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the complete review - fiction
In One Person
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B : fine bits of storytelling, but insistent sexual-identity-theme smothers too much
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "Cross-dressing in Garp was at least partly played for laughs -- Roberta Muldoon was a former linebacker, for goodness' sake -- but Irving's tone this time is as earnest as a sermon. His prose, as always, is gorgeous, and Irving remains a master builder when it comes to constructing an epic plot filled with satisfying twists." - Benjamin Svetkey, Entertainment Weekly
- "The novel becomes a comic celebration of polymorphous perversity, and of literature. (...) William takes two-thirds of this substantial novel to grow up; the rest of it is episodic epilogue, with increasingly bleak but often still very funny fragments of scenes from the following half-century. (...) If a novel were simply a plea for understanding of sexual difference, it would be bad art; this book is elevated beyond the merely political by, among other things, the ebullient voice of its narrator." - Steven Poole, The Guardian
- "In summary, Billy Abbott's circular progress sounds like a manifesto built on paradox. Irving hammers home the values of plurality. Dogmatically, he defends diversity. Single-mindedly, he recommends self-doubt. Yet the freewheeling comedy neutralises any drift into preachiness. Loose-limbed but then suddenly tight-wound, this is a hard novel to classify but an easy one to like -- much like its protagonists." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
- "(T)he deeper we get into the novel, the less we believe it, seeing the people here as not quite three-dimensional, manqués for the larger issues the book means to address. (...) In One Person never delivers on that sense of freshness, settling for a posture of contrivance instead. (...) In the end, this is where In One Person stumbles, when it tries to fuse social commentary with art." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times
- "Whatís impressive about In One Person is its open fascination with bisexuality, cross-dressing, the politics of gender bending and the ravages of the AIDS epidemic. Whatís detrimental is the broad fancifulness of the clowning. (...) If In One Person were more coherent, Mr. Irving would not deliver his toughest punches from atop a soapbox. His blunt politicking for full understanding of gay and transgendered identity sits uncomfortably with his zany side." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times
- "In One Person is a story about memory. Inevitably it is also a story about desire, the most unsettling of our memories. And it is a story about reading yourself through the stories of others. (...) Whatís not here is any biological woman we can get interested in. (...) The best women are, or were, men. Ah well. You canít have everything in one book. In One Person gives a lot. Itís funny, as you would expect. Itís risky in what it exposes." - Jeanette Winterson, The New York Times Book Review
- "Irving is not a novelist who enjoys loose ends and he ties up each of his plot strands here one by one until they form a satisfying pattern. His novel is many things -- a little slice of cruel history precisely told, a kind of back-to-front mystery in which veils of deception and self-deception are lifted one by one, a sort of love story in which love rarely travels in the directions you imagined. Most of all, though, it is another of this writer's bold hymns to individuality, to the great American quest of self-discovery" - Tim Adams, The Observer
- "Irvingís take on the AIDS epidemic in New York is not totally persuasive (not enough confusion, terror, or anger), and his fractured time and place doesnít allow him to generate the melodramatic string of incidents that his novels are famous for. In the end, sexual secrets abound in this novel, which intermittently touches the heart as it fitfully illuminates the mutability of human desire." - Publishers Weekly
- "In One Person finds Irving energized and engaged, employing his familiar motifs and strategies to excellent effect. His compassion and belief in tolerance shine through, and his political points are made with more finesse than is usual for him. (...) There are moments in In One Person, however, that don't ring completely true and spoil the careful narrative web Irving has constructed." - Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Readers who enjoyed Irving's The World According to Garp will delight in In One Person, even with its rather limp last paragraph. Readers who are interested in transsexual wrestlers (or "transgender wrestlers", as Billy Dean is corrected by a member of a more politically correct younger generation), who are interested in high-school drama and cross-dressing from Shakespeare to the present, who are interested in American "civilisation" in the second half of last century, who are interested in the training bra as fact and symbol, will find much to savour in this energetic novel. (...) (R)ichly entertaining and morally serious" - Don Anderson, Sydney Morning Herald
- "For all Billís fierce defence of bisexuality, thereís no real sense of his own sexual desire for either men or women. The same goes for his supposed struggle against the forces of repression. Again, Bill keeps telling us how difficult this was. In reality, his progress seems weirdly untroubled. In One Person remains a big, entertaining and unstintingly generous read, bulging with incident and able to make every member of its large cast entirely memorable. Even so, Bill Abbott ultimately proves better at discussing Irvingís themes than at embodying them." - James Walton, The Telegraph
- "Irving is a master of the big-hearted social epic, but the earnest tone sometimes wears (as do Billy's usual reactions to new adventures: "I liked it a lot !")." - David Daley, USA Today
- "Mr. Irving is unfailingly respectful and broad-minded in exploring these subjects (...). But he fails to impose a real story on the scattershot reminiscences. (...) In One Person is like an inexpert drag queen: largely unconvincing but you can appreciate the attempt at transformation." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
- "This wonderful first section of the novel shows what a ringmaster Irving can be. His looping chronology gives the impression of aimless digression only until we catch up and find him on the trail of some larger truth. (...) The very end of the story, however, is more hopeful. Alas, probably too hopeful, infused with the triumphalism of a very special transgendered episode of Glee." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
In One Person is narrated by John Irving-aged writer, Billy Abbott.
The biographical similarities between author and protagonist are distractingly hard to overlook: both were born in March 1942; both originally were named after their biological fathers -- Irving was John Wallace Blunt, Jr., his character in the novel William Francis Dean, Jr. -- and the men they were named after were immediately absent and did not really figure in their lives.
Irving's stepfather taught at a New England prep school, as did Billy's -- and the small town of First Sister, Vermont, and its Exeter-stand-in of Favorite River Academy figure prominently in the novel.
Billy's later life also follows some of Irving's stations -- notably a college year abroad in Austria -- and when at one point Billy quotes from several of his earlier works, well, yes, those are verbatim quotes from Irving's own novels.
(Wrestling also plays a role in the novel, though young Billy is not the one doing most of the wrestling, and he wasn't a wrestler at school.)
In In One Person the contemporary, near-seventy-year-old Billy is looking back on his life, recounting his life-story.
Much of the novel is concentrated on Billy's years of sexual awakening, though Billy's account isn't strictly chronological, as he repeatedly jumps ahead and reveals significant facts before getting back to the thrust of his story.
Billy was a somewhat confused boy, and much of what he was confused about was who he was attracted to -- he worried about having crushes: "on the wrong people"
Among those he developed a crush on in his early teen years was the town librarian, Miss Frost -- someone he later realized his family had intentionally steered him clear of (it's his meddling future stepfather that takes him to finally get a library card and thus introduces him to the world of Miss Frost) and who was, indeed, someone that many would consider a 'wrong person' to have a crush on -- and not just because she was considerably older than Billy.
First Sister turns out to be quite rife with sexual confusion, including regarding sexual identity.
Billy's grandfather likes dressing up in women's clothes -- in part to play the women's roles in the town amateur theatrical productions, but not just ... -- and there are more than a few school-boys who have feminine qualities.
And the town harbors larger secrets, too (still of the sexual variety): there's something about Miss Frost, of course, but then there's also the issue of Billy's biological father, about whom he learns precious little.
As Billy notes: "A lack of candor was endemic in my family", and this is both a source of frustration and confusion.
For all that lack of candor, however, the secrets inevitably do come flooding out -- though given there's a cross-dressing grandpa in the house not too much of it is really particularly shocking (or surprising).
In One Person focuses on sexual identity.
Billy figures out pretty quickly that he is bisexual -- though some of the details take a while to fall into place as, for example, he remains wary about vaginal sex until ... well, until he actually tries it (after that, he thinks it's great).
He is not ambivalent about who he wants to sleep with; rather, he finds himself truly attracted to both men and women -- though that does mean he finds himself looked upon with a bit of suspicion by both his hetero- and homosexual partners.
(His homosexual desire does also only goes so far, however: he is, emphatically, only willing to take the penetrating role, rather than that of the penetrated.)
Once he has figured out he is bisexual -- and, as noted, that realization comes pretty early and fast -- he also doesn't really have any problem with it, or qualms about it: no shame or guilt trip for him, and he more or less merrily spends the rest of his life sleeping with both men and women.
(But, yes, while the absence of any fuss about this is in some ways refreshing, the ease with which he acccepts the way he is -- in this respect -- also does take the wind out of the narrative, as his 'finding'/coming to terms with his (sexual) identity provides hardly any sort of tension -- and the other characters who have a bit more difficulty dealing with their own issues remain peripheral.)
So Billy does come to terms with his identity with relatively little fuss -- and many other characters turn out to be homosexual, or are in other ways what used to be termed sexually deviant in this novel focused on sexual identity.
Strikingly, however, -- and rather fatally for the novel -- Irving harps so much on sexual identity that sexual relationships figure almost only incidentally: Billy apparently goes through any number of lovers, but barely ever seems to be in a satisfying relationship that includes a sexual component.
He is extraordinarily close to some one- and sometime lovers -- childhood friend Elaine, semi-mentor Larry -- but it's not sex that holds them together; indeed, they're closest when sex isn't really part of the equation.
Among the few somewhat more extended descriptions of Billy actively in a relationship which also has a sexual component are a disastrous summer in Europe with a lover, and then his not very up-front relationship with a female fellow student in Vienna; neither lasts very long and both are clearly doomed from the start.
Most of the other relationships in the book that have a sexual component also don't go very well, including former classmates who got married and lived a lie -- before succumbing to AIDS.
And, of course, as far as sexual relationships that fail as real relationships go, Billy's own parents' very short-lived marriage is exhibit A .....
Indeed, so focused on sexual identity is Billy/Irving that practically no healthy sexual relationship is shown.
There are a number of apparently happy couples -- and a disturbing number of suicides by spouses after they lose their loved one, presumably a sign of complete devotion -- but these relationships all seem almost entirely sexless, at least as presented here by Irving, who never ventures into the bedrooms of these couples.
Tellingly, for example, Billy gains a stepfather, but not, eventually, a sibling.
Interestingly, too, Billy's generation goes largely childless: abortion is the closest any of the female characters get to having a kid, while the men that do procreate don't manage to get fully on-board with the heterosexual lifestyle -- and two of the kids, appearing only briefly on the scene, turn out very, very bitter about what their daddies got up to (though admittedly another one does turn out okay).
Irving captures the sex act -- usually a somewhat unusual variation on coupling -- pretty well in several scenes, but these are literally almost one-offs; he is incapable (or unwilling ?) to present a sustained relationship that is both loving and sexual.
Irving's characters seem marked -- and often gravely damaged -- by early sexual experience, beginning with Billy's mother (a character who Billy keeps at a great distance here, rarely offering much insight; his stepfather -- among many others -- seems to play a much more prominent role in his life, while Elaine's mother is much more of a mother-figure to him).
Billy's interest in Miss Frost does not appear, in and of itself, to be damaging, but the reaction to it certainly devastates him, while Elaine is clearly marked not only by her first sexual encounter but the dreadful fallout from that.
Ultimately, what Irving seems to suggest is that sexual identity isn't really an issue, but that once one has figured it out one should take great care before acting on it.
The circumstances and environment should be just right -- requiring considerable maturity, he suggests.
It's surely no coincidence that at the end of the novel, at the present-day Favorite River Academy -- which went co-ed a while back, but now also has its very own campus LBGTQ group -- the young student with the most obvious sexual identity issue (but very sure of herself, confronting it head on and in full control of the situation) is told:
"Save the dating for when you get to college," Mrs.Hadley had advised her.
Sex can -- and should -- wait, Irving is urging, an amusingly prude counterpart to his wholehearted endorsement of any and all sexual identities.
"That's what I'm doing -- I'm waiting on the dating," Gee Montgomery had told me.
Sexual identity is also part of several of the plot elements that are meant to provide some tension, notably the secrets that are withheld from Billy -- first, regarding his father, and then the one regarding Miss Frost.
Neither of these secrets come as particularly big surprises when he does get around to figuring them out, but at least they're worked reasonably well into the story.
Less successful is the use of the figure of Kittredge, a classmate that both Billy and Elaine have a crush on and who is a dominant personality on campus.
He is by far the most interesting and vivid character in the story, and the sections in which he appears, with all the tension and ambiguity he brings to the story, are among the most successful in the book.
His unusual, striking mother remains somewhat peripheral, but exerts great influence from afar (and, eventually, plays a big, terrible role in another character's life, though Billy only learns roughly what happened there second hand); Kittredge also denies that she is his biological mother, refusing to accept the genetic link despite the very obvious family resemblance (i.e. he is definitely her son).
Kittredge, it turns out, also has some pretty big issues -- as his attitude towards his mother suggests -- and Billy (and Elaine) do want to know what became of him after they all went their separate ways.
But their quest seems very halfhearted -- and certainly amateurish -- and Kittredge never returns to the story as front and center as he had in the school-day-sections.
It's a part of the story that holds great promise but fizzles rather disappointingly.
(Indeed, Irving has surprising difficulty utilizing some of the building blocks he's used effectively: he makes rather a big deal about a gift that Miss Frost leaves him with -- a wrestling move -- and there are several separate scenes in which he practices it, suggesting that he will be called upon to use it in a terrible situation at some point.
He does, of course, have to pull the move at one point; liker so much in the novel, it is a very anticlimactic scene.)
The novel focuses on Billy's foundations, dominated by his school-days.
He becomes a successful writer, but there's little sense of how: In One Person is a novel of a protagonist and his sexual identity, not the story of how someone became a writer.
Indeed, his being an author seems almost entirely incidental: his profession is barely presented as part of his identity and, for example, when he describes his present-day self he lists 'writer' after 'part-time English teacher' and director of the school Drama Club, and alongside 'occasional political activist'.
The novel bounds through the decades after his school years, only occasionally slowing down and getting more specific.
A major detour is through New York City during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, as many from Billy's circle succumb to the then still completely and quickly devastating disease; it's AIDS that also reunites him with several of the boys from the Favorite River Academy days.
Given Billy's lifestyle, addressing this period and these events is, presumably, unavoidable; it also allows Irving to deal with some of the questions of 'what happened to ...' regarding several of the significant figures from Billy's formative years.
While there's some strong writing here, and much of these sections is quite affecting, Irving doesn't seem to come fully to grips with the material -- struggling to avoid letting his novel turn into an AIDS-novel, but knowing he has to slog through the issue.
As with the litany of old-timers back in First Sister that he steadily kills off, Irving seems to be going through the motions here: a fact of life to deal with, but one that doesn't fit very comfortably in his larger narrative.
Irving writes a good story, and he's pretty good with characters too.
There's a convincing authenticity to much of the visceral -- and also physical -- detail, from Billy's fascination with Elaine's bra to several of the sex acts themselves (notoriously difficult to present on the page, Irving does sex far better than most -- at least in close detail; discussing it more generally, not so much (e.g. "To be diplomatic, I always say -- when asked -- that I love vaginal and anal sex 'equally'")).
The problem with In One Person -- and it is a big problem -- is that Irving's insistent focus on sexual identity smothers almost everything else.
He's trying so hard to make his point that he steamrollers over far too much else, not allowing his characters' other dimensions to play more significant roles.
In addition, while, as Elaine notes: "Jesus, no one in your family tells you anything, Billy !", Billy is no shrinking violet; indeed, he is all candor -- as, thus, is his account.
A bit more restraint (and perhaps subtlety) might have helped; a bit more coyness would certainly have been more fun.
Irving remains a great storyteller; it's too bad he's let his message get in the way of his story here.
- M.A.Orthofer, 29 April 2012
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In One Person:
Other books by John Irving under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
John Winslow Irving, American author, born 1942.
Born in Exeter, New Hampshire he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy.
Author of numerous very successful novels, he first achieved widespread recognition with The World according to Garp.
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© 2012 the complete review
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