In One Person by John Irving
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I was eleven years old when the World According to Garp was published, and I don’t know how much longer after it was published that I read it. I believe it was one of my first ‘adult’ novels. And adult it was. I remember that in addition to it being a terrific story that it was filled with sex and desire. I’m not sure if I saw the movie of Hotel New Hampshire before I read the book. I remember that the very sexy siblings, played by Rob Lowe and Jodie Foster, were constantly having sex (scandalous!). My young attraction to Rob Lowe, shirtless, made me feel, as reading Irving’s books did, excited and sticky.
I had this one written down on my books to read for the longest time. I suspect the reason why was the review in the NYT by Jeanette Winterston, a writer I’ve admired, but by the time I got to the book, I had no idea what it was about.
And because much of the book is about defying easy categorisations, it would be unfair to describe the narrator, William, in shorthand, as a bisexual writer and one of the great loves of his life, a transsexual librarian. He is obviously much more than that, including being a terrific and engaging storyteller.
What I noticed from this Irving novel was the way that he would jump forward and backwards in time, often. It’s almost a sleight of hand, in a way saying that you won’t be surprised because you know where the story is going… until the surprises are revealed. I was reminded that Irving returns to the same themes (an all-boys private school, wrestling, incest, sexual desire and identity, flawed romantic relationships, time abroad in Austria) but I really didn’t mind.
I think what surprised me the most was the focused exploration of desire and sexual identity. How specific our desires often can be; whether sexually or just who we want to be in the world. While incorrect to draw a direct relationship between Irving and his narrator, or to guess how much is ‘true’, the story of what it is like to be bisexual, and also transgender, and gay seems true, both deeply felt and experienced. It made me think of the long-running debate about authenticity and who can tell whose story; as a gay writer, I was impressed by what Irving achieved in this book.
And tracing a narrator from thirteen years old to sixty-five, it’s also a social history. The story felt for the first half of the novel somewhat insular, and like the narrator, uninvolved in politics and community, but suddenly the reader is in the middle of the AIDS crisis, and later, within the latest contours of LGBT community life.
There’s also an interesting narrative drive of how much characters reveal to each other, of themselves, their secrets and histories. I was taken aback by how much William shares with his friends and mentors, but then he is a writer and prone to saying too much, and this is contrasted by the silences and lack of speech of others.
I felt at times that it was a bit of overkill that so many of the novel’s characters turn out to be gay or transgender, or even have a thing for drag (the distinction between transsexuals and gay men who do drag is not as clearly made as some of the other distinctions) – and that there was an undercurrent that gay and trans stuff runs in a family (which it sometimes does, I think, but I don’t know how universal it is).
The long ending, a series of epilogues, I found immensely touching, though a bit like a Shakespearean tragedy (putting on plays, and the content of the plays, is another running theme) as William describes how nearly everyone from the first part of the book dies! With so many poignant moments, I have to say that I didn’t resonate with the scene he chose to end with. I found it a tad preachy yet I also sort of wanted the conversation to be more developed, and less truncated.
Occasionally, I was jarred out of the story by the writer’s artifice, an overly dramatic or comic punch perhaps. Yet this also felt like a theme of the book: People putting on plays, interpreting plays and acting, and writing stories that may or may not be true. The message felt pretty clear though: they (and Irving) and can do whatever they want really. It’s a writer’s prerogative and perhaps we are all writers, writing our lives. Moreso though, Irving seems to be saying: make a point. The point of ‘In One Person’ – broadly didactic in a way that I was charmed by rather than feeling lectured to – is the wonderful mystery and diversity of human sexuality.
(*Addendum: I checked out the other book reviews on GoodReads and… the verdict isn’t good, including in reviews by my friends. I do see their points, and would agree with them, but for some reason, I enjoyed the narrator’s voice so much, I was willing to ‘go with it’, even though the story became unrealistic or unbelievable (but aren’t most of his books pretty fantastical?))