The novel begins exactly where it will end: with Miss Frost. Miss Frost is the moral core of the novel. She lives as a woman though she has a penis and breasts. She is sexually and romantically attracted to men but does not have a lover. In a world in which almost everybody is either hiding or unaware of his sexual eccentricities, Miss Frost is confident and stable as herself.
In One Person
By John Irving
Simon & Schuster.
425 pages. $28.
John Irving’s new novel, In One Person, is about the life of a bisexual man from his early teens till his middle-age. It’s not so much a coming-out or a coming-of-age story but the story of coming home. The hero/narrator Billy Abbot begins his sexual life confused and feeling alone, but he finds himself, at the end of the novel, surrounded by people who love him as he is and are willing to defend him as he is.
The novel begins exactly where it will end: with Miss Frost. Miss Frost is the moral core of the novel. She lives as a woman though she has a penis and breasts. She is sexually and romantically attracted to men but does not have a lover. In a world in which almost everybody is either hiding or unaware of his sexual eccentricities, Miss Frost is confident and stable as herself. Billy says of her: “At the time, Miss Frost struck me as the most genuine person I knew.”
In One Person divides into three parts: high school, life after high school before AIDS, and the AIDS epidemic and assorted deaths. In boarding school Billy has a friend named Elaine who will stay his friend his whole life. Billy and Elaine share a crush on Jacques Kittredge who is the quintessential jock-bully. (In the ultimate moment of poetic justice, Kittredge grows up and has sex-change surgery — it turns out he was probably abused by his mother). Kittredge gets Elaine pregnant and harasses Billy about being effeminate. The reader also learns that Billy’s father was probably gay but not out of the closet. After Billy’s birth he ran off with a man he’d met in the Navy. But his whereabouts are unknown.
Billy’s stepfather, Richard, directs Shakespeare plays at the boarding school, and Billy is in most of them, along with Kittredge. Shakespeare becomes a grand motif throughout the novel. The novel’s title itself is from a line in Richard II: “Thus play I in one person many people/and none contented.” The idea of living as yourself as opposed to acting for the world is important throughout the novel. And the parallels between the plays and the characters in the novel rarely go unremarked. Consider that Richard casts Billy as Ariel in The Tempest with Elaine as Miranda and Kittredge as Ferdinand. Irving often treats us to mini-essays about the literary works he mentions. Richard, for example, talks about the way he understands the “the continuum from Caliban through Prospero to Ariel — a kind of spiritual evolution.”
During this period, Billy has intercrural (between thighs) sex with Miss Frost. Just before Billy graduates Miss Frost reveals that she earlier attended the same high school under the name Albert Frost, or Big Al, one of the best wrestlers the school ever had. Though they only spend a couple of nights together and Miss Frost never explicitly reciprocates the emotion, Billy will love Miss Frost with the most romantic fervor of anyone in his life.
After high school Billy spends the summer in Europe with his first boyfriend, Tom Atkins, but the two are not meant for one another, and they drift apart. Billy moves to New York City to study German before spending a year in Vienna at the Insitut Für Europӓische Studien. In Vienna he hooks up with his first girlfriend, Esmeralda, an American and an aspiring opera singer, and Lawrence Upton, a lover and one of his lifelong friends. Larry is a poet who teaches at the institute. Like the Shakespearean director, Richard, Larry is one of the novel’s commentators, a voice of literary evaluation or criticism. Both play a paternal part in Billy’s life though, in Larry’s case, only after he and Billy are no longer lovers.
After college, Billy moves to L.A. with a woman, breaks up and moves back to New York to be with Elaine and Larry who are both living in the city. His mother and aunt die in a car accident, and Elaine and Billy return to their hometown of Second Sister, Vermont, for the funeral where Billy’s uncle, who is terribly intoxicated, lets slip that Billy’s father is living in Spain. (Ironically, the father and his lover seem to have the most stable romantic relationship in the novel.)
We move now into the death and AIDS section of the novel. This part includes some of the most poignant scenes. Irving describes the dying men with a chilling accuracy. But he tamps down the melodrama by including a lot of medical jargon. Tom Atkins, the young man with whom Billy traveled in Europe after high school, ends up married with children. But like many of the characters in the novel, Atkins has kept his homosexuality a secret and contracts AIDS during an affair. Larry’s lover dies of AIDS in his arms. Billy’s Grandpa Harry shoots himself in the bathtub. (Grandpa Harry is a wonderful character. He participates in many of the local plays and almost always takes the role of a woman. It’s unclear if Grandpa Harry is gay, but it’s probable that he is just a straight man who likes to dress in women’s clothing. He is among the kindest and sweetest people Billy knows.) Larry eventually dies cradled in Elaine’s and Billy’s arms. Miss Frost is beaten to death by a group of rowdy sailors at a bar — but not before sending several of them to the hospital. Kittredge dies of natural causes at fifty-four, but, as Billy says, “What ‘natural causes’ can kill you when you’re fifty-four?.”
Billy moves back to Second Sister and into the house he grew up in. He becomes a teacher at the high school where he went as a boy. It is now co-ed and there is a large LGBT community. Billy’s books are all about sexual identity and confusion, and he begins to mentor a young student who is a boy becoming a girl. Billy assumes the role of teaching and directing Shakespeare. The book ends when Kittredge’s son comes to the school to confront Billy. The scene is slightly ridiculous but somehow apt. The boy accuses of Billy of contributing to his father’s gender issues by publicly trying to normalize alternate sexualities. More importantly, he tries to categorize Billy by calling him bisexual. Billy retorts by quoting Miss Frost and thus encases the novel in her morality.
The skeletal story structure which I just described is in chronological order; this is the major narrative arc of the book. But the novel is not set up in chronological sequence. Irving uses a reminiscent first person narrator which means this novel is a memory being fleshed out not a story being told toward an ending. This is an important distinction. The ending, though crucial, is not the point of the novel because the ending is just another moment in Billy’s life. The ending of the novel isn’t even the end of Billy’s life; there’s actually more to the story. What is going on here then? What drives this novel?
Irving does not drive his narrative toward a conclusion. He bobs and weaves his way through a web of thematic and semantic memory association (loosely guided by linear movement of time but not constrained to it) until he lands at a moment in which we have come full circle. The novel begins with Billy saying he is going to tell the reader about Miss Frost and ends with him quoting something she once said to him. “My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me—don’t make me a category before you get to know me!” This ending is not so much circular as a constant presence. The novel itself has a constant awareness of the ending. In fact, the narrator (Billy) says to the reader very early in the novel: “But I’m getting ahead of myself; alas it’s what a writer who knows the end of the story tends to do.”
Thus we have a Billy-of-the-main-narrative, who is unaware of the ending, and the Billy-as-the-narrator, who is wholly aware of the ending, and the way Irving constructs the novel leaves the reader in between the two.
One of the temporal disruption techniques Irving uses is what I call the side-story. He inserts little side-stories throughout the novel which interrupt the main narrative and are always out of their chronological place. Usually the stories are future events (that is future relative to the present of the main narrative). Billy uses something from the main narrative as an associative link or springboard and then launches into the side-story after which he settles back into the main narrative as if nothing had happened. These side-stories serve to give the readers glimpses of the future which the Billy-of-the-main-narrative doesn’t know about yet. They create tension between the three perspectives, the three levels of knowledge at work; Young Billy knows the least and the reader knows more than Billy does but less than the narrator.
The chapter “Leaving Esmeralda” is a good example of the side-story technique. The chapter begins in 1960 with Billy in high school. A few pages in, Billy is talking to a woman whom he feels is rather dominant, but he likes that. Then there is a line a break, and Irving jumps ahead to when Billy and Larry are lovers and living together. Irving ties these two sections together with thematic material about Billy being dominant or submissive in relationships. As in, the first time Larry picks Billy up he shocks him with the question: “Are you a top or bottom, beautiful Bill?” Irving floats forward in time to the seventies in New York to another conversation between Billy and Larry “still seeing each other but no longer living together” which is followed by a flashback to rehearsal for The Tempest when there was a conversation about Ariel’s gender and then a time reference bringing us back to Billy in high school.
Irving makes an interesting move now. There is a line break and then Billy calls himself out: “It’s revealing how I have skipped ahead to my junior year abroad in Vienna, choosing to begin that interlude in my future life by telling you about Larry.” The narrative here is conscious of its erratic movement but only in an analytical way. Billy remarks that he probably skipped ahead and didn’t start with the story of his first girlfriend because he wanted to tell the readers that it is hard to come out as a teenager. Either way, what follows is a miniature essay about being bisexual and dealing with confusing feelings. Right after that there is another line break and then we get the story of Esmeralda which is also the story of Billy’s year abroad. Keep in mind, the main narrative is paused somewhere in high school while Irving wanders down this detour of the future.
But let’s examine more closely the movement here. What we should notice is the intersecting themes, i.e. the way these disparate parts relate to one another. This is all outside the plot, the chronological narrative arc, of the story, but it has to do with Billy’s eventual coming-to-terms with his sexuality. So the chapter begins with the dominant/ submissive dyad; then we have Larry who mistypes Billy for a bottom (submissive) when he is a top; and then Billy remarks on the difficulty of coming out. The paragraph before the Esmeralda story is about Billy not feeling ashamed of being bisexual, of being attracted to women, but he notices that many of his gay friends find this “suspicious.” These thoughts and sentiments are all playing on the theme of a man trying to understand his sexuality, i.e. what he likes; what he doesn’t like; how what he likes makes him and others feel.
This progression of self-analysis is logical and Irving tracks it by telling stories which relate to each step in the analysis until landing on the longer story of Billy’s time with Esmeralda. Curiously, though the chapter is mostly about being with Esmeralda, the title of the chapter is about leaving her. It is interesting that before we are even aware who Esmeralda is, we know that Billy will leave her. The ending of the chapter is in its title. It is as if the ending of this chapter or story is the story itself.
What stands out is that Irving structures the narrative as of Billy were working through memories based on association. Billy is looking back on his life (reminiscing) and picking out idea lines and following them until they lead back the story of his life. The side-story is not meant to press the plot forward but to take a break from the progression. The side-story exemplifies through experience and memory the idea is Billy is thinking about, i.e. when he thinks about being attracted to women he tells the story of his first girlfriend. In this instance, the narrative progresses thematically rather than along a plot line or time line. It creates a novel founded more on the organic nature of thought and memory than the strict linear movement of cause and effect or chronology.
Irving plays with time in other ways besides using side-stories. He quotes snippets of dialogue from disparate times in the novel thus further squishing together the two time-perspectives. For example: “Miss Frost was always making me move to a chair or a couch or a table where there was better light. ‘Don’t ruin your eyes, William. You’ll need your eyes for the rest of your life, if you’re going to be a reader’” (42). This is an interesting example because not only is Irving quoting dialogue that never occurs in a scene in the book, he also implies a number of scenes that did take place. The reader’s understanding of Billy and Miss Frost’s relationship is exponentially richer, deeper and quicker than if Irving had tried to deliver whole scenes.
Irving uses the imperfect tense here which means that the action was never completed, i.e. never perfected. There is this sense then that Miss Frost is always and continuously looking out for Billy. In this off-hand description of an imperfect scene that “always” happened, there is the implication that Miss Frost said these words multiple times and that she will continue to say them.
Sometimes there is no lead-in to the implied scene. Irving drops a quote into the text as its own paragraph. On page 57 there is an example of this:
“Nymph,” Kittredge’s nickname for me, would stick. I had two years to go at Favorite River Academy; a Nymph I would be.
“It doesn’t matter what costume and makeup do to you, Nymph,” Kittredge had said to me privately. “You’ll never be as hot as your mother.”
I was conscious that my mom was pretty and—at seventeen— I was increasingly conscious of how other students at an all boys’ academy like Favorite River regarded her.
These dropped-in-quotes imply scenes that must have happened without giving full descriptions of them. Thus, like the earlier example and like the side-stories, they create a more complete picture of Billy’s life without delving into each specific moment. Interestingly, we don’t arrive at these quotations in a sequential way but the connection is always associative, like memory.
Irving’s use of the reminiscent narrator offers up an interesting way to explore how memory can drive a novel. The reminiscent narrator is not a new structure, but the way Irving leaps from moment to moment semantically (i.e. relating events out of chronological order through ideas) is closer to a memory than just a simple re-telling. We store memories in webs of idea-relationships. And the reminiscent narrative Irving uses to tell the story of Billy Abbot coming to terms with himself is an unwrapping of the idea that is Miss Frost. Miss Frost is an ideal; the person in the novel most at home with herself. Irving begins with her as the kernel idea and then the rest of the book is meant to unpack her, that is: what it means to be her.
We finally land, at the end of the novel, back where we started, and Billy repeats something Miss Frost had said to him, the line: “My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me—don’t make me a category before you get to know me!” We have come full circle and Billy now understands more clearly who Miss Frost was and what she had meant by this line. In One Person is about remembering and understanding. Irving jumps from one time to another taking advantage of the fact that memory has a fluidity in association that breeches temporal boundaries. While remembering we are not constrained by chronological ordering. We have, as the author does, the entire story in front of us at every turn.
— Jacob Glover
Jacob Glover is a Philosophy & Classics student at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is a frequent NC contributor of essays, reviews and poems.
Great stuff Jake. It’s good to see your knowledge of grammar and time coming together.
Nice review. I go back and forth on Irving, but this review makes me inclined to add this novel to the must-read category. Your musings on memory webs is quite interesting and certainly something that makes empirical and anecdotal sense. It would be interesting to see how memory has effected Irving’s work as he’s matured as a writer. Thanks for the review!
Thanks for this, Jacob! You’ve made me want to read Irving again, or at least his new novel. Your discussion of the “side stories” and “the three levels of knowledge at work” is fascinating. And I love the way you describe the process of memory at work in the novel and how Irving uses it as structure and theme.
Jacob, a fascinating and well structured review of John Irving’s novel. I appreciate your thoughtful and insightful analysis. Thanks!
I got to hear Irving speak back in May about this book. Was fascinating that he sees this book as having the same purpose as Garp and Cider House, raging against the same misplaced “moral” impulse in his country. Looking forward to reading it and looking forward to seeing it through your thoughtful perspective.