The story does not contains a great deal of (in the words of Garp’s fictional teacher) “lunacy and sorrow”, and the sometimes ridiculous chains of events the characters experience still resonate with painful truth.
The novel contains several framed narratives: Garp’s first novella, The Pension Grillparzer; “Vigilance”, a short story; and the first chapter of his novel, The World According to Bensenhaver. The book also contains some motifs that appear in almost all John Irving novels: bears, New England, Vienna, wrestling, people who are uninterested in having sex, and a complex Dickensian plot that spans the protagonist’s whole life. Adultery (another common Irving motif) also plays a large part, culminating in one of the novel’s most harrowing and memorable scenes. Another familiar Irving trope, castration anxiety, is present, most obviously in the fate of one character, Michael Milton.
John Irving’s mother, Frances Winslow, had not been married at the time of his conception, and Irving never met his biological father. As a child, he was not told anything about his father, and he baited his mother that unless she gave him some information about his biological father, in his writing he would invent the father and the circumstances of how she got pregnant. Winslow would reply, “Go ahead, dear.”
Irving concludes the novel by stating, “In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” Indeed, throughout the book, Garp seems to be obsessed with death, both in his writing and in his personal life. Garp remarks in a reading that his novella, The Pension Grillparzer, features the death of seven of his nine characters. His third novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, features multiple scenes of death and mutilation. However, Garp’s writing merely reflects the broader nature of his obsession with necrosis. Garp irrationally fantasizes about ways his loved ones might die. At one point, Garp rants about his hatred of late-night phone calls, which undoubtedly bring news of a loved one’s death. Ironically, several of the people closest to him do die, often in outlandish, even comical ways.
Until tomorrow: Life grants nothing to us mortals without hard work.