Monday, February 22, 2010

The world according to Garp - John Irving

Synopsis:
A take on the fictional character T.S.Garp's personal life, and its influence on his professional one.

Category:
Simple-wordy, Witty/Serious

Genre:
Drama

Language:
Has adult content in all sections.

Favorite Quote:
In this dirty minded world, you are either some body's wife or somebody's whore - or fast on your way to becoming one or the other

Review:
There are few complaints this book can create (and rest assured, there.will.be.complaints) - changing tones, vulgarity, surreal, dramatic. For me all these worked in favour of the book. The cover and the title of the book were so uninteresting that I had almost given it a miss. When I did pick it up, I couldn't stop reading or thinking about it. When I completed it, I still kept going back to it to read "that one line" or "that incident."

"Garp's mother, Jenny Fields was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theatre." - The book begins simply enough, coaxing us to assume that Jenny would be a typical upright and maybe slightly eccentric mother. Irving slowly unravels the different layers of her character. Through Garp's running autobiography ("my mom", Garp wrote, "was not romantically inclined) and Jenny's autobiography ("I wanted a job and I wanted to live alone. That made me a sexual suspect. Then I wanted a baby, but didn't want to share my body. That made me a sexual suspect too."), we are surprised and amused at each new hitch in her character.
Working as a nurse, Jenny Fields was, as Garp put it, a "lone wolf". While she did want to have a baby, she did not want to get married for that. After many equally interesting and surreal anecdotes (the glass full of cloudy liquid gave me many a shivers), she finally finds the perfect candidate - Technical sergeant Garp, who after a brain injury, is admitted as a terminal case. Shortly after Jenny gets pregnant, she is fired from her job. In a semi conscious state, she names her new born son T.S.Garp.

Jenny then moves on to becoming a school nurse in steering school, an all boys' school. As is expected at this stage, Jenny and Garp are a part of many . A noteworthy character at this stage is Stewart Percy, the school secretary, who took a pleasure in wondering who Garp's father was. Stewart and his wife, Midge, with their constantly expanding white-haired family inspired Jenny to come up with a nasty rhyme:
What lies in Midge Percy's belly,
so round and exceedingly fair?
In fact, its really nothing,
but a ball of distinguished silver hair"

Jenny took up almost all the courses at the steering to make sure that Garp, when he grew up, could make an informative decision. Garp becomes dependant on Jenny for making as small a decision as which sport to choose. After meeting the wresting coach Ernie Holm, Jenny advises Garp to take up wrestling. That is when he develops a crush for Holm's geeky daughter, Helen. When he learns that Helen would only marry a writer, he decides to become one. His initial attempts are severely criticised by Helen, who later advises him to move to Europe. To his consternation, Jenny decides to join him and start writing too.

They move on to Vienna, where they stay in more than a dozen pensions before settling into an apartment. It was probably this very experience, that prompted Garp to come up with his first story, "The pension grillparzer". Again, like Atonement, we get a glimpse of what goes on in a writer's mind. The pension Grillparzer was "inspired" mainly a seeing a four-member circus troup and his time at the different pensions.
Jenny on the other hand, despite initial hiccups finally gets the mood right for her autobiography Sexual suspect. The book is brought out by John Wolf, and is an instant success. She becomes a household name associated with feminism, and she develops a steady stream of admirers and companions following her around.

One of them is an Ellen Jamesian. Like a online networking social “Ellen Jamesians” was a cult society of sorts, whose members cut off their tongues to support eleven year old Ellen James, who was raped and then had her tongue cut off. The mildly sarcastic approach Garp (and Irving) takes to these needless display of histrionics is applicable to what happens in the real world - though admittedly, at a lower level. The "join a cause" groups in facebook and orkut are the perfect examples for that.

His mother's life keeps Garp amused and at times, frustrated, while he struggles with his first novel, procrastination. He gets it published through Wolf, but is not very satisfied with the reviews, as they had focussed more on his connection with Jenny rather than his story itself. After that, he tries unsuccessfully to find his old rhythm back. With his family of two boys, and his extra-marital affairs, Garp reaches a writer's block, and mimicking his current lisping mistress, “thtops”. Glimpses of his creativity keeps us riveted to the book though. For instance, the dog and the chain story, and the unravelling of its creation makes us wonder on what inspires any good writer.

It is the time when Garp is at his most devoted to Helen, that Helen inadvertently, ends up having an affair with one of her students, Michael Milton. Sensing he had competition (though he believes it is literary rather than physical), Garp starts working on his next story in frenzy. As is expected from a story with a dubious motive, it is poorly written, and is not liked by Helen, who is blunt to the point of being cruel in telling him so.
When Garp does find out about the affair, he is uncharacteristically angry about it. As one of the other readers noted, Garp up till then could be characterised as creative, carefree, broad-minded and even anti-social. The typical possessiveness of a man for his wife is just not expected out of Garp, who had, at one point, swapped partners with Helen's colleague. His sudden outburst at Helen to break it off could only be attributed to his love towards her, although that makes a very unconvincing reason(!).

It is fair to say that the tone of the book changes significantly at this point of time. Helen's break-up with Milton and its resulting events are, I believe one of the most beautifully narrated parts of the book.

The post-Milton-serious-Garp comes up with his next novel, “The world according to Bensenhaver”. Though Garp later admits that it was “his worst work”, he forces Wolf to publish the story.
John Wolf is believed to have a sixth sense about the success or failure of any book – partly because he was good at his job, but mainly because of his cleaning leady, Jillsy Sloper. Jillsy hated most of the books, and the ones she liked were instantly successful. She read mainly to find out what happens next. In her own words, “There surely ain’t no other reason to read a book is there?”.

There surely ain’t. In fact, I will sheepishly admit here that of all the stories Garp wrote (except the dog and the chain story), this was my favourite. Like Jillsy, I kept flipping the pages to find out what happened next, which was more than I can say about garp’s story, which had suddenly shifted to a slow-and-dull lane.
The book, as is expected, was a runaway success. Whether it can be attributed to a good story, Jillsy Sloper, Wolf’s intuition or his cheap marketing techniques – we can’t say.

Meanwhile, Jenny gets involved in new Hampshire politics, backing the candidate standing against the current governor. Her controversial support ultimately leads to her being shot to death by a man, while the candidate she supported loses the elections.
Garp hears the news through Jenny’s companion, and despite many objections, attends his mother’s “feministic funeral”. During the journey back, he meets the real Ellen James, who vehemently denies being an “Ellen Jamesian” and admits her admiration for his work. Garp decided to do what Jenny would have done and adopted her.
The extended family finally comes a full circle, and moves back to the steering, where Garp takes up the position of the wrestling coach. As he got more involved in his wrestling team, he also stopped writing, again. One of Garp’s critics puts it in perspective - “As he became more autobiographical, his writing grew narrower; also he became less comfortable about doing it. It was as if he knew that not only was the work more personally painful to him – this memory dredging- but the work was slimmer and less imaginative in every way.”

We can hand Irving one thing at least – he finished what he started. It was a neatly “completed” book, where no character was left hanging in the end. All the characters that were mentioned in the book at one point or the other were seen through till their demise.

At hindsight, maybe that’s not really the best of things. As T.S.Garp wrote, after a key turning point in his life, his “life has felt like an epilogue”. The second part of the book was just that – an epilogue of Garp’s life. From hilarious anecdotes, the second part of the book became a documentary of Garp’s life. From interesting and fun, it became a story on “the last few days of Garp’s life”.
Iforces us to wonder if the change in writing style was intentional. Was it meant to make us believe that till Jenny’s death, the story was actually, through Jenny’s eyes, and after her death, the missing details were filled in Garp’s biographer?

Verdict:
the first 300-odd pages steal the show; should be a definite read to appreciate the art of simple and witty writing.

2 comments:

antbrain said...

Oh boy! This book covers a wide range of topics: death, love, feminity, loss, marriage, novelty, infidelity, rape and above all- lust! What clicked (at least to me) were the interesting tangents each and every character in a situation took off to, so many subtle (and even harsh) twists and turns now and then, that forced to me to stay hooked till the end.

Very glad that no *spoiler alert* is deemed necessary for this review! 2 down, an infinity to come. Awaiting! :-)

Archana said...

Thanks!! you are currently, my only reader!!!
You noted many more things in this book than me! Part of me didnt want to use that and second part didnt want to give out any spoilers, like you said.

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