Saturday, December 11, 2004

Sticking to the Short Stories

The Inner Circle, by T. Coraghessan Boyle, Read by Michael Kramer, Books on Tape, Inc., 2004

I had avoided reading T.C. Boyle for some time when another reader, high on a mix of methamphetamine, lighter fluid, Pop Rocks, and Faygo raspberry, made a comparison between him and Donald Barthelme. Much as I’ve tried to enjoy Barthelme, I find his writing precise, well-done, talented, and as utterly pointless as anything on primetime television. There’s a certain formal, experimental functionality to Barthelme’s writing that saps it of all human passion and life. Character A and Character B plot in Setting about Theme. It’s good writing, but intellectualized to the point of being devoid of authentic emotion, and it leaves me cold.

It was through that great sampler platter of current writers, The New Yorker Summer Fiction issue (second in my heart only to the Cartoon Issue) where I finally gave Boyle the once over. I liked what I saw enough to track down his most recent novel, The Inner Circle, the story of John Milk, a young college student who becomes Alfred Kinsey’s assistant and employee just as Dr. Kinsey’s sex researches are beginning. As though the social gestalt is swirling around that time and mentality, T.C. Boyle published The Inner Circle this year, just shortly before a biopic of Kinsey is to be released.

The audiobook’s reader, Michael Kramer, as he’s reading a first person narrative ostensibly delivered to a dictation machine, doesn’t work excessively hard at different character’s voices or intonations. His rendition is acceptable, smooth, without any major flaws and without any major highlights to set it apart. In that regard, he was an excellent pick for the milquetoast narrator, John Milk.

The book opens with Milk and another student, a flirty woman who convinced him to pretend to be her fiancĂ©, going into a slideshow Kinsey shows for young married and engaged students. The graphic slideshow depicted human beings engaged in sex, close up photographs of genitalia in coitus. The embarrassed aw shucks mentality that ripples through the audience, the anticipatory gentility, is touching and gives one a sense of nostalgia for a more innocent time. There’s something charming about young people being so immensely titillated by the use of the words “nipple” and “penis.” What struck me as remarkable in listening to this scene is both how puritan and puerile we’ve become as a society. It is almost unimaginable to think of a college class today featuring photos of sexual organs in congress for fear some Christian organization would be offended, yet at the same time, high school students regularly engage in rainbow parties and other group sex/animal tranquilizer soirees.

The character of Kinsey, Prok as he’s called (short for Professor Kinsey), is shown as almost inhumanly dedicated, robotic almost in his target mentality. Any moment, any event, is a good opportunity to get someone’s sexual history down on paper. The project that will ultimately become known as The Kinsey Report consisted of thousands of interviews with Americans of every economic background, race, education level, and sexual preference. These interviews are referred to as histories, consisting of detailed questions about how old you were when you first saw naked people, masturbated, touched the genitalia of another, etc.

When Kinsey purchases a second car in order to help out in the interviewing, a used car from a widow who never learned to drive, and he sits down to negotiate price, he manages to swing it around to getting her history as well. What makes this so curious is that Milk and others are constantly banging on about how persuasive Kinsey is, how he can get anyone to tell him anything. How charismatic he was. Yet, there are very few moments where the narrative demonstrates anything like that.

I’m not sure what name I’d apply to this fictional device-slash-failing, but it’s rampant across genres. The basic outlines of the DSF (for now we’ll call it that) is that there exists something hyperbolically superlative. It doesn’t matter what. There’s a super charismatic character, the most beautiful poem ever written that makes hardened convicts weep in the streets, a novel of unsurpassed greatness, a monster so horrible it defies description (take note H.P. Lovecraft fans), etc. The author, having created this gift or punishment from the gods, is unable to successfully contain it within the novel, capture it in his or her scope of capability. And so we are never treated to a line of poetry, a lick of charisma, a scintilla of scrotumtightening horror. It’s a deus ex machina sans deus.

The character of Kinsey, always presented by Milk as a bit odd, a skinflint, dictatorial, demanding, narrow minded in the sense of disallowing others to think differently from him while condemning their contrary views as narrow mindedness, is never very persuasive or likable. And yet we’re supposed to believe through this portrait that this man is able to seduce his entire inner circle and many others besides.

The character of Milk, on the other hand, is very sympathetic, tormented by his inability to disassociate himself from his “retrograde” emotions such as jealousy and shame while constantly striving to be worthy of Kinsey, his stand-in father figure and lover. Throughout the course of the novel, a few decades at least, Milk marries, has a son, and at one point attacks Kinsey in the book’s “climax.”

While Boyle spends a great deal of time discussing the sex that members of the inner circle have, the long road trips the Kinsey workers take in order to vary their samples, the sex lives of the many interviewees whose histories they take, and the beginnings of Kinsey’s research, with the exception of Milk, none of the other characters are ever really three-dimensional. Pervis Corcoran, the second man initiated into the inner circle, is never painted as more than a callow, voracious sexual conqueror and occasional wit, though one with an almost iconic name for the job.

Another glaring example stands out particularly to me these days. When Milk first begins working with Kinsey, he is over to his house daily. Kinsey is married to Clara, who everyone calls Mac, and he has three children. Despite a substantial portion of the novel taking place at the Kinsey household, the three children (almost) never make an appearance in the book and when they do show up, it’s as nebulous figures at play across the lawn or answering the door. I don’t think any of the children, the oldest an adolescent boy, the younger two both pre-teen girls, have a single speaking line in the book. This is simply inconceivable.

Perhaps it’s merely Milk, but I’m unconvinced. One of Milk’s strange verbal tics, however, is a kind of haziness about details. He constantly states “facts” as possibilities. “I might have...” he says in one recollection, “she might have...” “if she did...” “it’s not inconceivable that we...” For a man so doctrinaire a convert to the “facts” and science, Milk has a tendency to go so blurry on occasion, almost as if he’s experiencing a subtle repression. “I don’t remember the weather,” he mentions. I kept hoping this would illuminate some character quality or defect in Milk, but it never panned out. Such a consistent trait is either just a tic-trick Boyle’s inserted for individuation of character or it serves a purpose that managed to escape me in the course of the story.

Milk, like his name, is a bit pale, a bit bland. He quite clearly falls under Kinsey’s spell, though as I’ve said the power of this spell strikes me as suspect, and slowly begins to lose his soul, his own system of beliefs. At least two moral tests are given to Milk in the course of his work: one is in interviewing a pedophile who will clearly continue to go about molesting children and the other is a criminal who confesses that he plans to kill a guard that very night. Milk, by most human standards, fails them, conceding to Kinsey’s obsession with data collection over social and civic responsibility. It is a bit chilling to watch how gently slips away one’s humanity at times.

While I suspected that these elements would reverberate at the novel’s climax, the dramatic petite morte is little more than an orgy that fails to come off when Milk’s wife refuses to participate and Milk strikes Kinsey for berating her. Much Freudian Sturm und Drang could be had here, but Boyle doesn’t rise to the bait, lapsing flaccidly into a mopping up chapter in which Kinsey’s second report comes out, he’s hounded by the moralists, he has a stroke, he dies, the work goes on.

This ending almost perfectly epitomizes one of the studies the Kinsey crew worked on, a favorite scene in the book for me. Determined to answer the question as to the nature of male orgasm, whether most ejaculations are spurts or dribbles, Kinsey & Co. travel to NYC’s Astor Hotel where they film 1,000 men masturbating to orgasm. The result?

Not with a bang, but a whimper.

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