WHAT OUGHT TO be said first about The World According to Garp is that it's a wonderful novel, full of energy and art, at once funny and horrifying and heartbreaking - an X-rated soap opera with grandeur - and immeasurably gratifying.

The novel takes the form of a sprawling Nabokovian commentary on the life of novelist T.S. Garp, author most recently of The World According to Bensenhaver , and an exploration of the relationship between Garp's art and his life, both of which carry a heavy burden of catastrophe. Bensenhaver is, in fact, a sort of parody of Garp, just as Garp himself seems in part a parody of John Irving, a complex relationship but clearly not a correspondence.

Garp is the son of a self-sufficient nurse who, in her own words, wanted a job and wanted to live alone. "That made me a sexual suspect. Then I wanted a baby, but I don't want to share my body or life to have one. That made me a sexual suspect, too." Known around the hospital as Virgin Mary Jenny, she finds, in 1943, a doomed, virtually mindless but grotesquely priapic war victim to impregnate her. At that moment, he utters the only word other than his name that Jenny has heard him speak. the word is "Good." It is a theological statement.

In the real world-in the exuberant, extravagant, disturbing and deeply moving world of this novel - few events are as clearly unambiguos as the "good," although many of women cuts out their tongues to honor a raped and mutilated child; a former tight end for the Philiadelphia Eagles, now a transsexual, becomes Garp's best friend and partner in jogging and squash; Garp's mother, a nurse at a New England prep school that doesn't admit girls, becomes, when her autobiography, A Sexual Suspect , is published, a femimist hero, but the material Garp, who does the cooking and cleaning in his own house, is considered because of his novels an exploitative villian by his mother's most perfervid adorers.

"The world is all mixed up," Garp observes and it is true that in Garp's world we laugh at the horrible and weep at the ludicrous; they are, after all, often the same thing. "I have never understood why 'serious' and 'funny' are thought to be opposites," he writes to an outraged housewife in Ohio. "It is simply a truthful contradiction to me that people's problems are often funny and that the people are often and nonetheless sad. I am ashamed, however, that you think I am laughing at people, or making fun of them. I take people very seriously, in fact. Therefore, I have nothing but sympathy for how people behave - and nothing but laughter to console them with. Laughter is my religion, Mrs. Poole. In the manner of most religions, I admit that my laughter is pretty desperate."

The World According to Garp is essentially a novel about imperfect, often puzzling, but enduring relationships between husband and wife, father and son, mother and child, friends and lovers, men and women; between memory and imagination, life and art: all the fragile networks men and women erect against the hazards of the world (though somehow women seem "better equipped than men at enduring fear and brutality, and at containing the anxiousness of feeling how vulnerable we are to the people we love," as Garp writes of his novel Bensenhaver , but which also applies to Irving's novel Garp ). Flaws in this web, some of them so seemingly in consequential as the failure to have the knob on a car's gearshift replaced, accrete to the frightful, shattering calamity at the novel's core, an accident for which Garp even more than his wife is responsible, an accident that destroys one child, maims another, and scars the bodies and memories of everyone involved, including the hapless student forever incapacitated while receiving an act of farewell fellatio - one for the road, as it were. Indeed, desperate laughter. Garp's obsession with protecting his family from harm has brought it near to ruin no less poignant for its irony, its horror or its absurdity. "If Garp could have been granted one vast and naive wish," Irving writes, "it would have been that he could make the world safe . For children and for grownups. The world struck Garp as unnecessarily perilous for both."

The family's catastrophe haunts him. "When he tried to write, only the deadliest subject rose up to greet him. He knew he had to forget it - not fondle it with his memory and exaggerate its awfulness with his art. That was madness, but whenever he thought of writing his only subject greeted him with its leers, its fresh visceral puddles, and its stink of death." A commenator notes. "In the world according to Garp, we are obliged to remember everything." Garp writes, "Imagining something is better than remembering something." In Garp's world, memory seizes the imagination but the imagination transmutes and transcends the memory. The result is essentially useless but true. (When Garp wants to do something useful, he thinks about becoming a marriage counselor:

"Perfect qualifications for the job," Garp said. "Years spent pondering the morass of human relationships; hours spent divining what it is that people have in common. The failure of love," Garp droned on, "the complexity of compromise, the need for compassion." . . . He could advertise himself in the Yellow Pages most successfully - even without lying: MARRIAGE PHILOSOPHY AND FAMILY ADVICE - T.S. Garp author of Procrastination and Second Wind of the Cuckold . Why add that they were novels? They sounded, Garp realized, like marriage-counsel manuals.)

Truth, of course, has its own value, and a book, as the cleaning woman in Garp's editor's office observes, "feels true when it feels true . . . A book's true when you can say, "Yeah! That's just how damn people behave all the time.' Then you know it's true.

You know The World According to Garp is true. It is also terrific. On the most elementary level, I kept reading to find out what would happen next and when it had all finally happened I didn't want it to stop. So I read it again, and it seemed just as true the second time around, as full of the hilarity of survival as the pain, an X-rated soap opera that runs from the ridiculous to the sublime.