Updated: Sep 8, 2022
By Lee Anderson
I first heard about The World According to Garp from television. It was a movie trailer for a film being released with the crazy actor from “Mork & Mindy,” except now he was portraying a normal man instead of an alien. The story, far as I could tell, was an existential comedy concerning the overall zaniness of life. Like most in the early Eighties, I adored Robin Williams. He possessed an eccentric, rapid-fire humor that was enchanting to my pre-teen clumsiness.
As it turned out, the movie was off-limits since it was Rated R, but that was all right. I came across the novel at the supermarket. Browsing books and magazines while my mom shopped for groceries was actually how I became familiar with most cultural icons of that time—The Hulk, Iron Man, Spiderman, Stephen King, KISS…My exposure to all of them by way of Winn-Dixie.
I was an avid reader already. I’d picked up and started reading my first book because I saw my father constantly reading. I wanted to know what could be so interesting. Where was he? However, the books I read mainly consisted of tie-in novelizations for current science fiction and horror movies. I’d never read a book that didn’t involve intergalactic warfare, gruesome monsters, or senseless murder The first thing that struck me differently about the book version of Garp was its girth. It was 544 pages! To my 10-year-old mind, it seemed utterly implausible that anyone could make their way through so many words and meanings. Regardless, based on my love of Robin Williams and my fascination with Garp’s impressive length, I begged my mother to buy my first John Irving novel for me. Life was never the same.
The World According to Garp was about a writer named T.S. Garp who was the bastard son of a famous feminist novelist. Irving’s book carried themes that ran through all of his works: New Hampshire, death, and wrestling. Every Irving novel also contained a main character both adoring and perplexed by the absurdity of their situation and environment. Garp itself is a hairline balancing act between the warmth of family connections and the cruel randomness of tragedy. People drop dead left and right in often ridiculous ways.
As an adolescent, Garp confesses to his monumentally eccentric mother that he plans on becoming a writer. She decides this is a good idea herself and writes one of the most important works of feminist memoir literature ever published. Her book changes the world to such an extent that her beachside estate becomes a haven for ultra-woke feminists, inspired by her headstrong, personal saga of female empowerment. She wanted a child but not a husband, so—working as a WWII nurse—she essentially raped a wounded soldier she knew was going to die. She didn’t even know his name, only that he was a technical Sargeant, and thus Garp was given his first name: the initials “T.S.” Published through his mother’s influence, of course, Garp doesn’t sell nearly as much as her. His novels are pretentious, melodramatic, and overreactive. His mother’s book hits a universal note he could never hope to. In a strange twist, she gave him life but stole his dream.
The book involves other subplots such as the secret affairs Garp and his wife have, which are futile attempts to recapture the virality of their youth. It is also about the fragility and miraculous of children and how they shape our lives as much as we shape theirs. At its base, The World According to Garp is about family.
I was most intrigued with how the book managed to form a comprehensive narrative out of a single character’s entire life. I’d never come across such a book (and wouldn’t again until David Copperfield.) It made life easier to compartmentalize and cope with if viewed as one long story. Anyway, aren’t each of us living our own stories filled with allies and villains, allegories and foreshadowing, inciting incidents and ironies that propel our narratives?
Before finishing even half of Garp, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I sort of already knew since writing my first novel in the first grade. (It was 6 pages long and titled “Jaws.” It was about a shark. The fact someone else had already written the same book with the same title, albeit far more elaborately and successfully, was a minor detail for silly adults.) However, now I knew for sure. I would use writing as a means to release my complex and doubtlessly ingenious thoughts. I would share my life and experiences to help myself and others find that connection of commonality that makes all of us human. I would also be rich and famous.
Thank you, Mr. Irving. Thank you for showing me that ordinary people can be as interesting as monsters and aliens, if not just as scary and dangerous.
Thank you, Winn-Dixie…
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