My best friend in the world Kevin Tokoph, a brilliant young man who’s on his way to winning a Nobel Prize in biochemistry one day(I’m being completely serious by the way), always laughs at me for the fact that one of my favorite books in the world contains a scene in which a man accidentally gets his dick bitten off while receiving a blowjob.
Along with this charming passage there is a nurse slicing a horny soldier’s arms open with a scalpel in a movie theater, the same nurse later sleeps with another solider so shell shocked he doesn’t even know his own name, there’s a Superbowl winning football player who becomes an male to female transgender individual and outspoken activist, a radical feminist cult that cuts out their tongues out of respect for a victim of incestuous rape, numerous infidelities and even the death of a child.
The World According to Garp pissed me the fuck off the first and only time I read it, because the divide that seemed to take place between the sexes seemed ever escalating and unnecessary. I related to Garp, possibly because I was a young man and didn’t understand the complexities of being a woman in American society, and found myself hating the women’s activists in the novel, because unlike a traditional feminist many of them were more interested matriarchy than gender equality. I found myself often wanting to scream at the characters and their insanity or idiocy, or both, and I believe that is proof that John Irving produced not just a damn fine novel, but an American Classic in the purest sense of the term.
I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if it weren’t for The World According to Garp, for the novel deals with the protagonist T.S. Garp; it revolves around his development and eventual death. Spoilers. Garp is the daughter of Jenny Fields an independent woman who, as I wrote above, sleeps with a shell shocked solider, she works as a nurse during the second world war. Her reasoning is simple, she would like a child, but has no interest in men, emotionally, psychologically, philosophically, she just couldn’t give three shits. She has a baby, names it T.S. Garp after the poet because she likes the name and raises him on her own. Jenny Fields either frustrates you or inspires you by the end of the book, and to be honest I’m not sure I have still forgiven her myself. Nevertheless she gives birth to Garp who is the chief witness to atrocities and unbearable realties of what men do to women in our society.
I meant what I said a moment ago. Irving’s writing style is not for those looking for a cheap page turner in terms of language. Nor is he obtuse, pompous, or self-righteously intellectual in his craft. Irving constructs sentences that matter and resonate in the mind. If you look at an exchange between Garp and his wife Helen:
“You’re a writer,” she told him.
“Perfect qualifications for the job,” Garp said. “Years spent pondering the morass of human relationships; hours spent diving what it is that people have in common. The failure of love, “Garp droned on, “the complexity of compromise, the need for compassion.”
“So write about it,” Helen said. “What more do you want?” She knew perfectly well what was coming next.
“Art doesn’t help anyone,” Garp said. “People can’t really use it: they can’t eat it, it won’t shelter or clothe them—and if they’re sick, it won’t make them well.” This, Helen knew, was Garp’s thesis on the basic useslessness of art; he rejected the idea that art was of any social value whatsoever—that it could be, that it should be. The two things musn’t be confused, he thought: there was art, and there was helping people. Here he was, fumbling at both—his mother’s son after all. But, true to his thesis, he saw art and social responsibility as two distinct acts. The messes came when certain jerks attempted to combine these fields. Garp would be irritated all his life by his beliefe that literature was a luxury item; he desired it to be more basic—yet he hated it, when it was. (179-180).
It’s at this point a casual reader would immediately dismiss the book as something elitist. What good does it do thinking about the merits of art, more to the point why should I care about a book about a man who thinks books and art are useless?
Let me illustrate a point. If I was to rip out the only page of the only copy of 1 Corinthians, piss on it, burn it, and then scatter the ashes to the breeze, what would be the public reaction? Now the first reaction would be a public condemnation, most likely followed by an attack on my life. Even if a person doesn’t believe most works of fiction are worth their time, many people still form their belief systes around some text or sacred narrative, and those narrative possess meaning because human beings create meaning. It’s a fundamental aspect of our species. Art may be worthless from a pragmatic perspective, but once our basic needs have been met we have to have something that fills in the distraction of our existence which leads to the second quote.
Garp writes a book entitled The World according to Bensenhaver which begins with a home invasion resulting in a mother being raped. His publisher doesn’t want to print it so he gives the manuscript to a cleaning woman to have her read it. I’ll never forget her reaction when Garp’s publisher asks her why she read the entire story:
“Same Reason I read anything for,” Jillsy said. “To to find out what happens”
Jillsy goes to explain her reasoning:
“Most books you know nothin’s gonna happen,” Jillsy said. “Lawd, you know that. Other books,” she said, “you know just what’s gonna happen, so you don’t have to read them, either. But this book,” Jillsy said, “this books so sick you know somethin’s gonna happen, but you can’t imagine what. You got to be sick yourself to imagine what happens in this book,” Jillsy said. (325).
I feel like Jillsy said a few more times than she should have, and that a young George R.R. Martin must have read this novel. But when I was thirteen or fourteen, and just starting out as a writer passages like this stand out to you because any advice by writers, or at least writers that actually have a book published, seem magic to a young mind. And ideas about story and writing leap out at you giving you ideas to steal.
But more than lessons for writers, The World According to Garp is about a man tortured by his imagination and steadily challenged by his reality. Garp isn’t always a likeable man. He cheats on his wife with the babysitter thus creating a divide between them that leads to the original dick biting scene that sends shock waves of trauma for its description. Garp crashes into her car because of rain and Helen thinks it’s her tongue at first before she spits it out. But the reader doesn’t become so alienated from him, at least in my experience, that they deem him an evil character. He’s just a man surrounded by women fighting to gain some semblance of identity, while feeling guilt about power in a world dominated by men.
“I feel uneasy,” Garp wrote, “that my life has come in contact with so much rape.” Apparently, he was referring to the ten-year-old in the city, to the eleven-year old Ellen James and her terrible society—his mother’s wounded women with their symbolic, self-inflicting speechlessness. And later he would write a novel, which would make Garp more of “a household product,” which would have much to do with rape. Perhaps rape’s offensiveness to Garp was that it was an act that disgusted him with himself—with his own very male instincts, which were otherwise so unassailable. He never felt like raping anyone; but rape, Garp thought, made men feel guilt by association. (149).
I can only speak for myself, but this passage lingers in my brain, for every time I hear or learn about an incident of rape I feel guilt. It’s completely irrational and absurd, but my mind wonders: “Geez man, why would you do that to somebody, didn’t anyone ever teach you that’s wrong?” And this thought is always followed by, “It’s your fault Josh, you could have done something. You’re a man. You could have…”
This review is going to be short because it’s been almost a decade since I actually picked up the book and read. The reason for this review is for two reasons, the first is because I didn’t really like my latest post and I hope this article may jump-start my numbers again (mention blowjobs and sex and the internet people come running). But the second reason was because after recycling the other day I stopped by a Goodwill and looked through the book section. You’ll usually find Christian guidebooks or Chicken Soup for the soul. I almost bought a copy of Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue, thinking it would be fun to rip it apart here, but instead I saw the name John Irving. It was a blue hardback with the title In One Person. Remembering how much The World According to Garp shaped me and my outlook as a writer I bought it for two bucks. The story is of a bisexual man who’s a writer that falls in love with a librarian who’s transgendered woman.
Maybe I identify with the character, maybe I was just fascinated to see a bisexual protagonist (given that bisexuals and transgendered people tend to be some of the most misunderstood people in our society), or maybe it was just because even after ten years The World According to Garp is still haunting me. The book is a total body and mind experience that leaves you forever changed for its honesty. It’s kindness. The characters you meet are more than fictional persons, they’re real flawed people and you’re left, when you close the book after finishing the last page, that you’ve parted with people you’ve grown with.
They will always be a part of you.
The World According to Garp is not glamorous like The Great Gatsby, nor is it soul wrenchingly depressing like The Virgin Suicides (The film, not the book, I actually liked the book. When will Sophia Coopola make a movie that doesn’t make you want to slit your wrists?). It’s not a sprawling adventure like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, nor is it an anxious roman-a-clef like The Catcher in the Rye. No matter what could be said about the book, what I have come to personally is that even after you have finished it, the novel stays with your consciousness for the way it makes you assess the human condition and feelings of guilt. We’re all saddled with it from the day we’re born, but in The World According to Garp, we’re all given the chance to let some of it off our shoulders and share in the blame.
The World According to Garp by John Irving can be found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and wherever books are sold.