The World According to Garp
What an odd thing to write a book about a simmering war between the sexes and have most of its retribution and bitterness directed at women while the male protagonist, hardly a saint, is able to stand above and judge and have his comeuppance redirected to others. It's certainly of its time, as in the 30 years since the book's publication the long-anticipated gender war has failed to appear and Irving's intention to use sex--both gender and the physical act--as a weapon seems fairly silly, like he's brought a hand grenade to a schoolyard fight.
With the benefit of having a much looser morality without having to fret about it, Irving's novel seems naked in its male-panic over women...and sex with women...and sex with women who were once men...and possibly sex with men (though this never comes up in the book which is actually quite interesting. There are plenty of men who turn into women and a great deal of worry about lesbians, but no actual gays that I can recall. The reasons for this conspicuous omission in a book otherwise wrapped up in its own "perversity" are probably worth looking into. There is a paper to be written there, Dave Madden). The heightened absurdity of so many of the accidents which befall the characters (which are, of course, not accidents to their author) might have once shielded the book from interpretation of its gender politics with humor, but I found very little funny about the book and a whole lot objectionable about the ways it's written to protect its deified hero.
Garp is clearly an Irving stand-in or, at the very least, shares more than a few biographical details with his author (prep school, wrestling, his novels, etc.). Now, I don't care one way or the other, and I agree with Irving that checking a book against a biography is a profoundly stupid way to read, but Irving says this--through Garp--constantly. Garp hates it when people think his books are autobiographical yet he also worries he's lost his imagination and can only write autobiographically. For this reader, anything that might have been interesting about that meta-narrative is lost when it feels like the author is more interested in hedging his bets and protecting himself than in actually, you know, exploring that contrast.
So, too, Irving cuts off any charges of sexism by having them levelled preemptively at Garp who has ample time to defend himself. That it's not a sexist book or at least isn't a simple one, hardly matters when the author is openly daring you to call it one in the text itself. As a person unwilling to make this charge or to feel any anger when others unfairly make it, I thought Irving's attempts to shoehorn it into every interaction cost the book a fair amount of its seriousness. At every turn Irving makes it so clear how he would like you to read his book that it is less The World According to Garp and more The World According to Garp According to John Irving (I totally wanted to say something pointless and mean like that since around page 300. Also, it would be very easy to wrap that whole argument up in a grand wrestling metaphor about defending oneself but I feel like Irving was daring the reader to do that, too).
Naturally, Irving isn't giving up control of the book yet. In both the 20th anniversary essay in my paperback copy and in this BBC radio interview with him from this past summer's 30th anniversary, Irving claims the novel is really about a father's anxiety for his children's safety. This is as much lie as truth, however, as the book is really about male anxiety for everything (which includes a fatherly concern for the safety of his children). Dropping the insane-feminists-versus-flawed-but-honorable-man's-man angle is smart and reflects an awareness on Irving's part on how the book has aged, but in the end we're left with the book he wrote which is about nothing more than it's about sex.
I liked it more than I'm letting on, though mostly I admired Irving's skill with language and structure. At its best, it's a haunting and charged book that's comprehensive in a way that rarely feels heavy. It is also a book very much alive. So nobody here is saying the man can't write--he's very, very good--but there is one argument about the book that I don't think Irving guarded himself against: it's a cowardly novel.
From protecting the author by pre-articulating his defense to punishing the undeserving in order to provide catharsis for a different tragedy to--SPOILER ALERT THOUGH YOU WILL PROBABLY KNOW IT'S COMING DUE TO THE BOOK'S STRUCTURE--Garp's martyrdom at the very Christ-like age of 33, it's a book that thinks it's taking chances without realizing the game is rigged. It's not tragic, it's self-flagellation that never leaves the writer's control in order to become actually dangerous.
The World According to Garp