John Irving’s fourth novel, The World According to Garp, is excellent fare, a work that puts him in the ranks of the most gifted of today’s fiction writers: with Hawkes, Vonnegut, Heller, Pynchon, Borges, Nabokov, and García Márquez. Like Catch-22, his new work is a fresh vision of a world that we lived through but never really saw or never really understood. The same technical virtuosity is here too, along with the craziness, the exaggeration, and the ubiquitous threat of annihilation. But whereas Heller offers only a glimmer or two of hope and much sardonic laughter in a world that seems perilously wobbling on the brink of oblivion, Irving provides much joy and love intermingled with the climb down the ladder. When asked for a reaction to some readers’ finding the novel rather puzzling because of its combination of “so much joy and comedy with so much violence and pain,” Irving responded, “I guess some readers find that strange. It’s not strange to me; it’s just truthful exaggeration—and not much of an exaggeration to my mind either.” Irving is concerned, then, with truth—but truth told with hyperbole, resulting in great delight, much hope, and fine art.
In this long but swiftly paced novel, Irving focuses on the story of T. S. Garp, born fatherless to Jenny Fields, a Wellesley dropout who at an early age decided that she would have nothing to do with men—nothing, that is, except for one Technical Sergeant Garp. A ball-turret gunner on a B-17 during World War II who, during his thirty-fifth mission over France, was lobotomized by shrapnel, Garp had been flown back to the United States to die at Boston Mercy Hospital where Jenny was a nurse. Deteriorating rapidly, the soldier was seen by Jenny as a perfect opportunity to get what she wanted—not a lover, but a child. In a hilariously grotesque scene that outdoes Yossarian’s antics and the soldier in white, Jenny stripped off her nurse’s uniform and straddled the infantile soldier, whose regression was reflected in the diminution of one of the few words that he could still speak—Garp—to Arp, to Ar, to Aaa. Jenny conceived, later naming the child T. S. Garp after her “one-shot” ball-turret gunner.
The incident and the rest of the first chapter establish clearly Jenny’s fiercely independent nature—nurturant, but refusing to let anyone, especially men, take advantage of her. The chapter also establishes the type of comedy to be found in the rest of the work. It is comedy of great exaggeration of situation and behavior, incongruity of subject and language, and verbal punning. Implicitly here also are the thematic concerns of the novel: contemporary mindless violence, man and woman as victims of social institutions, the reactions of women against their oppressive roles and their oppressors, the madness of extremism, and the tribulations of sexual behavior. Irving opens his arms to human strength and love as well as to human fragility. The chapter also typifies the form of the overall narrative, composed of clear, hard character sketches—of teachers, prostitutes, radical feminists, football players, lovers, rapists, and writers—and short stories, some of which were published earlier as separate pieces in popular magazines such as Playboy and Esquire. No charge of fragmentation can legitimately be made, however, for the pieces are bound tightly together by a dominant plot line and by repetition of image, situation, and motif.
With its central themes, form, and perspective established in the first chapter, the novel moves briskly. Of course, in a work entitled The World According to Garp, one would expect the title character to be dominant. Also, one would expect a complete world view, a total perspective. In both, one is not disappointed. The work in great detail catalogues the thirty-three years of Garp’s life: his early years at Steering School, his stay at Vienna, his literary attempts and successes, his marriage to Helen Holm, the birth of his children, the growth of his career, and finally his absurd but sad death. Through it all, Garp comes through as a tremendously human character, suffering from and rejoicing in his lust, anger, and desires for revenge, but also sensitive to a moral code. In all, Garp is Captain Energy, a wrestler and writer of both heart and mind.
Not as fiercely independent as his mother, he is instead a lover—of women, his children, and words. His sexual initiation, like that of Jenny, takes place in a hospital setting, the infirmary at Steering,...