Budding Writer, 1979: … Garp!

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Lake Champlain at sunset, March 27, 2020. By Howard Fielding. The lake has its own Loch Ness-like monster, called Champ, but I haven’t seen Garp’s “Undertoad.” Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

One thing I’ve learned from my re-reading the journals I kept during my first year as a freelancer: The importance of a deadline.

That appears to be how I ripped through John Irving’s The World According to Garp in barely three days. I had finished my break between projects and was ready to start writing again. And for the next project, the Christmas Carols had “time priority.”

Still, I was reading the book from a single-minded point of view as a new writer, not as literature, so bear with me if 24-year-old me sounds naïve:

Major accomplishment of the day: I finished reading Garp. This ends my inter-project period of rest, research, and input and marks tomorrow as my target for starting another story: probably about Tex, but possibly another Christmas Carol — these have time priority.

The World According to Garp is a brilliant and lucid* narrative, particularly interesting to me in the way it intersperses the fictional writer’s “works” with the events of his life — so I had not only examples of short story writing, but of the creative process as well. Otherwise, it includes numerous gratuitous sexual episodes and many gory and explicit scenes of violence and mayhem .. but all of these fit together well to make a statement on lust, violence, and our present-day world — as well as the subjective eye of the artist. (One can tell this was written by an English professor — not only from the literary analyses and characters, but from the significant statements and development of themes. The book is rich with potential paper topics — which, no doubt, John Irving intended.) This is one modern novel I’d like to re-read.

Journal, Volume II
27 March 1979

I never did re-read it, although on a recent trip I listened to the 40th anniversary edition on audiobook, with an introduction read by the author. He said that the two questions people ask authors most frequently are:

What is the book about? Answer: lust, sexual violence, and sexual intolerance.

But, as his 12-year-old son first said 40 years before, it’s also about fear, particularly fearing the death of children. A recurring vision in the book is the “undertoad,” a child’s fearful misinterpretation of the ocean undertow that could drown him.

Is it autobiographical? At the time he wrote the book, Irving, like Garp, was a literary, but unknown. writer. As his 12-year-old son told a class his age, his father isn’t Garp, but Garp’s fears are any father’s fears.

Irving dodged the rest of the autobiographical links, though: both are writers, both lived and worked at private New England schools, both were wrestlers and coaches, and so on.

The writer in me saw many parallels with the Garp universe and my own. Garp’s fictional first novel was even titled Procrastination, although I didn’t pick up on that until this time around.

At the time, I was amused by the setting in New Hampshire and the characterization of the ugly conservatism of that state’s nameless governor. (Arch-conservative Gov. Meldrim Thomson Jr. , 1973-1979, was a running gag on the liberal college campus while I was there.)

Today I would describe the novel as dark and chaotic rather than brilliant and lucid, but I suppose even a naïve, self-important young writer was able to pick up on the lust, violence, and intolerance.

If you’ve read or re-read TheWorld According to Garp recently, I’d like to hear your impressions, both on your initial reading and today. Irving said, in 2017, that today the violence and sexual intolerance are as bad as in the 1970s — or worse. What do you think?

*I double-checked my penmanship. I’m certain I wrote “lucid,” although “lurid” would be a better description.

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