|Robin Williams played Garp and John Lithgow played the memorable character of Roberta, a transsexual who was formerly a tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles|
The World According to Garp (1978)
by John Irving
The World According to Garp was a very much a book that was on the shelf at my parent's home. I tried reading it when I was young, maybe 11 or 12, and I didn't get very far. Frankly, I expected, with a title like The World According to Garp, something along the lines of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, science fiction, humor. There is some humor in The World According to Garp, but no science fiction. Irving was a student of Kurt Vonnegut at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, a fact which I became aware of halfway through Garp, when I thought to myself, "This books reads like a Kurt Vonnegut novel" and searched the names of both authors on the internet.
There are also elements of Tom Robbins and Ken Kesey as well as the additional element of post-modernism. The plot of Garp is both loosely autobiographical AND about the ways in which literature contains and does not the biography of the author. The protagonist (but not narrator) T.S. Garp is the son of a nurse who decides she wants a baby but not a man. Working as a nurse in a New England towards the end of World War II, she inseminates herself with the help of a soldier in a vegetative state, and then repairs to her ancestral home of New Hampshire, where she works at a prep school and raises her son, little T.S. Garp.
After graduation, Mother and son repair to Vienna, where Mom writes an auto-biography that becomes a touchstone of feminism. Son writes a novella which is well-reviewed but doesn't sell. Garp and Mother return to the States, where Garp claims his bride with the help of his novella (proving he's a "real" writer to his bride, a the daughter of his prep school wrestling coach) and things move on from there.
"There" involves A LOT of events. The major themes are lust, death and human relationships, in the same way that those are the central themes of every Kurt Vonnegut novel. The World According to Garp has the first explicit discussion of the feminist "movement" of the 60's and 70's, that I have read so far in the 1001 Books project. This portion very much reminds me of a similar theme in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, published in 1978 by Tom Robbins. In 2016 it is cringe inducing to realize that a major literary investigation into the feminist movement was authored by the cissest of cis white males.
The cringe inducing discussions of feminism, which also explicitly treats the issue of transsexualism in a way that was ahead of it's time, are balanced out by some astute observations about the nature of "popular" and "literary" fiction. Unfortunately, I can't really discuss this portion of The World According to Garp without spoiling the third act, but I found that part of the book highly satisfying, simply speaking as someone who has given ample time and thought to the issues surrounding art, artists and audiences.