Monday, November 19, 2012

In One Person, by John Irving

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This blog is my forum, the place where I voice the ideas that pop in my head while reading a book. Sometimes my thoughts come out sounding like a book review; other times, I'm sure I sound like I took the branch line to Randomtown and jumped the tracks partway there.

I even get political sometimes, though I try to refrain from the more overt diatribes.

Some people will think this post is political, but I think it's just human.

John Irving's In One Person (his strongest and most moving book in years, in my opinion) might have caused quite the entertaining stir ten years ago, and an outright kerfluffle twenty years ago. When it was released this past spring, I heard... nothing. Nothing but "Hey, John Irving's got a new book coming out."

More than any political and electoral strides in the direction of sexual equality, that radio silence tells me how far we've come in American society. We are moving ever closer to a time when gender identity is no more peculiar an identifier than height or hair color. (Humans are just a prejudicial species; true equality will never exist. Just look at blonde jokes. But the level of prejudice on hair color is about as low in the United States as it ever will be.)

Political gains for (in a blanket term) gays and (in a blanket acronym) LGBTQ individuals are certainly too great to dismiss. I am so proud of my home country that Don't Ask Don't Tell has been repealed, and even prouder of my compatriots that have now voted to permit gay marriage. They are all steps toward general and broad acceptance.

(A friend of mine once had a long diatribe about her distaste for the "tolerance" word; why should we merely tolerate one another? she wanted to know. Annoying children are sometimes tolerated. A neighbor's loud music is tolerated. Nothing positive is ever tolerated. If we can't love each other, can't we at least accept each other instead of just tolerating? I've accepted her intolerance of tolerance as my own philosophy.)

Irving's latest is not ten or twenty years too late; on the contrary, he finds the most unaccepted kind of person and tells a story about him. As we question our societal and individual levels of acceptance, we need this sort of litmus paper. Billy is bisexual; straight people don't entirely trust him because he's kind of gay, and gay people don't entirely accept him because he's kind of straight. How do we respond to him?

In reading about Billy and his overwhelming humanity, we face our own discomforts (fess up, we all have some) and embrace what we have in common with him -- which, despite all his effed-up Irving-esque qualities, is far greater than any of our differences. We unfold our empathy for Billy, and I think in so doing, we roll out our empathy for anyone like him.

That is to say, we learn a little bit about loving one another. And that feeling stays with you long after you close the book.

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