:: Article

Something rich & strange

By Max Dunbar


In One Person, John Irving, Transworld 2012

John Irving is near fundamentalist on the imagined life. The writer hero of his breakthrough novel The World According to Garp insists that ‘imagining something is better than remembering something’. To critics who draw autobiographical parallels, Garp instructs: ‘Read the work, forget the life.’ The protagonist of A Widow for One Year, Ruth Cole, dismisses autobiographical fiction as mere journalism, and Irving himself said in a recent interview that ‘not only do I think memoir is uninteresting, but it’s deeply uninteresting. I would only make an exception for those people who have had interesting lives. When I find myself with friends and someone says, ‘oh, when are you going to write a memoir?’ I have to apologise for getting angry.’

Irving’s main characters are often writers, and they often carry his credo and also his didactic approach. For all that, the content is formulaic and autobiographical. Irving’s novels circle and recircle the same themes: missing fathers, the allure of the older woman, amputations, extremism, bears all over the fucking place, and professional wrestling – surely the silliest sport ever invented by man, with the possible exception of golf. The New Hampshire and Vermont locales appear over and over again; when an Irving character travels, it’s unlikely he’ll get past Vienna. Apparent trivialities are parlayed into life-altering experiences. There is a constant recurring back, and a gung-ho singsong to the narrative, as if Irving is writing as the wrestling coach he once was.

I don’t like to criticise, for Irving is one of the great postwar American novelists. I still remember the experience of reading The World According to Garp in my teens. It is simply a work of magic, unreadable by page thirty and impossible to put down by page 300. When the elements of Irving’s fiction align – as they do in The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany – the effect is unforgettable. A hundred years from now there will still be people who will not be able to hear the phrase ‘We are all terminal cases’ or ‘Princes of Maine, Kings of New England!’ or ‘Oh God – please give him back!’ without a shiver and an uplift.

Irving leads tend to be family men and Irving himself strikes me as the most straight-arrow, masculine writer I’ve ever read. But as well as disfigurements and speech impedimenta, many of Irving’s characters have a sexual kink. There is infidelity, incest and wife swapping. Garp’s mother, the famous feminist Jenny Fields, conceives her son by extracting the semen of a brain-damaged ball turret gunner (the ‘TS’ in Garp’s name stands for ‘Technical Sergeant’) and describes herself as a ‘sexual suspect’ – her term for the social chill she attracts as a single parent and a woman who has never wanted a sexual experience. Garp’s best friend is Roberta Muldoon, an inspirational male linebacker turned equally inspirational female feminist. Roberta’s death is noted by a sports announcer who – wanting to pay tribute to the sporting legend, but struggling with his embarrassment at the idea of transgender surgery – says that Roberta ‘didda lot for people wid complicated lives.’ It’s a touching and elegaic moment because Garp himself is dead by then and his surviving children, watching the game, imagine him laughing and imitating the commentator: ‘She did a lot for da refashioning of da vagina!’

In One Person puts transgender identity centre stage. Billy Abbott is a confused bisexual man growing up in 1950s Vermont. His father is absent and unknown, and he is raised by a mother and aunt who, while not repressive in the scary demonstrative sense, nevertheless have a suspicion of sexual suspects that permeates Billy’s whole childhood. Billy experiments with a girl his own age, Elaine Hadley, but this relationship develops into an old married couple routine, loving but more or less sexless, that probably denotes many boy-girl friendships between heterosexual teenagers. His first real love is a transsexual librarian. (I’m going to use ‘transsexual’ in deference to Billy, who gets confused with twenty first century LGBT terminology.) Throughout Billy’s life, his eclectic tastes are challenged, by straight-up homophobes and also by gay people who regard Billy as in some sense an illegitimate queer because he self-identifies as bisexual and sleeps with women. Irving’s relationship with radical feminism was always complicated (remember the Ellen Jamesian sect in Garp) and Billy’s love of both genders makes him a suspect for both sides. There’s a real life shade of such intolerance in this article by Julie Bindel – a writer who could have stepped out of the pages of an Irving book – in which she concludes that ‘if bisexual women had an ounce of sexual politics, they would stop sleeping with men.’

My ‘centre stage’ metaphor – see what I did there? – is apt because so much of the book turns on the school’s dramatic society. The stage is significant because, in an all boys school, some actors inevitably have to dress as female. Throughout so much of history, and in many closed communities today, the stage is the only place where it is acceptable to explore other identities. (The drag act has always enjoyed a big sentimental appeal even in, especially in, the ultimate male environment of the army.) Shakespeare features heavily (Billy plays Ariel in the school’s production of The Tempest) and Irving’s title comes from a line in Richard II: ‘Thus play I in one person many people/And none contented.’

Like so much fiction, In One Person is preoccupied with childhood and adolescence, with adolescent fumbling (why is it always ‘fumbling’?) for new experiences and encounters, and for a coherent identity. There is the customary freakshow of local eccentrics and rivals – I especially loved the cruel, knowing and self-assured Kettridge, Billy’s nemesis as a young man; there is a fantastic scene where Billy and Kettridge have a bizarre faceoff by shouting at each other quotations from Rilke. While there are many such dazzling set-pieces, Billy’s early life crowds out the story and subsequently you don’t get the wide sweep of sexual history that is explored in, say, the Jake Arnott crime novels or Hollinghurst. What Irving does pick up on, though, is that today’s generation is not necessarily more progressive than the last. There’s a great scene in the closing chapters when Billy, now an elderly schoolteacher, defends a pre-op transsexual from a Unilad-style bigot.

The HIV sections, though, hold you. Billy’s old schoolfriend, a shy and awkward boy called Tom Atkins, sends Billy regular Christmas cards featuring his all-American family in front of a tree. Billy notices that, in the photographs, Atkins looks sicker and paler until the final family tableau, which doesn’t include Atkins himself at all and has a terse note from his wife on the reverse: ‘Tom has mentioned you. He would like to see you.’ With such ghoulish signifiers the Aids epidemic creeps into Billy’s journey. Irving brings to tenebrous life the physical impact of the disease, and the horrible clinical practicalities with which family and friends must establish a quick familiarity. From the chapter where Atkins dies:

There was a tray of medications, and other intimidating-looking stuff, on the bedside table. (I would remember the heparin solution, for some reason – it was for flushing out the Hickman catheter.) I saw the white, cheesy curds of the Candida crusting the corners of poor Tom’s mouth.

Like Wilde, TS Garp thinks of art as quite useless: ‘He rejected the idea that art was of any social value whatsoever – that it could be, that it should be. The two things mustn’t be confused, he thought: there was art, and there was helping people.’ Yet, in the same paragraph, Irving qualifies the statement: ‘Garp would be irritated all his life by his belief that literature was a luxury item; he desired for it to be more basic – yet he hated it, when it was.’

For Irving can be political when he wants to. On the Aids crisis, he told the Telegraph that:

I believe strongly that if it had been a virus that was killing heterosexual young men and women, we certainly would have had a president who was more involved. There’s no forgiving Reagan for his non-involvement and utter detachment in that terrible time.

The Cider House Rules is widely regarded as a cry for choice and reproductive control. Wilbur Larch implores FDR in a letter: ‘Mr. Roosevelt – you, of all people! – you should know that the unborn are not as wretched or as in need of our assistance as the born! Please take pity on the born!’ Like Garp, Irving tolerates anyone except the intolerant. His strongest contempt is for life’s bullies and puritans – people who believe some religious or political qualification gives them the right to dictate who the rest of us should fall in love with and make love with, people who believe, deep down, that they have the right to carve the identities of others. Irving could not have imagined, when he published The Cider House Rules in 1985, that two decades later American liberals would be fighting a Republican party – party of Lincoln! – that was mobilised against contraception, masturbation and witchcraft.

As he says:

‘They want less government? No they don’t. They want less government where they want less government. They don’t want government involved when it comes to health care. But when it comes to abortion rights or gay marriage – oh, they’d like a little more government then. They’d like to step in and tell you what to do then. It’s coming from,’ he snarls with disgust, ‘a sexually discriminatory place.’

Everyone says sexuality is a spectrum, but Irving’s real concern is with human identity, which is in a state of perpetual flux. I thought the famous lines from The Tempest were about death. Now, I realise they are about life.

Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that does fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange

In the world according to Irving, we are all sexual suspects.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 15th, 2012.