Glen's Reviews > The World According to Garp

The World According to Garp by John Irving
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's review
Dec 14, 2007

really liked it
Read in December, 2007

Prior to reading this book, I had only read half of one novel by John Irving. I'm not going to mention the title here because I don't think it's quite fair to speak ill of a book which I didn't even finish, but suffice to say that I had no immediate plans to read another half of any of his work. That changed though when a friend talked me into taking The World According to Garp on a trip that I was planning. I thought the book was fantastic, and since I have no life I'm going to spend Friday night writing an overly detailed review on the deeper themes of it for the enjoyment of the few people with the dedication to read the whole thing. I welcome any response.

Authors are often told to write about what they know because they are already de facto experts. Inevitably this leads to "autobiographical fiction". This can range from an autobiography which is published as fiction (i.e. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath) all the way to a fanciful tale that is sold as an autobiography (A Million Little Pieces by James Frey). There are some people that say that they only read non-fiction because they prefer something "true" or "genuine" as opposed to something that an author just "made up". These are the people that should read The World According to Garp.

When we read fiction, we are omniscient. A character once committed to paper cannot change; they grow only to the extent that our understanding of them grows. The essence of the character, however, does not change. Jay Gatsby is the same person today that he was in the 1920s. I would argue that because of this immutability we have the capacity to truly know a fictional character better than we will ever know either a memoirist, or one of our intimate friends. To illustrate my point consider this, a friend might tell you that they are admiring your new hardwood floors; but only an author can tell you that our protagonist couldn't make eye contact belying the guilt they felt at the way they coveted your hardwood floors upon which they gazed. Few people are self aware enough to make those observations in retrospective memoirs, and the social contract doesn't engender that kind of honesty in day to day life.

In The World According to Garp, Irving plays with the story in a way to make you assume that it's autobiographical while at the same time mocking the reader for asking whether or not it is autobiographical. It's a very sly way of critiquing one's own work. Garp tells his children a bedtime story that is clearly based on reality, but then only admits to making up the parts of the story that the listener doesn't believe. In short, anything you believe to be true is so. Anything you don't believe to be true must need improvement. The question of course being, can we improve on the truth?

While weaving readers into this maze of almost understanding, the author peppers the novel with stories from his children's childhood’s that the reader is meant to assume are in fact true. How much of this story is true? The answer of course is that it doesn't matter. When we read a novel, we read it with the hope that the author knows his characters so well and has crafted his plot so meticulously that the next event happens because it is the absolute best possible event that could carry the story forward. We cannot worry that a dramatic change in plot occurs for reasons so trite as the fact that we're reading what really happened in the event on which the story is based. That would not be fiction, and it might not even be art. To further this line of thinking, the author critiques the protagonist's writing by saying that Garp's work gets progressively weaker as his writing becomes more autobiographical.

Fiction has GOT to be better than non-fiction. If it isn't, then it would seem to imply that our dreams are no better than our reality. If that is true, then our future indeed looks grim.
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Paul Julian Excellent review.

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