John Irving. Yes, when I grow up, I want to be John Irving. (Never mind the fact that by most people’s standards I am already grown up!)
To justify this statement, a funny and ironic anecdote for your amusement: Remember how I claimed recently (Scroll down on the blog to earlier posts if you don’t remember!) that Charles Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend was my favourite novel of all time. This statement is as true now as it was before. But what’s funny and ironic about the fact that I made this claim is that, during my high school education, I was absolutely convinced that I would hate hate HATE Dickens’s writing. I had a few friends in a different English class in grade 12 and they were required to read Great Expectations in place of some novel that I studied in my English class. My friends absolutely detested Great Expectations – their criticism was vehement and passionate, and yet lacked any real detail or justification. They hated Dickens because, well, because he was Dickens…because of all the reasons that I have since grown to love him, like his elaborate language and his artistic and narrative precision and his emotional depth. In any case, I hadn’t read any Dickens at the time, and I wouldn’t read my first Dickens novel until 3 years later during my Victorian literature class in university (a pivotal, important class for me, to say the least), so I accepted my friends’ assertions that I too would detest detest DETEST, or at least hate hate HATE, all of Dickens’s work. I was prejudiced against poor Charles before even meeting him!
Now, obviously this story is supposed to have something to do with John Irving…and if you’ve read any of John Irving’s novels, you’ll already know that it does in many ways! To be a fan of Dickens is to be a fan of John Irving, in my opinion. But to be a bit clearer, I’ll continue my anecdote. So, I hated Dickens before I even read him – but I loved loved LOVED John Irving with every fiber of my aspiring writer’s heart. This should’ve been my first indication that my “friends” knew absolutely nothing about my literary inclinations: while they hated Dickens, they also grew to despise John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany; a novel that I adored, that left me speechless and breathless, and that I actually read twice in a span of 5 months…which is saying a lot considering that the novel is loooooong! Let’s put it this way: my friends hated Dickens and John Irving; I hadn’t read any Dickens but LOVED John Irving. Is it any wonder, then, that I grew to love Dickens…and that my love for John Irving grew too?
Okay, so I should warn anyone who’s reading this: this blog post is going to be long…not quite as long as A Prayer for Owen Meany, and not even as long as John Irving’s novel The World According to Garp which this blog post is actually meant to be about, but probably longer than any of my other blog posts. I could write about John Irving all day…and I could read John Irving’s work all day! I never get tired of his incredible stories, his voice, his creativity. From the moment I read A Prayer for Owen Meany, my obsession with its innovative, impressive author flourished. I even wrote a sequel to that novel as a final project for my own Writer’s Craft class in grade 12.
I am a writer, or at least an aspiring one, because of John Irving.
When I close the pages of any given John Irving novel, I feel compelled, encouraged, motivated to write. I want to create something as brilliant as his work, even if I know I have no real hope of ever coming remotely close to his genius. And it was with John Irving in mind that I created my first ever completely original character: the man with the green eyes, the troubled past, and the good but tormented heart (Remember him? If not, check out The Story of the Green Heart!). This man that I had totally invented needed a name – I had an idea for a first name, especially because I was already in love with a certain Rochester, but I am terrible at choosing last names for my characters. I needed to decide on a name that was significant to me, that would speak to me and speak for this character, and would infuse traits in him that I both admired and coveted. And so, my green-eyed man’s last name became Irving because the most recent John Irving novel that I had read, Last Night in Twisted River, jumped out at me (and into my almost green heart) when I turned toward my bookshelf on the day I started writing my first and favourite short story.
But, on to The World According to Garp, another John Irving novel, another favourite novel, another novel that leaves me feeling inadequate but also hopeful. John Irving just writes about writers so well – it’s no surprise that he understands the writing process, but it is incredible that he manages to create such poignant and interesting and unique metatexts. His novels don’t come across as diatribes on writing; they are complex and intricate works of fiction, and yet they offer the reader an insight into the process of constructing a novel unlike any other works of literature I have ever encountered (and I have read A LOT of literary criticism and academic non-fiction on writing!). His novels are also full of so many smaller texts that Irving takes the time to write in such detail (such as Garp’s bedtime story for his son Walt which he revises for his wife Helen, as well as the entire text of Garp’s short story “The Pension Grillparzer”). I wish I could say that I’m the type of writer that would make John Irving proud; I wish I could say that I don’t care if his works are autobiographical – but, oh, I do! Although Irving’s narratives are so rich and large-scale, they also feel so intimate, and the reader really does feel as though Irving acts just as his male writer characters do. And so, I want to get at this author, at the man behind the most powerful fiction I have ever been privileged enough to read, and I want John Irving to be Johnny Wheelwright or Daniel Baciagalupo or T.S. Garp. I want to know him by knowing his famous characters! Perhaps that is why my favourite section of this 600-plus page novel was Irving’s introduction – I loved that I could hear his voice and that I knew the voice was undeniably his! (Or was it? Maybe John Irving, the writer figure, is also a construction?)
The World According to Garp is clearly about a writer (the eponymous Garp), but it is also about so much more than that, as all John Irving novels are. I would never ever want to reduce a John Irving novel to a single theme or motif, but for the sake of making this blog post a teensy tiny bit shorter, I will focus on the one aspect of The World According to Garp that touched me most profoundly. I think the novel is about fear and anxiety more than anything else…and that is a topic that I know much about. Irving writes about fear and anxiety directed towards loved ones, and I understand that fear at the core of my green, and always getting greener, heart. I have always worried about my parents and my brother excessively – any time one of them leaves the house, I am filled with doubt and concern. I also remember vividly being overcome by fear in high school, just after my crush got his driver’s license, any time I heard an ambulance pass by. In my mind, my crush had gotten into a car accident every single time. Now that I have a boyfriend, that ambulance in my mind comes for him. My greatest fear is that I will never see the people I love again, and that the last time I saw them will have been the last forever, without my even knowing it or valuing it enough!
John Irving gets me…or at least T.S. Garp, and even his wife Helen towards the end, do! Garp is obsessed with his family and with keeping them safe. This often complicates their lives more than is necessary, but no one can fault him for his anxieties because they are so realistic. That’s the main thing that makes John Irving’s work so remarkable: he writes about the truth, in stark and unapologetic detail. Even when he writes about infidelity, about complicated relationships; even when his male characters (who I always love and grow so attached to) are so hard on their wives and children; even amidst all of this chaos, the reader knows that Irving is telling a truth, that these things he writes about happen every day. And that is where the terror and anxiety also resides for the reader: although I enjoy John Irving’s characters, I don’t necessarily want to end up like any of them!
But ending up like a John Irving character is almost inevitable because, like I said, he writes about real life and he writes about it truthfully. Of course, I began to identify with Helen, the woman who is Garp’s wife but also so many other things, particularly because Irving articulates her emotions so clearly and touchingly:
“It was her most preferred way to fall asleep: after love, with Garp talking.”
“He became again the determined young Garp who made her fall in love, and she felt so drawn to him that she often cried when she was alone – without knowing why.”
So basically, to sum all this up, I will say that not a single word in a single sentence in a single paragraph on a single page of a John Irving novel is out of place. He is like Dickens in this way – he cares about his story, about every oddity and peculiarity, about every character’s name and history – and the reader can tell that he cares, can tell that all 600-plus pages are necessary to create Irving’s world and to leave such an impact.
I won’t say which of the John Irving novels that I’ve read is my favourite because there’s no answer to that question. John Irving is my favourite, everything he does is my favourite…it’s as simple as that.
Girl with a Green Heart