THE INNER CIRCLE
By T.C. Boyle. Viking. 418 pp. $25.95
This is a surprisingly disturbing novel. On the surface, it is a memoir, by the fictional John Milk, about his longtime association with Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the pioneer researcher into human sexuality. The 38-year-old Milk tape-records his memories in 1956, the year of Kinsey's death, and his voice on the page is amiable and earnest, all his sentences flow placidly along, and the reader is inevitably lulled into liking this hesitant young scientist. We soon learn he is married to Iris, that there seems to have been some sort of trouble between them, that they now have a young son.
Back in 1939, though, the virginal young Milk, then an English major at Indiana University, joined Prof. Kinsey as his first assistant because he wanted to help advance science, to be part of that charismatic visionary's effort to reveal the truths about our erotic lives, and by so doing free us from the fetters of prejudice, conventionality and sexual unhappiness. Who could argue with such a noble, life-affirming cause, especially from the vantage point of the 21st century? Well, T.C. Boyle to start with. For The Inner Circle is a novel in the style of The Aspern Papers and The Good Soldier, one of those books that offer pitiless accounts of self-delusion, moral corruption, betrayal and unconscious cruelty. That the novel is a page-turner, with lots of sex in it, only serves Boyle's purpose all the better. We read on, with quickened breaths, feeling increasingly excited -- and soiled. Boyle turns his readers into voyeurs.
In fact, everything about The Inner Circle is designed to keep one disoriented and off-kilter. Take the portrait of Kinsey. At first he appears as the eager, bow-tied scientist, a head-in-the-clouds clinician who will crouch over a copulating couple to point out the fleshly details of their orgasms, almost as if he were studying wasps (his original specialization was zoology). At other times, he could be a proto-hippie, lunching every day on trail mix, preferring to garden virtually in the nude, determinedly and actively bisexual in a "let's all love one another" sort of way. He can be witty, generous and loyal, but also controlling and exploitative. John Milk reveres him as a genius; Iris regards him as a monster.
Most of the action in The Inner Circle takes place during the 10 years between 1939 and the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948). To all appearances, Boyle integrates Milk's account with the known historical record. So we glimpse the workaholic sexologist doggedly questioning students, married couples, prostitutes, homosexuals and various fetishists about their bedroom practices. He collects diaries, photographs and X-rated films. He recruits other adherents -- the priapic Corcoran, the ex-military man Rutledge -- and their wives. During this same period John Milk loses his own virginity, falls in love with Iris, grows more and more committed, body and soul, to the work of the Institute for Sex Research.
Nearly any adult reader will guess what's going to happen to the inner circle. Kinsey, like some '60s commune guru, soon promotes sexual experimentation among his associates. All in the name of science, of course. Sex is just a natural, hormonal activity, after all, and in the right thinking should have nothing to do with love or marriage or, God forbid, jealousy, being merely a release of pent-up energies, or sometimes a useful bonding ritual. Right? Boyle is wonderfully adept in showing the deep creepiness of this apparently commonsensical view. For we soon realize that John Milk isn't merely shy or hesitant, he is genuinely soft and weak-willed, an easily formed True Believer. Whatever Kinsey asks, his follower willingly, eagerly performs, "because this was expected of me, and I always did what was expected." Before long we know too that Iris -- beautiful, warm, witty, tenderly devoted to her unworthy husband -- will be the ultimate focus of the group's experiments. And so we wait, with heart-sinking certainty, for her seduction and its aftermath. The more we come to loathe the sugared words of her piggish, spineless husband -- his initials spell out the word JAM -- the more we fear for her. But she will surprise us.
As the novel progresses -- and rest assured T.C. Boyle never lets you tear your eyes from the page -- the reader gradually confirms what is suspected from the beginning: that The Inner Circle isn't really a historical fiction about the benighted era before Kinsey and the bravery of his quest for truth but a harrowing depiction of unacknowledged evil, of how questionable are at least some of the consequences of sexual liberation. Does promiscuity, as it was once called, bring fulfillment and happiness, or only spiritual callousness? Is desire, being fundamentally insatiable, actually the source of earthly suffering? Is devotion to our professional work, our earth-shaking, all-important professional work, whatever it may be, a sufficient excuse for the neglect of our families? Can we ever justify the exploitation of others in the name of science or ideology? And if we can't be with the ones we love -- or even if we can -- should we still be allowed to love the ones we're with? If so, then what does that say about us, and about love?
Boyle is no prude; he understands the exhilarating hormonal rush of people attracted to each other, and he sympathetically depicts the joys of intimacy. But he also knows the morally destructive power of eros. When Milk has sex with an unknown woman in the hallway outside the bedroom where his wife lies sleeping, we feel contempt for his self-exculpatory defense that the physical act meant nothing. "It was the natural impulse of the moment, uncomplicated, salubrious, research on the fly, as it were." The man's a cad, and there's an end to it. Kinsey's wife, the mother of three, accepts her husband's views out of love for him, even to servicing several men seriatim, but we see her shudder beforehand. Still, Boyle -- the author of a dozen fine novels and short story collections -- is an artist, not a preacher. When a nurse allows herself to be filmed having vigorous intercourse with one of the inner circle, we are left admiring her easygoing, guilt-free assertion that she simply enjoys men. We never feel that she is a victim.
Kinsey repeatedly proclaims that people are essentially human animals and should be allowed to act like the happily rutting beasts of the field. But Boyle shows that this really means that the strong prey on the weak, usually men on women (though not always). Sex is always about power over another, a power either freely granted or sometimes callously asserted. At times The Inner Circle calls to mind not Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) but a somewhat later classic of social science: Obedience to Authority, Stanley Milgram's famous account of the human tendency to follow orders, no matter who they hurt or what their consequences.
In the end, The Inner Circle leaves one reeling before so much spiritual destruction, all in the name of science. Worst of all, most of the characters remain unaware of what they have become. At one point, Kinsey, Milk and Corcoran go all atwitter at the prospect of interviewing a sex addict who preys on very young children. They can hardly wait to collect their data. Iris reminds them, without effect, that the man is a pedophile, a criminal who exploits and corrupts the innocent. But like calls to like.
Sometimes, out of love, we may forgive those who trespass against us, or even be forgiven our own trespasses, but the injuries will take long to heal; the scars never quite vanish. As we know from the very opening of the novel, somehow Iris and John Milk are still married. But what does that marriage really mean? Milk confesses that compared to Iris he loved Kinsey "in a deeper way, in the way a patriot loves his country or a zealot his god, and if that love meant molding my needs to his, then so be it." One's blood runs cold, even as the last sentences of 1984 spring to mind: "He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."
I couldn't stop reading The Inner Circle, for it possesses, to adopt an old phrase, "the fascination of the abomination." In the end, Boyle leaves us no simple diktat about how we should conduct our intimate lives, and yet the most sensitive and admirable character in the book, Iris, is the one who suffers most and is the most deeply injured in multiple ways. She represents the claims of marriage, family, children, of personal responsibility and even of honest-to-goodness sexual passion. But to what avail? Don't great endeavors -- the advancement of science, social change, foreign wars -- require that we make equally great sacrifices? We must all do our duty, for such transcendent causes are always more important than mere individual people. Right? Right? . . . and yet part of me wishes I'd never read it. It calls to mind Evelyn Waugh's remark about Randolph Churchill that after reading about his amours, one could never again commit adultery, "or at least not with quite the same abandon."
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is email@example.com. His weekly online book discussion takes place on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.