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.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex bears more than a passing resemblance to Peter Sagal’s The Book of Vice in terms of tone and content: both take a jaunty look at a squeamish area and then use their investigation as a launching point for examining society, politics, gender roles, and history.

To be fair, the last part of that sentence is overly grandiose, but it’s nonetheless accurate, and many of the positive comments I wrote about The Book of Vice could easily be transposed to Bonk. Perhaps not surprisingly, Amazon pairs the two with its buy-both-and-get-more-money-off-the-combo-package feature. The difference are important, however; if Bonk has a thesis, it is that science has long used its objectivity cloak to elude societal retribution and social backlash, with varying levels of success that have nonetheless increased over the years. Furthermore, much of this inquiry ends up saying more about the scientists and society than it does about sex itself. Roach says:

When I began this book, I harbored a naïve fantasy that I would find a team of scientists working to discover the secret to amazing, mind-rippling sex. They would report to work late a night in a windowless, hi-tech laboratory and have unplaceable accents and penetrating stares.

More often she found rather pedestrian researchers concerned with knowledge and funding to pursue that knowledge in an attempt to bring sex out of myth, religion, and superstition. Her main heroes, to the extent Bonk has heroes, are early sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who make an early appearance on page 23—”Foreplay” is the chapter heading that would normally be “Introduction”—and we’re still learning about them on page 299—”Persons studied in pairs.” To quote Roach again:

I learned about the project in a New York Times health column. Jane Brody had described the book and its conclusions the week it came out. The subheads the paper had supplied were vague and coy: “Persons Studied in Pairs,” said one. It was like writing up the Million Man March under the headline “Persons Walking in a Group.” In a sentence at the end of a paragraph describing study protocols, Brody notes simply: “Some were assigned partners.” The casual reader, alighting here, might have mistaken the column for a piece about square dancing. I immediately tracked down a copy of the book.

Roach likes to castigate the euphemisms and other covers frequently employed by journalists and others, as she does here, while also laughing at the science-y jargon of experts. This gives her prose the slangy style of your friend at a Sunday morning brunch or a comedian at a club the Saturday night before. She can play for the high end of science and the low-end of slapstick. Still, she’s obviously on the side of the researchers and others working toward openness:

But let’s give Masters and Johnson their due. And while we’re at it, Alfred Kinsey and Robert Latou Dickinson and Old Dad and everyone else in these pages. The laboratory study of sex has never been an easy, safe, or well-paid undertaking. Study by study, the gains may seem small and occasionally silly, but the aggregation of all that has been learned, the lurching tango of academe and popular culture, has led us to a happier place. Hats and pants off to you all.

This triumphalism might be misplaced—what would the Wall Street Journal editorial page say to such a paragraph?—but if you look past the humor scrim you’ll see that Roach does have a point, and she also ensures that anyone who tries to refute her in a serious tone will come off looking like a stodgy minister at a dance. Furthermore, Roach seems cognizant of her own place in the historical march toward making people comfortable talking about sex openly, and the future might take as dim a view of her as we take of Victorian sex manuals. And I’m not sure what Foucault would think of Roach’s approach to sexual discourse, particularly regarding its examination of history.

But with luck the future will forgive her and still laugh, since a large part of Bonk, like The Book of Vice, is really just using sex to comment on other or abstract ideas; as one researcher says, “You think you know a lot until you start to ask some really basic questions, and you realize you know nothing.” I’ve heard English and computer science professors make similar remarks, whether about the meaning of the capital-N Novel or whether P = NP; in the case of Bonk, the quote just happens to be on the subject of whether women’s orgasms help with sperm transport and conception. In Roach’s, uh, hands, the question launches a historical disquisition on the quest to discover the answer, which, while amusing, also gives the opportunity to realize that we’re probably living in an era where the dominant beliefs about sex, gender, and the like will appear ridiculous someday. While I mentioned triumphalism before, I should also that Roach is triumphant about progress, both normatively and scientifically, and that is a conclusion I can’t help but agreeing with, especially when it’s presented in such an excellent package.

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