Undercover: Garp–Death in the Family, II (09/23/78)

“It wasn’t as if they were just characters in a novel,” my mother said of her reaction to the deaths of the people who make their way through John Irving’s The World According to Garp—people who are, of course, characters in a novel.

Garp is harder to take, and more exhilarating, than one has any right to expect. One friend told me that my first column on Garp (RS 272), which began with a list of disasters and tragedies that occur in the novel, would have put her off had she not already begun the book. “All that violence,” she said. “If you give people the idea that’s what the book is, who’s going to want to read it?” And then, to drive home her point, that Garp is much richer, more subtle, than my emphasis on its violence suggested, she proceeded to describe her response to a long rape scene, perhaps the most horrific section of the book. “Little noises kept coming out of my throat,” said my friend, who as it happens, has worked as a rape counselor for some years and has calmed rape victims whose stories were far worse than any Irving has to offer. “I couldn’t stop the sounds. It was the best, the toughest rape scene I’ve ever read.”

Clearly, my friend was talking about more than the “violence” of this particular sequence. Her response—her terror, empathy, and fury—had to do with the way Irving shows us what’s going on inside the victim’s mind; with the scared courage she draws on to save herself; with the brutal, utterly serious humor of the detective who breaks every rule of procedure to track the rapist down. Her response had to do with the fact that in The World According to Garp life is, more than anything else, intense… sharp-edged, and dangerous: the book is about the worst fears of its characters coming true.

But what, then, is going on in this book, if a focus on its violence is misleading–but that violence is still central, necessary, to its power? The answer isn’t to be found in T.S. Garp’s (and Irving’s) explicit credo, the last words of the book: “We are all terminal cases.” Such words might be meant to seem inscrutably profound, in just the way the last shot of Chaplin’s City Lights is; but reading them, or applying them back to make sense of what one’s read, one doesn’t feel that existence has been magically clarified, that one’s very soul has been simultaneously lifted up to heaven and driven down to hell. Incidents in Garp may do that, but not the ideas that are brought forth to explain them. “We are all terminal cases” is a slipknot of an idea, a graceful statement of the obvious. It takes one no distance worth traveling.

Rather, violence and death in Garp hurt deeply because the lives Irving creates for his characters are full to bursting with humor, purpose, lust, revenge, love, eccentricity and the will to keep promises. The struggle defined in Garp is not the hopeless struggle of men and women to beat the Reaper (as “We are all terminal cases” seems to imply), but the struggle of certain men and women to keep faith with each other.

One becomes attuned to what is lost when these people die. One understands just how their deaths will leave gaps—bleeding holes—in the lives of those who, for the time being, survive them. Those I’ve talked to have actually mourned the people in this book, and the mourning is complex, bitter, confused, and sustaining. The reader’s mourning is not unlike that of Ir­ving’s characters. And this is so because Irving has written what, these days anyway, is the rarest sort of novel: a long, unsentimental, intricate, unfaked story about people who are basically good.

Garp is about the necessity and the limits of morals, which are seen as essential to a decent life, but which, no matter if you attach yourself to a moral system or draw morals out of yourself, can take you only so far, evil is identified with amorality (not the refusal of morals, but their absolute absence) and represented by rapists, only one of whom is given more than the thinnest presence. Some of Irving’s principal characters are stupid, some are crazy, but none are corrupt—and Irving does not make the easy mistake of equating evil with stupidity or insanity. Evil, to Irving, is a fact of life. Good is much more interesting, much harder to get a fix on, much harder to bring off.

In Garp‘s terms, good might be identified with those who manage to live in their own worlds without refusing to live in those of others ­without denigrating them. Jenny Fields decides to live on her own, which for her means without sex; still, she wants a child, and in order to get one, copulates (for the first and last time of her life) with a brain-damaged casualty of World War II, one of her charges in the hospital where she works. He conveniently expires; she goes on to become head nurse at a New England boarding school, where her son Garp is raised and educated. Garp decides, at an early age, to turn himself into a novelist; along the way, he becomes a wrestler. Much of his life is spent in finding his voice, and finding people to listen to it—and hear what he has to say. This includes “the public,” but it also includes his wife, Helen Holm and his children: one of the book’s strongest moments (and one of Garp’s best pieces of fiction) comes when Garp tells his little son Walt an amazingly grisly tale about a cat run over by a car—a cautionary tale, really, since Garp’s purpose is not only to practice his craft as one who makes things up, but to convince his son to be careful crossing the street. Helen Holm, raised by her father Ernie, Garp’s wrestling coach (her mother has abandoned them), is an English professor; she lives her own, not sharply described life within the confines of her family, and far more than Garp takes those actions that determine the shape of their life together.

Each of these people is to some degree apart from the others, from all others: they love, they are devoted, but they are incapable of surrender to anyone else. The connections they make to others are deep, but on their own terms. Their motives, when they act, have to do with a refusal to do the prudent thing and shrivel up in­side, and with a refusal to block out the world and wall themselves off with egotism. Jenny Fields, after all, does not become a nun, or a hermit; Garp does not care only for his art; though Helen’s relationship with her children is very shadowy, it’s clear her family is a great deal more than a base of operations or a badge of respectability. Perhaps what makes jenny, Garp and Helen good is that they recognize the tension between themselves and their family, and try to walk the line.

But to say that these people are good is not to say that they’re benign, or that their struggle to keep faith with each other isn’t marked—even shaped—by betrayals. Garp, young and happily married, knocks off one-night stands with baby sitters. Helen seems to accept this when she hears about it, but the knowledge never really settles; her resentment is at least partly at the root of a much more serious affair she initiates with a student years later—an affair that, in an astonishing tangle of fate, guilty knowledge, anger, fear, good will and common sense,leads straight to an accident that nearly destroys Garp’s and Helen’s family. In other words, to say that these people are good doesn’t mean good is what they create. They are honest, and intense, and without ever accepting the havoc they may wreak as the price one pays for refusing certain compromises—and such an acceptance underlies most serious fiction today—they try to push that honesty and that intensity to the limit, and to take those they care about with them. It works, too: Garp inherits that spirit from his mother, and his children inherit it from him.

Jenny, Garp and Helen are wildly likable; each is very tough, very smart, and Garp and Helen share a wit that could drop an intruder at forty feet. They are loyal, nervy, never dull. In a different book, they would be too likable, too “good”—though not in the way Irving develops the concept. Now, given the nature of modern fiction, which has to countenance Freud and sixty years of organized mass murder to appear both convincing and true to its time, we tend to distrust the notion that people are, or even can be, good. We’ve learned to distrust a character’s motives, not to share them—goodness is the domain of Love Story and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Any book that tries to make good real runs the risk of sappiness—of Erich Segal’s mindlessness or Kurt Vonnegut’s woebegone banality.

But Garp is not sappy, and Garp’s/Irving’s “We are all terminal cases” to the contrary, it’s neither woebegone nor banal. Irving deals with Freud—that is, with our suspicion of explicit motives—by writing as if, yes, motives are buried, mysterious, but no less real for all that: mystery is not a problem to be solved but an element of being. And he deals with mass murder—that is, with the political frame of reference of our lives—by personalizing and privatizing it. One of the most extraordinary things about Garp is that while most of the action is set during the time of the Vietnam War, the war is never mentioned, and yet is in the book anyway: the war is in the book the way the war was in John Wesley Harding, as a specter of uncertainty, fear, and death, as a specter to which one must respond by refusing to talk cheaply, or act casually. The lives of the characters in Garp are touched with violence not only because they produce it, but because violence is loose, appealing, pornographically exciting. As in a war, any act, any statement, can be lethal. But you can’t look over your shoulder in every direction at once.

It is the violence in Garp, finally, that anchors the book. It anchors the action and the fate of the characters to a reality outside their own, and it anchors the characters to their own reality. Given what Irving has in store for them, Garp, Helen and Jenny could be sappy only if they were able to shrug off disaster; to trivialize it, and nothing could be farther from what they actually do. Rather, they live as if no moment could possibly be trivial. All things are opportunities for humor, dread, and good will, and so they make the most of them.

Rolling Stone, September 23, 1978


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