T.C. Boyle’s The Inner Circle reconsidered

The Inner Circle is better than I remember it, and subtler: it uses Alfred Kinsey’s pioneering sex research to explore what happens to a man who isn’t his own man but instead belongs, always, to someone else. The narrator, John Milk, tells the story retrospectively, but, like the butler Stevens from The Remains of the Day, he has learned very little from his experience. In the first lines, Milk says that he doesn’t think he was “ever actually ‘sex shy,'” but he does admit that “I was pretty naive when I first came to him, not to mention hopelessly dull and conventional.”

He ends the novel the same way, only instead of being under the power a great man and guru like Kinsey, he is under the power of his wife—a perhaps more common masters for many colorless men who need direction from some external source. He says initially that “As for sex, I was eager but inexperienced, and shy in the usual way—unsure of myself and just about as uninformed as anyone you could imagine.” At the end he is experienced and informed yet still knows nothing. The ignorance regarding sexuality is enforced by law, custom, and culture at the start of the novel, but ignorance about character and individuality is not, at least for those who care to notice. Milk gets superficially important matters—like the way “all women are every man’s type, under the right circumstances,” but not how he molds himself to the needs of others.

Milk does note, accurately, that “this isn’t about me, this is about Prok”—but it’s about the Prok that Milk experiences. Prok is a stereotypical surrogate father, but he fulfills other roles: to Milk, Prok has a tremendous power:

It was uncanny. The longer we spoke, and it was almost speaking with your inner self or confiding in the family doctor behind closed doors, the more he seemed to know what I was thinking and feeling.

It was probably very canny—Milk just doesn’t realize that he’s in the presence of a charismatic man. And for a young man starved of sexual attention or knowledge, the probable range of basic needs and desires is probably not hard to conceive. Moreover, Milk is predictable as a person, by his own admission—”I always did what was expected”—though the word “was” is sneaky here: who is doing the expecting? What Kinsey, or Prok as the novel calls him, expects is very different from what others expect. Prok expects extensive sexual experience, homosexual and heterosexual, and a level of sexual transparency few people even today are comfortable with. How many porn stars, even, wish for every aspects of their sexual lives to be known? And glamor, as Viginia Postrel argues, partially emerges from intriguing silence.

Still, the novel’s main theme keeps circling back to Milk and his lack of autonomy. If you want to be your own dog you should be your own dog; if you want to be someone else’s dog, you should do so. And there’s nothing wrong with or dishonorable about being someone else’s dog: fitting into a hierarchical organization and making the unit stronger than the sum of its parts is rarely lionized in our highly individualistic society but is still a valuable skill. Milk’s problem, as a person and as a narrator, is that he belongs to and is an extension of Kinsey, but Iris doesn’t want him to be: she wants him to be an extension of herself, and devoted to her above all. Yet she knew or should have known, before she married, that Milk was Kinsey’s first, and given the group’s proclivities towards group sex, she would end up being Kinsey’s. She is, on some level, however little she wants to be by the end of the novel, and regardless of the way she ultimately rejects Kinsey.

Iris pulls Milk away from Kinsey, though it’s not complete: Milk reminds us, as fictional characters often do, that “in life, as distinct from fiction, things don’t always tie up so neatly.” Still, the battle of the novel is the battle, between Kinsey and Iris, for Milk. I see what Kinsey sees in Milk but don’t see what Iris sees. Milk never really has anything he wants, apart from appeasing Prok or Iris. The obvious question arises: how many of us are Milks, and how many are Proks? Milk narrates; most of us probably don’t stand up. Maybe we’re better off that way.

The Inner Circle is a little flatter, a little less tense than I remember: knowing the outcome is an inherent problem in historical fiction. Yet it is still compelling. Many of Milk’s misconceptions, about great men and other matters, are still common today—like when he mentions that he’d “been awkward with girls, terrified of them—I’d placed them on a pedestal and never saw them as sexual beings just like me, who had the same needs and desires as I.” Plenty of men need to overcome the same issues; the Internet is filled with their complaints. Maybe those complaints will exist as long as people are people; at the very least, I expect that the Milks of the world, blind to their places, will.

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