Irving begins his iconic story with a depiction of one of his characters called Jenny. Jenny is an independent woman ahead of the times. She quits college to become a nurse when she decides that higher education for women is meant to groom them for marriage.
She has little tolerance for the behavior of men so when a soldier in a movie theater attempts to fondle her, she uses a scalpel she carries in her purse to slice his arm from shoulder to wrist.
She is perturbed when the authorities, as well as her own brothers, suggest that she has some kind of relationship with the man. She is released when it is discovered that the man has a wife and child in New York.
The incident, along with the treatment she receives from her wealthy family, reinforces her beliefs about men, women, and relationships.
As a nurse in Boston, Jenny resolves to get herself a baby without the interference of a man. She finds a potential sperm donor in the form of TS Garp who’s arrived partially brain dead from the war.
When the hospital discovers her imminent unwed motherhood, they fire her. She has a son who she names TS Garp or Technical Sergeant Garp after the child’s father.
When he turns 17, Garp decides to become a writer so off he to Vienna. Garp struggles to find his first words but Jenny makes remarkable progress with her own work, writing about 600 pages of an autobiography.
But, she’s not very pleased with it, not until she finds the sentence that sets the tone for her book; “In this dirty-minded world, you are either someone’s wife or someone’s whore or fast on the way to becoming one or the other.”
She calls her work A Sexual Suspect and it’s an instant hit and Jenny, despite her dislike of labels transforms into a feminist icon. Meanwhile, Garp’s first work, a short story called The Pension Grillparzer fails to make any waves.
Garp marries the daughter of his wrestling coach from school and they have a son and then another. His first two novels enjoy a very tepid success. It isn’t until the tragedy of an accident where his younger son loses his life and his older son, an eye and an arm, that Garp is spurred on to write his masterpiece, The World According to Bensenhaver, a violent tale of a father’s anxieties built around a ‘rape’ plot.
In a classic example of the strange humour that pervades this book, Garp’s wife, Helen is partly complicit in the death of her son as she fellates her young lover in a stationary Buick whilst Garp unknowingly drives his two sons into the back of this car.
The World According to Garp is a huge narrative full of complex emotional rollercoaster’s typical of a writer’s life. Clearly, the characters in the book are writers whose stories resemble the story in the book complete with the titles, which makes more literary complex but fascinatingly unique. It is heavier on the mind and one wonders when it will end but when it does, you wonder why it did.
The tragicomedy of author T. S. Garp has youthful energy, and the novelist was able to create realistic and strong female characters at a time when that was not popular in American society. The book was published in 1978.