Irving, John (Vol. 13)
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.)
Henry S. Resnik
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.
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S. K. Oberbeck
[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.
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Pearl K. Bell
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...
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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...
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"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 takes a sophisticated view of the relations in art between the imaginary and the actual. For example, Garp writes as his fourth book "The World According to Bensenhaver." It has a lurid plot entailing rape, manslaughter and other violence, and represents Garp's idiosyncratic attempt to deal with the trauma of a terrible, ridiculous accident…. The Bensenhaver narrative, an entire chapter of which is included, is obviously a parody of the work containing it. So we are left to ponder the following question: What traumas suffered by John Irving elicited "The World According to Garp," as Garp's traumas elicited "The World According to Bensenhaver"? The fact that such questions are not really answerable, except in imagination, does not make them...
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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 as perhaps the only saving grace. One of the most unforgettable characters is a football tight end turned transsexual (there is homoerotic awareness everywhere), yet Garp is profoundly centered on heterosexual urges and itches and relationships and fulfillments, and, out of these and beyond them, on families and children. Garp is a true romantic hero: he wants the world safe, not for himself, but for them….
One reads [the accident scene at the center of the book] transfixed in horror. Also with the lips quivering to smile. It's so awful, it's so funny. Perfect justice, and therefore farcical; its appropriateness (in New England yet) is raucous….
Garp's world is so bizarrely and...
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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 to deal with them becomes available, I'll try to explain why this novel is a literary Blood on the Tracks [see excerpts below]. (p. 70)
Greil Marcus, in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1978; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 270, June 27, 1978.
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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…. Garp's perceptions of his children, his anxious protective love, his rebellion against and acceptance of this deadly anxiety, are beautifully done: there is a fine scene where, worried about the fecklessness of the mother who has invited his son to stay for the night, he creeps around to spy at one o'clock in the morning, and sees through a window in the lethal rays of the television
crammed against the sagging couch the casual bodies of Duncan and Ralph, half in their sleeping bags, asleep (of course), but looking as if the television has murdered them. In the sickly TV light their faces look drained of blood.
This sense of death round the corner grows in the novel,...
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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 separates "normal" and perverse characters. In most novels we get one or the other, or we find the normal and the perverse in opposition, fighting over the definition of life. "The world according to Irving" might be a world in which the normal and the perverse coexist without ever considering that they shouldn't—or couldn't.
Take, for example, Irving's two most outrageous inventions, Roberta Muldoon and the Ellen Jamesians. Roberta Muldoon … is a transsexual. But not just any transsexual: she is the former Robert Muldoon, known all over America as Number Ninety, the vicious tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles. Such a setup gives Irving the opportunity for a lot of comedy, and he uses it: Garp is a comic novel...
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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 each other.
One becomes attuned to what is lost when these people die. One understands just how their deaths will leave gaps—bleeding holes—in the lives of those who, for the time being, survive them…. Irving has written what, these days anyway, is the rarest sort of novel: a long, unsentimental, intricate, unfaked story about people who are basically good.
Garp is about the necessity and the limits of morals, which are seen as essential to a decent life, but which, no matter if you attach yourself to a moral system or draw morals out of yourself, can take you only so far; evil is identified with amorality (not the refusal of morals, but their absolute absence) and represented by rapists,...
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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 young Garp's childhood, as he is brought up by the resilient Jenny, who works as a nurse in a boys' school, there are some rewarding moments….
When Garp is 19, he goes with his mother to Vienna. This is the Indian summer of the book, before the darkness of boredom and the thunder of repellent acts sets in. Mr Irving knows and evidently loves Vienna. He does not actually run to fine writing, but there are moments of pleasure….
Back in America, Garp marries clever, colourless Helen and we are in for a long spell of a dull American marriage which, in hands less skilled than those of Updike or Heller, make tedious reading…. Inevitably, Helen has an affair, and here Mr Irving pulls out his 'funniest'...
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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 "extraordinary" qualities. Its plot, for one thing. Like so many extraordinary things, the story lacks, shall we say, credibility. That is not necessarily a criticism: John Irving has never been able to construct a believable plot, but he has always tried to make a virtue of this chronic deficiency. Which is to say that, like other formless novelists—Pynchon, Barth, Doctorow—he abandons any pretense at narrative (and therefore psychological) realism, and seeks instead to attract and maintain the reader's attention with random monstrosities and grotesque occurrences, chiefly sexual or violent in nature, frequently both. The idea, in other words, is to horrify or titillate the reader to such an extent that he or she will be compelled to continue...
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