The gold Modern Library hardcover of John Irving's The World According to Garp

The World According to Garp

  • Author:  John Irving  (b. 1942)
  • Rank:  #33
  • Published:  1978
  • Publisher:  E.P. Dutton
  • Pages:  609
  • First Line:  “Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater.”
  • Last Line:  “But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.”
  • Acclaim:  National Book Award
  • ML Edition:  1998 gold hardcover
  • Film:  1982  (dir. George Roy Hill – ***)
  • First Read:  Summer 1994

The Novel:  How can a novel be a tragedy if it makes you laugh as hard as anything you have ever read?  Yet, can something be a comedy in its infinite sorrow and losses?  In one sentence, the novel seems to embrace both sides of the story: “In the world according to Garp, an evening could be hilarious and the next morning could be murderous.”  That seems to sum everything up right there.  Or look at another moment, when Garp is musing on the possibility of what a suicide could be like: “Garp liked to imagine that moment, bitterly: when the suicide note was perfect, the writer took the gun, the poison, the plunge – laughing hideously, and full of the knowledge that he had at last got the better of the readers and reviewers.  One note he imagined was: ‘I have been misunderstood by you idiots for the last time.’ ”

It wasn’t originally going to start with the line about Jenny wounding the man in the theater.  It is a classic starting line, one that immediately places you in the action and introduces you to the primary characters.  But it wasn’t what Irving originally had planned.  And that’s part of the brilliance of the novel.  It was originally destined to start with the starting line of Chapter 11: “If Garp could have been granted one vast and naive wish, it would have been that he could make the world safe.”  But, then Irving decided that perhaps the novel was really about marriage and he thought of starting it with the first line of Chapter 9: “In the Yellow Pages of Garp’s phone directory, Marriage was listed near Lumber.”  He even considered opening it with the long bit at the opening of Chapter 3 that explains the founding of Steering School.  And reading all of this in the introduction that Irving wrote for the Modern Library 20th Anniversary Edition, I was struck by something.  This novel is so well-written, captures so well in every chapter the essence of the character of Garp, that you could like at the opening lines of almost any of the nineteen chapters and place them at the start of the book.

This book is like coming home to an old friend.  There are few books I welcome into my life as much as this one and few whose ending I so dread coming to.  Which is funny, in a way, because it has one of the best endings of any novel I have ever read.  But I don’t want the experience to end.  It was not an accident that this novel suddenly turned Irving from a small, respectable literary writer into a household name.  What is funny is how much of that is foreshadowed in the book.  Irving has a fun time giving his own work to Garp, with Setting Free the Bears becoming Garp’s Procrastination and his 158-Pound Marriage and The Water-Method Man combined into Garp’s second novel.  It was a delight when I first read The 158-Pound Marriage and realized that at one point one of the characters is running and says that he has “the second wind of the cuckold.”  How many people, when Garp was first published, would have gotten that joke – that Irving appropriates his own line for a title of Garp’s novel?  But then Garp writes a book full of lust and it makes him a big-name author, much like Garp would suddenly break Irving into the world of mass-markets.

Death is never far from the surface in this novel: “The Under Toad disappeared up a small, dark street – or else it’s not interested in Duncan, Garp though.  He imagined he felt the tug of the tide at his own ankles, but it was a passing feeling.”  What kind of writer adds on an epilogue just so he can tell us how everyone dies?  But it is only with that epilogue, with the story of how little Jenny makes certain that her father never goes out of print that we can fully appreciate those final lines:

In the world according to her father, Jenny Garp knew, we must have energy.  Her famous grandmother, Jenny Fields, once thought of us as Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees and Goners.  But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.

the film poster for The World According to Garp (1982)

The Film:  I had not seen the film when I first read the book.  But, with my passionate knowledge of film, I was aware of who played the three primary roles, and I couldn’t help but have that in my mind when I first read the book.  It was nice to see the film after finishing the book and know that the film didn’t completely let down the book.  It doesn’t quite capture the magic of the book, the true level of humor and insanity and passion and pain that the novel puts across, but really, what could?

In some ways, it is almost like a greatest hits collection of the book.  And that both works for it and against it.  As a film, it works for it.  It gives us two remarkable supporting performances from Glenn Close as Jenny Fields and John Lithgow as Roberta (one of the few times when I thought he did a really good job).  Robin Williams is credible as Garp because director George Roy Hill doesn’t let him ever quite get too manic.  He keeps within the role.  So we get a charming, oddball comedy of a film that also seems to be a bit of a human tragedy at the same time.

But as an adaptation of the novel, it is lacking.  It’s very easy to write a novel about a writer.  It is much harder to make a film about a writer, especially if the quality of the writer’s work is a vital part of the novel.  It makes for a nice little film, but it isn’t really the book.  Luckily, it doesn’t try too hard to be and that makes it a much better film than The Hotel New Hampshire, but also leaves it a bit more lacking as an adaptation.

The biggest problem with the adaptation is the ending.  I thought they had a chance to do so much more – there is the great point in the novel where Helen finds the note from Garp that reads: “No matter what my fucking last words were, please say they were these: ‘I have always known that the pursuit of excellence is a lethal habit.’ ” and Whitcomb insists they were Garp’s last lines.  In the film, it would have been so easy to make them his last line.  But they wanted to go for more melodrama.  It summed up the film in a way – it’s okay, but it could have been more.

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