I’ve been wanting to reread an old John Irving book for quite a while now. He was a very early favorite of mine, but it’s been quite a while since he wrote something I liked. Avenue Of Mysteries was a slog. In One Person was instantly forgettable. Until I Find You had a really charming main character, but it was a mess of a book. The most recent John Irving book that I can wholeheartedly get behind is A Widow For One Year, and that was 20 years ago! So I’m wondering, did he lose it, or did he never have it, or did my taste change, or is it a little bit of everything? I’ve read The Cider House Rules a few times over the years, and I’m pretty sure that holds up. I’ve really been curious about revisiting A Prayer For Owen Meany, because I loved it the first time, and it tends to be everyone’s favorite. But then I’ve been thinking about how some of the books I’ve hated the most over the last few years have me questioning whether men shouldn’t be writing about sexual assault, or did I just happen on some duds? Well there’s weirdly a whole lot of rape in some of John Irving’s earlier work, and since there’s no way I’m rereading The Hotel New Hampshire, it was back to the very first one I ever read of his, The World According To Garp. Dude, I was way too young for this the first time around.
Stop reading this now if you don’t want spoilers on a 40 year old book that was also made into a movie.
There is a lot to love about this book, although I’m kind of curious what I got out of it when I first read it. (I’m pretty sure I was 11, wtf.) I love a good sprawling saga, and this one delivers. There is a really great sense of continuity running through this, the writing is beautiful, the characters are very very well developed and memorable. The story takes some very dramatic turns but it doesn’t ever veer into melodrama territory. The foreshadowing in this book is incredible; really that alone makes it worth the reread, because it was wild seeing early allusions to what was going to come later. I was blown away by that. There is a bit where Garp’s son Walt is always being told to watch out for the undertow when he’s swimming, but he mishears it and thinks it’s a monster called the Under Toad, and through the rest of the book, the Under Toad stands for a sense of foreboding; that was extremely effective, very well done. And there was one sad thing that I’m not going to say here even though I gave a spoiler warning, but even though I knew it was going to happen, it still broke my heart.
All that said, it has some issues.
I don’t mind when a book takes its time, but this is too long. There is some fat that can be trimmed, like, for example, when people are describing their dreams in great detail. Nobody wants to hear every detail of the dream you had. That is a universal truth. And we don’t have to go to Vienna twice. Every time I read John Irving, I cringe whenever a character gets his passport out. Travel writing is not his strong suit.
There are great characters in this book, especially the women, but Garp himself is kind of an asshole. He is incredibly self-absorbed and full of himself. He does some very shitty things and is very forgiving of himself about it, much easier on himself than on anyone else. His mother is a pretty amazing character, a strong feminist icon within the story, and he mostly has disdain for her and her work. A lot is made about his writing, and in the end he is described as having multiple biographers, but from what I can see, he’s really not much of a writer. He writes one decent short story, two so-so novels, and one very lurid novel that is commercially successful but not critically. And that’s it. Even considering that his mother is famous and his death is kind of tabloid fodder, it feels like a stretch that he would be that big a deal. Seriously, multiple biographers? I’m still sort of chuckling over that.
There is a lot of rape in this book. A lot. I don’t know what’s up with that. I’ll give it credit because it doesn’t do a “not all men” kind of thing. Garp himself is surprisingly thoughtful about this, at one point making the observation that even the good guys (like himself) have done a fair amount of damage to women. On the flip side, sexual assault in this book is very very often referred to as “lust,” which really misses the mark. In the afterword, John Irving states that this book is primarily about a father’s fear. With that in mind, and with sexual assault being such a major theme in this book, it feels like a cop-out that Garp dies when his only daughter is still a baby. I mean, it may have spared the reader some painful “as a father to a daughter” stuff, but he really avoided some potentially interesting territory.
The biggest problem I had with this was the Ellen Jamesians. An 11 year old girl, Ellen James, is raped by two men who then cut out her tongue so she won’t be able to tell anyone what happened or identify them, not realizing that an 11 year old can write. So then a bunch of women cut out their tongues in solidarity and create a society called the Ellen Jamesians. This could be an interesting idea in different hands, but it is almost completely shown through the lens of what Garp thinks about it, and big surprise, he’s disdainful and dismissive. It does feel weirdly prescient of how so many men have offered their super helpful critiques of the #metoo movement, as if they get a say in how we fix what they broke. Garp gives his opinions on the Ellen Jamesians a lot, and I’m like
Thanks Tracey, for giving me this book way back when even though I was too young. That’s what big sisters are for!