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.”
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?
Absolutely. With historical novels, or any novel that involves a lot of research, there is a danger of enjoying the research so much and being so obsessive that you lose sight of creating your own world. I’ve always been aware of that. I’ve described creative writing, or any artistic endeavor, as an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I believe that’s true. I don’t feel right unless I’m writing. That’s when I’m in my nirvana, when I’m in this wonderful dream state creative artists have. It’s a kind of fix. So research for me is done because I’m fascinated with something, but also to get the fix going again. For a novel like this, I will do three months or so of research. I read all four extant biographies of Kinsey; I read about the period — books like Halberstam’s, for instance — I went to Bloomington and sniffed around. I went to the Sex Institute and met some people, looked at Kinsey’s house. When that was done, I went through my notes and began to get some idea of who my characters were, and how I might start.
This is the first time you’ve written a novel with a first-person narrator since Budding Prospects, 20 years ago. How did that come about?
It was an automatic artistic choice. When I write short stories, about half are in first person and half are in third person. So it’s not unusual. The advantage here is that the reader can distance him or herself a little bit. My hero, my innocent, John Milk, is looking over his life. This is his apologia pro vita sua; he is telling us how intense this was, how great Kinsey was. But the beauty of the “I” narrative is that we don’t trust him necessarily. We can see where he is conflicted but not admitting it to himself, or where he’s not aware of the moral and emotional implications of his acts. He’s a blind follower, and part of the humor of the book, and maybe some of its compassionate irony, comes from readers being able to step back and say, “Wait a minute, perhaps that’s ill-advised.”
Milk is a fictional creation. Is he based on an actual person?
No, he’s a pure invention. And it’s a little sticky in this case. As with Dr. Kellogg and his associates, some people here are real and some are invented. Part of the fun for me in a historical narrative is that only I know the line between what is fact and what is not. Often the most bizarre material — Kinsey’s behavior with prostitutes, his filming of a thousand men masturbating — is the actual historical fact. The sticky part arises because, besides Milk, the other members of the inner circle all have their names on the spine of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. But in the end, I’m writing a novel. It is fiction, after all.
For obvious reasons, this is your most sexual book. Yet for the most part, your descriptions are reserved, even clinical.
In the sex scenes, as in scenes of violence I write or scenes of sex in other books, there’s a way of presenting the material in which you must find the closure, the final moment, the final sentence to close it out. And it doesn’t involve a Harold Robbins riff: “His throbbing penis entered her glistening vagina, and they fucked.” That’s the stuff of pulp fiction, and it’s not artistic. In creating good scenes, maybe there’s a point at which it fades to black. That’s the way I’ve treated sex throughout my books. But of course, since the subject here is sex, there are some scenes that must be a little more detailed.
In many ways, the sex scenes — like the novel as a whole — are less about physicality than other issues: trust, loyalty, love. Sex is just a filter.
Yes. Loyalty is a big part of it. And relationships that are not necessarily sexual, although sex might enter into them. This is particularly true of the inner circle. They’re a cult, a team. They look out for each other. They do have one secret, of course, the secret of their sexual entanglements. So it’s about trust.
There is also the question of how all this affects a marriage. What does it mean anyway, marriage, when some of us are obviously not meant to have one partner exclusively? There are marriages that are open — Kinsey’s, for instance. Do both partners equally enjoy that? Did Clara, who revered her husband, object to being neglected after a while? Is sometimes the kind of open marriage that Kinsey proposed really self-serving? I wanted to look at all of that.
For all his commitment to science, a lot of Kinsey’s work seems to have arisen from his own predilections, his taste for bisexuality and group sex.
Again, that’s the value of the “I” narrator, because Milk can reveal this in a way the reader can appreciate. If we don’t see directly what Kinsey is thinking, we can make our own judgments. Because he insisted on being a rigorous scientist, and not prurient — there was nothing to snicker about with sex, it was a normal activity — if it had been discovered that he was such an enthusiast, it would have brought him down. As the book suggests, he had increasingly risky behavior, especially when he became well-known. He was still going to bathhouses and fucking people in multiple combinations. Within the inner circle, he kept things under wraps so no one would reveal this information. But he was approaching people on the street and in public urinals. He could have been caught.
What you’re describing is a tension between intellectual and physical desire. To what extent did Kinsey wrestle with this?
I think the actual Kinsey fell into sex research, as we learn in my fictional account. He was already in his 40s when he began to teach his sex course. He took great pleasure in telling students about the function of the clitoris and the penis, and showing slides, and outraging everybody, but in a way that was unimpeachable. This was science. We know about the animals, we know about the fruit flies; we should know about human beings.
Of course, as it evolved, Kinsey had a real passion for this subject, and it enabled him to get back a little bit at the society that repressed his sexuality, and to normalize it. He remains a hero of the gay community — and of me, too — because he normalized all sorts of sexual relations between consenting adults.
We see this in the letters he received, some of which you cite.
Kinsey was more than the Miss Lonelyhearts of his day; he was the authority. He received thousands of letters, which are now available to the public, and they are utterly heartbreaking. I put a slightly humorous spin on them, but you can see that these people are greatly disturbed — not so much in terms of sex and sexual function, but the emotions that go with it. People write as if they know him, and if only he were to answer, their lives would be redeemed in some way.
What’s fascinating is that they ask the most basic questions — about sexual positions or masturbation — and it’s like no one has ever talked about this before.
Kinsey must have been one of the most amazing, sympathetic, charismatic figures ever, which enabled him to speak to anybody on any level and get their sexual histories. He was a taxonomist. Without making judgments, he was interested in the full range of human behavior. He didn’t care if you fucked dogs in the alley; in fact, he found it kind of interesting. At the same time, he was stiff and formal with the rest of the world, absolutely the professor of science.
Of course, everyone makes judgments. Kinsey made judgments. And when his statistical analyses are criticized, it’s because, really, he does prefer the man with the giant penis to the man with the tiny penis. Or Mr. X, who had sex with everything, to the nun. So obviously his prejudices do come out in his books, which represent themselves as disinterested scientific documents.
Again, it comes back to the line between research and emotion. Which, in turn, speaks to fiction’s ability to contain or reflect real experience. Does a novel allow you to evoke a historical figure in a more three-dimensional way?
Absolutely and self-evidently, because even historians try to give a sense of what might have been said and what historical figures might have been thinking. But I have absolute freedom to invent anything. I like to use historical figures as springboards to talk about something that’s happening in society, or to show how we got here from there, or to remind us that every notion has been preceded by another. But I do like to keep these figures within the context of what I discover about them. Of course, I manipulate the character for my own purposes, but I don’t really know that as I’m doing it. I just let the character come to life.
THE INNER CIRCLE | By T.C. BOYLE | Viking 418 pages | $26 hardcover
T.C. Boyle will read from The Inner Circle at an L.A. Weekly–sponsored event on Thursday, September 2, 7 to 9 p.m., at White Lotus, 1743 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood.