John Irving: In One Person

Irving, John (2012), In One Person, Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781451664126

IMG_20141001_012503So in my recent run of reviews I reviewed and discussed some writers I enjoy greatly. Among them perennial favorites. I however like to think that I am good at being reasonably, well, reasonable and reasoned about these matters. With a handful of writers, I just completely lose that ability. One of those writers is John Irving. I cannot, with any degree of certainty, tell you whether he’s a genuinely good writer. I know I love his work. I am excited for his books to come out, I enjoy his writing and characters and plots greatly, I’m just fundamentally a fan of his work. When I mentioned, in my review of Lawrence Norfolk’s last novel, that it was like comfort food when it came out after such a long period of silence, well, that’s how Irving’s work is for me all of the time. That is not to say that I don’t see faults in his work. It’s just that they don’t necessarily influence what I think of the books. A Son of the Circus, a highly problematic book, is also one of my favorites. I make exceptions for exactly 3 of his novels. I think his first two novels are markedly subpar, apprentice efforts, but many writers have those. And then there’s The Fourth Hand (2001), which I read the minute it came out and which turned out to be a sloppy, rushed self-caricature of a novel that I always somehow blamed on his preoccupation with what he called his “movie business”. Irving has since nicely recovered from it, publishing good to very good novels. His most recent one, In One Person may just be his best novel in many years, one of his very best efforts. As far as I can tell. A writer whose work I am so personally influenced by and indebted to is hard to recommend to others, but I can say this much: if you have read any other Irving book and enjoyed it, you will like this one, as well. In many ways it serves as a summary of a long and great career, touching on issues, tropes and ideas prevalent in many of his best books. That said, there’s a second group of readers to whom I can issue a definite recommendation: if you read any Irving and fundamentally disliked it, this is also not for you. It is not a book that will win over critics of his work. For everyone else, I recommend reading the rest of my review, maybe. In my opinion, In One Person, an interrogation of how the life that we led outlasts us, is a fantastic book, maybe even great.

DSC_0262The main problem with saying Irving is a great writer or calling any of his books great is how workmanlike he is as an artist. His prose is always well crafted, but designed to mainly stay out of the way of his characters and plot. It doesn’t make you stumble, nor does it invite you to stop and admire individual lines or paragraphs. In many ways he follows and echoes American literary traditions, but all the major writers of that tradition had a style that was important and remarkable. Irving’s stylistic unremarkableness is not something we associate with great writers. And yet, a page of mature Irving is instantly recognizable. This is not a case of a writer like Paul Auster who would be better off writing screenplays instead of novels. Irving’s unremarkableness is not an inept blandness, or the merely serviceable writing that you’ll find in a lot of genre literature. Irving intentionally strikes a tone that has just the right wavelength to support and cushion his characters. He’s well aware of where his style could go. I was introduced to James Salter’s writing through remarks in Irving’s books, and he championed Salter and other stylistically acute writers consistently. Irving just chooses, I think, to craft his style differently. This explanation of mine, however, is not only tainted by the fact that I am a fan of his work, it also doesn’t change anything about the literary surface of his work. It doesn’t make his novels more directly capital-l Literary. The signifiers that we take to show us literary excellence are sidestepped by Irving. It’s not just the prose. It’s also his plots and characters. Irving is very self-consciously literary, and includes metafictional artifacts in his work, playing with the ideas of authorial identity and authority, offering us postmodern epistemologies and games. In many respects, however, these seem extraneous to the emotional core of his novels, which is the interior landscape of his characters. Irving can marshal music, myth and miracles in order to show us the alienated heart of a teenager in the New Hampshire province, but we are never deluded as to where his focus is: it’s always personal and emotional. That kind of writing shares a lot with partisan political essays: they tend to primarily appeal to those already converted. If you fail to be empathetic to the emotional narrative Irving has to tell, you are bound to enjoy the book you’re reading much less. That is not how we conventionally frame Literature, which we frame as having an appeal even when its content is objectionable.

DSC_0260What’s remarkable is how little all of this seems to bother Irving. There is no attempt in his work to be more “respectable”, although the madhouse that is A Son of the Circus is not something that he tried his hand on again. Irving is one of the rare writers who know what he can do well and what he wants to do. He’s written some short stories, but his style and method are a much better fit for long-form books, and so his stories are restricted to a faily slim volume called Trying to Save Peggy Sneed (1996) which, while not bad, is clearly not where his strength lies. Irving describes himself as an obsessive writer who lives for his craft and puts in 12 hour days at the computer when he is drafting. His method, as he outlines it in his Paris Review interview, is one where he accumulates a lot of material, writing faster than he can read, just revel in telling a story, including digressions. It is only afterwards that he goes about revising and sculpting the novel. But however he cuts and forms the text, the core of it, the obsessibe torrent of story, that part always remains. Irving does not betray his characters, he works them out through stories and events. They are not intended to stand in for anything else, they are part of a storytelling process and are treated kindly, if sharply, by Irving’s pen. And that has a lot of downside to it. Because Irving has so little interest in the intellectual construction of his novels, some of the associations and references can be a bit difficult, because of course his characters do signify beyond their paltry selves. Of course they do, and not just within the symbolic order of the individual book, but also within broader social or cultural contexts. But these signifying acts are often a bit displaced and muddy, because they are not consistently worked out. That said, this doesn’t happen all that much, because, despite his protest (“I’m not an analyst and I’m not an intellectual.”), he does ground many of his books politically and intellectually. From his contribution to the debate on abortion and female choice (The Cider House Rules) to his examination of the American state of mind during the Vietnam war (A Prayer for Owen Meany) and now gay and bisexual rights with the new book, there is not a lot of room for political ambiguity, however his plots and characters shake out.

DSC_0261In fact, despite Irving’s own protests and many critical readings, his books are more delicate and analytical than they are given credit for. The most recent one, In One Person, is a perfect example of this. One could look at it as an involving and evolving story of a young queer man’s discovery of sexuality and maturity, and it certainly works well from this angle. Irving’s protagonist William/Billy Abbott has a clear and sympathetic voice. We are told his story from his point of view, moving back and forth with the vagaries of a 70 year old man’s memories. The joys, tragedies and revelations of Billy’s life are basically offered to us without buffering or caution. If his readers are willing to follow, Billy will lead them through a story that contains numerous affairs, changes, death and a magnificent amount of small set pieces that Irving has spent a lifetime of honing his skills at. There are intrigues, betrayals and a multitude of secrets. Bigotry attacks the good people in Irving’s book, and they strength and honesty often wins out. It’s a cauldron of stories, all of them centered around Billy Abbott and his librarian friend, Miss Frost. This description seems a bit broad because I don’t want to spoil many of the book’s lovely surprises and turns. Not because there is some dramatic tension that will be punctured, some criminal whose identity will be revealed too early. No, it’s precisely because In One Person is more than just one excitable wave of story. It’s a very delicate artifact that uses its revelations and explanations as means to draw you in, to make you an active, complicit collaborator in its theater of identity. Because that’s really what it is, an almost 500 page long disquisition on identity. It uses actual theatrical performances as a way to both develop the topic intellectually, as well as quite practically involve the book’s characters in staged performances that mirror personal instances of performativity. There are men living as women, taking up a theme that goes all the way back in Irving’s work to Roberta Muldoon, the former football player. who famously said in The World According to Garp, “All men are liars“ and who, as Irving hastened to add “knew this was true because she had once been a man.” There are men living as men but performing women onstage. There are gay men perfoming heterosexuality, and there are bisexual people who perform all kinds of things. People burst into rooms to find perfomances, staged and unstaged.

DSC_0241And yet none of this reads as stiff as I make it sound, because below it all is the story of Billy, whose sexual awakening is told in perfect pitch, this itself being a literary performance. Because to all the above to this is the layer of the book itself, handing us a character that is biographically similar to its author, and who, as a novelist, narrates the book. This raises the question of the book itself as performance, which is one layer among many. This Chinese box of tales of identity that ultimately engulfs the whole of the book itself is not, however, some idle game. We have to give up things for choosing our own performance. Some have to give up a public life, like Miss Frost, some have to live liminal lives that only fully flower onstage and some die. Death is what we start off with, and the specter of AIDS. Billy was born 15 years after Merrill, but his view of the great scourge of the gay community in the 1980s ressemble’s Merrill’s. In elegy after beautiful elegy, Merrill struggled with being the one who was alive while so many of his friends died. In “Tony: Ending the Life”, Merrill writes

Mirrors are graves, as all can see:
Knew this emerging mask would outlast me,
Just as the life outlasts us, that we led?

Mirrors are transient images, but the “emerging mask” is also a kind of performance. Merrill’s work is full of roles performed, and of people about to enter stages. AIDS threatened the freedom of choice in this, the ability to free yourself from the bigotry of decades past that was ongoing at the time. It’s important to read In One Person from this angle to see what’s at stake in all the minor squabbles. Overall, the novel is a long coming of age book for a 70 year old bisexual author, who lost friends and acquaintances to time and this terrible disease. The book being his own performance, he examines what will outlast him, and what has outlasted those in his life that already passed on.

DSC_0265On top of all that, the book itself, beyond its status as a partially auto/biographical performance, sometimes feels like a sampler of many elements of Irving’s work. There may be no bears, but as mentioned above, a Roberta-like character is moved from minor character to heroine, the whole book is set in a smart New Hampshire town, more precisely, in a New England boarding school. Billy visits Vienna and he becomes, briefly, a wrestler. Sports itself is treated as another performance that allows participants to actively engage in roles and rituals. This interaction with Irving’s whole oeuvre points to the centrality of art. Art doesn’t magically make everything better, but I suspect Irving would agree with the spirit of Merrill’s assertion in “Farewell Performance”, another elegy dedicated to a friend who died of AIDS. Merrill starts his poem saying “Art. It cures affliction.“ – in a poem about someone who died, who we cannot save by writing a poem however exquisite. But in examining braveness and honesty we can stand up to “pity and terror”, as Merrill framed it. Some might criticize Irving’s novel for taking on such a socially important topic in such an Irvingian and quaint environment, but they would fail to understand how important art is to this book. Or to its author. This is what he also implies when he says, in the aforementioned Paris Review interview: “I am compulsive about writing, I need to do it the way I need sleep and exercise and food and sex“ – it is also a moral stance. In case it’s not become clear, I consider John Irving an important writer, wherever he may be in discussions of canon. And In One Person is an important book.


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“Twenty-five. Celibate.”

Reposted (from 1984), on the NYRB page, this fine poem by James Merrill. Enjoy.

James Merrill: Casual Wear
Your average tourist: Fifty. 2.3
Times married. Dressed, this year, in Ferdi Plinthbower
Originals. Odds 1 to 910
Against her strolling past the Embassy

Today at noon. Your average terrorist:
Twenty-five. Celibate. No use for trends,
At least in clothing. Mark, though, where it ends.
People have come forth made of colored mist

Unsmiling on one hundred million screens
To tell of his prompt phone call to the station,
“Claiming responsibility”—devastation
Signed with a flourish, like the dead wife’s jeans

Thinking about Merrill

Here is the conclusion of my odd dusty old manuscript on Merrill. Have a ball.

James Merrill’s work contains many places; we have, in the past pages, mentioned a few of them. I could well have picked other poems, those I picked, however, offered enough diversity, in terms of publishing date, length and content, that the findings cannot be blamed on a cluster of any of those factors. They could indeed be blamed on selective choosing of poems yet I am confident that as the paper progressed my findings became more and more evident and plausible since I would argue that the general approach works for every poem of place in Merrill’s work. We also discussed how these places are portrayed or used in the poetry; from our discussion we developed, step by step, an understanding of the mechanism and developed our own terms to describe that mechanism.

In this conclusion we will take a final look at that mechanism and its range and limits. The first thing to notice is that we multiplied the number of places since we claimed that memories and dreams are treated in the poetry as if they were separate places. This is in no way a proposition about some actual place or something comparable. This proposition is only concerned with the workings of the poetry, where memory is, indeed, a sort of place, as is dream. There is one major difference between these sort of virtual places and actual places: With actual places we discussed the possibility of them being home or a home, we graded them on a scale from very far away from home, such as Japan in the “Prose of Departure”, to very close to home, such as New York. Memories and dreams are left out, since one cannot live in dreams or memories, much as one would like to do it.

Memories are places constructed by the remembering mind, which recollects a few salient objects. The same applies to dreams. This is rather similar to writing, which makes it especially important in a poet such as James Merrill. Merrill is a poet of detail: an abundance of puns, rhymes, meter, as well as countless allusions and numerous details are defining properties of his writing. The mechanism which creates the memory and dream places is thus one that is at the heart of James Merrill’s poetry. This is the first meaning of the title of the thesis. The second, and arguably more important one is concerned with ‘real’ places. We put “real” in inverted commas not because we adhere to a skepticist postmodern idea of reality, but because we found out quickly that real places and the cultural layer through which we perceive them, are virtually indistinguishable.

The speaker of Merrill’s poems casts this cultural layer over his descriptions, it is like tinted glass, without knowledge of the exact colors in the glass. The indistinguishable quality is mostly derived from selection and cannot be checked afterwards. Objects, persons and events that have fallen by the wayside are irretrievable, since our undertaking here is literary criticism and not biography. All we have, to cite that old chestnut, is the text, which presents the preselected, preformed version of reality. The cultural layer, insofar as it can be gleaned from the text, is not only a hindrance. It is also a key to understanding the speaker since it speaks volumes about his background. The important thing here is to step away from calling the cultural layer, as I have admittedly just done, a hindrance. Instead it is a special way of framing places.

Places in James Merrill’s poetry are a conglomerate of different factors. Roughly speaking they consist of real place plus the speaker’s perception of the place. We already noted that this perception is affected by what we called the cultural layer. This is, however, but half the story. In our discussion of poems like “The Thousand and Second Night” as well as “An Urban Convalescence”, we pointed to a second factor: the speaker’s body. Between the body of Merrill’s travelers and the place they visit strange relationships develop. The sickness of a city may translate into a immobilizing sickness of the speaker and the speaker’s convalescence may find a mirror in the city’s parallel process of convalescence. Again, the caveat: this is not about actual causality, but about the inner workings of Merrill’s poems. And there we find that the speakers, while perceiving places cerebrally through the cultural layer, also often perceive them viscerally, via their bodies. This dependence upon bodily travel is remarkable and noteworthy in as literary and abstract, even, a poetical language as Merrill’s. If we recall our chapter on Sandover, we find that the visceral, bodily kind of perception is also the one most directly involved in receiving the spirits at the Ouija board, where the reception takes place in the “RED CELLS”.

Thus, to iterate, places in Merrill’s poetry are real places plus the culturally or bodily mediated experience of them. This leads to a few points of interest which, due to length and focus of this thesis, we have not been able to address, yet are sure could and should be addressed at length in later studies of Merrill and his work. The first is the question of performativity. Merrill, as has been pointed out almost ad nauseam in secondary literature creates rooms within his poetry (cf. for instance Lundquist). They are not places in our understanding of the word, not if we want to keep the word meaningful and not a catch-all term. However, I did mention how close the process of mentally creating a place and the process of creating a poem is, especially since all we have is the created poem, which mimicks the mental process. Recollection is a gesture, a function of Merrill’s poetry. Performativity also, however, refers to questions of identity, which, whether it touches upon questions of gender or sexual preference, is highly interesting as a topic in Merrill’s poetry. Secondary literature on Merrill has focused too much on direct intentionality, which we owe to the fact that the leading scholars on Merrill, Kalstone, McClatchy and Yenser, have all been friends with the poet, and their understanding of the poet has developed in key with their communication with him, so that the two elements have become inseparable, which is, as I mentioned in the introduction the reason why I used so few secondary sources to argue my readings of the poems.

This leads us to the next large issue that I have not been able to touch upon yet which
seems to be a fecund issue to explore in more detail: language and communication. First the actual language used in the poems: James Merrill’s poetry is written in American English, sometimes it contains, for example, pieces of French, when expressing aspects of his speaker’s cultural layer, and sometimes it contains pieces of, for example, Greek, when focusing upon the local cultural layer. The second aspect is the way that language is molded in poems like Sandover: the spirits often deviate from common usage. Questions are turned into “?s”, for example, divinely inspired work is called “V work” and for a while, Mirabell prefaces each metaphor with a bracketed ‘m’. Also, the orthography is sloppy. This is so interesting because it raises questions of voice and questions about the boundary between the written and the spoken word. After all, Sandover is a dialogue, only one side never utters an audible word. Instead it makes a cup move upon a wooden board, letter by letter. This is remarkable. What seems like quick, effortless dialogue has been dictated letter by letter. Even if done at the utmost speed, taking such a dictation must take quite a while.

The last large issue is connected to the two already raised: unquestionably Merrill writes from a position of privilege. How is this reflected in his work? Secondary literature tends to either attack him for inhuman arrogance in Sandover or snobbish ignorance in his other work, or it completely exonerates him. I have yet to see either position cogently argued. Both positions are usually written like preachings to the choir. Here, again, much of the focus would rest upon Sandover, where a complex web of discourses about authority, racism, power, identity, has been woven, and people misrepresent it usually.

Merrill is, however, a writer easily misrepresented. The complexity of his work, both on the level of allusions, on the formal level and on the plain level of content assures that even a thorough study will pass some points by. By concentrating on a series of close readings I hope to have found a way to cope with the issue as good as possible. My intent was to demonstrate how places, be it cities or countries, are represented in James Merrill’s poetry and to argue that places are central to that poetry. The mechanics we uncovered/invented are useful instruments to tackle all poems by Merrill, because the tension between self and the environment, which is debated time and again in the poetry, is Merrill’s constant theme. Merrill’s is a poetry of places: it is a poetry about places, where the reader is transported all around the world. And it is a poetry where places play a formative role. Merrill’s speakers all have bodies, they are somewhere, they have had corporeal experience. If this sounds trite, please reconsider: Merrill uses, like few other poems of his caliber, his speaker’s bodies as a constant way of grounding them, while developing one of the most conceptually daring poetries of his time. His ability to reconcile these two extremes rests on his treatment of places.

James Merrill reading

full poem below the video

James Merrill: A Renewal

Having used every subterfuge
To shake you, lies, fatigue, or even that of passion,
Now I see no way but a clean break.
I add that I am willing to bear the guilt.

You nod assent. Autumn turns windy, huge,
A clear vase of dry leaves vibrating on and on.
We sit, watching. When I next speak
Love buries itself in me, up to the hilt.

A god breathed from my lips.

James Merrill: Days of 1964

Houses, an embassy, the hospital.
Our neighborhood sun-cured if trembling still
In pools of the night’s rain . . .
Across the street that led to the center of town
A steep hill kept one company part way
Or could be climbed in twenty minutes
For some literally breathtaking views,
Framed by umbrella pines, of city and sea.
Underfoot, cyclamen, autumn crocus grew
Spangled as with fine sweat among the relics
Of good times had by all. If not Olympus,
An out-of-earshot, year-round hillside revel.

I brought home flowers from my climbs.
Kyria Kleo who cleans for us
Put them in water, sighing Virgin, Virgin.
Her legs hurt. She wore brown, was fat, past fifty,
And looked like a Palmyra matron
Copied in lard and horsehair. How she loved
You, me, loved us all, the bird, the cat!
I think now she was love. She sighed and glistened
All day with it, or pain, or both.
(We did not notably communicate.)
She lived nearby with her pious mother
And wastrel son. She called me her real son.

I paid her generously, I dare say.
Love makes one generous. Look at us. We’d known
Each other so briefly that instead of sleeping
We lay whole nights, open, in the lamplight,
And gazed, or traded stories.

One hour comes back—you gasping in my arms
With love, or laughter, or both,
I having just remembered and told you
What I’d looked up to see on my way downtown at noon:

poor old Kleo, her aching legs,
Trudging into the pines. I called.
Called three times before she turned.
Above a tight, skyblue sweater, her face
Was painted. Yes. Her face was painted
Clown-white, white of the moon by daylight,
Lidded with pearl, mouth a poinsettia leaf.
Eat me, pay me—the erotic mask
Worn the world over by illusion
To weddings of itself and simple need.

Startled mute, we had stared—was love illusion?—
And gone our ways. Next, I was crossing a square
In which a moveable outdoor market’s
Vegetables, chickens, pottery kept materializing
Through a dream-press of hagglers each at heart
Leery lest he be taken, plucked,
The bird, the flower of that November mildness,
Self lost up soft clay paths, or found, foothold,
Where the bud throbs awake
The better to be nipped, self on its knees in mud—
Here I stopped cold, for both our sakes;

And calmer on my way home bought us fruit.

Forgive me if you read this. (And may Kyria Kleo,
Should someone ever put it into Greek
And read it aloud to her, forgive me, too.)
I had gone so long without loving,
I hardly knew what I was thinking.

Where I hid my face, your touch, quick, merciful,
Blindfolded me. A god breathed from my lips.
If that was illusion I wanted it to last long;
To dwell, for its daily pittance, with us there,
Cleaning and watering, sighing with love or pain.
I hoped it would climb when it needed to the heights
Even of degradation as I for one
Seemed, those days, to be always climbing

Into a world of wild
Flowers, feasting, tears— or was I falling, legs
Buckling, heights, depths,
Into a pool of each night’s rain?
But you were everywhere beside me, masked,
As who was not, in laughter, pain, and love.

Why did I flinch? I loved you.

James Merrill: The Mad Scene

Again last night I dreamed the dream called Laundry.
In it, the sheets and towels of a life we were going to share,
The milk-stiff bibs, the shroud, each rag to be ever
Trampled or soiled, bled on or groped for blindly,
Came swooning out of an enormous willow hamper
Onto moon-marbly boards. We had just met. I watched
From outer darkness. I had dressed myself in clothes
Of a new fiber that never stains or wrinkles, never
Wears thin. The opera house sparkled with tiers
And tiers of eyes, like mine enlarged by belladonna,
Trained inward. There I saw the cloud-clot, gust by gust,
Form, and the lightning bite, and the roan mane unloosen.
Fingers were running in panic over the flute’s nine gates.
Why did I flinch? I loved you. And in the downpour laughed
To have us wrung white, gnarled together, one
Topmost mordent of wisteria,
As the lean tree burst into grief.