Undercover: Garp–Death in the Family, I (08/24/78)

John Irving’s The World According to Garp (Dutton, 437 . pp., $10.95) must be one of the few good American novels in which more characters are killed off than in Dashiell Ham­mett’s Red Harvest. But Red Harvest, after all, is about a gang war. The World According to Garp is set within the matrix of family life: it turns around a mother and her son, a father and his daughter, husbands, wives and children.

I’ve never been able to keep track of all the deaths in Red Harvest—I tend to lose count after the chapter entitled “The Seventeenth Murder”—but I felt the need to make a list for Garp. Including the characters in the books and tales of T.S. Garp himself, who is a novelist when he is not a cook, househusband or
wrestling coach—and these characters should be included, because their presence is usually as full-bodied, and their extinction as compelling, as that of the “real” characters in Garp—the body count comes to something over fifty. (I was unsure whether to mark down the bear that dies of diarrhea, or the sheep and calf a farm boy kills after he fucks them.)

Some notes from my ledger:

Dies in war. Dies of apoplexy after snowball fight. Freezes to death. Plane crash (two). Beggar murdered by drowning. Anarchist eaten by zoo ani­mals. Chokes to death on chewing gum. Chokes to death on olive. Throat cut. Drowns. Falls out of plane (two). Strangles when tie is caught in escala­tor. Killed in car crash. Dies in car crash after attempted murder. Shot. Shot. Shot. 

Which is not to mention vari­ous rapes and maimings, including castration as the accidental result of oral sex.

Few of the men and women in Garp who die of “natural causes” get to do so in bed; for that matter, in Garp “natural causes” almost always means cancer or heart attack, the two diseases that today carry the heaviest connotations of violence and guilt. And almost everyone dies, as the phrase goes, prematurely. Just before the Reaper comes for Helen Holm, Garp’s wife, the omniscient narrator informs us that Helen “lived a long, long time”; one may be taken aback to find that this approbation, rare as rocs’ eggs in Garp, is granted to one who dies well short of her sixtieth birthday—probably close to twenty years short of what the insurance companies tell us is the average life span of a middle-class. white woman like Helen Holm.

Irving has written a book full of grotesque, perverse, sensational incidents—the action in The World According to Garp is parodied, but also extended, in The World According to Bensenhaver, the novel Garp writes after the accident in which Helen’s lover loses his penis, Garp’s and Helen’s youngest son loses his life, and their oldest son loses his right eye—but the book cannot really be described by any of those words. People are dying almost from the first page, but by the end the reader is neither bored with death nor hardened to it. Instead, an awful, beautiful aura of appropriateness settles over the novel. It’s a strange, Moby Dick-like sense of completeness. One accepts what happens to Irving’s characters, even though what hap­pens may make one squirm, pro­test, or feel real grief. One accepts it because one has come to accept Irving’s characters: as people, as friends, even though they too may be grotesque, perverse or sensational.

Irving blurs the line we tend to draw between “ordinary” and violent death, just as he erases the line that in fiction conventionally separates “normal” and perverse characters. In most novels we get one or the other, or we find the normal and the perverse in opposition, fighting over the definition of life. “The world according to Irving” might be a world in which the normal and the perverse coexist without ever considering that they shouldn’t—or couldn’t.

Take, for example, Irving’s two most outrageous inventions, Roberta Muldoon and the Ellen Jamesians. Roberta Muldoon, best friend of Garp, of Jenny Fields (Garp’s mother, a celibate nurse and accidental feminist heroine) and in later years of Helen Holm, is a transsexual. But not just any transsexual: she is the former Rob­ert Muldoon, known all over America as Number Ninety, the vicious tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles. Such a setup gives Irving the opportunity for a lot of comedy, and he uses it: Garp is a comic novel suffused with menace and forgiveness. But when one has closed the book, it’s clear that by taking the edge off his transsexual by making her transformation absurd—by pitching it on the most distant frontier of possibility—Irv­ing makes us accept Roberta as anything but absurd.

Rejecting her genetic identity as a man, but never really rejecting her identity as the meanest body blocker in the NFL, Roberta comes to life as profoundly as any character in Garp, and the edge returns more sharply than ever, dulled neither by clichés nor cheap pathos. Like Jenny Fields, who takes Roberta under her wing in the hard days following her sex-change operation, Roberta becomes the rock the other characters in Garp can lean against: she seeks the role and lives up to it. The most affecting moment of the book—a shining, devastating moment—comes just after her death, as, at an Eagles-Cowboys game, Roberta’s number is flashed on the scoreboard, and the crusty radio announcer, far out of his depth, searches desperately for a way to memorialize Roberta (“She had a great pair of hands,” is his first, fumbling try), and, miraculously, succeeds. But even that scene does not match the grace of the words Jenny Garp, Garp’s and Helen’s daughter, finds to break the news of Roberta’s death to her brother, who by this time has a missing arm to go with his missing eye. “Bad news, Duncan,” Jenny Garp says. “Old Number Ninety has dropped the ball.”

The Ellen Jamesians are the most disturbing and pathetic presence in the book. They are the adversaries of Garp, Helen and Roberta; the friends of Jenny Fields, who takes them in as she takes in all female strays who come to her.

After Garp and Helen marry, Jenny Fields, famous and much followed-around after the surprise success of her autobiography, A Sexual Suspect, arrives at Garp’s apartment with a large, speechless companion. She explains the woman’s silence:

“You haven’t heard of Ellen James?” Jenny asked.
“No,” Garp admitted.
“Well, there’s a whole society of women now,” Jenny informed him, “because of what happened to Ellen James.”
“What happened to her?” Garp asked.
“Two men raped her when she was eleven years old,” Jenny said. “Then they cut off her tongue so she couldn’t tell anyone who they were or what they looked like. They were so stupid they didn’t know an eleven-year-old could write. Ellen James wrote a very care­ful description of the men, and they were caught, and they were tried and convicted. In jail, someone murdered them.”
“Wow,” Garp said. “So that’s Ellen James?” he whispered, indicating the big quiet woman with new respect.
Jenny rolled her eyes again. “No,” she said. “That is someone from the Ellen James Society. Ellen James is still a child.”
“You mean this Ellen James Society goes around not talking,” Garp said, ‘as if they didn’t have any ton­gues?”
“No, I mean they don’t have any tongues,” Jenny said. “People in the Ellen James Society have their tongues cut off. To protest what happened to Ellen James .”
“Oh boy,” Garp said, looking at the large woman with renewed dislike.’ “They call themselves the Ellen Jamesians,” Jenny said.
“I don’t want to hear any more of this shit, Mom,” Garp said.

Garp’s attitude toward the Ellen Jamesians—the Furies of The World According to Garp, as it turns out—is easily summed up:

“I’ll tell you something about these women, Mom,” he said to Jenny once. “They were probably all lousy at talking anyway; they probably never had a worthwhile thing to say in their lives—so their tongues were no great sacrifice; in fact, it probably saves them considerable embarrassment. If you see what I mean.”
“You’re a little short on sympathy,” Jenny told him.
“I have lots of sympathy—for Ellen James,” Garp said.
“These women must have suffered, in other ways, themselves ,” Jenny said. “That’s what makes them want to get closer to each other.”
“And inflict more suffering on themselves, Mom?”
“Rape is every woman’s problem,” Jenny said.
“It’s every man’s problem, too, Mom. The next time there’s a rape, suppose I cut my prick off and wear it around my neck. Would you respect that, too?”
“We’re talking about sincere gestures,” Jenny said.
“We’re talking about stupid gestures,” Garp said.

Eventually Ellen James herself comes into Garp’s life, becomes a member of his family (“I am not an Ellen Jamesian,” she scribbles to him as she and Garp meet: “I would never do [that] to myself”), and by this time, the Ellen Jame­sians seem condemned, by Irving’s novel as well as by Garp, as mere crazies, or perhaps as one novelist’s attempt to stay ahead of the craziness of American life. But as it happens, Irving sneaks in a scene in which an Ellen Jamesian takes on an undeniable dignity. At Jenny Fields’ funeral a speaker breaks down, and leaves the stage. The woman who has been at her side remains, in silence, to face down the huge crowd. “The big, tough-looking woman wanted to say something,” Irving writes, “and the audience waited. But they would wait forever to hear a word from her.” So the Ellen Jamesians, too, are given their claim on life. That means that none of the other characters in Garp, nor its readers, can escape them—and they have a lot more work to do before they finally fade away.

[Next issue: The World Accor­ding to Garp vs. the Neo-Absurdist Tragi-Comic Void.]

Rolling Stone, August 24, 1978

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