John Irving’s Latest: In One Person’s Uncommon Commonality
The epigraph at the beginning of John Irving's new novel quotes William Shakespeare: "Thus play I in one person many people, and none contented." I came back to this quote a number of times while making my way through In One Person, impressed that Irving was able to sum up the lives of his characters so well. These are complex individuals, playing many roles, all of them conflicting and competing to dominate. It's something that we can all relate to.
If you're a longtime reader of Irving, you learn to look for the common themes across his novels: a young boy coming of age, an absentee father, a dominating mother. Often there's focus on the sport of wrestling and the setting almost always takes place in a boarding school. All aspects are present here, but this is a very different novel for the author. Many have said John Irving doesn't know what he's doing, writing a book about a bisexual man. In many interviews the author defends himself by very poignantly stating that as an adolescent he was interested in sexuality, in whatever form it took, and that is truly what this book is about.
Each character in this novel has some sort of ambiguity around their sexuality, from the lumberjack grandfather who always insists on playing female roles in the community theater, to the very masculine librarian, Miss Frost, on whom Billy, the main character, has his first adolescent crush. It's through the eyes of Billy -- who narrates for us the lives of his family and his many lovers, both male and female -- that Irving really dives into the complexity of human sexuality. This complexity creates a psychological landscape where we play many characters throughout our lives. How appropriate, then, that Irving chooses to start the novel with a quote from Shakespeare, and that much of the story takes place around rehearsals and theatrical performance.
It's this turmoil within all of us that truly drives the narration of this story, something I think John Irving knows a little bit about.