I have been meaning to revisit John Irving lately. I’ve been re-reading War and Peace over this Easter break, but I wanted to take a break between each book within the novel and read something else. So I took a look at what the library had to offer for Irving, and I thought this would be a good time to re-re-read The World According to Garp. This is the first Irving novel I ever encountered. A somewhat imposing mass-market paperback of it lives somewhere in my dad’s house. It was one of that corpus of books that lives in your parents’ house before you’re even born, precedes you into the world and (with any luck) will survive your passage out of it. Such books tend to float around the house, surfacing at the oddest moments and in the weirdest places. And I know it’s my dad’s favourite Irving work.
I’ve read The World According to Garp twice before, once when I was young and once when I was younger than I am now. The complexity of the relationships and issues that Irving tackles in his books means that reading them at such different ages naturally leads to very different impressions. Reading it now for the third time, I reflected to my dad that it seemed much more absurd to me. Indeed, the situations and events that plague Garp throughout his life range from the simple and believable to incredible or even ludicrous. Some have compared this book to a soap opera, and I suppose there’s some truth to that. It’s more comedy than opera though.
Considering the depth of tragedy that happens in this book—car accidents, rape, assassination—calling it a comedy might seem … insensitive, at the very least. Yet it’s accurate, for comedy is the genre that, through the absurd, reveals very important truths that we might otherwise overlook in everyday life. The comic characters of this novel—Fat Stew Percy (all the various nicknamed Percys, in fact), the incorrigably likable Dean Bodger, the reluctant Jillsy Sloper, et al—balance out the brutal nature of the events that happen to Garp and his family. Both the comic and the tragic elements of the book are larger than life, as fiction tends to be. And the tragedy is not so much a punishment for the actions of Garp or others as it is a consequence of the inevitability of bad things happening to people (good and bad).
There are a lot of different routes this book might take to get into a reader’s heart. Parents might identify with Garp’s somewhat overbearing sense of worry, his desire to make the world safe. I can’t really remember what grabbed me the most about this book when I read it before (this is one reason I enjoy writing reviews these days), but I’m certain it wasn’t the feminism that stuck with me this time around.
The World According to Garp begins by recounting Garp’s conception and birth. It explains how Jenny Fields, a nurse and member of the rich New England Fields family, struggles to maintain her independence in the midst of a society and time that is suspicious of single, independent women. Jenny conceives Garp in an unorthodox manner and proceeds to raise him, defiantly, on her own. Later in life, when Garp is virtually an adult and verging upon independence himself, Jenny composes a memoir—A Sexual Suspect that transforms her into a feminist icon. Though Jenny opens her doors to women throughout her life, she herself remains reluctant to engage with that label or the discourse surrounding feminism. Though she has no quarrel with prostitution and liberal views on sexuality, Jenny consistently marvels at the phenomenon of lust and expresses bewilderment at how it operates (particularly in men).
Garp lives his life in the shadow of his mother’s fame and struggles with this in relation to his budding reputation as a writer. He isn’t just “T.S. Garp, the novelist” but “T.S. Garp, the son of noted feminist Jenny Fields”. Inevitably, his books get reviewed in this light. So when, in the prime of his life, an accident befalls his entire family and influences him to write a bizarre, semi-absurd soap opera treatment about rape and infidelity, it isn’t surprising that this polarizes critics. As is usually the case with such controversial works, there are feminist reactions on either side—just showing that there is seldom a universal reaction to anything as complex as literature. Some critics praise the novel as a deep and moving look at how rape affects a woman’s life, while others condemn it as paternalistic and insensitive.
Garp’s complicated relationship—familial and literary—with feminism is what lingers after I finished this book. Garp attends his mother’s memorial in drag, for it is more a rally for the women’s movement in memory of the icon they made out of Jenny Fields than it is a tribute to his mother, the person Jenny Fields—and at such an event, it is implied, the presence of a man would not be countenanced, and particularly not someone as despicable as T.S. Garp. Here, and at other points in the novel (such as the love life of Roberta Muldoon), Irving gently probes the edges of the idea that there are certain spaces reserved for particular expressions of gender, and those spaces—often in an attempt to make sure they remain safe—can be hostile to other genders.
This navigation of such spaces interests me. A friend on Facebook recently posted, “Can a man be a feminist and chivalrous, since chivalry is inherently sexist?” One woman replied, “Can a man be a feminist?” I would hope that most feminists, and some men, would answer in the affirmative—I identify as a man, and I also identify as a feminist! Yet the question articulates a very real issue within feminism. And it’s certainly true that those of us who perform gender as straight men have a different relationship with, and a different role in, feminism than would someone who performs gender differently.
So I look at the somewhat hostile and close-minded performances of feminism by some of the characters in this book (the Ellen Jamesians are, naturally, the major example) and reflect that similar issues persist in feminism today. It seems strange that in thirty years we haven’t made much progress in that respect. All this divisiveness and polarization seems so counterproductive; polemics and invectives against other feminists are a waste of time that could be better spent advancing gender equality. (And I’m not referring only to the inclusiveness of genders within feminism; there are also plenty of conflicts within the widely heterogeneous movement that is “feminism” with regards to its relationship to anti-colonialism, anti-racism, etc.)
The World According to Garp highlights how that essential aloneness that plagues us as individuals can conflict with our need to build institutions and -isms. The Ellen Jamesians think they are somehow paying tribute to Ellen James through their actions, even though she is mortified by them. Jenny’s various followers or admirers view her as a icon even though she doesn’t embrace the label “feminist” so much as allow others to label her. We have a need to interact with others, but we have to do it through something as clumsy and unwieldy as words. And sometimes, it’s just so hard to know what to say.
This theme reverberates through the writers and writing exhibited in this book. Garp is a writer, but his writing doesn’t seem to really go anywhere throughout his life. His first published short story, “The Pension Grillparzer” seems to be one of his best works, rivalled only perhaps by his unfinished novel. Writing constantly occupies him, even if the act of writing seems to elude him most of the time. And it seems to me that Garp is struggling—perhaps in vain—to finally figure out how to say what he wants to say (and perhaps this is all any writer is ever doing). “The Pension Grillparzer” is a way of communicating his experience of Vienna; it is also a deed done to prove his worthiness as a writer to the exacting Helen Holm. (I’d love to go on to analyze Helen and Garp’s marriage, but I’m not sure I’m up to the task. I suspect that anything I could say on the matter would ring unbelievably naive, considering my own lack of experience with such matters.) The World According to Bensenhaver is a reaction to a tragedy that inevitably revokes any feelings of safety he might have in the world.
Garp isn’t the only writer. Jenny publishes a memoir long before Garp publishes any work. Michael Milton, the only student to catch Helen’s eye, is also a writer. According to Garp, neither of these two have much ability as writers. Both, however, offer contrasts in terms of attitude towards their writing. Jenny is “done” with writing after she completes A Sexual Suspect. She undertakes the project because she feels like she has something to say, and she is equanimous about its controversial yet fervent reception after its publication. Milton is prolific but perhaps lacking in much raw talent. This confidence, in contrast to Garp’s wavering sense of purpose in his writing, is attractive to Helen at that time in their marriage; perhaps it reminds her of the confident Garp who sent her “The Pension Grillparzer” as a prelude to proposing.
Irving’s treatment of feminism and feminist politics stand out this time around, but I was also drawn to how he discusses writing. All in all, The World According to Garp has interesting portrayals of communication and the ways in which people succeed or fail to communicate with each other. We spend a great deal of our time attempting to make connections, to be together. We form families and friendships; we engage in intimacy and sex with people we know (or don’t know); we write and read and speak. At the end, though, we are still always individuals, always alone, always terminal. And when we do go, we leave behind us a great body of words, for others to read and examine and theorize about from now until the end of time. We can never control—and seldom can we predict—how people will interpret what we write. But when we do go, that’s a major part of what we leave behind.