In One Person John Irving

IOPI enjoyed A Prayer for Owen Meaney but found that this book had many similar themes: a private school setting, a boy with pronunciation difficulties and wresting. Indeed, the narrator of this story is also a writer who is accused of writing about the same themes repeatedly.

The narrator’s teenage sexuality is realistically portrayed: fumbling with a girl and fancying bullies. So too is his desire for knowledge yet he is prone to gaffes, such as not knowing that James Baldwin was black.

He is, however, obsessive, for example about who told a particular story, like someone four years younger and about a ‘training bra’.

He makes some profound statements such as, ‘we are formed by what we desire.’ and “We already are who we are.”

There is the occasional nice turn of phrase, for example arrested development is described as bugs in amber.

However, there are some odd expressions for an American: ‘pissed off’ tends to be English. I thought Americans simply said ‘pissed’

The helpfulness of the librarian reminded me of Jeanette Winterson’s story, and the geekiness of librarians who see books as collectibles rather than as things to ponder is evident in her statement that is was a waste of time rereading any book when there are so many other books.

I didn’t like much that followed the introduction of AIDS to this book – I have previously avoided books that deal with it.

Members of our book group had mixed feelings about this book. Most didn’t like it, for example: ‘It was the opposite of a page-turner.’ ‘Two-thirds of it was a page-turner but he lost his way.’ ‘I liked his quirky start but, by the end, I wanted to fill him.’ ‘I enjoyed quite as bit of it but I wished he’d got on with it. It needed a sharper focus. It was repetitious and needed editing.’ ‘I didn’t /couldn’t finish the book- I really HATED it – difficult to put my finger on it- but it seemed lacking in any kind of narrative drive- very rambling. Also just like a long list of activities- like a big “what I did at the weekend” but for a whole lifetime instead? Or rather who I slept with during my lifetime? Didn’t seem to have any feelings or thoughts or “interior life”.  I just couldn’t engage with the narrator or the story.’ ‘Tedious.’ ‘There is more to people than simply labelling them ‘tops’ or ‘bottoms’.

There is something very unrealistic about this book. It is mainly about school and its aftermath. There cannot be that many people who keep in touch with most of their schoolmates throughout their life and hardly meet anybody else.  Nor can there be that many cross dressers in the same cohort.

The people in the book are also very insular. Despite living in a small town, there is nothing about the outside world except for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Nothing about McCarthyism for example.

Bisexuality needs to be understood more but this book won’t facilitate it.

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