I realized the other day that it’s been 20 years since I first read John Irving’s The World According to Garp. With the possible exception of The Amityville Horror, I’d be willing to go on record with saying that The World According to Garp was the first book to really shake me up. I wouldn’t go so far as it “changed my life” but I was definitely a different person after reading Garp. When I finished reading it, I didn’t want it to end. There haven’t been many books that I’ve read in my life where I was truly sorry that they were over. After I finished Garp, I consumed his other novels like a zombie to brains. During my last semester at Iowa State, I read The Cider House Rules, The Water Method Man, The 158 Pound Marriage and started (but never finished) The Hotel New Hampshire. In the fall of that year, I devoured what is probably my favorite Irving novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany.
So if I loved all these books so much and they had such a profound impact on my life, why have I never been able to reread any of Irving’s books? I reread And The Band Played on every three or four years, why not these fiction books that influenced me at such a pivotal point in my life?
It certainly hasn’t been for lack of trying. I’ve picked up Garp several times over the years – for a while, I had this ridiculous habit of buying a used copy of it every time I saw it at a library book sale or Good Will or garage sale, so I had quite a few copies to choose from. Every time I would try to read it, I would never make it past page 100. I don’t know what it is. It’s just not really rereadable. Same thing for A Prayer For Owen Meany. Just can’t bring myself to read it again. I’ve tried, but I always stall out. I don’t know what it is.
Specifically for Garp, the movie version kind of wrecked it for me. Those that have read the book know that Robin Williams was all wrong for the role of Garp, although I will say that Glenn Close was perfect as his mother. As Roger Ebert once said, the movie version of Garp is nothing more than a visual aid for the novel. The book also walks a fine line between being something more than just popular fiction but also kind of aware that it’s “all that.” So in many ways, it’s a bit pretentious which might play well to a 20 year-old me, but not so much to the 40 year-old me.
Still, the stories are solid, but I can’t help but think that perhaps I read Irving during the time in my life that I was supposed to read him. My college years are full of pretend-drama that allowed me to relate to the sweeping melodrama of most of Irving’s best work. Perhaps reading it now just isn’t the same as reading it as a freshly minted adult. As Carly Simon says “melodrama never makes me weep anymore” – mostly it just makes me roll my eyes and enjoy it for the camp that it is.
With that in mind, I found the only copy of The World According to Garp that I still have when I cleaned out my office closet a couple weekends ago. I’m going to give it one more college try (pardon the pun.) I’m hoping that since I’ve been much more diligent about reading over the last few years, I won’t fall victim to putting it down and not picking it back up again. It’s always good for me to revisit those times when I was eating by myself in the Friley cafeteria (where I read the bulk of The World According to Garp the first time) when I start getting a little too big for my britches.
As usual, it’s all about balance. We’ll see how it goes.