Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Terminal Case

The World According to Garp
The World According to Garp

“In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases”  ― John Irving, The World According to Garp

Irving's novel tells about the life of T. S. Garp. His mother, Jenny Fields nurses a dying sergeant Garp referred to simply as Technical Sergeant. Unconstrained by convention and driven by practicality and her desire for a child, Jenny uses Garp's sexual response to impregnate herself, and names the resultant son after him "T. S." (standing only for "Technical Sergeant"). Jenny raises young Garp alone, taking a position at an all-boys school.
Garp grows up, becoming interested in sex, wrestling, and writing fiction—three topics in which his mother has little interest. He launches his writing career, courts and marries the wrestling coach's daughter, and fathers three children. Meanwhile, his mother suddenly becomes a feminist icon after publishing a best-selling autobiography called A Sexual Suspect (referring to the general assessment of her as a woman who does not care to bind herself to a man, and who chooses to raise a child on her own).
Garp and his family experience dark and violent events through which the characters change and grow. Garp learns (often painfully) from the women in his life (including transsexual ex-football player Roberta Muldoon) struggling to become more tolerant in the face of intolerance. The story is decidedly rich with (in the words of the fictional Garp's teacher) "lunacy and sorrow," and the sometimes ridiculous chains of events the characters experience still resonate with painful truth.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel are the several framed narratives embedded within the narrative, including: Garp's first novella, The Pension Grillparzer; a short story; and a portion of one of his novels, The World According to Bensenhaver. The book also contains some motifs that reappear in other Irving novels: bears, wrestling, Vienna, New England, people who are uninterested in having sex, and a complex Dickensian plot that spans the protagonist's whole life. Adultery (another common Irving motif) also plays a large part, culminating in one of the novel's most harrowing and memorable scenes.
The combination of unusual events makes this one of the most interesting, albeit strange, novels that I have read. However, after being diappointed with Irving's next novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, I have yet to read another of his works.

The World According to Garp by John Irving. Dutton, 1978


Parrish Lantern said...

This was my 2nd favourite Irving novel, the first being A Prayer for Owen Meany & like yourself I to wasn't enamored by The Hotel New Hampshire.

James said...

I shall have to read A Prayer for Owen Meany. You are not the first to mention it as a favorite.