In One Person, John Irving

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John Irving has many excellent qualities as a writer. He manages to combine pathos with incredibly funny, almost absurdist, humour (The Hotel New Hampshire). He can make unlikely, borderline unlikeable characters break your heart (A Prayer for Own Meany). He tackles the crippling effects of grief with compassion, while still making it compulsively readable (Widow for One Year). He is not afraid to deal with difficult topics in a humane and tolerant fashion (The Cider House Rules). And of course, the man is an inspired writer of plot, making tiny character details seem like an entirely natural, and inevitable, trigger for the working of his narrative (Last Night in Twisted River).

It is not that these elements are not present in In One Person, his most recent novel dealing with the life and loves of William Abbot, a bi-sexual man learning to be himself in Sixties and Seventies America, it is just that they are drowned out by a fussy and overworked style, and the whole work is desperately in need of a good edit.

When one reads an Irving, you do expect a certain amount of going over standard material: the New England setting, the wrestling, the bears (here, of course, a reference to burly homosexuals), the fascination with sex, the novelist protagonist. And this is not a bad thing – in my teenage years I devoured Dick Francis’ horse racing novels for the very reason that it always had the same basically-decent-chap as the protagonist, and usually the same setting either directly or tangentially related to horse racing. But so much depends on the handling of the material, if you’ve read it all before, and in this particular Irving, the handling leaves much to be desired.

The title is derived from a line in Shakespeare’s Richard II: “Thus play I in one person many people, / And none contented“, and the story is framed as Abbot’s memories of his youth and later life, as he first becomes aware of his bi-sexuality and learns to live his life authentically, despite the narrow and conformist expectations of society. The book details his early obsession with Miss Frost (the isolated town librarian), his hunger for a father figure as a stable anchor to balance out his mother’s neuroticism, his search for information about his biological father, all against the (none too subtle) backdrop of small town am-dram societies. It intends to be an honest exploration of the heartache and complexity of anyone’s coming of age, made more so by the hesitant blooming of what society deems a socially incongruous approach to sexuality. But in the end it is just too heavy-handed in the way it portrays William’s sexual ambivalence, from the overt foreshadowing represented by his wise old Grandpa Harry (preternaturally suited to playing female characters) to William’s own casting as Ariel, a character who is also sexually indeterminate, as we are told, again and again.

Elsewhere reviewers have described the ceaselessly repetitive style as deeply affecting; personally, I don’t need quite as much hammering over the head to get the subtext, or to be reminded of a person’s words three pages after they first uttered it. And don’t get me started on the constant quotations. Reams of Shakespeare aside, I felt like I was reading a book by Randall Napier, the protagonist of David Foster Wallace’s short story Oblivion, where DFW successfully uses Napier’s constant air quotations to mark the short story’s investigation of reality, and to characterise Napier as a bit of an idiot. About halfway through In One Person I was desperate for Abbot to just have his own train of thought, without constantly quoting his social circle. In a kind of cringing self-reference too far, Irving has Miss Frost intone early on that if one starts repeating everything other people say, one finds oneself in real trouble. No points for guessing which character then endlessly repeats this statement.

It is a book I really wanted to like, both because of my fondness for Irving’s story-telling skills, and because I respected his intention to advocate for tolerance and acceptance of sexuality in all its shapes. In One Person tries too hard to combine storytelling with moral outrage, and fails to do either well.

Picture credit: Oleg Denysenko

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