In One Person
By John Irving
Simon & Schuster, 425 pages
John Irving is America’s best-known novelist of human eccentricity. After three minor artistic successes and major commercial failures, he shocked the publishing world in 1978 with The World According to Garp. The 600-page saga features a brain-damaged ball-turret gunner who was the hero’s father, his famous militantly asexual mother who champions “injured women,” her bodyguard (an ex-NFL player who has become a transsexual), at least two child rapists, a couple of deranged assassins, several people with speech impediments, and some rather unusual mutilations (a man chews off a dog’s ear, a child’s eye is gouged out by the gear shift of a Volvo, a woman bites off her lover’s penis, radical feminists cut out their own tongues). The novel sold 120,000 copies in hardback, enjoying 22 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. By the time Warner Brothers released a film version in July 1982 (with Robin Williams in the title role), The World According to Garp had sold three-and-a-half million copies in paperback with another million copies in print as a movie tie-in. “Life is an X-rated soap opera,” the book’s hero remarks—a quite lucrative soap opera, in Irving’s case.
In the eight novels that followed over the next three decades, Irving pursued his Dickensian ambition to explore human conduct in all its outlandishness. His zany characters could have stepped from the pages of Great Expectations, a novel he regularly cited as a formative influence upon him. Readers who complain that Dickens exaggerates know very little about people, he said, quoting Santayana: “They accept them conventionally, at their diplomatic value.” For his part, he preferred men and women on the edge or even beyond the edge—better a wacko than an Everyman. True, the edges on which his characters live are mostly the edges of conventional opinion (or what Irving takes to be conventional opinion). The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) added gang rape, homosexuality, voyeurism, guilt-free incest, and bestiality to his catalogue of sexual behavior. The Cider House Rules (1985) took on the hypocrisy and inhumanity of laws against abortion. A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), the novel most often cited as Irving’s masterpiece, told the story of an elfin saint with a foul mouth and squeaky voice who is killed in Vietnam, but not before he denounces the war and assorted other American misdeeds in long raging passages written ENTIRELY IN CAPITAL LETTERS.
Eight novels since Garp, eight national bestsellers, four of which climbed to the top spot: It’s not too difficult to see why John Irving became the most widely read “serious” novelist writing in this country. His novels hark back to 19th-century fiction in their satisfying heft (they average 572 pages apiece), the twists and turns of their storylines, their digressions and subplots, their excess of description, their surges of emotion and laughter, their casts of lovable oddballs, and most important of all, their unambiguous didacticism. Irving’s novels do not just tell a story; they deliver a message. All of his books are thesis books. They belong to the tradition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, intervening on the side of the angels in the great public debates of the day. Irving’s fondness for eccentrics has always been bound up with a furious devotion to political causes (feminism, abortion, the antiwar movement). His characters only seem eccentric to those on the other side—the “rigidly conventional and ignorant,” as he calls them in his latest novel, or “social conservatives,” as he labels them frankly in a recent interview—those cold, disapproving unfortunates who occupy a false center and live by a norm in the world according to Irving.
The message of his 13th novel, In One Person, is that bisexuality is beautiful. Transsexuality? Terrific! In a more tolerant country, everyone would have a wonderful life of polymorphous perversity, and would blab about it happily. The book’s narrator, William Francis Dean Jr.—“Billy” to his friends and family—realizes fairly early on that sexual identity, or what must be referred to as gender these days, is mutable. It is not assigned in the womb. For the lucky few, it is “unresolved” and changes like fashion to suit the attractive partner of the moment. “We are formed by what we desire,” Billy explains. The best people have always suspected as much. To Shakespeare, for example (a major presence in this novel, a sexual presence, to use one of Irving’s favorite phrases), “gender mattered a whole lot less” than it matters to contemporary Americans. Other countries, too, are more “sexually accepting and sophisticated, generally”—especially European countries. Not America, though. “The sexual backwardness of our country has always fueled my writing,” Irving told Portland magazine in a pre-publication interview. “We are a sexually repressive country, a sexually punitive country.”
In One Person is the story of Billy Dean’s sexual career from first attraction to old age, when he hands down the lessons of a hard-won sexuality to a new generation. An exact contemporary of his author (they were born the same month in 1942), Billy is a published novelist who made his literary debut one year after Irving. Unlike Irving, he is not a wrestler, although he is attracted to wrestlers (to use italics in the same way he would use them). His parents divorce when he is an infant, and Billy grows up as the “almost-a-bastard son” of a single mother in a small Vermont town that is home to Favorite River Academy, a boys’ prep school that could double for Phillips Exeter. His offbeat family includes a cross-dressing grandfather, an alcoholic uncle who accepts his nephew’s “emerging and confusing sexual orientation,” and a booming-voiced aunt, “arrogant and judgmental without saying anything that was either verifiable or interesting,” who does not. When Billy is 14, his mother marries the school’s drama teacher, who introduces him to Shakespeare and the mutability of gender. Not surprisingly, Billy is attracted to his stepfather.
His “sexual awakening,” from which Billy also dates the “fitful birth of [his] imagination,” occurs shortly thereafter, when he meets the town librarian. Despite her “mannish size and obvious physical strength,” Miss Frost has small breasts. They have “the budding look of a young girl’s.” They seize Billy’s imagination. His imperious aunt seems fixated upon them, too. “Miss Frost is past an age where training bras suffice,” she sniffs. Billy is hooked. He may be only 14, but he knows what he likes. Under the influence of his attraction to Miss Frost, he becomes obsessed with training bras. He masturbates with the aid of his mother’s “mail-order clothing catalogues,” cutting out the faces of older women and pasting them over “the young-girl models of training bras.” A few years later he steals a training bra from the daughter of a family friend and wears it to bed. Indeed, training bras fill such a prominent role in the novel that In One Person may be the definitive work on the subject. It will never need to be attempted again.
His friends and family guess his secret before he does: Billy is bisexual. One of the most characteristic features of Irving’s fiction is that no one is able to conceal his secrets. Billy has no real private life; he has only to think a forbidden thought to have it immediately known to everyone around him. Perhaps this accounts for his eagerness to confess the embarrassing details. It is Miss Frost who initiates him into bisexuality. When Billy approaches her for books about his problem of “crushes on the wrong people,” Miss Frost seduces him instead. They are discovered in their postcoital bliss, and a scandal ensues. Miss Frost, it comes out, is not a woman at all. She is a transsexual, a man (originally Albert Frost, a former wrestler at Favorite River Academy) living as a woman. Although her defenders argue that she did nothing wrong—the sex was intercrural, Irving is careful to say, during which Miss Frost merely rubbed Billy’s penis between her thighs, an act of love that “actually shielded the young man from the full array of sexual possibilities”—she is fired from her post as town librarian.
After that, Billy refuses to commit to either gender. For the longest time, he hesitates to have a “girlfriend experience,” because he finds that he likes anal intercourse. (“I liked it a lot,” he adds.) But when he has “vaginal sex for the first time,” he finds that he really, really likes it, too. “I’d not only really, really liked it,” he continues—“I had loved it! Was it as good as (or better than) anal sex? Well, it was different. To be diplomatic, I always say—when asked—that I love anal and vaginal sex ‘equally.’” This is what passes for deep sexual insight in Irving’s world. Likes and dislikes are not facts of personality, however, and so Billy remains a stranger throughout the novel, despite telling everything there is to tell about his sexual experience.
Irving’s title derives from Richard II. “Thus play I in one person many people,” the king soliloquizes in prison. But the distance between Shakespeare’s meaning and Irving’s measures how far In One Person has strayed from the question of man, even if only in his sexual dimension, to a political question of the moment. In Shakespeare’s play, the anointed king of England, the “deputy elected by the Lord,” has been deposed, his crown and kingdom lost. “And nothing can we call our own but death,” Richard laments. Nor is there anyone to whom he can tell his sad story. In prison there is “not a creature” but himself:
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer
My brain I’ll prove the female
to my soul,
My soul the father; and these
A generation of still-breeding
And these same thoughts people
this little world.
The lines are a profound meditation on the transience of political power and popular acclaim. That’s not what Irving hears, however. He hears a sympathetic portrait of the transsexual, who lives with male and female “in one person,” and the bisexual, who sleeps with each in turn. “I knew,” Billy says, reflecting upon a lifetime of multiple sexual partners, “that no one person could rescue me from wanting to have sex with men and women.” In One Person is meant to illustrate the modish ideology that “sex” and “gender” are not the same: Sex is biological, while gender is cultural, and one’s gender can be whatever one wants it to be.
But this is a fallacy. D.H. Lawrence spoke the human reality some 90 years ago: “A child is born with one sex only, and remains always single in his sex. There is no intermingling, only a great change of roles is possible. But man in the female role is still male.” More recently, Jeffrey Eugenides wrote a moving and wonderful novel called Middlesex (2002) in which a genetically male hermaphrodite, raised female according to the fashionable view, reverts as an adult to the male identity in which he was born. Empirical evidence now backs up these propositions. Human sexual identity is hardwired by genetic inheritance and embryogenesis. In One Person is written to corroborate not a lie exactly, but an article of belief. The novel is an example of what I have come to think of as the Romance of the Faithful—a happy story for the followers of a movement, party, or even religion who yearn to have their fealty confirmed. Much popular Christian fiction takes this form, and so did Socialist Realism. It was only a matter of time, I suppose, before the literature of liberalism came around.
In the last few years, as his bestsellers have begun to outnumber his artistic successes, the critics have begun to dismiss Irving as little more than a shameless entertainer. (“You bet,” he says proudly. “I am.”) But that is not the problem with his novels. The problem is that Irving confuses weirdness or eccentricity—human life on the edges of conventional opinion—for shameless entertainment. His fiction, as a consequence, lacks all sense of moral and artistic proportion. Dickens may be better known for his eccentrics (Sairey Gamp, Miss Havisham, Harold Skimpole), but his novels are given shape and meaning by the conventional men and women at their center who find happiness in conventional morality. There are no such people in Irving’s world. There is abnormality (good), and there is hatred and rigid disapproval of it (bad), but there is no virtue—only snickers at someone or other’s expense. If John Irving is Dickens’s heir, he has squandered the legacy.