Late in John Irving's "In One Person", the hero, Bill Abbott, hears another character describe his father as someone who “does know how to tell a story – even if it's always the same story.” These days, it's a fitting description of Irving himself.
That's what's frustrating about being an Irving fan these days. At seventy years old, he remains one of the most gifted storytellers in modern American fiction. He has an instinctive ability to create a setting and characters so vivid that you already feel as if you've known them for years when you're not even halfway through the book. And while not everybody approves of his detailed, formal, Dickensian writing style, you sense that a tighter, more “literary” voice would stifle him. But as compulsively readable as In One Person is, it's painfully clear that the old master now has a tendency to repeat himself.
It's a shame, because if Irving had written In One Person fifteen or twenty years earlier, it might have been a ballsy study of a bisexual man coming of age through changing times – from the bigotry of the 1950s, through the civil-rights era and on to the AIDS crisis. As it is, the book is hampered by self-conscious echoes of Irving's previous books; even some of the same exact phrases from past books reappear. Is this from age or just laziness? The first chapter alone is so full of Irvingisms that it could almost play as parody.
To be fair, this may not be a problem for readers unfamiliar with Irving's past work. But there must be devotees out there who have become bored of reading about writers, wrestling, New England, Vienna, unconventional sexual relationships and absentee fathers. (At least the new book has no bears. No literal ones, anyway.)
In One Person
In One Person is narrated by Bill, a prep-school student growing up in a claustrophobic small town in '50s Vermont, who discovers that he has attractions to both men and women – attractions that lead him to constant “crushes on the wrong people”. One of those “wrong people” is his young stepfather, Richard Abbott, who (along with the rest of Bill's family) is almost religiously involved in the local community theatre. Richard's influence indirectly leads Bill to the local librarian, Miss Frost, a strangely broad-shouldered woman who teaches the boy about Dickens and the Brontes, and with whom the young Bill falls hopelessly in love.
Bill eventually discovers that Miss Frost has a secret. But she's far from the only one who does. Indeed, Bill grows up in a world in which the majority of people seem to have some kind of sex-related secret or kink – varying from closeted homosexuality and incest to transgenderism and transvestism. Even Bill's long-missing father, it turns out, is not what he expected. Balancing the scale are the petty prejudices of Bill's humourless, immature mother, his critical (but well-endowed) aunt and his grumpy grandmother.
Much of the novel focuses on Bill's adult relationships over the years, with both genders and in several different cities, from the early 1960s to the present day. Some of these relationships are more interesting than others, and the development of Bill's sexual experimentation is described in detail. (An oversized vagina is described in Bill's imagination as “like a ballroom”.) A curious aspect of the novel's latter half is the string of tragic deaths of both major and minor characters, some of them from AIDS, but an alarming number from suicides or violent accidents. In the world according to Bill, nobody ever dies peacefully of natural causes; everybody is doomed either by fate or by themselves. Eventually, it becomes predictable, and you even start to get desensitized to it.
As you expect from an Irving novel, there's a rich cast of larger-than-life characters with their share of eccentricities. Some are fascinating in their own right, such as Bill's Grandpa Harry, a cross-dressing actor who often turns out to be the most reasonable, empathetic person in a scene, or his sometime-lover, lifelong-friend Larry, a saucy and plainspoken gay poet. In the case of Norwegian theatre director Nils Borkman, there's a lame running joke in which he keeps mangling the order of English phrases. (It would probably be funnier if the other characters didn't keep correcting him.)
Irving has made no secret of how classic literature has influenced his work, and In One Person is so packed with literary references and allusions that it reads like Cole's notes for the entire Western canon. For example, the amateur theatre company in which Bill's family is involved performs plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Tennessee Williams and others – and the reader gets plenty of info on which characters play major roles in each production. Sometimes there's an obvious symbolic reason, such as The Tempest's Arial representing Bill's ambiguous sexuality, or the way Ibsen's strong female characters and weak males reflect the period's changing mores. Other times, you wonder if this would be hard-going for a reader not schooled up on these works. In The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, literary references were background details; here, they seem to be competing for centre stage.
Nitpicking aside, I'm not trying to give the impression that In One Person is a bad novel. It's a flawed one, but Irving's undeniable narrative skills keep you reading up to the end, even when the story takes unnecessary tangents or becomes too implausible. It may come as another disappointment for those who yearn for the wonderfully realized worlds and original, unforgettable personalities that he created in classics like The World According to Garp and Owen Meany.