In One Person, by John Irving. Vintage Canada, 2013. ISBN 9780307361790 (pbk.)
I’m a little late to the party in reviewing this book by John Irving, first published in 2012. Having just finished reading it, however, I felt compelled to write a few words. It’s simply too good a novel to be quiet about.
In One Person is the story of William Marshall Abbott (sometimes called Bill or Billy, depending on which of Irving’s Dickensian range of characters is addressing him.) As the narrator, he tracks his life beginning in 1955 as a student in the Favorite River Academy, an all boys school in Vermont, to his career as a writer and finally his time as a part time English teacher at age 68. William is also bisexual, a circumstance that causes him to meet people of different sexual orientations and gender identities. Besides William’s story, the novel explores the other side, people’s intolerance to a wide range of sexualities over time. Irving combines these elements into an engrossing and often funny novel.
Irving’s choice to make William bisexual is a clever one. In a book whose theme is tolerance, he treats everyone equally, reminding us that bisexuals within the queer community were at one time dismissed as people who couldn’t make up their minds. Irving’s characters all have complicated sexualities. The narrator is a top attracted to men, flat chested women and pre and post op transsexuals, preferably with small breasts. This detail is what makes Irving’s characters so rich and truthful, and what advances his theme of tolerance without sinking into identity politics. Every one of his main figures is an individual with very particular desires. As one of his trans characters says, “don’t make me a category before you get to know me!”
If you’ve read any of Irving’s previous books, you’ll know he likes to return to certain subjects he’s explored before. Here it is wrestling and transgenderism. You may remember the sympathetic transsexual character Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp, and here the trans community in all its variation is similarly sympathetically portrayed. What I loved about the book, however, is that he doesn’t treat us with kid gloves. There is no political correctness in how the trans characters are treated, which of course enhances the novel’s verisimilitude since we’re rarely handled with kid gloves anyway. He also has the occasional laugh at our expense, particularly the way we have subsumed the wide variety of trans people under that category “transgender”. All this was fine by me. Irving is never mean spirited and it wouldn’t be a bad thing if we trans people laughed at ourselves a little more.
As the narrative flows from the 1950s to present times, a book like this would be dishonest if it didn’t wade directly into the horrible AIDS crisis of the 80s and early 90s. Irving is as unflinching in his description of the illness as he was previously in his depictions of sexual activity. It is a devastating part of the book as some of the characters we have come to know and care about die hideous and painful deaths.
There is much else about this book that is entertaining, particularly if you have an interest in literature. Irving’s take on Shakespeare, Flaubert, Ibsen, Rilke and Goethe is always interesting and always relevant to the story. William Abbott, Irving’s central character, thinks Portia’s speech about “mercy” in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is “vapid, Christian hypocrisy; it was Christianity at its most superior-sounding and most saccharine. Whereas Shylock has a point. The hatred of him has taught him to hate. Rightly so!” It’s as good an interpretation of trans anger as I’ve come across.
Here also is a Rilke quote Irving uses that I found affecting. It reminds William Abbott of the “terrifying angels” that surround him, those holier-than-thou righteous individuals who would and do oppress him : “Who, if I were to cry out, would hear me among the angelic orders?” Who indeed?
For a little while now I have been harbouring the belief that many of the problems transgender people face can be traced to the fact that cisgender people still seem completely incapable of understanding us. The misconceptions they continue to have about us are due to their inability to escape their locked in thinking about gender. This novel has made me rethink that idea. It’s more likely that they don’t want to understand us. John Irving is a cisgender, heterosexual man and yet he’s written a novel that truthfully, bravely, and confidently captures same sex longing and lust, transgender insecurity, anger and resilience, the oppressions the queer community faced over time and the sense that we are all – LGBT and Q – in this together. His imagination, understanding and, indeed, empathy astound me. In One Person is one of his best novels.