Thursday, May 31, 2012

New Queer Histories

John Irving's new novel, IN ONE PERSON, is fascinating, for lots of reasons.  Those who know Irving's previous work will be tempted to read the book biographically:  it is written in the first person with an author as narrator; it is set in new England; it features wrestling, bears, of a sort, and lots and lots of transsexual and transgender characters.  The narrator is bi, attracted to both men and women and, especially, or also, transvestites,  transsexuals or pre-op transgender people. (there is a lot of talk in the novel itself about how the names for various types have changed over the years, so I am using all that are used in the novel.)  Reading it, one wants to know, is this Irving's coming out?  Is he the bi narrator?  Does this explain the earlier books?

But the book is interesting in other ways, too.  It revisits the AIDS crisis and reminds us that the Reagan years were not the perfect years presidential candidates seem to imagine, but years of misery (Many of us never forgot that -- in addition to AIDS, I recall masses of homeless people, strongly charged racial issues, a bad economy and a culture of violence and indifference).  In the context of conversations about gay teens and bullying, it posits a queer child who has the "wrong" crushes, one on his soon-to-be stepfather, one on an older woman who turns out to be a transsexual, and one on a fellow male student. It lays claim to the idea that being queer is inborn, literally, as the narrator has an absent but queer father.  And characters who try to "nurture" queerness out of other characters are seen as idiotic and ineffectual.   Against the model of the lonely child whose desires not only cannot be spoken, but make the child feel isolated, Irving creates a world in which there are multiple, helpful and understanding adults, and in which the narrator is far from the only queer in town.  In addition to a cross dressing grandpa and the transsexual crush, among the adults, the narrator retroactively discovers that more than a few fellow students are gay, bi, transsexual or otherwise queered.  Straight people exist in this world but feel like a minority.  In fact, one character late in the novel complains to the narrator that his books make difference seem normal! 

But the book is also somewhat misogynist.  A transsexual is highly valued but only one woman with a vagina is valued.  She functions more or less like the gay best friend has functioned in so many narratives -- as a safe place and best friend for the polymorphous narrator.  Lesbians exist in the novel but they come across poorly - as man-hating, vicious, or embarrassingly womanist.   It is a bit of a disappointment in a book that imagines a world of difference and demands tolerance on every page that people with penises are the best she-characters and women are somehow painted as the most negative forces.   And not just women, but mothers -- in particular, two mothers are blamed for trying to deny their son's gayness.  The "best" mother is one who leaves her husband because he can't accept his son's queerness, then kills herself when her son dies of AIDS.  I'm not asking for a politically perfect fiction, but, in a fiction so attendant to gender stereotypes,  I'd have expected a little more.

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