John Irving

(Essay date June 9, 2011) (In this critical analysis of John Irving’s The World According to Garp, P.G. explores the emotional effect delivered through the overall syntax of death and tragedy, and the realness of fiction. The author presents calamity lightheartedly, creating an atmosphere of plain reality)

It is the art of literature to take the events of one’s life and reorder them, reimagine them, and contort them into an entertaining package. With The World According to Garp, John Irving means to take the generic fluidity present in Shakespeare and Hemingway, and replace it in his own novels with the haphazard, anticlimactic cinema of real life. The life of T.S. Garp is thrown off-balance multiple times through tragedy that enters- at times literally- like an oncoming car from the other side of a hill. Unexpected, unpredictable, and unexplained are the losses that hit the protagonist. Every tragedy is like an avalanche in Garp; subtle motions are suddenly noticed in full only once they have formed a dramatic turning point. Stepping back, however, the dominant forces are irony and near-humorous parallelisms mingled with heartbreak. It is a confusing and an unorthodox art, the way true life would play out if put upon a stage and recited word for word. Background jokes do not cease with disaster, and Irving personally defines the role of the witness as one who needs not be tangled in the same post-traumatic distresses as his hero. Irving shows a story of fiction in a fashion that is almost startlingly real.

There is no buildup to the death of Garp’s five-year-old son, Walt, in a bloody automobile collision. There is little background information given to the murderer of his mother- none before and little after the shooting. The gruesome, lethal entrance of a bullet into Garp’s spinal cord is juxtaposed between a description of two unnoticing wrestlers and an anecdote about the book his wife is reading, as if the speaker must look twice to comprehend which is the most important. Irving swivels the speaker’s omniscient eye constantly, and the effect is pleasant irony. He strikes surprise with irony that in the paragraph following the death of their second child, there is a flashback scene of Garp and his wife, Helen, in bed discussing what shall be the name of their third. The flow implies randomness, not human logic- the kind of syntax that asks for deeper contemplation than a more unbroken image of his death.

Yet the reader is not entirely unprepared. The mentality inherent in the second half of the novel is that death is a spontaneous and frequent visitor. Irving makes clear that he is writing fiction as real as it could be- no rising action, no falling action, but events are random ricocheting objects in a shaken box. It becomes expected that anyone can die at any moment, and what is conveyed is a statement on real life very hard to ignore or misinterpret. However, Garp’s world is not one of dropping flies. Emphasis is placed on characters’ lives, through the anticlimactic nature of their deaths. Each major character’s future is detailed in the epilogue through a brief explanation of their death, followed by a summary of the greatness of their life. With death highlighted so briefly, almost as an afterthought, the prestige of death in Garp is diminished. It is juxtaposed between flashbacks of life, and the impression left is of what the character meant in being alive.

Irving details this philosophy in a statement, “Garp discovered that when you are writing something, everything seems to be related to everything else. Vienna was dying, the zoo was not as well restored from the war damage as the homes the people lived in; the history of a city was like the history of a family- there is closeness, and even affection, but death eventually separates everything from each other. It is only the vividness of memory that keeps the dead alive forever; a writer’s job is to imagine everything so personally that the fiction is as vivid as our personal memories” (Irving 190-191). What the author wants to do is avoid the effect that Garp is romanticizing the past through his memory the way a generic speaker would do so. Once the events themselves are over, the unique interpretation of it begins during which reality can either remain as reality or become lost in selection of detail and predictably theatrical syntax. Irving’s omniscient perspective combines the past and present to view life with a sort of past-tense stream-of-conscious, memories intertwined by parallelism.

The voice of literature is expressed as the blunt sound of a hammer on a nail- with a rhythm and a product, but sometimes difficult to tolerate. Garp’s character is a writer, channeling Irving, and three chapters are devoted to Garp’s own novellas. One, “The World According to Bensenhaver,” is a horrid short story of rape and attempted murder, and is a reminder that there is an art to bringing about cringing. Garp, the larger novel, builds upon that premise as the scenes of sex and murder are portrayed without any narrative passion, and Garp’s eyes are recognized as ones that have come to no longer be surprised. Through Garp, Irving writes a guide for how to see the facts of life. Blood is blood. Death is death. The world is the world. According to Garp, literature ought to be the same, and his portrayal of the world is just that: strange yet completely familiar. Anything else would be fiction for the sake of a fictional world no one experiences.

Comic relief never ceases, at times seeming to be the focal point of a dark calamity. Syntax is shockingly dry throughout (“Garp drank the beer and wondered if everything was an anticlimax” [127] ), and is a consistent element that seems to unite Garp’s life under a uniform tarp of mixed emotion. It comes in many forms, from situational humor (Garp attending his mother’s funeral dressed as a woman, because it is hailed as the first feminist funeral, inherently dark in the contrast between Garp’s fake breasts and teary eulogies) to elaborate full-circle humor (Garp is bitten in the ear by a neighbor dog in his youth; when he returns to the house on a sexual escapade ten years later, he accidentally bites the off ear of the same angry dog in self-defense). Irving wants his audience to see the world in two new lights: the carnal ugliness of it, as well as the entire range of emotion that can be contrived from any real occurrence.

A universal example exists in the chapter “It Happened to Helen,” as Garp’s wife is committing adultery with another man- a scene ironically juxtaposed near scenes of Garp ignorantly, blissfully enjoying his life as he is cheated upon. Despite the low point in the life of their marriage, the event is recounted comically as Helen accidentally mains the student’s sex organ and he is rendered genderless. The sort of karmic retribution delivered (while Garp experiences a successful adultery of his own- Helen’s tragedy is like a victory lap taken unknowingly by Garp) is indeed humorous, though the content of blood and disturbing imagery is just as prevalent. Irving, however, flexes his ability to make dark humor both daunting and charming, and makes injury and failure a joke.

When Garp is murdered at a wrestling match, it is through a sudden bullet through the center of his spine. He would never see it coming. It is tragic at first, yet it is later revealed that the murderer (nicknamed Pooh as a child) killed Garp because he had sex with her sister fifteen years prior. The tone is of sentimental matter of fact, willing to laugh as though the speaker wouldn’t dare allow tragedy to occur in vain- that is, without any reason to laugh. It is the vantage point of someone reminiscing all things, be they bloody or unattractive. Repeatedly is the product shocking. Never is true reality lost among the techniques other authors use to make their stories more realistic to the literary world of one-tone narratives.

Every sequence is multi-faceted- a joke within a character’s demise or a pun inside a life lesson. The humor plays a critical role in the belief that the world never ceases being ironic or grotesque or beautiful or meaningful. The world remains the world forever; “in the world according to Garp, everything is expected” (Irving 587).

(P.G. 2011)

(In this critical analysis of John Irving’s 2009 novel Last Night in Twisted River, P.G. reflects on the tone established by misfortune and the need to escape it, arguing that the atmosphere is the dominant influence on the novel’s course)

Confronted with disaster, man can act one of two ways. He can put himself at the focal point of the problem and try to be its solution, or otherwise run. Dominic Baciagalupo runs. He and his son, Daniel, run across fifty years and the northeast United States to find sanctity from a bout of misfortune beginning in 1954 New Hampshire. Following a murder based on attempted heroism, the tone is set that cook Dominic and writer Daniel cannot peacefully live as merely Dominic and Daniel; Irving establishes early the depleted- yet somewhat adrenalized- state of life they possess and the niche they occupy in the world that could try to vomit them out of itself if a wrong move is made. Irving’s vantage point is like that of a preyed animal (using speed as its defense), making quick opinionated observations to scope out its surroundings. Irving does what he and his novel can to put the reader in their shoes, shaking with feverishness and fault.

Irving has a knack for establishing a tone early and allowing it to breathe throughout the entirety of his novel. Page one of Twisted River is as follows.

“The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long… he’d slipped entirely underwater before anyone could grab his outstretched hand… if they paused for even a second or two, they could be pitched into the torrent. In a river drive, death among moving logs could occur from a crushing injury, before you had a chance to drown- but drowning was more common.” (Irving 1).

Similar to The World According to Garp, the novel features death in a role that is omnipresent. It lingers over the characters, with reminders of its realness and its threat. The end of life is a fact of life to Irving, and yet unlike the inattentive characters of Garp, those of Twisted River meet face-to-face with death and pledge to stand their ground against him. The above passage presents death in the form of a fall into freezing water, one of several deaths the product of expecting to balance it successfully, and a representation of the dire fate of savage conditions into which man puts himself. Twisted River is this setting for nature’s grip of death- Dominic’s wife Rosie perishes in the 1940s to thin ice as she and Dominic are dancing in the winter. In the short-term it would be more Rosie’s misfortune than Dominic’s, yet a misfortune that he could never shake off in the difficult life that followed her bereavement.

Death is fear, and the immigration of Dominic and Daniel from a logging settlement in New Hampshire to Exeter Academy to Canada shows what drastic measures are necessary to avoid it; the haphazard pitfalls in their lives build a constant air of suspense, and when danger is present, the air tends to be thick with the motive presence of something oncoming from far away. Moving across the northeast region on the run also serves metaphorically for Daniel, the writer- mimicking John Irving’s own life, Daniel is pushed into different parts of his artistic self (from sadly sentimental to bliss) by the tension in his surroundings, ultimately flying above it and becoming a successful writer. Involuntary movement also forces Dominic and Daniel to grow only closer through their entrapment in this atmosphere (with additional reliance on Ketchum, the advisor for their travels).

The personal tragedy of Dominic and Daniel is laid out by Irving on a balmy night, as Dominic is having an affair with a woman named “Injun Jane.” There had been a previous scene in which Dominic had to attack a bear that had snuck into his wife’s bedroom, hitting it with a skillet. In a dark twisted parallel, a drunken Daniel mistakes Jane for another bear, and attacks Jane with the same skillet. With her death, they enter the lives of fugitives, fearful pairs of feet, changing their names (to Tony and Danny Angel, a statement on the continuity of one’s inner self as a person changes places and tries to change faces). Irving follows their footsteps all the way to the death of Dominic at the hands of the Twisted River sheriff thirty years following the crime, a quick end to the chase of thirty years.

All would have been different without mistaking Jane for an animal, if Dominic could have slowed down and thought his actions through. His haste is met with a galloping rhinoceros, the completion of his crime following him through life until he could run from it no more. A recurring theme in Twisted River (both the town and the novel) is the circularity of life. Sin follows Dominic in a warped circle through the northeastern United States, not letting him live or plant roots- he returns to Twisted River, and his twisted circle ends where it started.

(P.G. 2011)