A BYOB Book Club: In One Person, John Irving

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If you think that you have to “bring your own bottle” to this book club, sorry, you are off the mark! This was the catchy title of the book club hosted by the Burlington (Ontario) Central Public Library. Essentially this is to say that they do not provide the book, and to attend the book club, you have to at least have read the book and if possible, bring a copy along.

This was the first time I attended a public book club. I signed up simply because I came across the notice soon after I had read John Irving’s In One Person and felt interested in hearing what other people had to say about it. The library seemed well-prepared on their part. They had available for downloading a list of the rules and a dozen or so questions for attendants to ponder ahead of time.

I also invited my friend AK, who had never been to a book club, along. It turned out there were only six people present, plus a librarian who led the discussion. The atmosphere was friendly and open, and everybody got a chance to speak out on the issues. The librarian commented that attendance to this book club was not high, compared to a few that were held in the evening in a pub. I wondered whether this was a reflection of the preference for the time or for the venue.

We went around the group to talk about our overall impression. One member had read many John Irving’s books and noted the similarity with his previous work The World According to Garp (1982) in which a boy grew up with a single mother in the absence of a father figure. My friend opined that she actually gave up after the third chapter, because it was not her genre–she loved mystery and crime stories—-and that the topic was outside of her imagination and interest. I found myself feeling divided throughout the book. It was a gripping book emotionally, but when I put on my analytic hat, I frequently questioned how much the message that the book conveyed about gender orientation running in the family would stand up to scientific scrutiny. A reader who was a student in gender studies agreed. One reader found the book emotionally intriguing and she liked particularly the author’s treatment of how Billy and his family members talked to each other, and what they said suggested the affection they had for one another.

We seemed able to identity several salient themes in the book to examine more closely. At the same time, the majority of us wanted a glossary in the book to explain the sexual behaviour of the LGBT (gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and trans-sexual) and the transvestite communities, and more medical details about the transsexuals.

The story is about Billy’s journey in discovering his sexual identity. He has grown up in a family which seems loving and tolerant enough, and yet he is left to himself to feel like a misfit regarding who he is and why he has all those strange feelings about the opposite sex and his same-sex friends. One of his wakening episodes is his friend Elaine’s bra, to be followed by more sexual experiences in his years abroad. There is tension throughout, because his family apparently knows about the secret of Ms Frost, and yet Billy is being left totally out of it. Richard (his mother’s boyfriend, hence an outsider of his family) takes Billy to the library, and just imagine the irony embedded in his remark, “I just want to read about me.” (Isn’t John Irving a clever writer?) So comes Ms Frost to give him the book. Essentially Ms Frost gives Billy the key to his gender identity.  It is also another outsider, his friend Gerry’s father, who tells Billy that he is a “double whammy”.

So what is the role of Billy’s family in the story (Library Book Club Question #8)? It seems that his mother and his sister are not directly instrumental to Billy’s journey. The family unit is a vehicle to explain Billy’s sexual orientation and therefore gives Billy meaning in identifying himself after the realization that he is bi-sexual; but to the readers, an excuse or reason for who Billy is, depending how one looks at it.

Miss Frost asks, “Goodness me, what makes a man?”  What makes a man or a woman in the book (Library Book Club Question #1)? Billy’s story and those of Ms Frost and the other characters lead to the answer “You are what you think you are”. Yet there is a tragic component in all these characters to be what they are. We read throughout the book how the characters in the book face being ostracized, or suffer from AIDS and death. To the title In One Person, John Irving’s choice of epigraph is from William Shakespeare’s Richard II, “Thus play I in one person many people, And none contented” (Library Book Club Question #4), It is a suggestion how unhappy the characters are, fighting between whom they think or want themselves to be, and trying to fit into society’s expectations.

The theme of play or playing a certain role on stage runs throughout the book. (Book Club Question #9). The characters seem more at ease when they assume a role on stage than being who they are in real life. Is life, particularly the lives of people with a different gender orientation playing the roles of multiple persons in one person? They must be rather lost as to what they are. That they are performing the roles in Shakespeare’s and Ibsen’s plays further echoes the line “life is a stage”.

We attempted to imagine what it would be like for Billy to grow up in a small town in the United States in the 1950’s. It would be a tight community in which everybody knew everybody, and there was no secret to hide. This heightens the tension in the development of the story.

Thus confusion between what is masculine and what is feminine is brought about by the sport wrestling, which is conventionally perceived as a masculine game. It is also a tactile game with body contact that may attract individuals such as Ms Frost and Kittredge. John Irving uses wrestling, a sport he knows very well, to illustrate the contradiction between belief and reality.

A novel of sexual orientation and extreme behaviour cannot steer away from writing about sex (Book Club Question #10). John Irving handles the subject matter brilliantly. Our group agreed about his openness but did not accuse him of poor taste. We may not agree with the morality of the novelty, but his treatment of sex was well written. In fact, Irving is so clever in his craft that he becomes persuasive. He arouses the readers’ sympathy towards his characters even when they look upon GLBT issues in our society differently.

A few book club questions (#14, 15 and 16) ask if the reader is  shocked and what is disturbing about the book, and how it contributes to society’s ongoing debates about sexuality, gender and identity. Some of us find it confusing, some feel uncomfortable, and my friend AK does not enjoy the subject matter. While we can approach the book as fiction, we are disturbed by the morality it represents. Why can’t Ms Frost leave Billy alone? Why the seduction of Billy? When they first met, Billy was only seventeen.  In One Person is undoubtedly a controversial novel, and it is going to play an important part in society’s ongoing debate about gender and sexual orientation and identity. John Irving has an agenda, and his personal agenda is fulfilled in arousing sympathy among the readership irrespective whether they endorse the behaviour of the characters. The caveat, however, is whether the implicit message that individuals are born with or inherit certain gender orientation is the reason or just an scientifically unproven excuse.

Our discussion went on for one and a half hours. There were still topics we could not cover, such as the AIDS era and other characters in the book, such as Tom Atkins, Kittredge, Elaine, etc. Immense interest was shown in our discussion, whether we had enjoyed reading the book or not.

Related Site: The Burlington Public Library Book Club Guide

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