Monday, October 25, 2010

The Inner Circle, by T.C. Boyle

T.C. Boyle stumbles in this flaccid dramatization of Professor Alfred Kinsey and his sex research team.

I was pretty excited to get my hands on this book. A friend in New York was cleaning out her apartment, and I was about to hop a plane to San Francisco. Boyle is a master of contemporary American fiction, almost without equal, and his past explorations of historical fiction have produced some of the best writing of the last 20 years, including The Road to Wellville and World's End.

So my expectations were high when I cracked open The Inner Circle, Boyle's fictionalized imaginings of the research team under Alfred Kinsey, narrated in the voice of John Milk, the professor's first research assistant. Milk first meets Kinsey when he signs up for the professor's "Marriage Course" at the university, and later in the library stacks. The professor first conscripts our narrator to help with his gardening, then to assist him with sex research interviews and statistical analysis, and soon after as a reluctant partner in Kinsey's own "inner circle" of wife swapping and carnal adventure.

Perspective was the first flaw I found in this story. Milk tells his tale--a confession, really--from the secluded guest bedroom of his home, getting drunk and maudlin before a tape recorder just hours after Kinsey's funeral. It is years in the future from the events that make the focus of the book, but Milk continually jumps from the present to the distant past, forward again to the present, back once again to the more recent past, and back again to find the thread of the original story. Playing with time this way can sometimes imbue a book a greater sense of shape and dimension, but here it inspires confusion, a sense of fracture, and worst...boredom.

John Milk is another problem with the story, a virginal, idol-worshiping, lukewarm ninny who reminds this reader of a skittish dog. His courtship and early marriage to good-girl Iris are complicated by Professor Kinsey's (Prok's) demands for his time and attention, but Milk is too swept up in the research and infatuated with his boss to set personal boundaries. A Washington Post reviewer pointed to the significance of Milk's initials, JAM, as indicative of some sort of metaphor for the narrator's spineless and saccharine character. Too often in the book, I found it inspiring thoughts of "milquetoast," timid, weak, and unassuming. Describing the effects of a bourbon-drinking session, he apologizes to no one in particular: "it was a fifth and it got both of us pretty giddy, I'm afraid." Writing about his state following that session, he says, "I woke sometime in the night with a dry throat, a condition that often afflicts me when I've been drinking." Such mousy characters just don't drive great reads, or even entertaining reads.

Milk is swept up in the undercurrent of Prok's field research trips and casual sex, and it's no surprise where this is leading: marital tension, alienation, and more whining in front of the tape recorder.

I gave up on this read when I felt whatever payoff was coming at the book's end wasn't worth the tedium of the remaining 122 pages. Other reviewers have fawned over this book, quite intelligently, perhaps seeing something I didn't. Jennifer Reese at Entertainment Weekly lauds this book as tale of moral ambiguity, and Boyle's characterization of Kinsey as a creepy "grotesque" force within that spinning compass. My take was closer to Michiko Kakutani's at the New York Times, who aptly identifies the book's "monochromatic prose" and calls this story a "tired chronicle." As much work as Boyle has invested in bringing salacious detail and personal angst to the book, perhaps we live in a time where, when porn has become boring, none of us can be so easily titillated.

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