26 June 2012

Books: The World According to Garp by John Irving (1978)



What I like about John Irving is what makes me want to read more than watch TV or see movies. He’s a very literate author, with metaphors and parables designed to bring depth and nuances to his story. It may seem pretentious to others –especially the fools who digest James Patterson “written” novels over the last few years- but the simple message is just like Garp’s observation when going to pick-up his son Duncan at a friend’s house late at night. Garp is jogging to the house and he notices the flicker of TV set’s being refracted out of people’s homes and Irving protagonist, Garp, ponders that “this glow looks like a cancer, insidious and numbing, putting the world to sleep. Maybe television causes cancer, Garp thinks; but his real irritation is a writer’s irritation: he knows wherever the TV glows, there sits someone who isn’t reading.”

I don’t consider myself a writer, though in my heart of hearts, I think this is what I like to do. But as I’ve aged, the media aspects of TV and movies have lessened in my life. Where once I cared deeply for TV shows and its stars, saw movies on opening day and pushed and pulled people to come with me, now I find them dull, ponderous and pointless. Well, not so pointless. I still have a love of media, but I’m in tuned to the informational side of it now.

Journalism (and cooking) seemed to be the two things I’ve missed. Instead of working in a bookstore –since 1987, it’s been the thing I’ve done, I should’ve been writing the books that appear there. Had I known back in high school that journalism was where I should have concentrated my career choices instead of the safety of business administration I might be a happier person today.

All of my regrets are bundled up like a years’ worth of newspapers, sitting in my way. It seems I’m aware of them being in my way, but unable to throw them out. 

Anyways, The World According to Garp was Irving’s breakout novel. It seems surprising to me that 34 years after it was published, I finally picked it up. And I can’t say why I’m slowly making my way through his canon. Perhaps that is a lie. In my years of reading –mostly the late teens and well into my twenties-, I focused on fantasy novels (just as I started reading mysteries in High School). As I got into my 30s, fantasy novels were still there, but I began to read other genres, and more or less, contemporary fiction (also called pop fiction). 

While I cannot bare to read Austen, Dickens and many other of the “classics,” I’ve found that Irving is more appealing to me now. I’m slowly going through his literary canon and am simply enjoying his ability to create these hugely interesting characters. 

I don’t know; the edition I have is a mass market copy that was released in 1998. In the afterword for the 20th Anniversary edition, Irving recalls giving the finished book to his then 12 year-old son to read in 1977 and asking him to sort of evaluate it. This book, according to Irving, was the first one Colin would be able to read. As Colin noted, The World According Garp is about death, and all parents fears of their children’s lives. In some way, Garp (through Irving) no longer seems to care about his fate, but will do everything in his power to make sure his children, Duncan, Walt and Jenny, are safe. Garp would be called an over protective parent these days as well as back then when the book was written. Which is not a bad thing, but in Irving’s world, no matter how Garp tries to protect his kids and the people around him, you can’t save them. 

As Irving’s son Colin noted a few years later when asked if Garp was, in reality, John Irving (most readers believe that all books about families are autobiographical –this author more so than others, I think)  the then 14 year-old answered “No, my dad isn’t Garp, but my father’s fears are Garp’s fears- they’re any father’s fears.”

So like all of Irving’s books, the theme of death, gender roles and sexuality are wound together like they do in real life. In 1978, this book may have been shocking –especially what Garp’s mother Jenny does to get pregnant- but today, it’s simply a reality TV series on MTV. 

Reading, for me, is what defines me. The simple act of picking up a book, turning off the TV, the computer and sitting and devoting my time to the written word has more meaning to me that anything TV or the movies. Perhaps that is why I’ve become so critical of that media of late; the written word is being denied in a world where set pieces, explosions and CGI  effects are designed to cover the flaw that most TV shows and movies don’t care about the story, the author behind the words. 

Given a choice, I’ll always read. I’ll read until I shuttle off this mortal coil. For me, the most tragic aspect of my life would be going blind or living in the world seen in the classic Twilight Zone episode Time Enough at Last. There, Burgess Meredith, a lover of books, stumbles through a busy life. When a nuclear war happens, and he discovers he has survived, he realizes now he has enough time to read. Of course, per the series, there is the twist ending.

Life is a twist; both in the world of John Irving and The World According to Garp.

1 comment:

Loki's Log said...

Great review and observations. And for the record, you are a writer.