John Irving’s new novel, In One Person, was on my list of Dickens-inspired books to read this month. He mentions Dickens in the second sentence, and Great Expectations is the hero’s favorite. But here I am on page 128, and I’m done.
Yes, I’m done. It’s not because Irving is not an entertaining writer. Irving has always written entertainingly, and his comic characters are deftly drawn. It’s because Irving is not Dickensian here, and his bisexual narrator, Billy Abbott, provides too much information about sexuality.
Did you know that gay men used to approach each other in bars and ask, “Are you a top or a bottom?” And that if you don’t enjoy female impersonators, you’re in danger of being labeled “square”?
Are you, too, saying, “Ick!”? I was brought up to consider sexual roles flexible, not “top” and “bottom,” and female impersonators’ mockery of women to be misogynistic. I sympathize with Billy’s transgender girlfriend, who sobs with exasperation after being taken to a female impersonator show at a club, unable to explain to Billy why she’s so offended. Billy thinks it’s a transgender thing.
I admire the novels of gay writers Allan Hollingsworth, Christopher Coe, Christopher Isherwood, and Jeanette Winterson. I don’t think I’m homophobic. But Irving’s reduction of characters to a parade of sexual objects of Billy’s fantasies is hollow and monotonous, and I don’t quite believe in Billy. He talk-talk-talks about forbidden sexual attractions, cross-dressing, and pick-ups, and it seems to be a turn-on for Irving. It’s as though Irving, who has always written about kinky sex, is so fascinated by bi-culture that he can’t leave out any of his research. His characters actually have a conversation about when the top/bottom line came into being.
This novel is an explicit study of sexuality, but don’t expect D. H. Lawrence or Henry Miller. It’s a comic Kinsey Institute manual for cross-dressers’ grandsons, like Irving’s protagonist Billy. Although Irving says the novel is not autobiographical, he admits that he writes about attractions he didn’t act on as a young man. And, in defense of the author of The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany, he certainly didn’t write so clumsily when he was a young man.
The narrator, Billy Abbott, a novelist, is almost 70 (like Irving) and thinking back over his life. He grows up bisexual in the 1950s in the small town of First Sister, Vermont, where his sexual feelings are confused and forbidden. His mother, the prompter for the local theater, marries an inspiring teacher/theater director at a boys’ school, and they live in a faculty apartment in the school. As an adolescent, he has “crushes on the wrong people,” and though Miss Abbott, the town librarian, tells him it’s fine to be attracted in fantasies, he is embarrassed that he fancies Miss Frost herself (who turns out to be a transgender woman), his stepfather, the plain mother of his friend, Elaine, and Kittredge, the most gorgeous boy on the wrestling team.
Irving is fascinated by theater, and uses the production of plays in First Sister to sketch his ideas about sexuality. All of Billy’s friends and relatives at one time or another act or work in the community theater, and there is a lot of cross-dressing. But the oddest and most notable feature of the First Sister Players is Grandpa Harry’s ability to land all the good women’s roles, because apparently he can play women better than women (and isn’t that misogynistic?). (A transgender woman also gets important roles, meaning that anybody can play women better than women.) Some of this is very funny: I laughed when later in life Grandpa Harry upsets the assisted living community by wearing women’s clothes to meals.
His stepfather directs Billy as Ariel in The Tempest at school, and there are many long discussions about Ariel’s mutable gender. Billy and his friend, Elaine, who plays Miranda, both have crushes on Kittredge, the cruel, handsome wrestler who plays Ferdinand. He reminds me slightly of Steerforth in David Copperfield, but since I haven’t read very far, and don’t intend to go on…
Billy likes small-breasted older women, and fantasizes about Miss Frost and Elaine’s mother apparently because their small breasts make them seem unwomanly. And, frankly, I am offended by Billy’s obsession, and by the implication that women with small breasts are somehow boyish. I wonder what Nora Ephron, author of the essay “A Few Words about Breasts,” would say. I’m annoyed, and I’m sure other women will be, too.
Billy is also fascinated by cross-dressing, perhaps because of Grandpa Harry. As an adult, he has relationships with gay men, women, and transgender women. And…well, obviously I didn’t finish it.
Parts of this are interesting, but Irving is unsubtle–at one point he even tells us that the name Jacques is the male equivalent of Jacqueline–and I wonder if an editor added that, or whether Irving has given up on culture.
I loved Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany; start with those if you haven’t read Irving before.