Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Testing the Real

John Irving’s In One Person

I have always looked for a believable narrative. When we were kids my brother and I played for hours with toy cars inventing stories to go along with the towns we built. Essential to our play was that we never mixed the different scales of the miniature cars. We had Matchbox scaled cars (1:64), Corgi (1:43), and model kits (1:25). There were houses and roads to match each size. When my brother tried to mix it up I would cry, “You can’t do that. It’s not real.” I wanted my make believe to be authentic. This is why I am not a big fiction reader. My taste runs to believable fiction, not fantasy. More along the lines of what Truman Capote used to call, “the nonfiction novel.”

The Matchbox scale

The Corgi scale

The kit scale

So I found John Irving’s thirteenth novel, “In One Person” a little hard to believe. This is no small disappointment because I think what Irving is trying to accomplish is hugely important. While sexual outsiders have appeared in his other work, in this novel he is showing, by exaggeration, that the outsider is us. Part of experiencing a play for example is to be suspended between illusion and truth. But in a novel I don’t want the seams to show.

I was drawn to the book because it is one of the first novels to deal with bisexuality so directly. Since high school I have argued that most men (I can’t speak for most women!) fall somewhere along a bisexual continuum. I have straight male friends who have never had any experience with a man and gay male friends who have never had any experience with a woman (by the way, they are referred to as “gold star gays”) but I would say these are the exceptions. That is not to say that most men reach adulthood as practicing bisexuals. It’s just too hard in this society. But John Irving’s new novel tells, in the first person, the tale of novelist William Abbott who takes this most difficult of paths. The beauty of the story is that Abbott does it honestly -- in part to renounce the secrets in his own family.

For the literary minded there are lots of references to Shakespeare (including the title), Ibsen, Dickens, and Flaubert. But it is the staging of Shakespeare’s plays that dominate. The backstage spying and the revisiting of old friends as they are dying of AIDS are some of the most poignant stories within the novel. Billy Abbott eventually emerges from his backstage adolescence to directing plays in his mature years after witnessing so much devastation. But he is also oddly cold when people within his own family die. He seems strangely unchanged over the course of his adult life. One aspect of the novel that rings true is how people from our childhood and adolescence can shadow our entire adult lives.

In One Person by John Irving

John Irving wrestling

John Irving

Irving’s novel takes on the challenge of living openly as a bisexual but also the challenge of living as a transgendered person. Indeed, the novel seems to be heavily populated by transvestites and transsexuals. And the strange little town of First Sister, Vermont in the middle of the twentieth century seems tolerant of these sexual differences -- unless they stray too far out of line. Miss Frost, the transsexual librarian (and former wrestling champion), is run out of town after she sexually initiates Billy Abbott (“without penetration”) in her basement apartment at the town library. An apartment built by Harry, Billy’s cross dressing grandpa, who also happens to own the mill and play the leading ladies roles in the town’s amateur theater group. I am not sure, but this may say more about Vermont than small towns. But it is all too fantastic for this skeptic.

What makes the novel tip over into fantasy is the preponderance of sexual outsiders including mothers who seduce their children. Perhaps Irving wants to include large numbers of sexual outlaws in order to defend them, but he may have overpopulated this novel to achieve his goal. Maybe this is my own prejudiced slip showing? Irving’s large number of outlaws serve to defend his own point of view rather than convey a deep compassion. This is of course a delicate balance and perhaps there are just not enough novels dealing with the lives of bisexuals and transgendered people.

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

Early on in the book the librarian, Miss Frost, gives young Billy a copy of James Baldwin’s novel, “Giovanni’s Room” so he can accept his “crushes on the wrong people.” That’s a bold move that still feels believable. I remember a high school teacher giving me Christopher Isherwood’s “A Meeting By The River” and it was a welcoming gesture. And perhaps that was the librarian’s more serious transgression. The novel penetrates young Billy’s consciousness. You could say that part is real.

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