It’s All About Me: New John Irving Novel Bores With Self-Obsessed Protagonist

‘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’s All About Me: New John Irving Novel Bores With Self-Obsessed Protagonist