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Pushing Against The Undertoad

  • May 24, 2009
The first time I experienced "Garp" was as a teenager in my friend Steve's basement, some five years after the novel's 1978 publication. Steve was telling me about that part in the story when Garp hits a car that happens to be occupied by his wife and her student lover. Many details of his account can not be shared on this public forum. I was agog.

"And then what happened?" I asked. Steve didn't really recall, except something about women with their tongues cut out. It was only by reading this novel at last 30 years later that I finally discovered this 20th-century "David Copperfield" of astounding power, humor, and dread.

Especially dread. There's this thing in the book called the "undertoad", based on a child's misunderstanding of the word "undertow" but apt enough it that it symbolizes a sentient, cruel beast of hidden dimension who conspires to wreck one's life just as you are beginning to relax and enjoy it. It's a terrific motif, both whimsical and frightening.

As one gets older, one discovers it's more than a motif, that it claims real victims, including my old friend Steve. What makes "Garp" so brilliant is how it presents the undertoad; in the title package of a marvelously imagined alternate reality where literally nothing can't happen. "Everything has really happened sometime," explains the title character, a struggling novelist who insists his work is not autobiographical despite the obvious connection between life and art.

John Irving's triumph here is dealing with an idea usually fatal to fiction, the subject of creating fiction itself. Throughout the novel, Garp struggles to create great work, often failing, never quite succeeding as he did the very first time, with a brilliant short story entitled "The Pension Grillparzer." I can say its brilliant because I actually read it - the story appears in the novel, as do other pieces the fictional Garp "writes". All amuse, but none compete with Garp's life for sustaining your interest, which may be Irving's way of making a point.

I have a hard time keeping Garp and Irving apart. Reading these reviews, I sense I'm not alone. Garp's actually not that terrific a lead character; one negative review here describes him as "soulless" and I'm inclined to agree. He's also arrogant, rude, distant, a trifle too clutchy with his offspring. One gets the feeling Irving had some issues to work out here, and sometimes they got the best of him. If it's not those pesky ultra-feminists attacking him with their voiceless, reasonless accusations, it's that poor fellow in the car with the missus, who becomes a whipping boy for much of the author's otherwise subtly-presented anger.

At least with the feminists, you have some balance and a laugh-out-loud perspective offered by a transsexual ex-football player who is one with them but disapproves mildly of lesbians because she's into men herself. Roberta Muldoon is a terrific fictional construct, especially in the way she lets Irving have it both ways, expressing solidarity with the sisters but disapproval with their excesses. Here, and nowhere else, "Garp" is a very '70s novel.

Irving keeps you reading his novel's 600 pages because of his way with story. He keeps everything so absorbing and immediate that you dare not stop reading, or skim for fear of missing a sudden twist. His command of story is very much like Dickens' "Copperfield", and if both novels develop more tortuous narratives in the last hundred pages, the undergirding passion behind each of them carry them through to the finish line.

Maybe it helps, writing such a novel around the concept of the "undertoad", that you keep the characters in it as unreal and distant as possible. I think the real secret is being able to write and construct such a story the way John Irving can, and does here.

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More The World According to Garp reviews
review by . July 12, 2010
John Irving is the rare breed of a writer who began with some pretty good success critically.  His earliest works such as Setting Free the Bears, The 158 Pound Marriage and The Water Method Man actually opened up to critical success.  All of those books didn't exactly sell very well, however.  Rather they were quite unknown.  In 1978, John Irving published The World According to Garp and the result was a runaway bestseller.  It was a book that was filled to the brim …
review by . May 24, 2010
John Irving is brilliant, and brings another wild cast of colorful characters to 'Garp'. T.S Garp (no, the "T.S." doesn't stand for anything) is the illegitimate son of a feminist nurse, Jenny,  whos views on men, sexuality, and especially lust are rather bleak, to say the least. The story chronicles their lives together, then moves on with Garp as he begins his own family. Jenny is ever-near,  and Garp's family goes well beyond the biological, eventually including …
Quick Tip by . June 25, 2010
There's a reason this book got Irving his fame. If you read nothing else by John Irving, make sure you get this one.
Quick Tip by . June 15, 2010
Quick Tip by . June 10, 2010
I could read this book over and over.
review by . July 05, 2009
Hilarious and serious at the same time, "The Word According to Garp" is among my top 10 favorite books. John Irving began writing it in the wake of the radical feminism of the early 1970's. Recently, Irving concluded that the book is about "a father's fears" but also acknowledges, "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." …
review by . January 04, 2001
I just love Garp - he is one of my favourite literary characters. His life, which he yearns to be boring and normal, is a reader's delight, from his unorthodox conception to the trials and tribulations of his marriage.But this book is not just about Garp, it is about finding the unusual in every day things, about rejoicing in sadness and about making the best of what you have. It is a truly delightful book, and I rank it just as highly as I do Irving's other great masterpiece "A Prayer for Owen …
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Bill Slocum ()
Ranked #301
Reading is my way of eavesdropping on a thousand conversations, meeting hundreds of new and fascinating people, and discovering what it is about the world I enjoy most. Only after a while, I lose track … more
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About this book


"Garp was a natural storyteller," says the narrator of John Irving's incandescent novel, referring to the book's hero, the novelist Garp, who has much in common with Irving himself. "He could make things up one right after the other, and they seemed to fit."

Irving packs wild characters and weird events into his classic--officially recognized as such in a Modern Library edition with a new introduction by the author--while amazingly maintaining the rough feel of realism in every scene and the pulse of life in every heart. Many novelists of his time might have populated a novel with a novelist protagonist whose life and books comment on each other and the novel we're reading. Transsexual football players, ball turret gunners lobotomized in battle, multiple adultery, unicycling bears, mad feminists who amputate their tongues in sympathy with the celebrated victim of a horrifying rape--Irving made them all people. Even the bear is a fitting character.

In a crucial episode, Garp's wife's seduction of a young man coincidentally occurs at the moment when Garp is delighting their young sons with a reckless car trick (one of the few scenes beautifully, eerily, heartbreakingly captured in the film version as well). Many authors would have been content with the harsh comedy of the scene, but Irving respects its integrity, and he builds the rest of the book on the consequences of the event. How does he get away with his killer cocktail of ...

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ISBN-10: 0525237704 (hbk.)
ISBN-13: 9780525237709 (hbk.)
Publisher: Dutton Adult
Date Published: April 24, 1978
Format: 1st ed.
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