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It Was 20 Years Ago Today

April 19, 1998|JOHN IRVING | John Irving is the author of numerous books. His most recent novel, "A Widow for One Year," will be published by Random House next month. This essay will be published as the introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of "The World According to Garp" forthcoming from Modern Library

My eldest son, Colin, who is now 33, was 12 when he first read "The World According to Garp"--in manuscript, and with me anxiously awaiting his reaction. (I still believe there are scenes in the book that are unsuitable for 12-year-olds.) Although "Garp" was my fourth novel, it was the first one Colin could read, and I remember feeling both proud and nervous at the prospect of being judged by one of my children; that the book was dedicated to Colin, and to his younger brother Brendan, made the moment even more tense and exciting.

Surely everyone knows the two most common questions that are asked of any novelist. What is your book about? And is it autobiographical? These questions and their answers have never been of compelling interest to me--if it's a good novel, both the questions and the answers are irrelevant--but while my 12-year-old son was reading "The World According to Garp," I anticipated that these were the very questions he would ask me, and I thought very hard about how I might answer him.

Now, 20 years later--and having written nine novels--it occurs to me that I have never thought as hard about my answers to those "irrelevant" questions as I did when Colin was reading "Garp." What I mean, of course, is that it's perfectly understandable and completely permissible for a 12-year-old to ask those questions, whereas (in my opinion) an adult has no business asking them. An adult who reads a novel should know what the book is "about"; an adult should also know that whether a novel is autobiographical or not is beside the point--unless the alleged adult is hopelessly inexperienced or totally innocent of the ways of fiction.

Anyway, while Colin was off in his room reading the manuscript of "Garp," I found myself agonizing over what the novel was "about." To my horror, and full of self-loathing, I jumped to the conclusion that the book was about the temptations of lust--lust leads just about everyone to a miserable end. There is even a chapter called "More Lust," as if there weren't enough already. I was positively ashamed of how much lust was in the book, not to mention how punitive a novel I thought it was; indeed, every character in the story who indulges his or her lust is severely punished. And, among the culprits and the victims, physical mutilations abound: Characters lose eyes and arms and tongues--even penises!

It had seemed at one time, when I was beginning the novel, that the polarization of the sexes was a dominant theme; the story was about men and women growing farther and farther apart. Just look at the plot: A remarkable, albeit outspoken, woman (Garp's mother, Jenny Fields) is killed by a lunatic male who hates women, and Garp himself is assassinated by a lunatic female who hates men.

"In this dirty-minded world," Jenny thinks, "you are either somebody's wife or somebody's whore--or fast on your way to becoming one or the other. If you don't fit either category, then everyone tries to make you think there is something wrong with you." But there is nothing wrong with Garp's mother. In her autobiography, Jenny writes: "I wanted a job and I wanted to live alone. That made me a sexual suspect. Then I wanted a baby, but I didn't want to have to share my body or my life to have one. That made me a sexual suspect, too." And being what she calls "a sexual suspect" also makes Jenny a target of anti-feminist hatred--just as Garp, her son, becomes a target of radical feminists.

But the principal point about Garp's mother is stated in the first chapter: "Jenny Fields discovered that you got more respect from shocking other people than you got from trying to live your own life with a little privacy." Today, 20 years later, Jenny's discovery seems more true--not to mention more defensible--than it seemed to me in 1978. And I don't always agree with Jenny. "Between men and women," she says, "only death is shared equally." Late in the novel, in the last chapter, I disagree with her as follows: ". . . between men and women, not even death gets shared equally. Men get to die more, too."

There was a time when Jenny threatened to take over the novel, when I wasn't at all sure if Garp or his mother was the main character; something of my indecision remains. I once wanted to begin the book with Chapter 11 (the "Mrs. Ralph" chapter), but that would have necessitated a flashback of 313 pages. I next tried beginning the novel with Chapter 9, the chapter called "The Eternal Husband". My first sentence was: "In the Yellow Pages of Garp's phone directory, Marriage was listed near Lumber." I used to think the novel was about marriage, specifically the perils of marriage, more specifically, the threat of lust to marriage. "Garp had never realized," I wrote, "that there were more marriage counselors than lumber-yards." (Is it any wonder I was anxious that a 12-year-old was reading this book?)

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