From the opening passages of this novel, the reader knows that an unusual story is about to be told. The prehistory of Garp is a wildly unorthodox conception: His mother, a nurse, physically cuts a soldier making a pass at her in a motion picture theater, then conceives Garp from another, almost comatose, dying soldier. Her life story later becomes her autobiography, A Sexual Suspect, “said to bridge the usual gap between literary merit and popularity,” and it is in competition with Garp’s novel, which is purely literary and not successful. Like Irving himself, the two writers fight with the apparent contradiction in the two approaches. As Garp struggles with his own writing, his life takes on all the aspects of cause and effect that he is trying to express in his work: His marriage almost fails, one child dies in a bizarre automobile accident in the family driveway, and both Garp and his mother are assassinated by ultra-sexist radicals (one a man, one a woman).
As a youth, Garp attends the Steering School, another of the New England private schools that are favorite sites for Irving. One family, the Holms, consisting of Ernie and Helen, a wrestling coach and his daughter, are the nontraditional family that Irving incorporates into virtually all his novels. Garp’s first writing environment is Vienna; his mother accompanies him there, and she plans to write a little something herself. The writer as subject fills The World According to Garp with a second layer of meaning; the novel clearly represents an attempt on Irving’s part to reconcile the elements of seriousness and popularity in his own work. Bizarre deaths continue, and accidents show that the plans of the characters must take accident and contingency into...
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