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The World According to Garp

By John Irving

Original Publisher: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc.
Current Publisher: Modern Library (Random House)

Deb Caletti writes:

I began reading The World According to Garp while riding in the backseat on a cross-state trip to visit my college boyfriend. The friend of his who I snagged a ride with must have thought I was weirdly quiet and uncommunicative, but there was another explanation. I had been caught up into the deft hands of John Irving and he was not letting go.

It was a restless weekend. Sure, the boyfriend was dark and alluring and commanded my attention, but I wanted to get back to that book. It was that edgy impatience you feel when you’ve lost something and feel the need to keep looking for it until you’ve found it again, or, in this case, when you’ve found something you’ve been looking for for a long time.

I snuck pages. Jenny Fields and Garp and Helen and Duncan and Walt were like every family and no family. The book was funny and horrifying and filled with characters that were at first glance shocking and alien, and on second glance, as recognizable and familiar as the good, struggling hearts you saw everywhere in your own life. No one, no one will ever forget THAT SCENE. But The World According to Garp was more than single, memorable moments. It was unforgettable as a whole for a simple reason - it was epic. It was what a Great American Novel needs to be: all of life between covers.

I finished the book between streetlights on the dark ride home on Sunday night. That copy is one of those treasured books you keep always, on your Best Shelf and packed and unpacked carefully with each move. It is missing its front copper cover and the back is nearly illegible from wear. Lasting love. Call it one of the best weekends ever spent.

Deb Caletti was a National Book Award finalist in Young People’s Literature in 2004, for her novel, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart. Her most recent book is The Secret Life of Prince Charming (Simon Pulse, 2009).

Craig Nova writes:

The test of whether a book is any good, at least as far as Matthew Arnold was concerned, is how it stands up to the withering assaults of time. The current moment, as we seem to have to learn again and again, while seeming real, is often the essence of distortion. Need I say more about this then to mention bell bottom pants or Grunge?

Reality, as Ortega Y Gasset wrote in On Hunting, has its own structure, and nowhere is this more true than with books.

I am happy to report that not only has The World According to Garp stood up to the horrifying evaluation of Matthew Arnold's test, it has gotten better. The book has genius.

It was able to articulate the underlying uncertainty of modern life, and it was able to do this at a time that, while not perfect, was a lot more secure, on a day to day basis, than what we live with today. Garp is an anxious character, and while this is presented in tragic-comic terms, he is in touch, and by extension his author was in touch, with a keenly modern vision of the condition of human beings.

Garp was not immediately concerned about biological warfare as a legitimate worry, or of airplanes crashing into buildings in New York, but his sensibility, which is an expression of the shockingly prescient quality of this book, is perfectly capable of absorbing such concerns in a heartbeat.

The book has another quality that I find fresh as the day it was printed, and this quality is the way in which John Irving sets up a number of tones, some tragic, some comic, some in between, some domestic, some sexual, some ghastly, some bizarre, and then in a way that is almost musical and thoroughly pleasing, he moves from one tone to another.

The World According to Garp also predicted other aspects of the modern world, and one of them is the shattered, almost cult-like nature of modern American political life, with its oddly insular groups who seem to feel at once victimized and passively aggressive. And this state, at once so funny and so sad, is perfectly realized in the lines: "I'm an Ellen Jamesian. Do you know what an Ellen Jamesian is?"

The book is as readable as ever, funny, sad, heartbreaking, wise and as fresh as the day it was published. More than anything else, it stands up to Matthew Arnold without batting an eye. Garp was right.

Craig Nova was a National Book Awards Fiction judge in 2006. His most recent novel is The Good Son (Three Rivers Press, 2006) and his next is forthcoming in 2010.


ISBN: 9780679603061

Fiction (Paperback) Finalists that Year:

  • Paul Bowles for Collected Stories
  • Gail Godwin for Violet Clay
  • John Updike for Too Far to Go
  • Marguerite Young for Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, Volumes 1 and 2

Fiction Judges that Year: Not available

The Year in Literature:  

  • The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

  • The World According to Garp is John Irving’s fourth novel.
  • In 1982 it was made into a film—starring Robin Williams in the title role and Glenn Close as his mother—which earned several Academy Award nominations, including nominations for Close and John Lithgow. Irving makes a brief cameo in the film as an official in one of Garp's high school wrestling matches—a parallel to his own experiences as a wrestler and assistant wrestling coach.

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Reader Comments (1)

A wonderful novel, a triumph of storytellng and language. I was a freshman in high school when I read Garp for the first time. It was my initial experience with "literary" fiction, and I will never forget how it opened up the world of literature for me. Over the years I've read the novel several times. Sometimes the novels we love as young readers don't hold up against our adult sensibilities, but Garp has grown with me, and is so rich in its characterizatons and storytelling that I discover it anew with each reading. This novel is a part of my life, and what more could we ask for from a work of art?

October 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Augello
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