Steven Poole 

In One Person by John Irving – review

Steven Poole applauds a comic celebration of polymorphous perversity
  
  

Everyone's an actor, in an amateur-dramatic society whose prompter has fallen ill and whose audience comes only for the pleasure of hating the show and leaving at the interval. So try not to be too harsh on your fellow players. Something like this metatheatrical moral drives John Irving's deeply enjoyable new novel, which has a Shakespearean title (from Richard II: "Thus play I in one person many people, / And none contented"), and a large part of which centres on an amateur-dramatic society in late-1950s New England.

Our narrator, William, begins by recounting his high-school teenage years. The local am-dram outfit is the First Sister Players: his mother is the prompter, his stepfather directs, and his grandpa Harry enthusiastically dons falsies to play women. It is not lost on William, who is sexually interested in both boys and girls (with often charmingly funny results), that cross-dressing is more tolerated in a Shakespeare production than it is in the outside world. William is obsessed with a conceited fellow schoolboy, and also with the alluringly mysterious town librarian, Miss Frost, who recommends to him appropriate literature about "crushes on the wrong people".

The novel becomes a comic celebration of polymorphous perversity, and of literature. William plays Ariel in The Tempest, and Irving plays adroitly Shakespearean tricks: several deaths, and one beautiful witticism, happen offstage, to be reported later by minor characters. There are important parts for Dickens, Flaubert, James Baldwin, and the plays of Ibsen, beloved of an amusingly morose Norwegian sawmill-owner.

Irving also toys with recurring themes from his backlist. A line that William cites fondly from his first novel is taken from Irving's own The Hotel New Hampshire. In One Person resembles especially Irving's most famous novel, the wondrous The World According to Garp. Both TS Garp and William Abbott are novelists; both have absent fathers; both have a bookish girl as best friend and, later, lover. The courage of Garp's minor character Roberta Muldoon, a man who becomes a woman, is here a major theme. Adult William has affairs with men, women and people on the way from being one to the other. "I know only a few post-op transsexuals," he says at one point. "The ones I know are very courageous. It's daunting to be around them; they know themselves so well. Imagine knowing yourself that well! Imagine being that sure about who you are."

William takes two-thirds of this substantial novel to grow up; the rest of it is episodic epilogue, with increasingly bleak but often still very funny fragments of scenes from the following half-century. People begin to contract Aids; in one virtuosically unsentimental scene, William visits a dying former lover. What initially seemed an unbalanced novelistic structure is vindicated by the way we greet William's old friends, now grown older and more or less sick, with a delighted or dismayed recognition, since we too spent so much time with them all those years ago. William is constantly nudging us to share his own memories (Do you remember this guy? Do you remember what that guy said?), a literary device that proves impressively effective. The term "tragicomedy" tends to be rather loosely applied nowadays to anything that's a bit funny and a bit sad; In One Person deserves it more than most.

If a novel were simply a plea for understanding of sexual difference, it would be bad art; this book is elevated beyond the merely political by, among other things, the ebullient voice of its narrator. William uses italics and exclamation marks for emphasis, one effect of which is that their absence makes his mordant judgments even more drily funny: "Like my grandmother, Aunt Muriel managed to be both arrogant and judgmental without saying anything that was either verifiable or interesting." He also has a talent for saying the wrong thing: "You can't take back something like 'Definitely not a ballroom'; it's simply not what you should ever say after your first vaginal sex."

The sport of wrestling features in many of Irving's novels, and it plays a particularly satisfying role in this story. In order to defend himself against aggressive bigots, the young William is taught a single wrestling move by the marvellous Miss Frost (the novel's conscience and heroine). William practises his duck-under over the years in wrestling clubs, and eventually gets to use it in anger against someone who richly deserves it. In a novel so subtly alert to theatrical convention, this is surely a nod to Chekhov. After all, if you put a loaded gun on the stage, you had better make sure someone fires it by the end of the final act.