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false memory syndrome

in one person

false memory syndrome
alex johnston

In One Person, by John Irving; Published by Vintage Canada; Available in Paperback (2013)

The night I finished reading In One Person, I was sitting at dinner with my family and was reminded of an anecdote about my eccentric grandfather. I got as far as opening my mouth to relay this vignette, before realizing that I was not actually thinking of my own grandfather but the homey, doting, and occasionally cross-dressing, Vermont lumberman patriarch in Irving’s latest novel. That is perhaps the most telling compliment I could give about Irving’s writing – it has the fabric of personal memory.

The novel, written in the first person, takes the form of a series of reminisces by William “Billy” Abbott (grandson of the aforementioned lumberman), looking back over his 70 year life, and particularly his formative relationships — not just romantic but familial and platonic ones as well.

I’ve seen it referred to as a “coming of age” story, but that’s misleading ­— while Billy’s adolescence and struggle to come to grips with his own bisexuality in a late ‘50s Vermont is treated in considerable depth, the book unfolds as memories do: more thematically than chronologically, so interjections bring the reader backwards and forwards over Billy’s life. Thus by the time Billy is in senior year, we’ve seen tangents ranging from the ‘60s to the ‘90s.

Furthermore the harrowing later sections that find a middle-aged Billy’s world rocked by the dawn of the AIDS epidemic may cover fewer pages than his adolescence, but they surely carry as much or more emotional weight.

Fans of Irving’s previous books will find much that is familiar here: New England prep schools, wrestling culture, writers as characters, and sexual non-conformists, to name a few. However, the style is a little less surreal or magic realist than his earlier work. Although a sense of the absurd is not entirely missing, the end result is a skillful and heartfelt mix of the elliptical and the focused that knits his ideas into something akin to raw memories.

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