Monday, May 21, 2012

A Manifesto for Gender Tolerance - John Irving's "In One Person"

John Irving's latest novel, "In One Person," is his most political book since "Cider House Rules."  In the earlier work, he addressed the incendiary issue of abortion.  In this latest work, he tackles the complex and smoldering issue of gender and sexual identity.  He has created a cast of characters who are finely wrought, memorable, idiosyncratic and - for the most part, likable.  I genuinely cared about how each character's story might end.  And that is part of Irving's genius and his mission - to humanize those who had heretofore too often been marginalized.

I had a very profound experience in reading and preparing to review this novel.  I might even call the experience "preternatural" - one of the favorite words used often by the first person narrator, William/Bill/Billy.  As I was making my way through the story, about two thirds of the way through the book, it became very clear to me that Irving was very masterfully nudging the reader to embrace characters who might otherwise have been avoided, shunned or dismissed as freaks.  The thought occurred to me that he was doing exactly what Shakespeare had done in "The Merchant of Venice," when Shylock gives his famous speech about being a Jew.  I took a break from Irving and turned to Shakespeare to re-read the famous speech, to reassure myself that the same elements were present in the classic play as well as in the new novel.  Satisfied that I had hit upon an apt analogy, I returned to reading "In One Person."  In the very next chapter, Irving springs the "Merchant of Venice" trap and makes explicit what I had already discerned.  It was both gratifying and spooky that I have read so much of Irving that my mind begins to anticipate where he may be gong in his own thought patterns.

The monologue bears repeating here:

The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1


Reading a much-anticipated new novel by John Irving feels to me like making a nostalgic return to a beloved, bucolic and quaint New England hometown.  There are still many familiar elements, but some new people have moved into the old Jones house, and the old downtown pharmacy is now vacant.  The expected Irving elements are all there: Vienna, New England, the wrestling room at Phillips Exeter Academy with the overhead hanging wooden track, wrestling as a metaphor for nearly everything, prep school life, characters grappling with having been abandoned by their fathers, sexual gymnastics, and frequent citings of classic writers - from Shakespeare to Dickens to Flaubert.

In some ways, the story feels like "A Catcher in the Rye" on  estrogen.

How deeply  was I drawn in by the story and the inhabitants of the tale?  I stayed up several hours past my usual bedtime because I needed to know how all of the threads would either weave together or fray.  Would Billy see Kitteredge again and solve the mystery of who he really was?  What about Miss Frost?  What would become of her?  Would Billy's mysterious and absent father make an appearance?  Who would and would not succumb to AIDS?  What would happen to "Poor Tom's" family?  Would Billy ever use the "duck-under" move he had been practicing for so long?  Would they find a male actor with balls enough to play Juliet?  Will Billy's friendship with Elaine endure?

Irving's first novel was "Setting Free the Bears" - a story that involved, among many other elements, uncaging the animals at the Vienna Zoo.  In this present novel, he comes full circle and tells a tale that begs the reader the "bear with" the messiness of those who struggle to free themselves from cages of identity and confusion and scorn as they strive to set themselves free.

Irving speaks through the transsexual librarian, Miss Frost, in making a plea for understanding:

“My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me--don’t make me a category before you get to know me!”

Should you read this book so you can get to know Miss Frost and Billy and Elaine?  Yes!  Go on Amazon and "bi" it.



1 comment:

Alaskan Pay Dirt said...

I have read a few of Irving's novels and more than liking them quite a bit, they've all had an impact on me. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a favorite of mine. The reviews and comments about In One Person have made me very about this book. Irving always writes on intriguing subjects and themes.