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Critical Essay by Raymond J. Wilson III
SOURCE: "The Postmodern Novel: The Example of John Irving's The World According to Garp," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Fall. 1992. pp. 49-62.
In the following essay, Wilson examines the postmodern construction of The World According to Garp, particularly elements of metafiction, irony, and the gothic bizarre in the novel.
As a novel that recapitulates within itself a history of twentieth-century fiction, John Irving's The World According to Garp illustrates a key aspect of postmodernism, that of formal replenishment. The earlier segments of Garp exhibit strong elements of modernism whereas in its final third, Irving's book is a postmodern novel of bizarre violence and black humor, flat characters, and metafiction—a mode of writing one might expect from the pen of John Barth, Robert Coover, or Thomas Pynchon. Specifically, in its First segment, Garp is the artist's bildungsroman like James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Then Garp becomes a mid-century novel of manners dealing with the surface tone, the daily rituals, and the social patterns of American couples, its chief drama being found in adultery and sexual interaction—a novel such as one might have expected from John Updike or John Cheever. However, in John Barth's concept of a literature of exhaustion, imitation of earlier modes is a basic strategy of the postmodern novel. Thus, despite Garp's shifts of mode, as a contemporary fiction operating in three modes, it must be intrinsically postmodern throughout. My analysis proceeds in two stages: first, a theoretical overview of postmodernism, followed by the specific example of The World According to Garp.
The term postmodern requires careful investigation. Since the 1960s, readers have noticed a difference in some of our fiction; attempting to discuss this new fiction without long circumlocutions, critics invented a term: postmodern fiction. Attempts to define this expression followed its use but led to a problem. As John Barth points out, no agreement has been reached on a definition; and because widespread agreement has not yet been reached even for a definition of modernism, we cannot expect a rapid agreement on a definition of postmodernism. In this situation we might find it effective not to attempt a strict logical definition but simply to list those characteristics that first made us notice a difference. In this essay, I suggest a noninclusive list: (1) a propensity to contain and reuse all previous forms in a literature of exhaustion and replenishment; (2) a zone of the bizarre, where fantasy best expresses our sense of reality; (3) a turning away from penetration into the psychological depth of character as the primary goal of fiction; and (4) a propensity for metafiction, in which writing draws attention to the techniques and processes of its own creation.
A Literature of Exhaustion and Replenishment
The postmodern novel contains all the earlier modes of the novel, contains them intrinsically within the process by which a literature of exhausted possibilities replenishes itself. Such commentators as Albert J. La Valley, Herman Kahn, and Christopher Lasch may see causes of change in recent literature in deep cultural contexts. La Valley says that the new literature reflects a new consciousness that has been "inspired in part by the breakdown of our culture, its traditions, and its justifications of the American social structure;" Kahn and Wiener refer to our culture as being in the "Late Sensate" stage, our art, including literature, reflecting a culture in the state of decline; and Lasch argues that "Bourgeois society seems everywhere to have used up its store of constructive ideas" and that there is "a pervasive despair of understanding the course of modern history or of subjecting it to rational direction." However, the originator of the expression "literature of exhaustion," John Barth, referred to it as "the literature of exhausted possibilities" and says that by "'exhaustion' I don't mean anything so tired as the subject of physical, moral or intellectual decadence, only the usedupness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities." Despair might be the reaction of a contemporary writer of fiction when he or she faces the realization that the limited number of possible variations in the form of fiction may have already been explored, but Barth has an answer. While today's author may panic at the idea of being condemned to merely repeat what a Flaubert, a James, a Fitzgerald, or a Joyce has discovered and what countless others have already repeated, Barth finds the situation "by no means necessarily a cause for despair."
The escape from panic, Barth finds, comes in a story by Borges. In the story "Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote," Borges described his character Menard's astonishing effort of will in producing—composing, not copying—several chapters of Cervantes' Don Quixote. Borges's narrator points out that despite being verbally identical the recomposition is a new, fresh work: what for Cervantes was merely an everyday, workmanlike style of prose is for Menard a clever, playful use of quaint, semi-antiquated diction; what for Cervantes were mere commonplaces of conventional rhetoric can be for Menard a series of radical, exciting departures from the accepted wisdom of his day. Barth points out that it would have "been sufficient for Menard to have attributed the novel to himself in order to have a new work of art, from the intellectual point of view." However, Barth feels that "the important thing to observe is that Borges doesn't attribute the Quixote to himself, much less recompose it like Pierre Menard; instead, he writes a remarkable and original work of literature, the implicit theme of which is the difficulty, perhaps the unnecessity, of writing original works of literature. Barth believes that Borges's "artistic victory," emerges from confronting "an intellectual dead end," and employing it "against itself to accomplish new human work."
In its reuse of earlier forms, we can see how The World According to Garp is related to postmodern works by John Barth and Robert Coover. In "Menelaiad," a story in Lost in the Funhouse, John Barth parodies the Greek epic form; and in The Sot-Weed Factor, Barth contorts the genre of the eighteenth-century novel. It would be a mistake to think that Barth is writing an epic or an eighteenth-century novel. Nor is Barth really writing a Richardsonian epistolary novel in Letters. Instead, Barth writes a postmodern novel that plays with the form. Similarly, Coover is not writing a mystery in Gerald's Party: instead, this novel, as William Gass is quoted as saying on the dust jacket, "sends up the salon mystery so far it will never come down. What comes down is a terrible indictment of our desires." Just so, The World According to Garp plays with the modernist forms of the artist's bildungsroman and the mid-century American comedy of manners and necessarily makes an implicit comment upon them, as I shall argue later. Garp, by its reuse of modernist forms, stands in the same territory as these works by Barth and Coover.
By reusing existing forms this new fiction opens for itself doors to endless opportunities for freshness. Borges's story, for example, is itself a parody of the critical article. The postmodern novel's parody reveals a literary form returning to its point of origin to renew itself. Barth points out that the Quixote is itself a parody of an earlier form—the poetic romance. One thinks immediately of Defoe's stories parodying news articles and his novels in the form of personal reminiscences. Richardson is said to have begun Pamela as a model set of letters for young ladies and to have thus invented the English epistolary novel almost by accident.
The Zone of the Bizarre
Because the term zone comes from Gravity's Rainbow, this category highlights the relationship between Garp and Thomas Pynchon's great novel. Speaking of the zone of occupation in defeated Germany, Brian McHale says that as Gravity's Rainbow unfolds, "hallucinations and fantasies become real, metaphors become literal, the fictional worlds of the mass media—the movies, comic-books—thrust themselves into the midst of historical reality." As such, "Pynchon's zone is paradigmatic for the heterotopian space of postmodernist writing." The World According to Garp has a zone, as I shall argue, that fits Gravity's Rainbow's paradigm. Brian McHale suggests that behind all the postmodernist fictional construction of zones "lies Apollinaire's poem, 'Zone' (from Alcools, 1913), whose speaker, strolling through the immigrant and red-light districts of Paris, finds in them an objective correlative for modern Europe and his own marginal, heterogeneous, and outlaw experience." However, an even better explanation might be found in Philip Roth's observation that "the toughest problem for the American writer was that the substance of the American experience itself was so abnormally and fantastically strange, it had become an 'embarrassment to one's own meager imagination.'" "If reality becomes surrealistic," Joe David Bellamy asks, "what must fiction do to be realistic?" It must become bizarre, goes one answer.
The bizarre connects realistic fiction to fantasy and myth. Fantasy is an old form that takes on new implications when used consciously by the contemporary writer, not as an alternative or escape from reality but as the best method available for catching the emotional essence of our era. The distinction between fantasy and myth is not always easy to maintain when one looks at individual stories, although theoretically a mythically structured story may maintain a surface sense of realism the way a fantasy story cannot.
Also connected to the bizarre characteristic of these zones is the postmodern novel's black humor. In The Fabulators, Robert Scholes says that black humorists, in a century of historical horror, deal with the absurdity of "the human situation" by seeing it "as a cosmic joke." He suggests that in contrast to the existentialist, the black humorist offers an alternative: "The best response is neither acquiescence nor bitterness"; rather one must play "one's role in the joke in such a way as to turn the humor back on the joker or cause it to diffuse itself harmlessly on the whole group which has participated in the process of the joke."
As the extreme epitome of the atmosphere of much postmodern fiction, the zone of the bizarre compensates for its retreat from the strict tenets of realism by evoking echoes of no-less-real feelings from our personas pasts, feelings that today we can experience only in dreams or in moments of great stress—of terror, perhaps—when our "normal" functioning breaks down. Although we repress these feelings, we react with a mixture of anxiety and secret welcoming when the television news reports events that cannot be grasped without reference to such emotions. Through the bizarre, postmodern fiction taps and reflects this source of emotional power and does so, not despite, but because of its departure from the formal tenets of "realism," which center on an attempt to penetrate into the depths of character.
The Turn Away from Psychological Depth in Character
Umberto Eco notes the shift in contemporary novels, where an author "renounces all psychology as the motive of narrative and decides to transfer characters and situations to the level of an objective structural strategy." Eco sees this "choice familiar to many contemporary disciplines" as one in which an author passes "from the psychological method to the formalistic one." Eco's words fit with Robert Scholes's prediction that the key element in the coming new fiction would be a new dimension of the "care for form." This noncharacter orientation provides a point of reference between The World According to Garp and Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, which is organized neither by plot nor by revelation of its intentionally flat characters but by the structural relationship of game and ritual and the progressive transformation of the one into the other.
Metafiction is another instance where fiction turns away from outside reality and seeks a subject intrinsically suited to the written word. In this method, the technique of composition becomes to some extent the subject of fiction itself. If television and movies are vastly better adapted to creating an illusion of reality—the depiction of objects—then fiction must find other subjects for its own survival, just as painting turned to the nonrepresentational when painters recognized the photograph's power to recreate a scene accurately. In the metafictional dimension, we see the connection of The World According to Garp to other postmodern fiction, for example to the stories John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, especially the title story, in which the implied author presents himself as trying—and failing—to write a conventional story by the cookbook-recipe method but actually writing a postmodern story. Of another story in the volume, "Autobiography," Barth says in his author's note, that it is "the story, speaking of itself."
The World According to Garp as Postmodern Fiction
Reuse of earlier forms
As a novel that shifts from mode to mode, The World According to Garp illustrates the postmodern as a literature of replenishment: Garp recapitulates within itself a history of the twentieth-century novel, performing a tacit critique of the earlier forms. Irving starts in an early twentieth-century mode. Reviewing the fiction of this era, Irving Howe says that whereas nineteenth-century realism studied social classes, early twentieth-century fiction studied the rebellion of the Stephen Dedaluses against behavior patterns imposed by social classes in a particular country. In this conception, the modern novel came into being when James Joyce reconstructed the existing form of the bildungsroman to create A Portrait. More than merely recasting the autobiographical novel into the "individuating rhythm" of Dubliners, Joyce helped form the modern consciousness itself. D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers shares this feature with Joyce's A Portrait: and although Lawrence's novel retains more of the trappings of nineteenth-century realism than Joyce's book, both create characters that do not fit into their own world but who express an aesthetic that is familiar in our intellectual climate. John Irving achieves similar effects in his bildungsroman.
The bildungsroman form is suited to linearity of narrative flow, reflecting the linear growth of a boy's life. In the McCaffery interview, John Irving claimed that he was "very conscious of attempting to make my narrative as absolutely linear as possible…. With my first four novels I was always troubled." says Irving, "particularly with Garp, about the convoluted flow of my narrative…. Garp was, in fact, a kind of minor breakthrough for me just in the sense that it was the first novel I managed to order chronologically." Irving rejects the unreadable masterpieces of high modernist literature and implies that he is returning to the simpler forms of earlier days; however, no nineteenth-century author could have written The World According to Garp. John Irving is moving on into postmodernism, as the three-segment analysis of the novel can demonstrate.
As in the early works of Joyce and Lawrence, the opening section of Garp fits the genre's depiction of parents and childhood surroundings. In the chapter entitled "Blood and Blue," Garp's near fall from a roof and his being bitten by a dog parallel Stephen Dedalus's being shouldered into a playground puddle and having his hands smacked by his teacher. And similarly, the succeeding chapters fulfill other criteria for the genre, combining Garp's sexual initiation with an encounter with pain and death in the demise of a prostitute named Charlotte.
Garp's involvement with the death of this "whore," whom he had come to know better than Joyce's Stephen knew the prostitutes he visited, precipitates Garp's forming his working aesthetic as a writer. Combined with the play of Garp's imagination on the war damage at the Vienna zoo, the death of Charlotte ties Garp's emergence as an adult to his emergence as a writer: a creator and reflector of modern consciousness like Stephen Dedalus. Garp had been unable to finish the story that would make him a "real writer." "The Pension Grillparzer," as the story was called, consisted of two major elements that Garp was having trouble reconciling: a continuous line of hilarious, almost farcical action, low comedy, approaching slapstick that coexisted with a somber theme generated by a dream-omen of death. After Charlotte's death, Garp fell under "a writer's long-sought trance, wherein the world falls under one embracing tone of voice." Here, Irving's narrator emphasizes the importance of what Gerard Genette, following Tzvetan Todorov, has called "aspect," or "the way in which the story is perceived by the narrator."
Visiting the zoo that still bore the signs of war damage, "Garp discovered that when you are writing something, everything seems related to everything else." In the evidences of war Garp saw the connection between larger human history and each person's individual history and so was able to finish the story. His notion of modern consciousness is that "the history of a city was like the history of a family—there is a closeness, and even affection, but death eventually separates everyone from each other." It may be that this is an aesthetic as appropriate for the post-Hiroshima era as Stephen Dedalus's aesthetic was for the era he heralded. Finishing the story after having formed his guiding aesthetic, Garp met Helen's standard for a "real" writer and thus "earned" a wife for himself. Thus, Irving completed the segment of the novel with the forecast that "in their stubborn, deliberate ways," Helen and Garp would fall in love with each other "sometime after they had married."
Irving's implicit comment on the Joycean bildungsroman is ironic. By writing in the form, Irving is affirming the value of the early modernist mode, despite his rejection of excessively complicated modernist literature in the McCaffery interview. However, even an affirmation is a comment, and a comment on modernism is not modernism; by its nature, a comment on modernism must be something standing outside of modernism, viewing it, and implicitly judging it. The existence of bizarre violence and the associated vein of black humor, even in the first section of the book, contributes to irony. The novel opens to the backdrop of a war, and Jenny Field's brusque categorizing of the wounded into classes of Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees, and Goners certainly contains an element of the blackly humorous. In its vividness, Jenny's slashing of a persistent masher verges on the gothic. Garp's being bitten by a dog is merely an element of bildungsroman, but Garp's biting off the ear of the dog verges on the bizarre. With their hint of anti-realist absurdism, these elements provide a counterpoint to the modernist mode, repeatedly rupturing it, threatening to radicalize the novel into the postmodern, and foreshadowing the third section where the transformation does occur. Implicit in these ruptures is the notion that the early modernist mode has difficulty expressing a contemporary reality that itself has become postmodern.
A similar point and counterpoint arises in the second section of the novel. Here, John Irving introduces a mid-century novel of manners, a section of Garp that approximates the aura of an Updike novel or a Cheever story. The central characteristic of the cultural attitude found in mid-century can be illuminated by an insight Stanley Kaufmann drew from the words of a contemporary Italian filmmaker: "When Vittorio de Sica was asked why so many of his films deal with adultery, he is said to have replied, 'But if you take adultery out of the lives of the bourgeoisie, what drama is left?'" The middle segment of Irving's novel, which culminates with Garp's discovery of Helen's affair with Michael Milton, contains the tale of a suburban marriage, its fidelities and infidelities: Garp's sexual encounter with a babysitter, his resisting an attempted seduction by "Mrs. Ralph," and a temporary swap of sexual partners between the Garps and a couple named Harry and Alice—a situation like that with which Updike dealt in his novel Couples.
The suburban domestic tale fits Howe's belief that mid-century fiction, having abandoned the rebellious stance of a Stephen Dedalus, studied the search for values (looking for them, to some degree, in marriage) by a people who live in a world where social class may still exist but where it no longer dominates every detail of daily existence or predestines one to as limited a range of expectations as did the earlier class system. Fitting with Howe's analysis, the point of reference in the middle of Garp, as in the mainstream American novel in the middle of the century, is sociological; the question asked is whether monogamous marriage, as it is found in suburbia, can sustain or bring happiness to people of any sensitivity. What Garp said about his second novel might describe both the midsection of Garp and the American novel at mid-century: it was "a serious comedy about marriage," Garp said, "but a sexual farce."
The central section is made ironic by isolated outcroppings of the bizarre, which implicitly undermine our belief in the fruitfulness of this modernist form. The marriage-comedy/sex-farce enclosed an episode in which Garp helps in the capture of a man who habitually rapes little girls, a sequence that takes on ominous implications when Garp happens to meet the rapist who has been released on a legal technicality, collecting tickets at a basketball game. Implicit in the counterpoint created by the intrusion of public and epochal violence into the private and personal is the conclusion that a mode, such as mid-century modernist realism, the Updike/Cheever comedy of manners, which exists to reveal the private and personal, loses its force.
The reader can guess at the historical moment recreated in Irving's implicit irony from a comment Saul Bellow made about novelists of the early 1960s who sought to "examine the private life." Bellow says that some "cannot find the [private] life they are going to examine. The power of public life has become so vast and threatening that private life cannot maintain a pretense of its importance." Unhappy with the situation in which modernist fiction found itself, some authors began turning away, as Irving Howe has noted, from "realistic portraiture" to express their spirit in "fable, picaresque, prophecy, and nostalgia." Novels by these writers, Howe says, "constitute what I would class 'post-modern fiction.'" Howe was identifying a trend that came to be designated, much more inclusively, by the term he used in 1959.
We are deeply involved in the serio-comic complications of Garp's marriage-comedy/sex-farce when an auto accident wrenches us into the post-modern mode—the accident that killed one of Garp's little boys and maimed the other. The transfer between modes comes from a shattering experience—the accident and its physical and emotional consequences. An analogy (with an important difference) can be seen in the work of Saul Bellow. Irving Howe says that when Bellow writes in Henderson the Rain King, "that men need a shattering experience to 'wake the spirit's sleep,' we soon realize that his ultimate reference is to America, where many spirits sleep." Bellow, though he keeps his mode in the realistic mainstream, takes his character to Africa for the shattering experience; Irving keeps the scene in America, but this America has become a postmodern "zone" and is no longer the familiar scene of an Updike novel.
The zone of the bizarre
The nearly gothic episodes of the first two sections prepare us for the novel's final section. The salient events in the third section are intrusions of public life into the private: assassinations, mob violence, and highway mayhem, much of it not accidental. The public/private dichotomy presents itself most clearly in Garp's refusal to accept the fact that a strictly women's memorial service for his mother, Jenny Fields, is not a private funeral but a public, political event. It would be unthinkable to bar a son from the one, but unthinkable to welcome a man to the other.
As for the bizarre, not only is the setting moved to Jenny Field's madcap home for "injured women" at Don's Head Harbor; but even more significantly, we suddenly find ourselves in a world as strange as the fictional zones of a Thomas Pynchon or a John Hawkes, if not one reaching the extremes of a William Burroughs. In the final section of Irving's novel, T. S. Garp expresses the dominant feeling: "Life is an X-rated soap opera." Akin to both fantasy and myth, this feeling becomes progressively objectified when the horrible "Under Toad" first grows from a family joke, introduced analeptically, into a code word for speaking about a hovering fear. Then, although the reader's mind tries to reject overt supernaturalism, the Under Toad becomes a veritable character, a vengeful beast who at times becomes as real as Grendel in the Old English poem. The myth-fantasy dimension of Irving's novel would thus partake of what Tzvetan Todorov calls "the fantastic"; in the book of that name, Todorov defines the state as a hovering between "the uncanny," in which apparently supernatural events receive some ultimate natural explanation, and "the marvelous," in which the supernatural becomes the norm. McHale finds such "hesitation" to be characteristic of postmodernist fiction.
Significantly, the Under Toad is mentioned only in the third section of the book, although its origin—in a little boy's misunderstanding of his father's warning about the "undertow" on the beach—occurs in the chronological middle of the book. There may be technical reasons why Irving decided to develop the Under Toad only in retrospect, after the reader knows of little Walt's death. Even so, it is clear that the fantasy and myth aspects of the Under Toad contribute to a mode of postmodernism in the novel's concluding section, reminding us for example of Pynchon's notion that the modern world can only be fathomed through the agency of paranoia. The Under Toad's myth and fantasy elements would have been less appropriate in the more realistic, comic-farce mode of Garp's center section, but they provide an ideal backdrop for black humor.
Garp's death itself typifies black humor "in its random, stupid, and unnecessary qualities—comic and ugly and bizarre" in the words of the novel itself. "In the world according to Garp," the novel says, "an evening could be hilarious and the next morning could be murderous." These elements of the bizarre, myth/fantasy, and black humor distract the reader from a feature that arouses curiosity when first noticed, that the characters have flattened out.
Flatness of character
The third section, more than the first two, bears out the postmodern ethic by which to declare a character psychologically flat need not be to denigrate the author's skill. Irving's mistrust of over psychologizing may have led to his statement that "the phrase 'psychologically deep' is a contradiction of terms." Irving feels that such a view "is a terribly simplistic and unimaginative approach. Ultimately it is destructive of all the breadth and complexity in literature." Complexity in the final third of Garp arises from structure, from ironic genre manipulation, from the problematic nature of the text's relationship to the world, and not from any probing of psychological motive that might lead to internal character revelation. The third section of the text is marked by a lack of interest in motive: of assassins, of the Ellen Jamesians, of Garp when he insists on performing actions that he knows draw destruction down upon himself, even though he desires safety. While reflecting the postmodern distrust of "the subject" as a useful category, the flattening of character in the third section of Garp may, even more, express a sense of the individual's powerlessness within an absurd situation.
The novel draws its unity, not from continuity of plot, as in the premodernist novel, nor from analysis of character, a feature of modernist fiction, but partially from the operation of motif: a repetition of impaired speech that interacts with a counter-motif of "writing." Garp's father had a speech impediment stemming from profound brain damage suffered in war. From then on, the novel contains numerous other instances of impaired speech, depicted either as a temporary or a permanent condition. Apparently permanently afflicted are Alice Hindman, whose speech problem is a psychological outgrowth of her marriage problems; Ellen James, who was raped and left tongueless by men who did not have the sense to realize that she was old enough to implicate them by writing; the Ellen Jamesians, women who have their tongues removed in sympathy with Ellen; and Garp's high school English teacher Tinch and Tinch's eventual replacement, Donald Whitcomb who was to become Garp's biographer. Temporarily "struck dumb" were the young girl whose rapist Garp had helped capture, and Garp himself—for a long while after his auto accident and for the few moments he lived after being shot by Pooh Percy. Pooh's rage, her inarticulate curses from a gaping self-wounded mouth, forms a near-tableau at the end of Garp's life to match the one at its beginning when his future father's decreasing level of articulation from "Garp" to "Arp" to "Ar" led Jenny to realize that he was soon to die and spurred her to get on with the business of Garp's conception. In between, Garp was to wonder "Why is my life so full of people with impaired speech?" He then asks, "Or is it only because I'm a writer that I notice all the damaged voices around me?"
Compensating for the flatness of character, providing coherence within the zone of the bizarre, these repeated elements are the motor oil for the postmodern fictional machine. Their theme of speech brings us to the author's means of speaking to us, his fiction. Having made ironic modernist realism's implicit claim to tell us about the world, the postmodern fictionist has questioned the writer's own instrument, and he or she thus often turns to examine it in the reader's presence. Irving is not exempt from this tendency toward metafiction.
Irving's novel alludes to the phenomenon of metafiction when discussing the rejection note that Garp received for "The Pension Grillparzer": "The story is only mildly interesting, and it does nothing new with language or with form." Tinch, Garp's former instructor, said he really did not understand the "newer fiction" except that it was supposed to be "about it-it-itself…. It's sort of fiction about fi-fi-fiction," Tinch told Garp. Garp did not understand either and, in truth, cared mainly about the fact that Helen liked the story. But although Garp was not interested in metafiction at this stage of his career, we can see that Irving is to some degree practicing this aspect of the new fiction in the third section of Garp. While the accounts of Garp's earlier novels may bear a certain resemblance to Irving's own earlier works, these need not be considered metafictional manifestations; one merely suspects Irving of a certain wry humor of self parody, while he remains in the traditional mode of autobiographical fiction or even within the mere technique of an author drawing on his own experience for his fiction. In contrast, when we enter the third section we encounter Garp's novel The World According to Bensenhaver, with its obvious similarity in title to The World According to Garp. Although there are significant differences between the novel we are reading and the one we are reading about, the parallels and even the comedy of the differences cannot help but act as implicit comments upon the technique and compositional process of Garp.
"'Life,' Garp wrote," according to the novel, "'is sadly not structured like a good old-fashioned novel. Instead, an ending occurs where those who are meant to peter out have petered out.'" Such a metafictional comment in the third section does not surprise us. Indeed, we see this mode occurring repeatedly. When Garp's publisher, John Wolf, was dying he asked Garp's son Duncan "What would your father say to this?… Wouldn't it suit one of his death scenes? Isn't it properly grotesque?" To the extent that we could ask this question equally of Irving as of Garp, the question has metafictional implications, as does what Wolf said about Garp's own grotesque mode of dying; "It was a death scene, John Wolf told Jillsy Sloper, that only Garp could have written." When a character in a novel says that a death scene in that novel occurred in a way which "only" the dying character could have written, we are involved with metafiction.
The structure of the final chapter, which opens with a comment on Garp's fictional technique, has further metafictional implications: "He loved epilogues, as he showed us in 'The Pension Grillparzer.' 'An epilogue,' Garp wrote, 'is more than a body count. An epilogue, in the disguise of wrapping up the past, is really a way of warning us about the future.'" And the final chapter—the nineteenth, identical to the number of chapters in The World According to Bensenhaver—ends with just such an epilogue. Irving's narrator makes the metafictional element nearly explicit: "He would have liked the idea of an epilogue, too," says the narrator after Garp's death, "—so here it is: an epilogue 'warning us about the future,' as T. S. Garp might have imagined it." Thus the final twenty pages of the novel present us the interesting metafictional element situation of an author writing the epilogue to his character's death as the narrator says the character would himself have imagined it. Metafiction, combined with the zone of the bizarre and the turn away from psychological depth makes the third section of the novel postmodern. While the first two thirds exhibit far less of these characteristics and more of those of earlier modes, these sections exhibit the postmodern reuse of earlier forms; thus, Garp is postmodern throughout.
In writing this novel, Irving stays true to his rejecting the spirit of the unreadable masterpieces of high modernism, but he is not returning to the mode of the nineteenth century; he is moving forward into postmodernism. In his desire to avoid the esoteric, Irving might find an ally in John Barth, who in "The Literature of Replenishment: Postmodernist Fiction" offers his "worthy program" in hopes that the postmodern mode may become a fiction "more democratic in its appeal" than the marvels of late modernism, reaching beyond the "professional devotees of high art" but perhaps not hoping to reach the "lobotomized mass-media illiterates." In its best-seller popularity, The World According to Garp has at least fulfilled that aspect of Barth's program for postmodern fiction. This success may be described by the proposition that the postmodern novel, besides its special characteristics, also contains all earlier fictional forms, and John Irving's use of two of them opens his novel to a fruitful variety of combination and interaction.
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