There is only so much unwarranted and unrewarding absurdity a mind can take, John Irving. I expect you to know that, I expect you to be skilled at toeing that fine line between the ridiculousness that turns when you least expect it and plain lack of sense. I know this, because I have known you since I was eight? nine?—since I first unearthed my mother’s tattered, yellowing paperback of The World According to Garp under my bottom-bunk bed (where, it seemed, all the good books were—I found an as-abused Fahrenheit 451 there, too). And you’ve always made me believe in, say, bears living in an abandoned hotel, sneaking out once in a while to practice its act on a unicycle. Or in the towering of one Jenny “Sexual Suspect” Fields as she decides to bear a son from a wounded and barely conscious soldier, in the heartache of her son down the road: Tailgating a parked car that bore his wife and his wife’s lover, the ensuing literal emasculation, the death of one child, the half-blinding of another. There were absurd things in our natural lives, the lucky among us would be caught in peculiar and most extraordinary circumstances—and you gleefully pointed all these out. And, always: There was generosity in your telling, there was heart in each story.
I found very little of those, of what I love you for, in your In One Person. You had your vision: A bildungsroman of a bisexual man, one who grew up in the 60s fraught with the agony of having “the wrong crushes” on the wrong kinds of people. Billy Abbott was a recognizable, rather undeniable, John Irving hero. You made him curious about the world, and attuned to—and later on, caught in—its secrets. You gave him a New England town and a New England prep school with all its wrestling tropes and wintry, abandoned bleachers, and the off-site promise of coeds. You gave him an origin he would not fully understand for a while; you gave him a zany family—each member more eccentric, more symbol-laden than the last: an absent father known only by a photograph and a handful of stories, a mother who prompted lines in town plays, a grandfather who shone in women’s roles; an Amazon-like librarian with small, girlish breasts, a beautiful boy in school with finely corded shoulders, an as-peculiar girl in town to be the best of friends with. This was the John Irving model.
I’ve always maintained that with the kind of hodge-podge your surround yourself with, the various setups made for complicated hilarity and eventual tenderness: To a lesser writer, the juggling act alone would crush him. But you’ve always managed to make all that potential mess work—the seamless manipulation of the narrative!—all the while staying true to the misfits that people your story. You knew how to make a character real, you knew how to make credible the absurd situations they steep themselves in—you knew you needed to take your time with them, that you needed to be generous both to these figures on paper and to the reader who’d spend time with them.
You didn’t quite succeed with this one. You peopled your novel with rich characters, but you could not do right by them, the way you always did in other climes, other times. Instead of allowing your brand of strange circumstances, the kind of off-kilter decisions Irving characters seem to have armed themselves with—these were too ham-fisted and, thus, stifled them. It was just a string of absurdities—one ridiculous revelation after another that had no pay-off—that had no sense, in the way you’ve always succeeded in making sense of the oddest things.
You have never made me so aware of how stretched credibility was in your novels; you’ve never made me chafe at the suspension of disbelief necessary to reading your brand of realism. One example of many: You truly expected me to nod meekly, I suppose, at the fact that Billy Abbott grew up surrounded by transgender individuals—including [I mean, really now?!] the father he never knew? That he had a crush on his stepfather was compelling—that he found himself fascinated by the town librarian with the small, girlish breasts even more so. I approved of a grandfather wowing the town—if not continually risking their ire—by marvelously playing women in theater productions. I knew that there had to be that one, unreachable boy—that one, far-too-beautiful boy—he had to fall in love with; plus the girl he loved, but not quite in the same way. But for all of them to reveal themselves transgender down the line? To have them die of AIDS (or, worse, of shame) one after the other? And for all this to be revealed in the last fifty pages, not unlike a patronizing pat on the reader’s head: “Of course, you see, it’ll only make sense this way!” You are a better, more generous writer than this, a more skilled manipulator of narrative. (And, please, don’t get me started on your complete lack of focus—your willingness to jump forwards and backwards in time to hammer down a point known only to you. You’ve always dwelled, and we all loved you for that—why couldn’t you stay still?)
You are not supposed to be the kind of old friend I’ve been forced to mutter, “Are you fucking kidding me?” over and over whilst I am in your company—and after years of nothing. Goddammit all to hell and back, John.