I think this is my least favorite Boyle novel so far. It’s still a great read, but it’s a different kind of novel than all the other Boyle books I’ve read.
First, let’s mention the prose. It’s mature and sharp, but it lacks that rollicking flow that so permeates most of Boyle’s work. And I was ready for that thrilling ride. I had my pen in hand this time, ready to underline every precisely turned phrase, confident that there would be more than could reasonably be counted, and that I would be stuck picking some at random as a representative sample.
But there weren’t that many. “I was lonely, bored to tears, masturbating twice a day in my attic room that was like a sweatbox in a penal institution” comes on page 4, but the next one, “Unfortunately, it was insulated about as thoroughly as an orange crate…” doesn’t show up until page 33, and then, it’s a wait until page 76 for “…her mouth drawn down to nothing, a slash, a telltale crack in the porcelain shell of her shining, martyred face.” Eventually, I put the pen down, disappointed that it wasn’t getting more use.
I took me a while to realize what the problem was. The novel is in the first person and Boyle’s narrator, John Milk, just doesn’t have the traditional Boyle flamboyance in him. The New York Times review of the book called Milk as bland as his name, and that’s pretty much true. Maybe it is something Boyle did purposely, but the lack of his traditional flair really called my attention to Milk’s voice. The fact that he is supposedly speaking the novel extemporaneously into a tape recorder made the occasional flourishes not welcome but actually out of place. Add that to the fact that Milk is a stutterer—stumbling over his words whenever he quotes himself directly. (Who would do that, by the way? I stutter, but not when speaking into a tape recorder, except when I am repeating words I actually said. Then I recreate the stutter I used at the time.) The whole thing just kind of falls in on itself.
Still, there are moments when Boyle—and I do mean Boyle, not Milk—puts you directly in the scene, and sends chills up and down your spine. In case you didn’t know, the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey is a major character in this book—called Prok, as in Professor K, and he’s Milk’s employer, mentor and sometimes sex partner—and Milk, along with several other assistants, help Kinsey collect sexual histories from tens of thousands of people. There’s one scene where they secretly arrange to meet a subject that falls well outside the bell curve of normal sexual behavior. He’s called Mr. X, and he shares with Milk and the others some evidence of his exploits.
The photographs—there were a hundred or more—had the most immediate effect. I remember one in particular, which showed only the hand of an adult, with its outsized fingers, manipulating the genitalia of an infant—a boy, with a tiny, twig-like erection—and the look on the infant’s face, its eyes unfocused, mouth open, hands groping at nothing, and the sensation it gave me. I felt myself go cold all over, as if I were still in the bathtub, standing rigid beneath the icy shower. I glanced at Corcoran, whose face showed nothing, and then at Prok, who studied the photograph a moment and pronounced it “Very interesting, very interesting indeed.” He leaned in close to me to point out the detail, and said, “You see, Milk, here is definite proof of infantile sexuality, and whether it’s an anomaly or not, of course, is yet to be demonstrated statistically—”
It is exactly this kind of clinical detachment that subsumes the novel and attracts Milk. I’ve written before about how most of Boyle’s work seems to focus on the contrasts and commonalities between two primary characters—whether they are Ned Rise and Mungo Park or Will Lightbody and Charlie Ossining. Well, in The Inner Circle, the two contrasting characters are both Milk—Milk’s basic human nature and the aspiring ideal he has of himself. And it is the clinical standards of detachment that Prok introduces to him that puts these characters into conflict with one another.
I don’t suppose it will come as a surprise if I told you I had trouble concentrating on my work that day. As much as I tried to fight them down, I was prey to my emotions—stupidly, I know. Falsely. Anachronistically. I kept telling myself I was a sexologist, that I had a career and a future and a new outlook altogether, that I was liberated from all those petty, Judeo-Christian constraints that had done such damage over the centuries, but it was no good. I was hurt. I was jealous. I presented my ordinary face to Prok and, through the doorway and across the expanse of the inner room, to Corcoran, but I was seething inside, burning, violent and deranged with the gall of my own inadequacy and failure—my own sins—and I kept seeing the stooped demeaning figure of the cuckold in the commedia dell’arte no matter how hard I tried to dismiss it. I stared at Corcoran when he wasn’t looking. I studied the way he scratched at his chin or tapped the pencil idly on the surface of the blotting pad as if he were knocking out the drumbeat to some private rhapsody. Kill him! a voice screamed in my head. Get up now and kill him!
Corcoran has slept with Milk’s wife. It’s something that Prok encouraged, a freedom not enjoyed by the tormented specimens they study. But Milk can’t accept it. There is something immovable within him that is jealous and horrified by the idea, even though he is welcome to sleep with any woman or man in their entourage.
The device lends a kind of lurid fascination to the entire novel. You don’t quite know what Prok is going to expect his henchmen to do next, and whether Milk will do it with self-abandon or self-abuse. In the end, it is his wife Doris that stands out as the incorruptible ideal, although it is not the hedonistic kind of which Prok would approve. She, and not Milk, is the agent of volition within the novel, and that makes for a strange and sometimes surreal ride.