17 March 2013

Books: In One Person by John Irving (2012)

As I continue reading John Irving, zinging back to earlier works, along with his newest ones (though his first three remain unread, though I have copies of them and have full intentions of reading them as 2013 continues from spring into summer), I’m getting used to his reoccurring themes:  New England, sex workers, wrestling, Vienna, bears, deadly accidents, a main character and/or supporting characters who are writers of some sort, a main character dealing with an absent or unknown parent, a main character who is involved in film making, and unusual sexual relationships (and often what Irving as referred to as "sexual outsiders") such as incest, bestiality, or between young men and older women. Females who are both brash and ostentatious, while simultaneously fragile recur throughout most of Irving's novels. Irving's novels tend to involve characters that are often considered outsiders (particularly in terms of sexuality), and their attempts to find their way in life.

In One Person, which is strikingly better than his last two previous books, Until I Find You and Last Night in Twisted River, Irving introduces us to William Abbot in 2010 as he begins to tell the tale of his life starting in 1957 when he was 15. He lives with his single mother, and is surrounded by an odd assortment of supporting characters including his Grandpa Harry, a cross-dresser who plays female characters in the local theater, his domineering grandmother and spiteful Aunt. But when a new teacher arrives in First Sister, Vermont to teach Shakespeare at the all-boys Favorite River Academy, Billy is introduced to Miss Frost, who is the town librarian. It is here, he has his first crush –well, he also crushes on the teacher who would eventually become his stepfather. 

Here we are given a tome on desire, how we have tendency –no matter what society says- to fall in love with the wrong people at the wrong time and how we deal with those desires. William considers himself a bisexual with an attraction to men, women and transsexuals (which is an archaic word, we use transgendered today, but there is an explanation as to why he uses the old form of the word). Irving does discuss throughout the novel about how people view bisexuals –that old argument of them being fence sitters; that they’re gay men who like to keep “one foot in the closet.” There is no moralizing here, and that’s because Irving does not write that way. He does, however, give the reader the idea that there is something wrong with trying to fit in, as an old friend of Billy lies dying of AIDS in the mid-1980s who hid his sexuality, getting married and having kids. Tom, of course, infected his wife and that destroys the life of his two children. 

Then there is Kittredge, the impossibly handsome bully who is mysterious as he is impossible to resist. He is desired by all, but he seems to desire no one in return (even though he has a relationship with Billy’s best friend Elaine).

It’s not hard to think this book resembles Irving’s most notable novel, The World According to Garp. In some way, it could be seen as a parallel novel as Billy seems to be a shadow of T.S. Garp. There are problems, as Irving’s women are painted as sometimes hateful and often bigoted fools. Plus, as always with Irving’s work, some people are curious how much of his fiction is, in fact, not fiction; as one character puts it: "Bill is a fiction writer, but he writes in the first-person voice in a style that is tell-all confessional; in fact, his fiction sounds as much like a memoir as can make it sound.” The subject matter of bisexuality was familiar to him, having had fleeting crushes on boys while growing up, he has said.

It’s funny, as you would expect from John Irving, and like all his other works, risky. His desire, it seems, is a simple plea for understanding of sexual differences. You take what you want from that. But the coda at the end, where decades later Bill is confronted by the son of Kittredge who seems completely at a loss to understand what Bill is, or the fate of several students that Abbot went to school with (there seems to be a surprisingly number of gender-fluidity here. I mean, there are a lot of gay boys in one school –even if it’s an all-boys one).”You create these characters who are so sexually ‘different, ’as you might call them-and then you expect us to sympathize with them, or feel sorry for them, or something.”

Abbot responds –as some might say even now- “…don’t put a label on me –don’t make me a category before you get to know me.”

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