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The Science of Sex 

T.C. Boyle on his Inner Circle, Alfred Kinsey and the fine line between fact and fiction

Thursday, Sep 2 2004
Photo by Garik Gyurjyan

T.C. Boyle’s 10th novel, The Inner Circle, revolves around the figure of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who in the 1940s and 1950s established the Kinsey Sex Institute at Indiana University in Bloomington. It’s also a vivid character study of Kinsey’s fictional assistant, John Milk, a naif who finds himself in uncharted waters as a member of the Institute’s inner circle. This small group of researchers (including Kinsey’s wife, Clara) effectively changed how Americans thought of sexual behavior, although only recently have their proclivities — including swapping and group sex — been revealed. Kinsey, then, is compelling both as individual and symbol, a charismatic figure and a signifier of his times.

Boyle, of course, has long been fascinated by the intersection of personality and history. His first novel, Water Music, focuses in part on the 18th-century explorer Mungo Park, while his last, Drop City, looks at the 1960s through the lens of communal life. (In the spirit of disclosure, Boyle and I share an editor at Viking.) With The Inner Circle, however, he finds his fictional universe reflecting contemporary culture in an unexpected way. Modern America, after all, is not so different from the nation Kinsey lived in, a society of repressive morals in which sex is a source of silence and shame. Just a few weeks before The Inner Circle’s release, the California Supreme Court decertified nearly 4,000 gay marriages in San Francisco, while the governor of New Jersey announced his resignation after revealing a homosexual affair. “What fascinates me,” Boyle says, “is that the book is going out at a time when . . . look who our president is. Jesus advises him, and he will uphold this country according to his religious beliefs, whether they’re repressive for other people or not.” All the same, Boyle is not sure how to explain the novel’s timeliness, “other than that I read the paper. I know what’s happening in the world. Maybe I am a step ahead. Maybe many artists are. Maybe that’s one of our functions in society, and why we deserve not to be put into the gulag by Mr. Bush.”

 

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L.A. WEEKLY: What sparked your interest in Alfred Kinsey?

T.C. BOYLE: I first came across Kinsey, or remembered him, when I read David Halberstam’s book about the 1950s. I thought he’d be a stimulating subject, as he was. I was coming out of the free-love notions of Drop City, so I decided to go back another 20, 30 years to find out about when we first began to talk about sexuality in society. Kinsey also plays into my eternal theme of our Darwinian existence versus our spiritual existence. Here, we have Kinsey saying he’s a scientist, and he can separate the physical act of sex from any emotional or spiritual context, and I wondered how that would play out. He was purely Darwinian, an empiricist who tried to make a science of sex. From the beginning of my career, I’ve been fascinated with our animal natures, as opposed to our minds. We pride ourselves on being more than animals when, in fact, it’s obvious that this is what we are. Also, I’ve always been fascinated by the larger-than-life gurus who are going to lead us to the promised land, if only we give ourselves over to them, fully and completely. And Kinsey certainly fits into that.

 

Many of your novels involve historical figures, from Water Music to The Road to Wellville, with its take on early health-and-fitness guru John Harvey Kellogg.

I’m not necessarily aware of these resonances when I’m choosing a subject, but I do have an attraction to such figures, especially figures of authority who I admire in some way. I admire Kinsey in the way I admired Kellogg. Much of what they had to say made a lot of sense. Kellogg, for instance, believed that we should eat more vegetable matter, that we should exercise. Always good, although completely foreign notions in his time. But what caught me in his character, and in Kinsey’s too, is how autocratic he was with his inner circle, how cocksure he was, how there was no other regime but his. Such a thing has always rankled me, as an iconoclast and punk who never really grew up. I can’t stand the idea of authority, and I think it’s detrimental to the character of people to give themselves over blindly to authority. Obviously there are many disciples, and a strong man serves a need in people. But not for me.

 

Your use of such individuals raises the issue of how you integrate fact and fiction. What kind of research do you do? And when do you stop? Do you worry that too much information will interfere with your imagination?

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