Thursday, June 28, 2012

Brute Force…Humanism - looking at John Irving's latest

July 12, 2012 - NYRB - Charles Baxter
In One Person
by John Irving
Simon and Schuster, 425 pp., US$28.00

John Irving at his summer house in Pointe au Baril, Ontario, 2009

As a thought experiment, imagine a novel by an author you never heard of whose story comprises a coming-of-age tale in which the main character is educated in a Vermont prep school. Although his father may still be alive somewhere, the boy lives in the shadow of his handsome stepfather and his remote, disapproving mother. Various colorful relatives and townspeople circle in orbit around him. Fascinated—transfixed—by members of the school’s wrestling team, he later becomes a wrestler himself. In his adolescence the young man develops an interest in theater. He also discovers in himself a talent for writing. He is bisexual. After graduation, he travels to Europe and spends time in Vienna, where he works as a waiter and falls in love. A few years later, he becomes a successful novelist, celebrated everywhere.
The narrator’s voice, boisterous and affable, relies heavily on exclamation points and italicized words and will often return to certain ideas in case the reader didn’t get them the first time. Almost every character has a distinctive gesture by which he or she is identified, and portraiture is managed with broad brushstrokes. The prose tends to avoid ambiguity and solitary introspection and the dreaded verbs of consciousness: “‘thinking, wishing, hoping, wondering’—that shit!” Most thoughts and feelings the narrator has are either acted out or confided to a willing listener. Even the inevitable deathbed scenes are described with a certain writerly élan.

No such thought experiment would be possible for a great many contemporary adult readers or moviegoers, because John Irving has incorporated most of these elements in one work after another. Reading his new book, you watch the familiar routines to see what he’ll do with them this time. A quarter of the way through In One Person, Irving’s thirteenth novel, the narrator, Billy Abbott, points to a “valuable lesson” he has learned: “You must be careful when you stray from an acquired discipline…. Writing is such a discipline.” He then adds, “Good writing isn’t ‘relaxed.’”

These are the words of someone who has found an audience and is determined to keep it by staying within rigidly established conventions he himself has created. If good writing, for him, mustn’t be “relaxed,” then its forward momentum presumably depends on dramatic tension, created in these instances by thwarted desire. And if desires shape us, as Irving’s narrator believes, then self-knowledge cannot precede desire: “I know myself best by my persistent crushes on the wrong people, the way I was formed by how long I kept the secret of myself from the people I loved.” For Irving, such secrets may foster creativity; furtive desire goes underground and emerges as acting and fiction writing.
In One Person combines several genres. It is a novel about a bisexual man’s coming out grafted onto a coming-of-age story, grafted onto a portrait-of-the-artist, grafted onto a theater novel. The book is very entertaining and relies on verbal showmanship even when the events narrated are grim, a tonal incongruity characteristic of this author. The book’s theme, its fixed idea, is that actors and writers and bisexuals harbor many persons within one person.

The title is drawn from the fifth act of Shakespeare’s Richard II. In prison, Richard proclaims: “Thus play I in one person many people,/And none contented.” Sexual uncertainty spurs one on to dissembling, and in this sense acting and writing and sexual ambiguity are complementary. Closeted homosexuals and lesbians learn how to act and to fool others; writers learn how to perform (think of Dickens) and to project themselves into imaginary characters; actors embody transitory alien selves. The categories are all related and they can result in moments of satisfaction, except when they don’t. In Irving’s novel, triumphalism swerves into tragedy without anyone knowing how it got there.

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