Tuesday, May 8, 2012

“In One Person”

By John Irving
ISBN No. 978-0-307-36178-3

I’m no fan of John Irving and have been consistently disappointed with each and every book of his that I’ve read. Promising storylines devolve into anatomical punchlines; profundities are the cast-iron kind; leitmotifs, leitmotifs, leitmotifs… Still, I always start reading an Irving book in the hope that this one will finally deliver on the promise that each of them suggests: that it’ll finally be a great novel in the Charles Dickens tradition. “In One Person” is a great novel – a great John Irving novel. Expanding on an aside he floated in his first book (“The World According to Garp”) of a “sexual suspect,” his new novel chronicles 50 years in a life of a bisexual man. This alone makes “In One Person” a talking point; Irving rarely writes about bisexuality and rarely in the first person, as he does here. Still, it’s that mention of THE Charles Dickens in the book’s first paragraph that raises expectations. The result – depending on what you think of Irving as a writer – is either an epic, socio-political examination of the libido, or a litany of the conceits Irving refuses to retire: dirty words, competitive wrestling, manufactured melodrama. Those are the same complaints people had about “The World According to Garp” when it was published way in 1978 (with different, coloured covers for its paperback edition). But “Garp” also won a National Book Award and Irving has spent his last 12 novels sorting through these mixed messages trying to prove the prize wasn’t an accident. The only difference now is that Twitter, texting and reality TV, have produced books by people like Snooki and that girl from “The Hills.” Thus, a novel like “In One Person” with its black-and-white cover and brief allusions to the classics becomes literature simply by default.