Imagine a character, who has a crush on his stepfather, on elderly women with very masculine traits, and a bit of athing for his best female friend – pretty much “crushes on the wrong people” – then you have Billy, the protagonist of John Irving’s new novel, In one person.
In one person is a coming-of-age story of a bisexual boy in a time where it is not easy for someone who does not follow conventions. Billy is born in the 40’s in a fictional town called Seven Sisters and attends a single-sex boarding school, where he is assured by the school physician that “there is a cure for these afflictions.”
Billy has, as the title may suggest, two sexualities in one person – he is bisexual. Actually, it seems he is more of an omnisexual, given that his first sexual experiences are with an intersexual and his best friend, whose bra he steals, in order to wear it himself at night. He is the epitome of an idealist ancient Greek lover.
Billy is not the only quirky character in this novel. There is his grandfather, a suppressed homosexual who gives vent to his predilections by playing female roles in the theatre; or the female librarian, a former top-ranking wrestler who does not back down from any fight.
Wrestling and strong but strange characters are just two of the themes, which we have seen in Irving’s previous novels. Once again we find ourselves in New England and Vienna, we witness deadly accidents, and encounter bears, screen-writers, fiction writers, as well as absent parents.
Some critics argue that Irving is too repetitive with his subjects, but somehow the repetition works without being boring. Perhaps since man is a creature of habit, or maybe because we all have our favourite pets: Irving has his bear, and Haruki Murakami has his cats.
School is for Billy the time for finding himself, his personality. No wonder that theatre is one of the dominating themes in the novel. The word persona derives from the mask, which actors used to wear in ancient Greece. “Who is it that can tell me who I am,” exclaims Billy’s uncle in a King Lear performance.
Finding the right mask seems to be difficult, especially for someone who has the urge to wear two. The theatre is a constant reflection, questioning and parallel of the main narrative. So it is no coincidence that Billy plays in a performance of The Tempest Ariel, the “mutable”, polymorphous character.
At the same time role-playing helps the characters to protect themselves in this often repressive environment. For instance, Billy and his best friend Elaine pretend to be in a relationship, in order not to get harassed by others. Still, Billy does not seem to be the only one unsure which mask to wear.
Besides his grandfather, who can’t deny the affinity for his wife’s wardrobe, most other, seemingly straight characters turn out to be queer in some way or an other. One woman tries to nurture the manhood of her effeminate son by sleeping with him and then sleeps with the girl that got impregnated by him, while another woman only has anal sex, because she is afraid of getting pregnant. Billy meets this girlfriend – an opera singer, who hits “a high E-flat” when she comes – in Vienna.
The way Irving pulls not only characters to a satirical and funny extreme, but also most scenes, makes the reader really feel that all the world’s a stage. Yet, at times, depending on the one’s inclination and knowledge of Shakespeare and Ibsen, the recurrence of the theatre can be annoying.
Since Billy becomes a writer later when he lives in New York, it is inevitable that alongside theatre also fictional prose is another “cross-dressing”. Therefore, Dickens, Baldwin, Flaubert, and the Brontës become the bibles of Billy’s sexuality and life. Again, the author presupposes a strong affinity towards Bildungsromane.
Irving tries to make the novel fascinating through his unusual and interesting characters. But since the main narrative merely consists of Billy’s life itself and has no other strings for tension, the book appears to go limp at times.
Irving tries to avoid this by jumping in time and leaving decoys of information for the reader to make him hungry for more. Nevertheless, the last third of the novel, which is set in the AIDS-ridden 70s and 80s, shows Irving at his best. Sad and absorbing, he describes how the epidemic hits Billy’s life.
In one person is more than a 400-page Kinsey report of a bisexual. It is a humorous plea for acceptance of any sexual identity. It is deeply human and only forgets in his humanitarian task to be a bit more gripping at times.