Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The World According To Garp

Book: The World According to Garp
Author: John Irving
Edition: 20th Anniversary Edition, Hardback
Read:  March 2012
688 pages
Rated: 3 out of 5

Garp is born to Jenny Fields, a woman who just wanted to be left alone. His conception was in a most unusual manner. This is from the first chapter and it goes down from there. Garp grows up, but not out of his mother. They go to Vienna so he can become a writer, but it is she who gets the first book out. After various encounters, both with sex and death, he comes home and gets married after he writes his first good story. Garp goes through his marriage and infidelities, the death of those whom he is close to, and his turning into a stay at home dad.  You throw in a Toad, sex changes and women cutting out their own tongues and you get the world of Garp. The story explores Garp and his world's complications.

A book by a writer—where else do books come from?--about a writer will inevitably wind up talking about books. Irving makes a being point about his heroine, Jenny Fields, that she was the kind of women  who has a graceless seriousness which  makes more frivolous people uncomfortable. (42) She read books, not to discuss them, but to read them for herself. She would even attend classes at the school she was nursing at. Of course, if you have read a book you are puzzled about or enjoyed, you want to share it with others. On the other hand, if you are with a group of people in competition, you want to show your superiority by showing you have read the book, understood it better than anybody else, or at least have the book on your shelf.

To go on with the books, Garp, Fields son, does become a writer. When Garp submits to his publisher his third novel, which is at least as gross as Irving's novel, his publisher is really thinking that he does not want to publish the book. They are not that type of publisher. But he lets his cleaning lady read the novel. She likes it, to his surprise. Why? Because the book is true. Why is it rue? It is how people behave in reality. Is that why we read books? I read a book because it shows something about me, my world, and/or about my God.

Irving publishes two short stories in this book, which he attributes to Garp. I was wondering if he had these stories just laying around and wanted to publish them or if he wrote them specially for this book. The first story,  The Pension Grillparzer, has been published separately. The second was The World According to Bensenhaver. More of my pondering than a need to know. From a Wikipedia article, this is one of Irving's tricks.

The title of the book comes from something Garp's wife, Helen, says about his first good short story, The Pension Grillparzer. She said that we can glimpse what the world according to Garp would be like (194). In the story, the fantastic occurs. A bear riding a unicycle in a hotel room; fortunetelling gypsies; circus man who walks on his hands; a women who seemed to be married to everybody in the story. This is the world which Garp made up, and in many ways, the world Garp lived in. By this, I mean a different world than the world we see.

Garp realizes, too late, that his mother's real talent was that she had right instincts—she always did what was right. (575) After Jenny Fields book got published, she became a celebrity, outshining anything Garp did. The book was autobiographical and attracted the attention of the fledgling modern feminist movement. In her own way, she attracted the same type of people people who Garp imagined—women who cut off their own tongues, a Philadelphia Eagle tight end who had a sex change,  and other female outcasts. Garp, as sons will be, was embarrassed by all of this. She saw the needs of these women and tried to provide a place of shelter.

Garp needed something to do. (588). At this point, Garp had not written in awhile. He had faced one assassination attempt and was just in a rut. Irving correctly points out that unless we are doing something meaningful, we will decay or invent our own crisis'. This is what happens in retirement. Unless we find something which is meaningful to us, we have early heart attacks or become a nusiance.

Irving talks about Garp's writing, and it is a sad commentary on Garp. The best work he had done was his first.(589) Starts with a flash and ends with violence. As I read this I was wondering about Irving and was he fearing the same thing with his work? But he did write Cider House Rules after this novel.

I could relate to a statement—we skipped middle age altogether and moved directly into the world of the elderly.  (591)  This was said in reference to the amount of worry he, Garp, felt. Irving associates worry with old age while the freedom to be uninhibited by fear is more of the younger set. But I do not think so.  You see children  who are daredevils, but also some who will back away from ledges. But fear does cause Garp to reach out and try to protect his children.

Black and White. (623) Movements as they progress, and in this case, feminists, make it so you are either one of them or the enemy. There is no moderation of tone. This is true today as it was back when Irving write Garp.  Because of the radicalness of a movement, there is a strong tendency towards extremeness. We see this today with the liberals and conservatives, radical ecologists and Tea Party, prolife and prochoice. You cannot find any place of civility let along common ground.  Groups lose their original vision of a better world to live in when they dehumanize others.

In this book there are two examples extremism I will bring up—the Ellen Jamesians and the First Female Funeral. The Ellen Jamesians are a fictional group who cut out their tongues to symbolize their lack of voice. A girl of 12  was raped and then had her tongue cut out by her attacker. This group took this as a symbol. While the real Ellen James wanted nothing to do with the group. Garp had a hatred of this group which feed the young girl to write a letter disavowing the group. While Garp's Mom saw the neediness of these women.

When Jenny Fields died, a large group of females gathered at a university to have a funeral service for her. Garp was barred form attending. The reason? He is a man. So he went in disguise. Eventually he was found out and was forced to run for his life. What kind of group will not allow a man to attend his own mother's funeral? Remember this is fiction.

You know that a book is great when a person copies some sort of antics talked about in the book. Garp had a habit of cutting the engine, and lights, and then coasting up the driveway into his garage. His reason was not to wake the kids. On Click and Clack about a year ago, I heard the same thing. I just sort of snickered when I read the story. Unfortunately, I cannot find when this episode aired.

There is not much religion or room for religion in this book. But towards the end, while Garp is dying, Irving says so what, if there is no life after death? There is life after Garp... Even if there is only death after death (after death), be grateful for small favors. (649)  Sort of a human race in perpetuity. He goes further by saying that an ending occurs when those who are meant to peter out have petered out. All that's left is memory. (657)  Sort of a nihilist thought. Where a person lives and dies and there is no consequence to their being.  Even with memory, what is it except us? Because I remember my Grandmother, she influences my actions today. At some point, you need to say either Garp's life influenced how things will turn out or that it all does not matter.

No review of this book would be complete with sex. The reader needs to be warned that there is sex acts from the first chapter on. Some are done without passion, such as the one described about how Garp was conceived. Others are more noted. To Irving's credit, I do not think his descriptions are written to incite to lust, but to portray lust. Consequently they are more mechanical in description than something a teenager would read to lust. But the acts are very graphic, so the reader must be warned.

But if these scenes are not for some gratuitous reasons, why did Irving put them in?  Seemed like after each time Garp goes astray, something bad happens. When Garp is in Vienna, he teams up with a hooker. She dies. Garp becomes suspicious of his wife after many of his own philandering’s. In a sense, if you think about Irving's book enough, it becomes a morality play. You go astray, you will pay. 

Irving himself thinks the book is about lust. In the forward to the 20th edition, he talks about his 12 year old son going upstairs to read the book. Irving wonders what he would think about all the lust, and sex, in the book. His son has a different take, that the book is chiefly about death—the fear of death, or more particularly, the fear of death in an off-spring. In fac Irving talks about people coming up to him and offering him condolences on the death of his child—he has to say this is his imagination not reality.. One interesting note on lust—Wikipedia says that lust really means sexuality.

But does it make the book worth reading?

 How do I evaluate this book? Is it the graphic sexual content? I do not think so, because when you get to the end of the story, you realize that there is a reason why Irving has it. Is it the skill in writing which Irving shows in the book? I do think there is skill in his story telling. Is it the messages he sends out to us? I do not know.

What I do know is that this is not a must read again book. I am debating if it is a must read once book. So there is conflict in what I read. Irving's skill in writing is top notch. But the graphic nature made me not want to read the book or even hear Garp's name. In the end, it is a book to think about and ponder.

Notes from my book group:
Could you talk a little about what you saw in this book? Why did you think our group would benefit from this book?   Irving is a fine writer, writes how people talk. He writes how intellectuals act.

Rest of the group: What was your reaction to reading this book?   There was the thoughts that Irving's writing is uneven. Sometimes it is a good read and then other times you wonder why he is being published. It was felt A Prayer for Meany was one of the good reads.

There was a question, about who was Irving's editor? The answer is that for five of his books, Harvey Ginsburg was the editor, starting with Cider House Rules , A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Son of the Circus, and A Widow for A Year.  Also, he ad an editor names Joe Fox-whom it sounds like was the editor for Garp.  You wondered if Irving disliked Fox that much that he made Garp's editor, John Wolf? Irving had dedicated his third book to Fox.

How old was Irving when he wrote this book? 34. Is his other books as violent and filled with sex? From the Wikipedia chart on him, yes. This one seems to be a bit more graphic.

In general, most of the book group was put off by the sex and violence in this book. Also by the degree and the quantity. Some felt this book was pornography.

What themes do you find in this book?
Which are the strongest? How does Irving present them? Which is the most compelling for you?

How is feminism portrayed in this book? By whom and what tyoe? Are they compelling? Jenny Fields, Ellen Jamisins, Roberta Murdoch, Helen Holms, Mrs Ralph, Jillsy Sloper? Women, even as victims, may not be good people.

How does Irving anticipate today's political discussions? Feminism, Tea Party, Radical Ecologists,  Prolife/ProChoice, … Is Irving an observer or a corrector?

Death is lurking throughout the book. How does Garp live with it? Can we learn from Garp on dealing with death or the fear of death? Walt, Jenny, Garp,

How does Irving use the Under Toad? Is that how you would portray the world you life in? Looking for the Under Toad?

How does Irving distinguish between sex and sexuality? Roberta Murdoch, the house by the sea, ...

Is the sex in Garp gratuatis? How so? How not? Are there reprocusions to the characters having sex throughout the first half of the book? What warning did you take away from it? Do you think Irving was trying to do a morality play?

New Words:

  • triptych (85): a set of three panels or compartments side by side, bearing pictures, carvings, or the like.
  • Slatternly (274): untidy and dirty through habitual neglect;  or of, relating to, or characteristic of a slut or prostitute
  • quadroon (515): A person having one-quarter Black ancestry.

Good Quotes:

  • It was a class war, … all wars were. (73)
  • Any place can be artistic, if there's an artist working there. (123)
  • Many couples never discover it[never in love]. Others marry, and the news comes to them at awkward moments in their lives. (207)
  • You only grow by coming to the end of something and by beginning something else. (253)
  • wherever the TV glows, there sits someone who isn't reading. (315)


The Plot Against the Giant
First Girl
When this yokel comes maundering,
Whetting his hacker,
I shall run before him,
Diffusing the civilest odors
Out of geraniums and unsmelled flowers.
It will check him.

Second Girl
I shall run before him,
Arching cloths besprinkled with colors
As small as fish-eggs.
The threads
Will abash him.

Third Girl
Oh, la...le pauvre!
I shall run before him,
With a curious puffing.
He will bend his ear then.
I shall whisper
Heavenly labials in a world of gutturals.
It will undo him.

Wallace Stevens

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