The word according to Garp
My favourite novel
I’ M not proud of my early reading tastes. In fact as a youngster I wasn’t much of a reader at all. I blame it on my father, who was such a lively and inveterate storyteller that it wasn’t until I was too old (by what occult reckoning I don’t know) for oral fictions that the printed word got a proper look-in.
Even then I existed for several years on an exclusive diet of Marvel comics and pulp horror (we’ll say nothing here of those readers’ letters in my resignedly shoplifted Playboys and Mayfairs and Knaves) before the inevitable segue — via Led Zeppelin — into Tolkien. A shameful period of one-dimensional dwarfs and asexual elves might well have lasted through my teens had it not been for John Irving’s 1978 novel, The World According to Garp, which I read in my 15th summer, and which changed the course of my life. Cynics will argue that the move from pulp horror, porn and fantasy to Garp isn’t much of a leap; more of a hop or shuffle or wry sidestep.
Irving’s novel, after all, is full of vertiginous nightmares, frank sex and appalling violence. A four-year-old dies in a car crash. His older brother loses an eye to a knobless gearstick. A young girl is raped. The protagonist’s mother is shot dead. There is lunatic society of women who amputate their own tongues. Garp’s wife accidentally bites off her lover’s penis.
Be that as it may, The World According to Garp is a serious, hilarious, poignant grown-up novel about love, death, loss and absurdity, and to my crude mid-adolescent sensibility was utterly unlike anything I’d encountered before.
When I finished it (having faked illness to stay home from school with that express purpose) I walked into the living room and announced to my parents — with a sort of tremulous nobility, indeed with something approaching rapturous self-awe — that I had found my vocation: I was Going To Be A Novelist. (To their credit my mother and father neither fainted from incredulity nor fell about laughing but simply asked what they might do to help make that happen, a response which, if there were any justice in the universe, would have seen them deified on the spot.)
Very well: I was Going To Be A Novelist.