A New York Times bestselling novel of desire, secrecy, and sexual identity, In One Person is a story of unfulfilled love—tormented, funny, and affecting—and an impassioned embrace of our sexual differences. Billy, the bisexual narrator and main character of In One Person, tells the tragicomic story (lasting more than half a century) of his life as a “sexual suspect,” a phrase first used by John Irving in 1978 in his landmark novel of “terminal cases,” The World According to Garp.
In One Person is a poignant tribute to Billy’s friends and lovers—a theatrical cast of characters who defy category and convention. Not least, In One Person is an intimate and unforgettable portrait of the solitariness of a bisexual man who is dedicated to making himself “worthwhile.
I picked this book up because of the LGTBQA+ characters, and shortly after I did, #DiverseAThon was announced. Perfect timing! I could use it for my first book of the week. Sounded like a great plan at the time…
…Unfortunately, doing so turned out to be the biggest cautionary tale of reading #OwnVoices books of all time. John Irving is not gay. He is not transgender. And it shows in the writing of this book. Be careful when you are picking “diverse” books. Try to pick books by actual POC authors, LGBTQA+ authors, mentally ill authors. Don’t only pick authors who are writing about those characters.
The following is unpleasant, so I’m going to put a trigger warning on it. But I want to illustrate WHY you should be careful about reading books by authors who actually come from the cultures you are reading about. I’m going to gray out the triggering stuff. Skip that, if you need to.
This is not a book that is kind to transgender people. The narrator is so conflicted about his own sexuality and desires that while he is not completely homophobic–he IS sort of transphobic. He is sexually attracted to those he calls “she-males” and “transexuals.” At one point he dismissively tells us that he won’t use the term transgender because they didn’t ever call them that and so why should he change now?
…Are you cringing yet?…
He speaks about the transgender women in his life cruelly, as if they are something Other. He does not understand them, why they would want to change the bodies he finds perfect and is offended by that need. They are his playthings and not people he totally respects.
Now, the narrator was extremely unreliable. Probably one of the most unreliable narrators I have ever read, even against Harry Potter. We are completely in this guy’s head. But I still don’t find that as an excuse for such awful narration.
The other stomach churning thing about this book is the multiple adult-youth sexual relationships. The only reason I call them that and not the abuse they actually are is that the narrator sees them as consensual relationships. He sees them as seduction. He has his own, after hearing about two of his friends having them…but again, unreliable narrator…he does not realize how uncomfortable his friends are, and how not seduced they were.
I stopped reading this book about 3/4 of the way through. As the narrator grew older, the story only grew worse, and less interesting. I left him in Europe bullying a vomiting, anxious friend.
I get the general idea of where Irving was headed with his novel, and why he wrote this the way he did. But it was too disgusting to finish.
This post does contain affiliate links.