During the period of COVID-19, I’ve been re-reading novels from a list of twenty-five of The Most Important Novels in My Life. Next up: THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP.
Published in 1978, when I was in college, the first time I attempted to read Garp I put it down. A few years later I started reading it again, and this time I couldn’t put it down. What changed? Sometimes you’re just not ready for a book.
What a cast in his novel: Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, a despiser of lust who becomes a feminist icon and best-selling author. Roberta Muldoon, former NFL tight end turned trans. Garp’s wife, Helen, who pays the most devastating price for her adultery, while Garp is hardly punished for his. And Garp–the writer and overprotective parent.
The novel is packed with lust, sex, violence, and tragedy. Irving has a bold and confident voice, sometimes overbearing, but how many writers can make you crack a smile over tragedy?
I found some parts dull. The story-within-a-story sections, written by the author T.S. Garp, were less than compelling. That doesn’t reflect well on Garp or Irving as writers. But for the most part, the novel hums along in epic, Dickens-like fashion, one anecdote after another, spanning the entire life of T.S. Garp.
One of the reasons this novel made my list is the energy of the narrative style. I found myself imitating Irving in some of my earlier writing efforts. Therefore, he was a significant influence on me. I also have a spot in my heart for novels about writers. We all have a lot in common. I don’t think I’ll ever have the nerve to make one of my characters a writer.
I think two novels that Irving wrote after Garp, THE CIDER HOUSE RULES and A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANING, were more powerful and meaningful for me. But I might never have gotten to them if I hadn’t read Garp first.