7 OUT OF 10
About two-thirds of the way through The World According to Garp, I was bored. My review was already being written, calling it overindulgent, the creation of a writer more in love with his ability to think of quirky situations that to write a really compelling story. And then John Irving threw a massive curveball in his plot and I was forced to start it all over again.
The World According to Garp is a coming-of-age novel, telling the story of the bastard son of an accidental feminist. Garp only has two interests in his life: wrestling and Helen Holm, the daughter of his high school wrestling coach. Helen, an obsessive reader, informs Garp that her perfect match will have to be a writer, and so that is what Garp decides to be–a Writer, with a capital “W.”
At the same time, his mother Jenny decides writing is a great idea, and the story of her life ends up being the defining work of the women’s movement.
Garp, on the other hand, writes a short story about bears.
At times, particular in the middle third, reading this book was really hard work. It gets so bogged down with the history of each and every character, every backstory, every anecdote, that I started just skimming entire chapters. If I spotted some interesting scene or if the end of the chapter had information or characters I was completely unfamiliar with, I went back and read it more closely. If not–pffff–moving on.
For example, the character of “Mrs. Ralph” has basically an entire chapter devoted to her, but she is uninteresting, kinda icky, and evoked no sympathy from me. After finishing the book, I still didn’t see what she lent to the story, and Irving could have excised her completely without any detriment to the plot.
But when the events of the chapter “Walt Catches a Cold” happen and the descriptions of the damage in the beginning of “The World According to Marcus Aurelius,” I knew something very real finally happens to the characters, and not something goofy in Garp’s imagination. I started to have sympathy for them again, for Helen and Garp, that I hadn’t had in more than 100 pages.
So on page 326 of 502, this book sucked me in at last.
It was about time.
It changed the book almost entirely. Irving was no longer self-indulgent, Irving was a writer that would lull you to sleep with details and then break your skull with a two-by-four to get your attention back.
While I fell for it, and I was in for good at that point, I still thought the man needs an editor like no tomorrow. There were plenty more “twee” moments, clever for clever’s sake–but he certainly knows how to manipulate his readers.