Irving, John 1942–
Irving, an American novelist, has created in his fourth novel, The World According to Garp, a critical and popular success. Irving's central concern in his fiction is human relationships, particularly familial relationships. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
Irving conceived a novel that would combine the horrors of World War II with the far gentler troubles of a youth stumbling into self-awareness and manhood. Setting Free the Bears is the result, and it represents a puzzling, often astonishing literary début.
The puzzling—and completely unresolved—aspect of the book is its lack of identity with either the Jamesian tradition or the American mainstream of the 1960s. Setting Free the Bears simply isn't a contemporary American novel; the language could almost be a European translation from an original by a European writer.
There are no Americans in the book at all, and the few references to racial troubles in the United States, obviously drawn in as parallels to the inhumanity of the war, seem curiously out of place. The tone of the novel, in short, is determinedly consistent with its setting—Vienna and the Austrian countryside.
This would be no problem were it not for nagging reminders throughout the book that something important—apparently the author's American identity and sensibility—is missing. More than half the narration is a first-person account of the adventures of a young Austrian student, Hannes Graff, and his wildly eccentric buddy, Siegfried….
The first hundred pages, seen through the eyes of the shallow, humorless Graff, betray the novel's principal weakness so markedly that they nearly spoil the...
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Irving's first novel, "Setting Free the Bears" received the kind of critical praise that makes one approach his second, "The Water-Method Man" with a certain amount of caution. But the first few chapters of this new work dispel any doubts about the sustained vigor of his talent. He quickly reasserts his inventiveness, wit and obvious ability to devour new experiences, digest them rapidly and convert them into imaginative symbols and lively literary episodes….
"The Water-Method Man," a rambling, episodic novel, is held together almost miraculously by the skill of an author who is a born writer. The reader is bombarded with a surfeit of imaginative images, symbols and events. And after putting down the novel and allowing some time to elapse, the characters, the kaleidoscope of events assume a cohesive and even more meaningful form. (p. 46)
Jan Carew, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 10, 1972.
[The 158-Pound Marriage] is impressively flashy in episode and style, deceptively arch, and pocked all over with little depth charges of drama that rumble up with an aching, rueful but often hilarious humor. Irving fingers a human foible like a wary teenager feeling for incipient pimples: gingerly, gently, hoping against hope, but secretly stung by that sinking vision of victorious acne….
Irving is an ambitious and clever writer who looks cunningly beyond the eye-catching gyrations of the mating dance to the morning-after implications. (p. 3)
S. K. Oberbeck, in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1974, The Washington Post), October 20, 1974.
John Irving is a young, eccentrically talented novelist with a singular rage to instruct. His books—funny, cleverly written, sometimes oddly endearing—provide a wealth of information about subjects one hardly expects to encounter in works of fiction…. [In The 158-Pound Marriage] the title and many of the episodes derive from wrestling, a sport that, as far as I know, has been unnoticed by contemporary authors. From Irving's previous book, The Water-Method Man, one learned a great deal about a rare ailment of the male urinary tract, and that particular pain in the human condition has also been neglected by novelists in droves. In each case, of course, Irving's pedantic exposition is eventually linked to a subject that does indeed interest novelists—marriage, with all its devious sexual and emotional permutations—but one must wade through a lot of words about wrestling and urology before coming in sight of the human heart behind these awkward symbols….
Like wrestling, marriage takes on the lineaments of metaphor, becoming a vehicle for Irving's concern with the differences between Europeans and Americans. He is, in fact, highly romantic about his Europeans, who are consistently stronger, more earthy and solid, more attuned to life's mainstream, than his wan, attenuated, overintellectual, naïve Americans…. (p. 13)
But although he can graphically convey the special ambiance of a college gymnasium, his characters elude him; for all their sexual energy, they remain bloodless, ghostly lovers without bone and muscle. If, in the end, Irving seems to spell out his lesson …, along the way he has lost control of the affirmations his story is presumably meant to offer. Swathed in a tangle of irresolute hints and guesses, neither the wrestling nor the sex bestows sufficient substance or meaning to The 158-Pound Marriage, and one is left with a mood of shambling inconsequence. (p. 14)
Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1974 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), November 25, 1974.
The title [The 158-Pound Marriage] comes from one of the characters who evaluates everything in terms of college wrestling weight classes; it indicates moderate approval. Although the novel is also middleweight in both size and subject, it is all muscle, all confidence and speed and sure grip. (p. 1187)
John Irving knows what he is doing, and his confidence is reflected in his decision to start his novel with two epigraphs, one from Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, the other from John Hawkes's The Blood Oranges—two excellent novels with this same subject. Irving does not suffer in the comparison. He resembles Hawkes, however, in more than mere subject. His narrator, for instance, keeps the same distance between the reader and the story as a Hawkes narrator, neither directly taking charge of his story nor idly reminiscing but telling his experiences in bits and pieces, framing each event in impersonal analysis and personal asides, eventually coming up to the open present and its possibilities. Never totally able to assess the significance of what has happened but admiring its drama and offering interpretations, slightly lost but trying to be helpful, he still seems to hold something back—not because he is trying to conceal any secrets or mislead the reader, but because he is still within the story he tells at the present and hasn't yet completely formed his own opinion about its importance. Another resemblance is the way the characters keep returning to the college gymnasium with its womblike tunnel…. Like the obsessive, pregnant landscapes in a Hawkes novel, this gymnasium is an oversignificant inner mental construct held together more by psychic force than by the rules of architecture, an estranged dream in an alien world of consciousness, a lonely building placed under a spell. Overall, Irving is not quite as sensual, surreal, or mannered as Hawkes, but he has inclinations in all these directions. Both authors view comedy the same way, as a formal dance around the edge of a deep well. (p. 1188)
Charles Nicol, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), October 24, 1975.
"The World According to Garp" shows that John Irving is haunted by the high level of quotidian American violence and the vulnerability of American lives. He can't get the frequency of assassination as a method of settling our domestic political and social quarrels out of his mind; and he is tormentedly aware of something like a war on women going on in our society as women's struggle for real equality continues and intensifies. He has not, however, arrived at wisdom on any of these matters. Apart from Andrew Greeley and some other heavy-breathing pundits, who has? (p. 1)
Through its formal convolutions and sinuosities this novel is … a sort of treatise on how reality is processed by fiction; it...
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The World According to Garp is a book of dimensions. It is entertainment on a grand, anyway stylish, scale. It is bravado transfigured into bravery—or maybe the other way around. In fact, I think quite often the other way around—which is not to damn, but to wonder. (p. 77)
Murder is a frequent occurrence in Garp (both Garp and his mother die in this fashion), but it isn't about murder really, it's about how to breathe life into life. Mayhem and mutilation are on every other page, but the theme of the book is addressed to making things whole. The Ellen Jamesians can't speak (and Garp himself smashes his jaw and must communicate by notes), yet the novel is concerned with articulation...
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The most interesting book I've read in the last few months is John Irving's The World According to Garp…. Garp is both a family saga and the history of a marriage, and there's more than a little of Catch-22 at its heart; Irving's sense of humor is as wild and brutal as Joseph Heller's, and Garp's opening scenes, which involve the mating of an antisexual young nurse and a catatonic tail gunner, seem like an explicit wink at both Heller and his doomed Everyman, Snowden.
I've read Garp three times. I've liked it more with each reading, and I'm still damned if I know what to make of it. The book's strengths and weaknesses are matters of real complexity; when the space I need...
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[The World According to Garp] is not merely a book about writing a book: in the first chapters, [Irving's] defensive, distancing techniques strike more than the reality of the subject matter; it is only gradually that the meaning is released. This is just as well, for the book contains almost intolerable pain. It is a bloody package, and if he had flung this in front of us we would have backed away in horror. As it is, we read on, at first entertained, then puzzled, then trapped, wanting to look away, but by this time unable to avert our eyes … or at least, this is what happened to me. (p. 82)
It is a baffling book in many ways. Beneath the surface lies a solid, suburban, everyday life…....
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People are dying almost from the first page [of The World According to Garp] but by the end the reader is neither bored with death nor hardened to it. Instead, an awful, beautiful aura of appropriateness settles over the novel. It's a strange, Moby Dick-like sense of completeness. One accepts what happens to Irving's characters, even though what happens may make one squirm, protest, or feel real grief. One accepts it because one has come to accept Irving's characters: as people, as friends, even though they too may be grotesque, perverse or sensational.
Irving blurs the line we tend to draw between "ordinary" and violent death, just as he erases the line that in fiction conventionally...
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Garp is harder to take, and more exhilarating, than one has any right to expect….
[In] The World According to Garp life is, more than anything else, intense … sharp-edged, and dangerous: the book is about the worst fears of its characters coming true….
[Violence] and death in Garp hurt deeply because the lives Irving creates for his characters are full to bursting with humor, purpose, lust, revenge, love, eccentricity and the will to keep promises. The struggle defined in Garp is not the hopeless struggle of men and women to beat the Reaper (as "We are all terminal cases" seems to imply), but the struggle of certain men and women to keep faith with...
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It must have been with a pretty desperate laugh that Irving thought up the plot for his richly nasty book [The World According to Garp]. Jenny Fields, a frigid American nurse, desires a child but no involvement with a man. She chooses Sergeant Garp, a ball-turret gunner shot down over France, capable only of muttering his name and squirting his aimless seed. His last shot is Nurse Fields's first—and last, too. 'She … felt Garp shoot up inside her generously as a hose in summer.' Thus she is impregnated; he dies.
Having accepted such a beginning—which is, indeed, highly acceptable in comparison with much richer parts of the book later on—one gets a brief spring of enjoyment. In the...
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The World According to Garp was, of course, 1978's Ragtime, which is to say that it is the most recent manifestation of the greatest-novel-of-the-decade. (p. 50)
Mr. Irving's previous novels were much shorter than the Garp book, and they hadn't attracted a great deal of attention. True, the man was "one of the most imaginative writers of his generation" (Dutton), but then so was everybody else. Clearly it was going to take more than mere imagination to turn Mr. Irving into a major literary event. It was going to take greatness. Let's face it, it was going to take a little naked profundity. (pp. 50-1)
The World According to Garp does indeed have...
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