“Tell me anything that’s ever happened to you. And I can improve upon the story.”
From The World According to Garp by John Irving
The waiters hovered in a corner, numerous but dutifully unconcerned by the culinary aspirations of their customers. As if waiting on tables was a secondary occupation to some secret vocation known only to themselves. Jude wasn’t bothered, absorbed in John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Only Charles Dickens had captivated her more. But she was alternately inspired and depressed by Irving’s writing. She found herself feeling increasingly like one of his characters. His characters weren’t necessarily honest, but his response to them was. The book made her wonder about the last time she’d been honest with anyone. These days, anything true about her sounded ridiculous when said out loud.
How would he draw her? Would he be sympathetic? Would he at least try to understand? He would probably write that she was emotionally cheap, like a buy-one-get one-free bucket of over-stocked pre-popped popcorn at the supermarket check out line. No he wouldn’t. He would do better than that. Irving had warned against confusing art with activism. She already felt guilty about wanting to write. When people asked her what she did, she usually replied, “I’m a writer.” When they asked what she wrote about, she always talked about her human rights work. Sometimes she might venture, “But I’m trying to write fiction now” that always came out like an apology. And she always said “trying” as if the effort somehow made the endeavor more worthwhile.
She felt bad about not wanting to be an activist any more, and she felt even worse to think that perhaps she never had. That all she had ever wanted to do was write. That her mother, eternally disappointed that she was not a best-selling author by 24, had actually been right all along. Her life seemed increasingly bizarre to her. Ungainly and inappropriate, like someone laughing too loudly at a mediocre joke. But it was only in the most extreme places that her life seemed to make any sense at all.
"Life is an x-rated soap opera." From The World According to Garp
“What do women want?” Paul had been pouring them both a gin martini when this question emerged from a long comfortable silence. They had taken to drinking gin martinis in lieu of vodka and cokes, a mix they’d both decided was far too reminiscent of 80s disco bars.
“To be desired,” replied Jude quickly.
“Is that it?”
She took a long thoughtful sip.
“Pretty much,” she said.
He looked dissatisfied.
She wanted John Irving to desire her. She’d Wikipediad him and was mildly surprised to find that he was still alive, pushing seventy. Does he still get erections? Would she give him an erection? What would she say to him? “Your writing saved me from therapy.” He’d written. Psychiatrists are the thieves of complexity. What a line. Either he would re-think his attitude towards psychiatrists and stand up to bid her an understanding but firm goodnight. Or, he would slide his hand down the front of her pants and tell her that if he wasn’t so old and his dick so tired he would bone her all night.
Paul lit a cigarette. It was noticeably darker now, her reverie causing its usual lapse in sense-time.
“Affection. Adoration. Attention.”
“What’s that?” his attention turning back to her like an arthritic neck.
“What women want.”
“The three A’s. Easy to remember,” he chirped with mock appreciation.
“We thought we’d keep it simple.”
The Ganga Chronicles was becoming too complicated. There were intersections of time and place that didn’t make sense even to her. Perhaps she was just too lazy of a writer. She worried that she was making it too complicated on purpose, so she could discard it with “it became too complicated.” Few would argue simply because they wouldn’t care enough to do so. And that disappointed her. No one caring. A Californian man had described disassociating himself from his body while cutting off his own arm that had become trapped under a fallen rock during an avalanche in Yosemite National Park. He had walked to safety, almost bleeding to death, and later had done the talk-show circuit with an ugly prosthetic, chatting about his ordeal without a hint of self-pity and jovially crushing coke cans with his new ‘hand’.
Jude saw no artifice in the one-armed man, and like she always did with someone she admired, she tried to imagine being them. She had made a mental note. It’s possible to cut off your own arm and not need counseling. But she had questions about the act itself. Wouldn’t you pass out at some point? From the pain or at least from the loss of blood? And how do you cut through bone with a Swiss Army knife? Could I do it? Could John Irving do it? Could my mother do it? Why don’t more people think about these things? Why am I thinking about these things? Why aren’t I writing?
At the table to her left, two middle-aged men, a Caucasian and an Indian, were engaged in lively conversation in sign-language. The thought struck her that to be deaf in India was almost a blessing. As she glanced casually in their direction, she noticed them pointing at her and signing in a very animated way. Then they laugh-signed together, nodding vigorously. She felt a rush of embarrassment. What could they have said? “That woman is writing a novel that will never be published.”
“I know, but it’s just as well. It’s a piece of crap.”
Sign-language seemed more precise. It required getting what you mean down to the pith. Perhaps if it were socially acceptable for people to emit noises in public, like groaning over a taramisu, they wouldn’t get so lost in words. Deaf people probably don’t waste time saying things like “When desires challenge the lives they have built for themselves and who they think they are, people go crazy but they do it really slowly so only their dog and cashier clerks notice.” Varanasi felt to her like a place where desire was treated like an honored guest. It wasn’t, of course. Varanasi had all the petty jealousies of any Indian city. But nothing is about what it is, it’s about the effect it has on you. And this was even more true in Varanasi.
Paul read the first draft of Ganga Chronicles. “John Irving wrote about people who were having sex. You’re just writing about sex. There’s something sexually provocative in every passage. It’s like you have Turettes syndrome. The people seem, I don’t know. Irrelevant.” That hurt her more than anything he could have said. People were not irrelevant to her. They were all she had. John Irving had written: “The worst reason for anything being part of a novel was that it really happened.” But it seemed to Jude that her life had turned into a novel. Was her imagination second-rate because she kept resorting to her real-life experiences? Or was it that her life was becoming worthy of fiction? Could John Irving really improve upon it? She caught her reflection in a mirror on the wall opposite. Ever since her mother had died she had begun to resemble her more and more. A fact that had startled her father so much when he walked into his living room one day that he almost spilled his Horlicks. “My God, you’re starting to look so much like your mother,” he’d declared. It wasn’t a compliment. Her mother’s eyes, stubbornly blue and ready for argument stared back at her. Her hair even seemed to have fallen into that familiar late 70’s shoulder-length wave. She had spent so long fighting against her, but nowadays she grasped for any resemblance. As if looking like her meant she could become like her. Her mother was so much more resilient. A British bloody-mindedness that in ignoring weakness amounted to a kind of strength.
"What a world of illusions blossoms with the idea of 'starting over'." From The World According to Garp
Jude rolled over. For a moment she didn’t recognize the face on her pillow. It was a face without a story. Young. Featureless. Profoundly uninteresting. The boy moaned and scratched his nose. She wrapped a thigh around his waist and pulled him closer. He started kissing her half asleep, eyes still closed. She wondered if John Irving would be kind when he wrote about her. She wondered if she had any paracetamol. She wondered about starting an orphanage, going back to school, learning the cello. She wondered if she would ever be able to stop.