Friday, January 30, 2009

The Inner Circle by T.C. Boyle

It was during this period--it might have been as late as 1944, now that I come to think of it--that we were finally able to induce the sexual champion I mentioned earlier to sit for an interview. Prok had been courting him for some time now, and the man had been cagey, feeding us portions of his sex diaries by mail, but expressing his reluctance to meet because of the criminal nature of so many of his sexual contacts. Certainly, what he'd sent us--photographs, penis measurements, case histories and written records of various sex acts with every sort of partner, male, female, nonhuman, preadolescents and even infants--was provocative, perhaps even offensive, but invaluable to our understanding of human sexuality. And, as Prok put it so well, we were scientists, not moralists--our duty was to observe and record, not to pass judgment.

Let me start out by saying that T.C. Boyle is clearly an excellent writer, and I have no qualms about the prose itself. That said, I really don't know if this book was a complete success or an utter failure. If Boyle set out to portray Professor Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues as heroic defenders of the sexually marginalized, I think he failed miserably. If Boyle wanted Kinsey to look like a stony, slightly demented old man who used his position of power over his colleagues to manipulate them for his own sexual gratification, then I have to applaud his successful efforts.

Before The Inner Circle, I'd never read a story where I genuinely came to detest each and every character I was introduced to. Even Iris, the narrator's wife and perhaps the only forgivable principle character, has moments where she behaves deplorably. The entire cast, it seems, is morally bankrupt. And if each and every character has fallen to turpitude, the onus falls on Prok, Professor Alfred Kinsey. I must note, this is a novel, not a memoir. Everything I say here is to be attributed to the character of Prok, as described by Boyle through John Milk's narration, not to the late Alfred Kinsey himself. That said, this fictionalization is based on factual research and one can only assume that certain aspects of Prok's character are reflections of Kinsey's actual behavior.

To me, Prok came across as a monster in a lot of ways. I've read that some of Kinsey's detractors claimed that the impetus for his research was his need to validate his own bizarre sexual appetites. That's exactly the impression I got from Prok in The Inner Circle. Prok removes any elements of love and affection from the act of sex. He coerces his colleagues into having sexual affairs with each others wives, with his own wife, with himself. He does so through subtle bullying. "You're not becoming sex shy on me, are you?" he asks a number of times throughout the story. Failing to follow his orders would have meant exclusion from the inner circle, exclusion from the groundbreaking research that was being carried out in Prok's institute.

People who know me will tell you I'm anything but prude. Yet reading this story I found myself genuinely disgusted by the attitude that Prok takes towards sex. And even more disgusted by the way he forces those around them to swallow his beliefs (among other things) and follow them blindly. And they do, they all do. I found it hard to read a book by a narrator that had no moral compass when it came to sex and sex alone. He was a moral man in just about every other facet of his life, but morality and sex had become mutually exclusive. Shortly after a row with his wife after she learned about his sexual research with Prok's wife, Milk has spontaneous sex with another woman in his apartment's hallway, with his wife sleeping only a few feet away. The Chicago Sun-Times says this book "should be read naked!" as if it's some titillating sex romp. At no point during this reading did I find myself so stimulated. If anything, I wanted to get naked after reading a handful of passages so that I could take a shower. It was that kind of book. It turned my stomach.

Specifically, the passages describing Mr. X and his sexual escapades with infants and toddlers. The way that Prok and Milk and all the rest remain scientifically objective while hearing accounts of X masturbating an infant boy. Honestly, am I supposed to find this pursuit of knowledge at all costs heroic... laudable? It's deplorable. The more I think about it, the more unlikely it seems to me that Boyle actually set out trying to make Prok and his cohorts look like good people. But then, who am I rooting for in this story? If Prok and Milk aren't the protagonists, who is?

All in all, this book was difficult to finish. The writing is excellent, really it is. The use of simple sentence structure coupled with the broad vocabulary you'd expect from an academic narrator made it very easy to read... In terms of mechanics, at least. But the subject matter was too unsettling for me. Page after page, characters manipulate each other, break each other's hearts, and make excuses for behaviors that I think can be objectively called malignant.

Professor Kinsey did a lot of great things. His work has given momentum to the sexual empowerment of women, society's acceptance of homosexuality, and review of archaic sodomy laws around the country. That can't (and shouldn't) be taken away from him. But if this fictional account of Kinsey's personal life is even half as accurate as I think it might be... Dude was kinda maladjusted.

Highlights: I like Boyle's style, lots of double entendre like when Prok is teaching Milk how to properly interview their subjects "He wound up drilling me for two hours that night."
Lowlights: It made my skin crawl about a dozen times, and who are we rooting for?


Christopher said...

It's true; you're anything but a prude.

Nathan said...

Yeah, I can back that up.