I’ll bet there are not very many John Irving “completists.” His place amongst Yates, Cheever, Updike et al., amongst the essential chroniclers of 20th century Americana, is secured on the basis of what are by almost everybody’s estimation a colossal distance his three best and most famous works: The Cider House Rules, A Prayer For Owen Meany, and The World According to Garp. Casual readers may struggle to name more than a couple of his ten others (including this one). The “big three” are such shatteringly good works of sensitivity, humor, and above all consummate story-telling that a new offering of their quality would be a highlight of any literary year. In One Person (2013) is a novel of several merits, a novel which covers many classical Irving themes and features numerous of the tropes for which Irving is easily recognized. In common with one or more of “the big three” are Vienna, transsexuals, absent parents, wrestling, and mishaps presented through the most mordant black comedy. Perhaps above all else, though, Irving uses an unerring sympathetic eye for those amongst his characters who carry the largest burden, fight the hardest conflicts — often with themselves — stand out from their surroundings and have the conviction to be who they are and not who their peers would rather they be. So, with the raw material apparently encouraging and with Irving enthusiasts on reassuring ground, can we now speak of a “big four”? Well, no.
In The Cider House Rules it is abortion. Dr Wilbur Larch is an illegal practitioner whose views on the subject Irving once described as “corresponding exactly with those of my own.” In In One Person it is sexuality and gender issues. We have reason to think that Irving’s novels contain a great deal of himself, and his experience as father of a gay son has evidently informed his rendering of William Abbott, the bisexual main character and narrator of In One Person.
In common with Irving’s other novels, the timescale is broad. We meet William as an old man, then trace his story through confused teenage years and leave him some fifty years later. We see him emerge from small town Vermont, where he learns to love literature, Shakespeare and most of all the totemic librarian Miss Frost (“I’m going to begin by telling you about Miss Frost . . .”). Surely Irving can never, as it happens, have held a character in such high regard as he does Miss Frost. Via a fractured timeline, Abbott loves, loses, writes, wrestles (of course), and sees the AIDS epidemic account for almost everyone he knows. The introspection process which results in the tragic realization that he will never sufficiently love anybody (no one person can ever satisfy all his desires) is calmly but decisively delivered by Irving.
Yet still, unease over In One Person begins to develop because Abbott just doesn’t seem to suffer enough. The taunts he receives over his desires amount to little more than playground banter, and even the alpha male Kitteridge, who later comes to embody the novel’s key message in improbable fashion (you could probably already make a decent guess how), is bristling with envy for Abbott’s unconventional sexual congress with an unlikely companion. Here we have, it seems, a novel about sexual conflict which lacks very much conflict.
We are also with Abbott as he lives a perfectly healthy and comfortable novelist’s life in New York and San Francisco, where he is surrounded by friends and lovers. Here too, Irving seems to struggle more with Abbott’s life than Abbott does. San Francisco and New York, incidentally, are locations about which we learn essentially nothing. Martin Amis once said that Philip Roth left the many and various locations in which The Professor of Desire is set “blissfully unobserved.” What is the purpose of Irving taking Abbott to New York and San Francisco, liberal cities the 1970s and 80s bisexual experience, of which there are surely plenty of interesting things to be said, and then not to talk about them?
This is one example of where In One Person, it may be said, is a novel as notable for its omissions as its inclusions. Irving writes long novels — In One Person stretches to 625 pages and 50 something years — but despite the omissions, by 500 pages it is about time to wrap things up. Nevertheless, the remaining 125 pages contain three rather fundamental developments and all seem rushed and unsatisfactory. One even features a character “who changed my life more so than any other,” though exactly why Georgia wins this distinction rather than any number of earlier characters is left unclear, at least to me. It seems unusual to speak of a 625 page novel giving the impression of having been rushed.
The dominant feeling is of the reader being rather set up, or even patronized. We knew the book was about sexual minorities and cross-gender issues when we picked it up and bought it. As it is unlikely that this is our first Irving, we knew where his sympathies would likely lie, and we also knew that we would have the company of these themes for over 600 pages. We are unlikely, I would submit, to be of an illiberal disposition where such subjects are concerned. And yet we are somewhat prodded with this endless “don’t judge them!” message. There is hardly a gay, bisexual, cross-dressing, or transsexual character in the novel for whom anything negative could be said. Irving is simply too nice to them. Barely one of them misbehaves in any way. There is a plot twist at once silly and predictable which explains why the one of them that does, did. The sympathy Irving wishes to provoke almost makes the novel qualify as a manifesto. But we are grown-up enough to know that such people usually deserve our regard and often our admiration without Irving demanding it from us. The social commentary here is plainly well-intentioned, but much too obvious.
Let it not be said, however, that this novel is not without its merits. It is Irving’s ability as a storyteller which makes this novel worth perseverance. His prose is measured (though strangely placed italics become wearisome) and even whimsical in places, the main benefit of which is the increased effectiveness of the sporadically delivered jolts he administers (“what made the eighties last forever was that my friends and lovers kept dying.”). And he knows how to capture a moment, alright. There are death-bed scenes as effective as any of the set pieces in “the big three.” But those novels were memorable as works of the utmost completeness and not only for a few notable vignettes or turns of phrase. Irving has a lot to say and there are unusual perspectives he wants us to understand. Yes, his sympathy is directed towards those who deserve it, but it is perhaps this high regard for his characters which impedes him from inflicting upon them what In One Person could most benefit from: rather more wickedness, cruelty, argument, unpleasantness and strife.