I’ve been collecting John Irving’s better known novels since I read The Cider House Rules in high school. I finally got around to reading (well, listening to) one of them.
About the Book:
T.S. Garp’s mother wanted a child, but she did not want to give her life to a man to get one. So, she conceived her son in a rather odd and controversial way: by sleeping with an injured World War II veteran she cared for as a nurse just before he died.
That’s the beginning of The World According to Garp. What unspools as the pages turn is Garp’s life in its entirety: childhood, marriage, writing career, family, and eventual death. Interspersed are pieces of his writing and bits of his mother’s history. I could say more about what happens, but that would just be a mess of spoilers!
I liked The World According to Garp well enough. It was a strange story, full of odd people and bizarre incidents and surprising episodes of violence. It’s not a story you can really get close to, I think — more one that you follow at arm’s length. That alone is enough to keep it from being the newest addition to my list of favorites. I tend to prefer books I can connect with, and this wasn’t one of them. Still, it was pretty good.
Irving has this interesting ability to create characters you like and care for sufficiently, but that you never get overly attached to. It’s like the difference between watching a movie on a huge screen in a dark theater with surround sound and watching it on a laptop in your brightly lit living room. You might like both experiences equally, and there’s nothing wrong with either, but one feels much more immersive than the other. Irving’s writing, at least in The World According to Garp, is more like the laptop than the theater.
There were parts when the story seemed to drift beyond the confines of what could reasonably be expected to happen in a realistic novel, somehow, and that got to me just a little. It felt like certain incidents were too well planned to seem natural. They didn’t bother me, really, except for a little nagging disbelief in the back of my head now and then.
I did like how Irving worked bits of Garp’s writing into the novel itself. I’ve always enjoyed the “story within a story” approach when done well. But in this case, it was also quite interesting to see the relationship between what Garp was writing and what was going on in his life — probably Irving’s intention, if I had to guess. Everything from theme to language to vibe shifted depending on where Garp was in his life, and you can see what’s seeped over or been transposed somehow and worked into the stories.
Michael Prichard read the audio version I listened to. It’s an old recording — from the 1980s, I believe — so the sound quality isn’t great. His voice was a little tinny and crackly, hard to listen to at high volumes. Still, he worked for the book. His narration had that same detached feel I get from Irving’s relationship to his characters, somehow. And his no-nonsense voice seemed to suit Irving’s no-nonsense prose.
I knew The World According to Garp was made into a movie. I’ve not seen it, and based on my ambivalent feelings toward the book and my general dissatisfaction with movie adaptations, I wasn’t planning to. Then I looked up who’s in it. Robin Williams? John Lithgow? Glenn Close?? Maybe I’m going to have to see it after all!
The Verdict: Enjoyable
I don’t really have any complaints to lodge against The World According to Garp. I’m glad I read it. But I don’t feel any sort of emotional attachment to it. A Prayer for Owen Meany is on my TBR Pile Challenge list for this year, so I’ll get another chance to see how I like Irving soon.
Do you like your books to hold you at a distance or get up close and personal? What’s a good example of your preference that you loved?