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Friday, June 1, 2012

In One Person by John Irving

John Irving is well-known for his plots. He famously says that he never starts a novel until he knows how it will end, and usually pre-writes the last sentence of the novel. Such extreme attention to plot makes Irving more like nineteenth century novelists like Charles Dickens than any of his contemporaries. When the other aspects of the novel are as well-constructed as the plot, Irving’s books hum along with an extraordinary wit and joyful verve. But when, as has been more often the case among his later works, the characters and the dialogue are slaves to an orchestrated plot, the result is a disappointing, didactic story that sacrifices believable, relatable characters for a pre-conceived political point.

In One Person is the pre-conceived plot of William “Billy” Abbott. Billy grows up in the small town of First Sister, Vermont during the 1950s and ‘60s, and comes of age at an all-boys private school where he begins to discover his unusual sexual attractions. Billy is attracted to both women and men, including some of the boys at his school. Writing from the present-day, with the perspective of time, Billy takes frequent forays into his later life as a bisexual man, from his firs sexual experiences with a woman through the hey-day of the sexual revolution and to the horror-show unreality of the AIDS epidemic. But the heart of the novel is set at that private school, where Billy’s future self is formed by a series of cataclysmic events.

The problems with In One Person are myriad. Though the prose is definitely readable (no matter what, Irving is a fine writer) the events of the novel veer from the entirely predictable to the absolutely ludicrous, with no in-between. As Billy comes closer and closer to discovering all the secrets his close-minded family has kept from him, each revelation causes one of two reactions: “Well, duh” or “What the fuck?”

At some point, the degree of, shall we say, sexual differences, among Billy family and schoolmates beggars disbelief. Especially since none of the novel’s characters, including its protagonist and narrator, are well-developed or sympathetic.

Irving is writing from a political standpoint instead of an artistic one. He has always been on the vanguard of acceptance of out-of-the-mainstream sexuality, which is a fine thing, but when your goal in writing a novel is to get your political point across, the quality of the story inevitably suffers. In One Person suffers from Irving’s need to bludgeon the reader with Billy’s sexual history in an attempt to make the reader completely accept anything and everything he does. The result is that most of Billy’s encounters are depressingly clinical and unemotional. Billy is rendered unsympathetic, not due to any prejudice on the part of the reader, but because he just seems so cold and indifferent.

Irving’s over-reliance on plot has the consequence that many things the characters do seem only to serve Irving’s need to have certain things happen at certain times. This extends even to how long the characters live and when they die. There is an unreality to when Irving’s characters exit the stage, something that he might be able to get away with if these characters had any other role than to service Billy’s story. Very few of them seem to have any discernible desires or needs, and thus the reader is left alone with the plainly unlikable Billy.

In One Person is a political novel that arrives past its expiration date. A novel this supportive of the LGBTQ community might have been controversial and explosive twenty or even ten years ago, but this novel will be read only within the echo chamber of people who already agree with Irving’s point (a thankfully growing segment of the population) and even they might expect to be entertained.

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