Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Infidelity and
The World According to Garp

[Editor’s Note (JS):
Welcome to this inaugural edition of He Read/She Read.

The premise here is – a man and a woman read a book (preferably the same one) and write their reactions to that book.

Jen from Sprite’s Keeper was kind enough to agree to kick things off by reading John Irving’s The World According to Garp (something she probably regretted later) and sharing her thoughts. Without any further ado, let’s see what…]

She Read:

Jim Styro over at Speaking in CAPS did a contest back in 2007 (or it could have been May, yeah...) in which the prize was "The World According to Garp". I entered, thinking I could have the chance to score a classic and finally read the book I've always heard in the background noise of the literary world. (I tend to stick to the light fiction/romance genres.) When I won, it was great! I scored a book! But this book came with homework.

Jim wanted to know what I thought of the book once I finished it. Poor guy, it took me almost 2 months to get through it due to the constant interruptions of life and raising a toddler. I read it everywhere I could, in the car (when we were stopped at a long light of course) (Oh, whatever. I'm sure other readers out there do it too.), while making dinner (which could be the reason why my cooking is so bloody awful) (reminder to self: never use the word "bloody" when referring to my cooking, it just makes the bad seem so much worse), and before bed.

So, Jim, here's what I thought.

This book pissed me off.

Everything in the book went swimmingly at first. I developed sympathy for the characters, Jenny, Garp, even his poor father who spent his last days reverting back to infanthood. (That part was brilliantly written by the way.) I followed Jenny and Garp through their years from the Steering School to Jenny's success at writing her memoirs, his marrying Helen, and popping out a few kids. I felt like a part of the story, a fly on the wall, watching these people move throughout life until Garp committed adultery. The first time. (Jerk.) (I'm still a bit upset about it.)

That one move on the author's part to have the main characters treat sex and marriage so nonchalantly just cast me right out of the story and left me there, catching my breath from how good the story had been prior to this bitter pill and how upset I was that I would not be able to read the rest of the book with the same level of commitment, considering Garp couldn't commit to Helen. So, I read on, determined to finish, but feeling sorry for Helen since she was obviously a victim in his sexual stakes. And then she had sex with someone else too.

Oh, come on! Her too? And she does it openly when they swap with another husband and wife who are lusting on them! That was when I just started reading the book armed with my mental red pen. Every time a major event happened, including when Helen's last fling ended violently, I just smirked, knowing I just didn't care anymore. I didn't care when Garp finally made it onto the Bestseller's List. I didn't care about his friendship with Roberta and how it evolved, I just didn't care. And that pissed me off.

The only time I DID care was when Jenny was assassinated. She was the only character that I felt was upfront about her thoughts from the beginning. But everything else? Meh. And that upset me. I don't like investing in a book and not getting back a return.

Sure, people can focus on Garp's fear of living life and how he chooses to take chances sexually as an outlet, but I can only focus on how I view these activities. Maybe I take books too personally, but I do develop a relationship with the characters in the book, because 1. I am choosing to devote my time to them and 2. I'm allowed to have an opinion about them. I put characters into categories, either I like them or I hate them. Work your way to the top of a company with your wits and talents? I like you. Murder someone? I don't like you. Turn your life around with deep insight and reflection? I like you. (I may not want to answer your call at three in the morning, but I like ya.) Cheat on your spouse? I don't like you. (And I hope your wiener falls off.)

So, yeah, that's what I think about The World According to Garp. One great ride until it derails at the junction of staying faithful versus diddling with someone else other than the person you're married to. And then I just can't get back on track after that.

And that pisses me off.

He Read:

“And if you can't be with the one you love honey
Love the one you're with”
- Stephen Stills
When the paperback edition of John Irving’s third novel was released in the spring of 1979, I was a sophomore in high school. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I worked bagging groceries at the supermarket just down the street from my house. I would soon lose my virginity to a married woman twice my age. And although I had experienced little of The World and the experiences that Irving brings to life in that book, I fell in love with Garp’s World all the same.

Love, sex and marriage are central elements in the rich tale of T.S. Garp, a writer with three novels, two children, one wife and no father or first name – just initials denoting the rank (Technical Sergeant) of a soldier who died without knowing he had fathered a son. It is a book with strong ideas and opinions on traditional male and female roles, the feminist movement and the impact of infidelity on marriages. It is this last idea that Sprite’s Keeper and I decided to make the focus of this inaugural “He Read / She Read” post.

And what better topic to bring out the potential for explosively divided male/female opinions than infidelity! I started out with the lyric from Stephen Stills because – although the tune is quite catchy and I will sometimes sing along in spite of myself – I hate the idea behind this song. The casual depiction of marital infidelity in many novels, films, songs & TV shows has made me uncomfortable for as long as I can remember. It seems somewhat hypocritical to me in retrospect – since I had entered into a sexual relationship with an older, married woman before my sixteenth birthday. [I can rationalize all I want about the fact that I was not the driving force behind that relationship – but it’s still just rationalizing. Nobody had to hold a gun to my head – I was just one big walking hormone…]

Anyway, the thing is I’ve never been a fan of the “Love The One You’re With” philosophy. So why do I love a book that spends so much of its time and space on the depiction of marital cheating? Because (as the character, Jillsy Sloper, says in the book) “it feels so true.”

Irving’s basic premise seems to be that infidelity is the inevitable result of uncontrolled lust – a condition to which men seem to be uniquely susceptible. The first signs of this inclination in Garp are revealed in his very first sexual encounters with a girl he has known since childhood. He loses his virginity with Cushman Percy (known to her family and friends as “Cushie”) despite the unrequited love he has for his wrestling coach’s daughter, Helen Holm; the girl he hopes to – and eventually does – marry. Garp hasn’t been unfaithful to Helen since they’ve made no commitment to each other. But, in a way, he has been unfaithful to himself. He knows that his feelings for Helen are far stronger and more serious than for Cushie; but he is willing to compromise in order to satisfy his lust.

After he and Helen wed, Garp’s struggles with lust continue. During the first seven years of their marriage, he strays with two babysitters, taking advantage of these young women who are attracted to him. It is clear in the novel that neither of the babysitters is important to Garp – or that he turns to these girls due to any dissatisfaction with his wife or their marriage, but rather out of an unreasonable need to be adored uncritically. Another important factor is the circumstance of Garp and Helen’s marriage, which Irving describes in this way:
Many couples live together and discover they’re not in love; some couples never discover it. Others marry, and the news comes to them at awkward moments in their lives. In the case of Garp and Helen, they hardly knew each other but they had their hunches – and in their stubborn, deliberate ways they fell in love with each other sometime after they had married.
While uncontrolled lust may be primarily a male problem. Irving’s novel does not show women as being pawns in a sexual chess match. The two more significant episodes of infidelity from the book are triggered primarily by Helen’s decisions. About two years after the birth of their second child, Helen initiates (and Garp goes along with) a spouse-swapping arrangement with their friends, Harrison and Alice Fletcher. Although Helen’s avowed purpose in this arrangement is to get Harrison to end an affair with one of his students (both Helen and Harrison teach at the same college), it is seems clear that she is also motivated in some way by her knowledge of Garp’s previous infidelities (this information being passed from Garp to Alice to Harrison to Helen). After six months, Helen also brings an end to the madness (“This is the last time I try to save anyone’s marriage except my own,” she says). Both marriages - and the couples’ friendship –survive; in part because the Fletchers must relocate when Harrison loses his job. Irving writes: “They all settled into being the kind of friends many old friends become: this is, they were friends when they heard from each other – or when, occasionally, they got together. And when they were not in touch, they did not think of one another.”

The final act of infidelity in the Garp’s marriage is also undertaken – if not altogether initiated – by Helen. Having grown tired of Garp’s self-centeredness and egotistical need for praise (during a severe case of writer’s block following the publication of his second novel), Helen does not turn away the advances of a student, Michael Milton. The scenes which portray the revelation of Helen’s affair and its aftermath seem to carry all of the pent up emotion from all the cheating that has gone before (which had been handled in a fairly perfunctory, “we’re all adults here” manner) rolled into one. And yet, it is interesting that Irving gives both Garp and Helen reactions that are at their core quite similar (dare I say, compatible?). For example, this passage gives us Helen’s perspective:

“I suppose you feel you’ve handled this very decently,” Garp said.

Helen, to a point, did feel so. She didn’t say anything. She felt she had never lost sight of Garp and the children during this indulgence; she felt justified in handling it her way now.
And later, Irving describes Garp’s emotions in dealing with the situation in this way:

He was at that point in his feelings toward Helen where he felt betrayed but at the same time honestly loved and important to her; he had not had time enough to ponder how betrayed he felt – or how much, truly, she had been trying to keep him in her mind. It was a delicate point, between hating her and loving her terribly – also, he was not without sympathy for whatever she’d wanted; after all, he knew, the shoe on the other foot had also been worn (and was certainly thinner). It even seemed unfair, to Garp, that Helen, who had always meant so well, had been caught like this; she was a good woman and she certainly deserved better luck.
The tragic consequences of this last indiscretion seems to finally break the cycle of lust fueling their infidelity and force both Helen and Garp to regard their marriage with greater care and consideration. Although it is no excuse, the Garps are still quite young (around 30) at the time this finally sinks in. And they pay a great cost in this lesson – but I won’t give more away for any who are still interested in reading the book for themselves.

So what is the overall male conclusion regarding infidelity and The World According To Garp?

We’re against it, of course.

But Irving’s writing is so vivid, so true in portraying the frailties of the human race – and the deep wells of love and forgiveness that allow us to move on from our hurts, our disappointments, and try again – that we keep reading. So we can find out what will happen to us.

[Hope you enjoyed this World Premiere of He Read/She Read. (I guess this time it was: She Read/He Read; ladies first and all that.) Whether you did or not, please leave us a comment and let us know what you think of the idea and of this inaugural post.

I can't thank enough my partner in crime today, Jen from Sprite’s Keeper , for taking time to read the book, share her thoughts and help me get this thing off the ground. Whatever credit there is for today's effort, I gladly share with her. Any blame is mine alone.

If you have a book you would like to see used as the basis of a He Read/She Read post – or if you are interested in being a guest writer here – use your comment to share that info or send me an email using the link somewhere above.

I am still working out how often new material will be posted at this site. If you want to stay in the know, please stop by Speaking in CAPS . I will be making announcements about forthcoming He Read/She Read posts there.

And don’t forget to visit Jen on her home turf at Sprite’s Keeper . She’s the bomb.

Remember: Keep Reading – it’s good for you. And very low in calories.]

Next time on He Read/She Read:

The Middle-Aged Woman and I share our thoughts on Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. Check your local cable listings for the date and time.