‘In One Person’
Can a few moments of moving emotional realism salvage a book entirely lacking in well-developed characters? John Irving’s 13th novel, In One Person (Simon & Schuster, 448 pp., $28.00), features an improbable plot and a basic misunderstanding of bisexuality. And yet it manages to evoke, at times, the struggles of gay and bisexual people in the second half of the 20th century in a manner that is comprehensible to Mr. Irving’s mass-market audience.
Probably inspired by Charles Dickens (who is mentioned in the novel’s first five pages), Mr. Irving crams so much biographical information into the early sections of his book that the reader, overwhelmed, yearns for a foothold. Dickens’s method of information-flooding worked for him because his characters’ situations were all either widely relatable or explicitly comical. In One Person concerns itself with the coming-of-age of a man whose telling of his life is both unrecognizable and so dirge-like as to grant little pleasure, or understanding of the world.
Young William is bisexual, an adjective that Mr. Irving apparently takes to mean “polymorphously perverse but with a particular interest in transsexuals.” William’s first-person narrative rambles through a New England prep-school idyll, where, not surprisingly, he comes in contact with a few of Mr. Irving’s stock-in-trade impossibly weird characters. His worldview is molded by a cross-dressing grandfather as well as a mysteriously alluring librarian who recommends books about forbidden love (Madame Bovary, et al) while guarding a secret of her own. (No points for guessing what that secret might be.)
The rest of William’s (later, Bill’s) cohort—a high school girlfriend as well as a few male objects of desire—are interchangeable, viewed as they are through the eyes of a character who sorts his entire world according to erotic potential. This yields moments of intense, if plainspoken, empathy: on the bravery of post-op transsexuals, Mr. Irving writes, “Imagine being that sure about who you are.” That well-taken point sticks out amid pages upon pages of wheel-spinning uncertainty.
A major theme of In One Person is the futility of putting a label on desire. Bill, telling his life story in retrospect, feels uncomfortable with other people calling him bisexual, though he calls himself that often throughout the text (the nature of identity politics, whereby an accurate label only counts if it is self-applied, is correct here, if accidentally). Labeling is bad but cataloging is good, and thus many uninspiring characters float through the sexual life of Bill. We’ve already been told he is a bisexual, but we are shown it in exhausting detail: through Elaine, an old friend who appears in the latter part of the narrative as Bill tells us her latest vacillation on whether or not they should live together; through Donna, a sexy transgender lady Bill fantasizes about; and through Kittredge, a high school chum who later becomes a sexy transgender lady.
It feels somewhat unsporting to criticize In One Person on its merits, primarily because Mr. Irving is trying, strenuously hard, here. Over the course of the novel, he effectively constructs a world in which no sex act is transgressive. Eventually, the reader begins to feel the weight of all the freedom Mr. Irving grants Bill; if his world has no taboos, then happiness comes at no cost. If, after an awkward adolescence, he effortlessly gets anything or anyone he wants, why bother rooting for him? If there is nothing to subvert—if everyone in Bill’s world aside from his mother (in the book’s early pages) is some level of bisexual or transgender—then where is the struggle that defines both a life and a novel? In a realm so sexually liberated that a character feels free to list all the synonyms, from medical to vulgar, for the word vagina to a group of young foreign-exchange students, against what, precisely, is Bill defining himself?
Bill has the exhausting superciliousness of a man who thinks he has it all figured out. An arrangement with a bisexual woman is described in the manner of an un-self-aware Michael Cunningham: “We’d gone to Los Angeles with a bohemian belief in the enduring superiority of friendship; Alice and I were friends, and we both believed that the concept of ‘the couple’ was a dinosaur idea.” (Bill has no reason not to think that the notion of a couple is broken, though, as his father left his mother to become a cross-dresser in Europe—yup—and his grandfather throws on his own late wife’s togs for a spin around town.) By the novel’s conclusion, a straw-man character hectors Bill for his libertinism, to which Bill spouts the same bromides about not labeling a person. “Bisexual” is not, to many of Mr. Irving’s likely readers, a toxic or derogatory label; “prig” is.
The novel’s tragic solution to its own problem is the AIDS crisis. This is hardly untrodden ground in literature (it’s been handled with greater sensitivity by Mr. Cunningham, Julia Glass and Mary Gaitskill, among many others), but given AIDS’ late entry into the narrative here, the disease seems all the more horrific. One well-drawn sequence sees Bill exiling himself from a wrestling club when its straight members recoil from his nosebleed—he’s not HIV-positive, but there is no way to make that clear in the midst of a plague. Another comes when a high school paramour, now married with children, reappears, dying. “Poor Tom’s nostrils were pinched tightly together, as if he could already detect the stench of his own cadaver,” writes Mr. Irving, and it’s a tragic counterbalance to the rest of his novel, which revels in bodily pleasures.
Halfway through Tom’s death scene, however, subtlety gives way to schmaltz when Bill reassures Tom that there are “no monsters” waiting for him in the afterlife. To be fair, this is what AIDS did—reduced the greatest and most purely alive into feeble children before erasing them. But there is a queasy aftereffect to the tragedy of Tom, as though AIDS formed a convenient narrative turning-point in Bill’s life, a sort of reverse deus ex machina. Leaving Tom’s deathbed, Bill is already obsessing over another high school classmate who’d always sexually intrigued him. (He’d spent a portion of Tom’s last day wondering if the nurse was a guy he used to see at S&M clubs.)
In One Person encompasses truly opposing impulses—it eulogizes a lost generation (Tom is but the first of the gang to die) while venerating one man’s heroic self-involvement; it shows the way things were in the Reagan ’80s, but does so as but a detail on the tapestry of the usual bullshit Irving universe you or I could never hope to visit, even in our dreams.
What offends in Mr. Irving’s novel is the utter, solipsistic leeway granted to a protagonist to define himself at exhaustive length against nothing but a stream of personal associations. Think of poor Tom, whose death takes backstage to Bill’s stepping in heroically before he starts flashing back to an S&M club he’d been to once, then old high school crushes he’d always preferred to Tom. Mr. Irving has been mentioned alongside Dickens, but here he fails to live up to the master. It’s worth remembering that Pip and David Copperfield and Oliver Twist were defined by challenges rather than whimsy.
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