T.C. Boyle’s The Inner Circle is the infrequent novel that improves substantially the second time around to the point of making me reevaluate it altogether. It features Boyle’s mischievous, whimsical prose:
[…] Laura Feeney smiled and before I knew it I was on my way to becoming an initiate in the science of sex, abandoning the ideal for the actual, the dream of Stella (“True, that true beauty if virtue indeed”) for anatomy, physiology and an intimate knowledge of the Bartholin’s glands and labia minora. All of it—all the years of research, the thousands of miles traveled, the histories taken, the delving and rooting and pioneering—spun out like thread from an infinite spool held in the milk-white palm of Laura Feeney on an otherwise ordinary morning in the autumn of 1939.
That’s John Milk speaking, the narrator who is as bland as his name, and an assistant to sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. Notice, however, the cleverness of the long, almost run-on sentences in that quote, with Milk on his way “before I knew it,” and us readers past that idea before we knew, drawn along by the rambling, Bellow-like tide of the sentence. Then, Boyle almost wanders into the cliché of comparing life to a weaver’s loom, which goes all the way back to the Greeks and, more recently, Shakespeare, but he pulls back from it by using Laura’s palm as the focus and playing with the idea of the milk-white of her palm and “Milk” as his name. And he is often played with by others, whether by women or by Kinsey. His central narrative gift is to simultaneously describe his interaction with Kinsey, the great man, while deluding himself concerning the extent of his self-involvement and dependence on Kinsey. After a spurt of initial interest brings Milk to Kinsey, Milk is ruled by the older man, and it’s not Laura’s palm but Kinsey’s that controls Milk.
The Inner Circle has wonderful resonances, with phrases, descriptions, ideas rolling into and referring to one another in a subtle harmony that is difficult to untangle even on a second reading. The philosophical tension between the mind’s creation of love and the body’s needs is always present, along with the push and pull of Kinsey on Milk and whether Milk is his own person. The obvious and probably correct answer is “no,” despite Milk’s protestation to the contrary. He’s self-delusional throughout, and says of a comment made by Mac, Kinsey’s wife, that “I saw the truth of it,” as he thinks he does numerous times. Elsewhere, Milk says that “rumormongers”—note the deliberately anachronistic word—say that Kinsey chooses “the members of his team based on his ability to control and dominate them […]” He does, and the reader sees that even if Milk doesn’t. When Kinsey lightly rebukes Milk for holding up the work because Milk comes in late, our narrator says “Normally I would have been mortified—I hated for anyone to question my devotion and loyalty, especially [Kinsey], to whom I owed everything […]” Does that sound like the voice of an independent man? I thought not.
How much of this description of Kinsey is accurate and how much the artist’s creative prerogative is unclear; outside of what I know from Bonk and popular culture, I’ve never learned anything of Kinsey. Boyle conveniently thanks Kinsey’s various biographers, so one looking for more can find more, but I’m rather content with his story, which is perhaps the truth rather than the facts. And if it isn’t, it doesn’t matter; the device of using Milk as a narrator works: except for his major blindspot regarding his own independence, he serves as a strong vessel for Boyle’s usual panache with words.
To be sure, the novel is not flawless: Iris, who is supposed to act as the counterbalance to Kinsey and a voice encouraging Milk to resist, is never forceful enough, and the major clashes between Iris and Milk are too curt and claustrophobic. Kinsey himself never gets more than the touch of Ahabian madness he really needs; until his own strength is giving out near the end, he doesn’t show how he considers himself the singular figure we suspect he thinks he is. Nonetheless, these flaws are paltry next to The Inner Circle’s verve, and now it surprises me that I didn’t better appreciate it the first time around.