Contains spoilers…

After A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules, The World According to Garp is the third book I have read by John Irving.

The opening scene of The World According to Garp introduces Jenny Fields, a young woman who wounds a man with a scalpel in a movie theater, because he tried to touch her. Jenny Fields is an independent woman, who wants to have her choices in life respected: she wants to have a child but no man in her life. In a peculiar manner which the reader discovers early in the book, Jenny gets pregnant with her only child, T. S. Garp.

The novel centers on Garp, who "has always suspected he would die young". At five years old, Garp almost does, trying to catch pigeons with a Lacrosse stick on the roof of the Steering School, where his mother lives and works as a nurse. Later, Garp, pupil at Steering, according to his mother’s wishes, has trouble choosing a sport that would suit him: his mother signs him up for wrestling. During practice, he meets Helen, the coach’s daughter, and the woman he wants to marry. Helen is a reader, and therefore will only marry a writer. Garp has his task set out for him: he must become a writer. With his mother, who doesn’t seem inclined to release him in the wide world yet, he goes to Vienna, where, instead of writing, he gets acquainted with life, in the form of old houses and first-rate prostitutes. In Vienna, he also gets acquainted with death. Meanwhile, Jenny writes an autobiography that will make her famous, A Sexual Suspect. From his experience in Vienna, Garp will end up writing his first short story, The Pension Grillparzer. Although Garp apparently struggles with "lust", as stigmatized by his mother Jenny, the real enemy and pervasive presence throughout the book and in Garp’s life is death.

Some years later, a worried father of two, Garp tries to control his and his family’s world. Warning his children about common dangers, running after speeding cars in his neighborhood, Garp wishes that "he could make the world safe. For children and for grown-ups." Of course Garp’s wish is doomed from the start. The Under Toad as he calls it (the sense of impending danger, catastrophe) is lurking, ready to break the happiness of his family. Ironically enough, it is lust that will bring the first and most terrible of the deaths. Religious or moral issues are never issues at all in the novel, and if it is sin and punishment for sin that the terrible scene calls to mind, Garp refuses to accepts this easy way out and to deny that what happened was simply a stupid and grotesque accident. Irving shows that tragedy and grotesque can simply live side by side. Laughter is never far away from tears and vice versa.

Finally, it is no surprise that a man with a need for control but no control whatsoever on his environment became a writer, who can at least decide the fates of his own characters. After all, writing is "trying to keep everyone alive, forever. Even the ones who must die in the end. They’re the most important to keep alive". By writing, Garp plays God, and shares this characteristic with two other characters (at least) of Irving’s fiction: bossy Owen Meany and Dr. Wilbur Larch. Garp’s control even extends beyond the grave, since his biographer will finally lend him the final words he would have liked to have said!

The World According to Garp is about control, or lack thereof, and it is also a fiction about fiction. In Garp, there are stories within the story. Since Garp is a writer, the reader is tempted to confuse him with Irving. In an afterword, Irving writes: "An adult (as opposed to his son, who read this novel at 12, and never even made the mistake!) who reads a novel should know that whether a novel is autobiographical or not is beside the point – unless the adult is hopelessly inexperienced or totally innocent in the ways of fiction." This, written twenty years after Garp, proves that the question must have been asked to him scores of times: "Are you Garp?" The novel itself is a warning against the futility of looking for the autobiographical element in fiction. Anyone who is still looking after reading Garp has obviously misunderstood what Garp is about. The scene where Garp invents a story of a teased dog for his son, and teases his wife afterwards with the "true" story behind the invented one, is proof enough: why looking for the truth when the story sounds truthful? It is not the truth that counts, it is the story: "If the truth suited the story, he would reveal it without embarrassment; but if any truth  was unsuccessful in a story, he would think nothing of changing it" The story should be enough! And this is certainly an idea Irving shares with Garp… People have trouble accepting a novel for what it is, just a novel, like they cannot accept that T. S. in T. S. Garp stands for T. S. and nothing else. But of course, by choosing a main character who writes and wrestles and shares many characteristics with the author, Irving does everything to maintain the confusion… Maybe if Irving (or Garp, they are interchangeable in at least this respect) has been unlucky in the sense that many readers have misunderstood his meaning, it means only one thing: that the writer is the God of his creations only until somebody (mis)reads him! Thus, Jenny Fields is misread and mistaken for a "feminist", though she would not have chosen this label for herself, and Garp, whose World according to Bensenhaver is a desperate way to deal with the loss of his son, will be acclaimed in turn by feminists as "the first in-depth study, by a man, of the peculiarly male neurotic pressure many women are made to suffer". This is how much control a writer has on his writing, once let loose into the world…

Like the two other novels I read previously, The World According to Garp is clever, and brilliant, and compelling!!! I have now read the best (according to many) by Irving, let’s see how I will enjoy the rest…

Rating: 5/5