The World According to Garp by John Irving. Dutton, 437 pp. $10.95
The first chapter of The World According to Garp introduces a strikingly original character. Born of a family of prominent New England manufacturers, Jenny Fields has left Wellesley to become a nurse, an unspeakable occupation in the forties for a woman of her standing. She has decided, too, that while she wants to raise a child, she wants nothing to do with a man. Working in intensive care during the Second World War, she is on the lookout for a likely terminal case, and settles on a ball turret gunner who has suffered a serious brain injury. Immediately upon being injured, the man had been reduced to a state in which he could speak only his name — “Garp!” — and in which his only joy, a considerable one, was masturbation. As his condition progresses he loses even these functions: his hands are badly burnt in an accident, and he begins to lose sounds from his syllable; “Arp!” he exclaims, then “Ar!” The man is not just dying, but regressing toward the womb; Jenny first suckles him and then, in a deliberately fantastic and symbolic scene — a patient on one side shouts “God!”, on the other side “Piss!” — she mounts him and takes his seed. Eventually he expires, but Jenny has what she wanted, a baby whom she names T. S. (for Technical Sergeant) Garp. Thus our novel’s hero is born not of a marriage, or even lust; he bears the initials of a famous modern intellectual and a last name that is almost a nonsense syllable.
John Irving has laid his cards on the table. From what seemed to be the beginning of a long realistic chronicle, he has moved into a world of fantasy, symbol, and wild humor, and for the rest of the novel he settles into neither world, but shuttles back and forth between the two.
Though she may in my mind be the best one, Jenny Fields is hardly the only original among the novel’s characters. Not to mention the protagonist himself, who eventually becomes a famous and important novelist, there is a Philadelphia Eagle tight end who undergoes a sex-change operation, a girl who in her past was viciously raped and had her tongue removed, a whole society of women who have their tongues removed in sympathy for the girl, a coach who raises his daughter in a succession of wrestling rooms, a noted artist who is missing an arm and an eye . . . The list could go on and on; the world according to Irving is full of idiosyncrasy and deformity. Sometimes these facts seem to have meaning; other times they seem merely the product of a wild imagination. Despite the fact that these characters are not psychologically complex — often they seem comic types, with only a couple of outstanding characteristics — and despite their obvious fantastic and sometimes symbolic nature, they become very real to the reader, none more real, for instance, than that former tight end. We know these people, we care for them, and we want to know what will happen to them.
The narrative itself moves through various phases. There is a long section in which Jenny raises Garp while working at a prep school, and the story told here — with its devoted teacher of writing who stutters and has bad breath, its kindly but harsh Dean who patrols the campus nightly with a searchlight, its wealthy old school family that resides on campus and does not much of anything — is as accurate and complete as many whole novels devoted to that life. Garp and his mother move for a time to Vienna, where he begins his writing career; then follows a long domestic idyll in which Garp becomes established and starts a family. His is an unusual marriage, not just because his wife is the breadwinner and Garp, as a writer, must face the problems of staying at home, but also because, without stating as much, both partners seem to understand that any marriage involves its weaknesses, failures, its infidelities of various kinds. No external model of a marriage is set up: they start from what exists and get along as best they can. Their love for each other and for their children is enormous. The great theme and abiding mood in this section of the novel is Garp’s anxiety as his children face a world of violence and personal failure. The heart of the novel produces an event whose sadness — which for nearly a whole chapter is stated by going unmentioned — is almost more than the reader can bear. But he moves on, because Garp, with his famous energy, moves on, into a closing section in which characters return, themes reappear, facts are echoed, a section more public than domestic and which moves at an astonishing pace into a closing epilogue that, in the novel’s whimsical manner, moves far beyond 1978 and gives a warning, as Garp believes epilogues should, of the future.
All this is not to mention that, since Garp is a writer, aesthetics and the problems of the artist receive major treatment throughout the novel. Daringly, Irving includes a major story, and a chapter from a novel, that Garp has written; these works bear interesting resemblances to the novel Irving has written, reflect it and are reflected by it, and raise fascinating questions about the place of experience and imagination in producing fiction.
When a cleaning woman reads Garp’s The World According to Bensenhaver, she remarks that, despite her distaste for what is happening, she continues to read in order to find out what happens next. The World According to Garp, on the other hand, is most enjoyable to read, but its sheer narrative force, among many other excellences, is the best thing about it. Ultimately, despite its wild humor, it is probably — like Garp’s early “The Pension Grillparzer”— a story about death; as Garp himself says, he deals only with terminal cases. As I think back over the long list of contemporary writers whom I have recently read — Bellow, Singer, Updike, Cheever, Percy — I am astonished to realize that The World According to Garp, by an author whose name I had never heard before, is the most impressive new novel I have read in years.