Melissa's Reviews > In One Person

In One Person by John Irving
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Jun 11, 12

Read from May 18 to June 09, 2012

This book started off strong, but ultimately was dissatisfying. It was really fun to read, but I have to admit that there were plenty of parts where I was saying to myself, "WHAT?? That doesn't make sense!"

First of all, much of the structure of the book is related to our narrator Bill's inability to say words that made him uncomfortable. Sometimes the words were something like "penis," but other times, it was a word like "shadow." Fine. That's interesting and unusual. Most people's speech impediment is not based upon individual words they cannot say, so this is an interesting defining character bit. But, in this book, at least TWO OTHER CHARACTERS DO THE SAME THING. I mean, WHAT?? Tom, who goes to his same high school with him, can't say "time"?? Then there are some kids later when he's an adult who also can't say random words? I'm sorry, no. That does not work for me. Also, every time I read Irving write "the ________ word" I wanted to be like, "YOU THINK YOU CLEVER BIATCH?" OK, that's an overreaction. But why did Bill have to always call words "the time word" or "the penis word." Never once does he say, "the word time" or "the word penis." It bugged me.

Also, MAN OH MAN did Bill know a lot of male to female transgendered people in his small-town youth. I mean, come on. EVERYONE turned out to be gay or transgendered. Now, I know, a lot of people are gay or transgendered. But it was too much damn coincidence. It struck me as pure absurdity. You know what else? Some gay men didn't die of AIDS in the 80's. I swear. Many survived, uninfected. But you wouldn't know that from this book.

But, also, I basically enjoyed the book. I liked how Bill and Elaine had a Truman Capote/Harper Lee thing going on. Bill narrates that Elaine, despite constantly writing, had only written one book, which he believed was better than any of his own books. Sounds like Harper Lee, right? Also, it's a really great book for opening minds about male bisexuality. If you listen to as many Savage Lovecasts as I do, you know that there is a lot of suspicion about the actual existence of bisexual men -- people think they're gay but not willing to let go of their ability to pass as straight. But this book gives decent insight into how a man can have attractions that vary, honestly. That's a worthwhile public service. It was a pretty entertaining book, even if it didn't always make a hell of a lot of sense. There are certainly worse books to invest your time in reading.
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Melanie Good review, but we must remember that Irving is a magical realism genre author. The speech impediments in the book, have to do with the concepts that the characters struggle with. That is why they have trouble saying these words. Also the fact that his world was so full of these 'alternative sexuality " people was also, I believe a tool of magical realism. :)


Melissa Thank you for saying my review was good! I appreciate you commenting.

I don't really think it is accurate to call John Irving a "magical realism genre author." I just did some googling, and I didn't find very serious, solid references to magical realism in Irving's books. This is the only book I've read of his, and I would not say there was anything in it that resembled magical realism.

Yes, the words that each character struggled with related to the issues they struggled with. But I, for one, did not find that to be very, well, realistic within this book that never went outside the realm of natural realism. It seems like a stretch to me for so many characters o suffer from this same rare affliction. Same with the sheer number of transgendered individuals the main character grew up around. It was just an unrealistic number of people. I don't think there is anything about it that points to magical realism, however. Transgendered people certainly do exist, they are not altogether uncommon, and it's slightly offensive to indicate that there being many of them in Bill's childhood was supposed to be "magical realism."

If this book was, in fact, an attempt at magical realism, I do not think it was a very successful attempt.


Melanie Melissa, thanks for responding. I have long understood Irving to be a MR. writer. The World According to Garp is a prime example of this and one that is cited often. One of his good friends was Gunter Grass who is known as a magical realism writer and Irving holds him as one of his mentors.

I was privileged enough to see Irving give a lecture in Vancouver on In One Person and there was so much in this book about Irving's childhood, it could be an autobiographical work. Irving's mother was a prompter in the theatre, Irving's grandfather was a cross dressing actor, and Irving also rode through the 80's watching several of his friends die of AIDS. Plus as in Garp, Irving writes a lot on the theme of wrestling because he himself was a wrestler.

I don't believe it is offensive in the least to suggest that the unusually high occurrence of transgendered or cross dressing people in Billy's life is a tool of magical realism. MR after all is a means to an end, to suspend disbelieve to make a point. Just as in Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum we are lead to believe that Oskar is able to stunt his growth and then later reactivate it. Why is it "offensive" to suggest that Billy has many ancestors, mentors, crushes and friends from his town, that are of the 'alternative" persuasion? This is where we are asked to extend our disbelieve and accept it for the sake of the story.

Irving may not be as decidedly MR as say Gabrielle Garcia Marquez or Grass or Illende, but I would say he definitely does use some of the elements of it. :) He is often lumped in their category.
If I ever have a chance to see Mr. Irving again, I will try to ask him if he considers himself or any of his books to be MR. :)
That's my story and I'm sticking to it. :)


Melanie Also, what of Grandpa's Ghost? Is that not MR? :D


Melissa You know, I really hear you, and you make excellent points, and it's kinda got me convinced, but...

I guess that because I never read any other John Irving books, and I didn't realize this book was supposed to be magical realism, and it never occurred to me that is was supposed to be magical realism while reading it, I just think that he didn't do a great job of it.

Re: the "offensive" thing. I almost didn't write that because I was writing on my phone and I wanted to explain it better and it was too difficult, but I did anyway, and now I'm on my computer, so I'll try to explain better. But I guess that saying that it's "magical realism" to have there be so many unlikely people who all ended up being transgender rubs me the wrong way. It is not so uncommon or bizarre for people to be transgender or to otherwise exist on the more gender-bending end of the continuum. Not uncommon enough to be "magical" anyway. Yet it is uncommon enough that this guy having his mother's father, his own father, librarian, and bunches of classmates (including very conventionally straight-seeming ones) all from his small hometown seemed out of the bounds of "realism." It's complicated to explain, but I think what my opinion on it comes down to is that, if it was supposed to be magical realism, I didn't get that from it. I got, well, confusion, and a bit of irritation.

Grandpa's ghost! Well, that was way at the end, and it just seemed to me like, yeah, a bit of magic-ing, but the kind you see sometimes in books that aren't otherwise magical in nature. Almost a cop-out. Grandpa died, now his tub is haunted, haHO!

This is off-topic, but I do want to say that I'd really like to learn that self-defense move they use in the book, it sounds super-useful.


Melanie Good points again, but what I get from the definition of magical realisim, is realism that kind of stretches into a territory of phantasmagorical. Not that it is "magical" in the sense of a fantasy novel, like "he suddenly turned into a wizard and was zapping people with his wand." But that it asks the reader to suspend disbelief. I thought of another example after I wrote the above as well, the story of "Bovary" and the toilets on the ship, THAT is classical MR. If you've ever read Illende, she has similar kinds of "fantastic" stories where we are supposed to believe terribly odd things about people and their habits. I distinctly remember one scene, I believe it was in Eva Luna, where a corporal does all his commanding from a special chair that is in fact a commode chair, so that he never has to get up to use the bathroom, but he can command and relieve himself at the same time. This is what is meant by magical realism. :) And that scene when Bovary smacks all the toilet seats with his bum on way to the end of the pitching and rolling ship... there's a prime example... like that could ever really happen. :D

What you say above... 'Yet it is uncommon enough that this guy having his mother's father, his own father, librarian, and bunches of classmates (including very conventionally straight-seeming ones) all from his small hometown seemed out of the bounds of "realism."' You are exactly explaining the concept of magical realism... it is out of the realms of "real" to have SOOooo many people from his small town as "alternative folk" that is the concept. Not that there was "any" or "some," because that WOULD be real, but BECAUSE there were SO MANY, that makes it "realism plus" or magical realism. Does that make sense?

The term magical realism is one that leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation. It makes one think of fantasy or fables or something like that. It simply means a story based in realism where extraordinary things happen, while still maintaining the feel of the real or the normal. :)

All that said, if this was your first Irving novel, I really recommend you go and read The World According to Garp. That one is more "classical Irving," and worth the read. Thanks for the great conversation btw. I almost never get to discuss literature. :)

and yeah, I'd like to see the duck under. :)


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