In One Person, by John Irving

Loved no other book like this, since I read Iris Murdoch, fifteen years ago. Actually I do think Irving and Murdoch have something in common, as writers. They certainly do for me as a reader. The same incredibly rich reality of the books, throbbing with life and humanity, mingling art into the real story as if to suggest that life is art, that humans (at least some) are works of art, are characters and metaphors of enduring stories.

About this book in particular: there is a constant interplay of Shakespearean scripts, to the extent that characters in the novel are extended by the Shakespearean heroes they enact in school performances – a recurring part of the novel’s plot. The world’s a stage, of course.

The characters themselves: there are ‘set’ ones, static, never evolving or changing, captured in a stance, in sometimes repetitive attitudes, and there are evolving characters, ‘in transition’, ‘in progress’. ‘Death-in-progress’ is what one of the boys describes his performance of Lear’s fool. It’s as if the book is fundamentally centred on the evolving characters (who in this novel happen to be evolving in terms of sexual identity), who are backed by an array of set characters, just like pillars. These set characters will in the story show the ‘changelings’ either understanding, love, tolerance, or be averse to them – or a combination of all this. meant to support, or challenge, or offset their personalities.

What I loved about Irving’s skill creating his ‘changelings’ is precisely his resort to literary motifs: either the changeling plays the sexually mutable Ariel, for example, or the changeling quotes and discusses a Shakespearean line or passage (e.g. Prospero’s famous epilogue) – or there is a frequent play with names and nicknames to shed further light on identity. The storyteller is called Bill or Billy by mostly everyone, but William by his love Miss Frost, then William Abbott as a writer, but Nymph as a mocking nickname by his love-and-hate Kittredge. Interestingly, he is several times referred to, by a school mate, as ‘the one who was going to be Lear’s fool’.

What touched me above all is the thread of the story, which goes along one person’s life story, and as it happens in life, so many of the people we have met, loved, hated, who have taught us or marked us, so many of them die within our lifetime. So that it all seems in the end that the book is life-in-progress, and that life is death-in-progress – though there is no gloom, only melancholy in the book. Again Shakespeare casts his long shadow here; as a kid Bill had wanted to rewrite Shakespeare by omitting what he felt was the useless Epilogue to the Tempest, when Prospero becomes a mortal; as a grown-up, he will find that this is ‘a world of epilogues’ – where we all relinquish in the end our act and just become mere humans, mere mortals.

It is so remarkable that a universe that is so hard to relate to, for me, namely that of sexual ‘questioners’ becomes so accessible and human. This is where artistic genius comes in, I guess. Reaching out beyond the story itself and making it appealing on a generally human level – revealing and thought- (and emotion) provoking. Just as the book ends: with an urge, a demand, not to put labels, not to dismiss the multifaceted reality of life rolling beneath the labels.

And yes, another thing: so much wealth of inner life ‘in one person’. Can we find all fulfillment in the love of one person? Can one person allow us to wear the multitude of faces that we own? This could take us to a fresh definition of love.