his second and third novels: The Water-Method Man (1972) and The 158-Pound Marriage (1974).

Following a switch in a publishing house – Dutton committed to better marketing for his works – Irving’s long-awaited literary breakthrough came with the publication of his fourth novel, The World According to Garp. Published in 1978, it was a literary sensation that swept the world over, marking Irving’s rise to prominence. Literary pundits sang songs of praise. The book was even nominated for prestigious literary prizes such as the 1979 National Book Award. The book’s paperback edition would win the 1980 award. The book was also recommended for the 1979 Pulitzer Prize. In 1982, the book was adapted into a film of the same title, with the late Robin Williams playing the main protagonist. Two other actors – John Lithgow and Glenn Close – would also earn Academy Award best-supporting nominations for their respective roles. Without a doubt, The World According to Garp is a classic of American literature, and of world literature in general.

The focal point of Irving’s fourth novel was the titular Garp. His story, rather his conception, commenced during the Second World War when his mother, Jenny Fields crossed paths with Technical Sergeant Garp. Garp was a ball turret gunner who was left severely brain-damaged and on the brink of death following a fatal injury during combat. Meanwhile, Jenny was a young nurse who was born into an affluent family. She also had an ironclad will and a veiled distaste for social conventions. She yearned for a child but unlike most of her peers, she wanted it sans the attachment and complications that naturally come along with marriage. Nonetheless, she had a plan in mind which led to the conception of her son, whom she named T.S. Garp, with his first name derived from his father’s military title, “Technical Sergeant.” It wasn’t long before the soldier passed away, although there never was a question of Jenny looking after their, rather her son.    

“If you are careful, if you use good ingredients, and you don’t take any shortcuts, then you can usually cook something very good. Sometimes it is the only worthwhile product you can salvage from a day; what you make to eat. With writing, I find, you can have all the right ingredients, give plenty of time and care, and still get nothing. Also true of love. Cooking, therefore, can keep a person who tries hard sane.”

~ John Irving, The World According to Garp

After being turned down by her own family, Jenny was forced to raise Garp without the assistance of any of her close relatives. Not that she minded. She took up a position at the all-boys Steering School in the fictional town of Steering. She raised Garp in the infirmary annex adjacent to the school. She devoted her time and her energies to raising her son, even going to extremes. At one point, she attended classes at the school so that she can advise her son on which classes to take and which ones to avoid once he enters the school. This would also ensure smooth sailing for the young Garp. As the story moved forward, the novel’s perspective started shifting from mother to son. We read about Grap’s love story, his assuming the role of a father and a husband, to his career; the novel was literally about the life and times of T.S. Garp. The transition between perspectives became more palpable when, following Garp’s graduation from Steering School, the mother and son duo traveled to Vienna.

There is no superlative that can capture the world that Irving conjures in his works. Walking into an Irving novel, one must prepare one’s self for a literary ride across the labyrinth. Like most of Irving’s other novels, The World According to Garp is a multilayered and multifaceted novel. It grappled with seminal subjects that continue to reverberate in the contemporary. From the onset, one of the most explicit subjects the novel underscored was feminism. This was embodied through Garp’s mother who, for her time, was brimming with progressive ideas. She refused to submit to the ideas and pressures of society in a period when such ideals were frowned upon by the majority. The manifestations of her progressive ideas, at times, bordered on the eccentric and were even morally questionable. This, however, did not preclude her from becoming an icon of feminism, especially after the publication of her memoir, A Sexual Suspect.

The rise of feminism was highlighted by the novel but Irving also managed to underscore the ugly realities that surround the movement and other related movements for that matter. We have this irrational hunger for a hero figure that rationalizes our ideals. For instance, a young woman In the story, an eleven-year-old girl was raped and her tongue was cut-off in order for her not to speak. This gave rise to the novel’s Ellen Jamesian movement where women also had their tongues cut in protest to similar acts of violence against women and children. The cutting of the tongue was in itself metaphorical because women, whether victims of abuse or not, have historically been and continue to be silenced by the patriarchy. The irony, however, lies in Ellen James’ reluctance to be elevated as their poster girl; she also opposed the other women’s drastic act of having their tongues cut off.

Contrasting the preeminent theme of feminism was Irving’s subtle highlighting of toxic masculinity. There were several demonstrations of this but the most prevalent one was when a male anti-feminist killed a feminist character. This paradox between these two polar subjects, and the acts of violence they have incited, highlighted the growing disparity between sexes and genders. Over four decades since the publication of the novel, these subjects remain seminal conversation starters. In a piece the author wrote for Esquire, he admitted to believing that his novel was a period piece: “Garp is an angry and a comic novel – a feminist novel and an ode to the women’s movement, which is at once exalted and satirized -but, above all (I thought), Garp is a period piece. I was wrong. The World According to Garp isn’t prescient, but sexual hatred hasn’t gone away. It’s not good news that Garp is still relevant. We should be ashamed that sexual intolerance is still tolerated, but it is.”1

“She felt detached from her family, and thought it strange how they had lavished so much attention on her, as a child, and then at some appointed, prearranged time they seemed to stop the flow of affection and being the expectations – as if, for a brief phrase, you were expected to absorb love (and get enough), and then, for a much longer and more serious phase, you were expected to fulfill certain obligations.”

~ John Irving, The World According to Garp

It is the book’s exploration of sexuality and gender that makes the novel transcend the passage of time. The novel was brimming with sexual references and they came in different, and often paradoxical forms. We read about adulterous relationships and characters who prefer abstinence, an antithesis to the sexually active. We read about how power dynamics influence these relationships. Sexual violence was also woven into the novel’s lush tapestry. These subjects further underline the novel’s timelessness. These are subjects that remain relevant in the contemporary. The novel also underlined the deconstruction of traditional gender roles. We read about a father who was more than happy to be a stay-at-home dad who devoted his time and found joy in completing domestic tasks, such as cooking, for his children. His wife, on the other hand, found her passion in her profession.

In his novel, Irving confronted the lines that define and divide genders and sexes. For a novel that was set in the 1970s, the book featured an eclectic set of characters that included an asexual character and a transgender activist who used to be a football player. They faced discrimination and even explicit demonstrations of intolerance. Nevertheless, they are characters who, despite the prevailing attitude of their time (which is still pretty similar in the contemporary), tried their best to live their life to the fullest. For Irving, binaries, whether sexual or not, were not finite and were often unstable. They continually morph and even adjust to the tempo of the times. In confronting gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles, Irving has again demonstrated his relentless drive to shed light on seminal concerns.

Like most of Irving’s other novels, The World According to Garp was brimming with other plotlines. On top of the political activism and the social commentaries, one of the novel’s plotlines prominently explored the plights of an artist, particularly through the novel’s main character. As the story moved forward, we learn that Garp was a struggling writer. He started with short stories he had his future wife, Helen, read and critique. Three of his works accented the story: The Pension Grillparzer, a short story; Vigilance, an essay; and The World According to Bensenhaver, another short story. He would also publish a novel, which was relatively successful. His second novel was not as successful as the first, with his publisher even saying he succeeded with “one and a half novels”. Countless times, Garp kept questioning himself, if writing was a worthy endeavor. His personal plight was exacerbated by the inevitable comparisons with the literary sensation written by his mother.

Elsewhere, the story examined more domestic subjects such as family dynamics and the essence of parenthood. We read about the different levels of anxiety parents experience while raising their children. In both Jenny and her son, we see parents who wanted to raise their children in an environment that was safe and that can equip them for the world outside. They were the embodiment of parental instinct and unconditional love. In Garp particularly, we read about a father who only yearned for his children’s wellbeing and safety, to the point of paranoia. This kind of love can be frustrating and worse, suffocating, but then again, no family portrait is ever perfect. The novel also contained references to psychiatry and mental health. Garp saw psychiatrists as “dangerous simplifiers, those thieves of a person’s complexity.”

“She felt if she ever had children she would love them no less when they were twenty than when they were two; they might need you more at twenty, she thought. What do you really need when you’re two? In the hospital, the babies were the easiest patients. The older they got, the more they needed; and the less anyone wanted or loved them.”

~ John Irving, The World According to Garp

As a character, Garp was cut from the same cloth that Irving’s other main characters were cut off. One of his characteristics that immediately catches the readers’ attention was his eccentricity, a characteristic that was reminiscent of Irving’s characters such as Owen Meany in A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) and Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules (1985). He is an addition to Irving’s collection of interesting and memorable characters. His psychological profile was vividly painted by Irving albeit he remained out of the readers’ reach, just like Irving’s other characters. While they remain compelling, this gave them a veil of mystery. He was ably supported by an eclectic set of secondary characters such as Roberta Muldoon who also loomed large in the story.

Other similarities the novel shared with Irving’s other works include the setting. Steering Academy was an allegory for Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, a school that Irving attended and was a staple in most of his succeeding works. In a way, the town of Steering evokes images of Exeter itself. Because of the integral role of his homeland in his works, Irving has established a reputation as one of the representative writers of New England. Hotels and wrestling were motifs that also recurred in Irving’s other works.

Overall, The World According to Garp is an ambitious undertaking. With the plenitude of overarching plotlines, the book covered a vast territory, such as feminism, toxic masculinity, sexuality, gender roles, family dynamics, and the growing dichotomies between genders and sexes. Also woven into the novel’s lush tapestry was the narrative of good versus evil where no middle place was allowed. With the vastness of the novel explored, a typical writer would have balked. But as he has demonstrated time and again through his novels, Irving is not your typical writer. He pushes boundaries while highlighting and confronting relevant social maladies. The diversity of subjects the novel grappled with makes it transcend time. The World According to Garp is a literary masterpiece deserving of all the paean it has received.

“Death, it seems, does not have to wait until we are prepared for it. Death is indulgent and enjoys, when it can, a flair for the dramatic.”

~ John Irving, The World According to Garp
Rating

93%

Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 
26%
Writing (25%) – 
24%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
15%

I cannot recall which of John Irving’s works I read first: The Fourth Hand or A Prayer for Owen Meany. Nevertheless, I found the former pretty pedestrian in literary merits but I was more than astounded by the latter. Owen Meany is one of the most memorable literary characters I have encountered. However, it has been nearly four years since I read a book by the American writer. As such, despite The World According to Garp not being part of any of my active reading challenges – except perhaps for my goal to read at least 20 books listed on the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die List – I queued the book for my October American Literature month. Like my previous experience with Irving’s works, the story started slow but once it picked up its pace, the story started unfolding. The book also contained several elements that echoed across Irving’s works, from the deadpan humor to the complexity of subjects the books grappled with to the setting. Yes, the setting is indeed a seminal part of his work. By now, he is the first writer I associate with New England, the same way I associate North Carolina with Nicholas Sparks and South Carolina with Pat Conroy. I can’t wait to read more of Irving’s novels.

Book Specs

Author: John Irving
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publishing Date: December 1990
Number of Pages: 609
Genre: Literary

Synopsis

This is the life and times of T.S. Garp, the bastard son of Jenny Fields – a feminist leader ahead of her times. This is the life and death of a famous mother and her almost-famous son; theirs is a world of sexual extremes – even of sexual assassinations. It is a novel rich with “lunacy and sorrow”; yet the dark, violent events of the story do not undermine a comedy of both ribald and robust.

About the Author

To learn more about John Irving, click here.

References

1. Irving, J 21 November 2018, The World According to Garp Was Never Meant to Be This Timeless, Esquire. Accessed 20 October 2022, <https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/books/a25226509/john-irving-the-world-according-to-garp-40th-anniversary-edition-forward-excerpt/>