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The Inner Circle

Review

The Inner Circle



There were several factors that ushered in the Sexual Revolution in
America. One was undoubtedly the work of Dr. Alfred Kinsey from the
late 1930s to the early 1950s and his groundbreaking publications
SEXUAL BEHAVIOR IN THE HUMAN MALE and SEXUAL BEHAVIOR IN THE HUMAN
FEMALE, also known as the Kinsey Report. Kinsey and his colleagues
cataloged America's sexual habits and stunned the nation with their
frank and scientific approach to a topic considered taboo in polite
company. So who was the man who pioneered "sex research," and who
were the men and women who helped him in his study as both
researchers and subjects? T.C. Boyle, in his latest novel THE INNER
CIRCLE, imagines Dr. Kinsey as a dynamic, oversexed and eccentric
individual obsessed with his work.

Like THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE, Boyle's fanciful and fun fictionalized
portrait of John Harvey Kellogg, THE INNER CIRCLE takes an
interesting American icon and writes a novel around him. Here we
are introduced to Dr. Kinsey, or "Prok" as he is called by the
narrator, John Milk. Milk is a shy, small town senior at Indiana
University when he takes Kinsey's class on marriage and sexuality.
The class itself is controversial, and Kinsey quickly becomes known
as "Dr. Sex." He asks students and faculty to give him their sexual
histories for his fledgling research. Milk volunteers and is
eventually offered a job with Kinsey, thus becoming the first of
the inner circle.

Over the years the circle grows, and John Milk marries and starts a
family. The inner circle, however, is where his loyalty really
lies. From the beginning his relationship with Kinsey is
complicated. Kinsey apparently hires Milk as his assistant based on
physical attraction rather than on skills or experience (Milk
graduates with an English degree, not a science degree). They
become involved in a sexual relationship, and soon after that, Milk
becomes involved with Kinsey's wife, Mac --- with Kinsey's consent
and even encouragement. And thus the story goes; Kinsey directs his
research and the sexual lives of his inner circle.

Kinsey, as imagined by Boyle, is a bizarre character; manipulative
and often unfeeling. Sex for him is a purely physical act with
little or no emotion involved. Milk is passive, which makes him a
good narrator. However, despite the tantalizing subject matter (and
Boyle doesn't spare the reader the sex scenes), the book starts to
drag around the middle. We are privy to many intimate moments and
much personal information as the circle gathers histories across
the country and experiments personally, but Boyle doesn't seem to
be able to move the characters much beyond that and none are
particularly likeable. In fact, the novel is a bit frustrating in
the emotional stagnation of John Milk and the utter control over
him and the others that Kinsey seems to have. Why should we care
about Milk? What about him are we to relate to? Boyle is
unclear.

On the one hand, THE INNER CIRCLE is a book about sex; the sex
lives of individuals and the sex life of a puritanical mid-century
nation. On the other hand, it is about relationships; both power
relationships and marriages. Milk's marriage is, as one might
easily imagine, strained under the weight of his work and also
under the demands Kinsey puts on his inner circle to participate in
his lifestyle of insatiable sexual desire.

THE INNER CIRCLE is less dynamic and recommendable than THE ROAD TO
WELLVILLE, but only because it is slightly repetitious and thus
verging on dull. Overall though it is an interesting novel,
centered on a unique personality and a moment of awakening in
America.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 22, 2011

The Inner Circle
by T. C. Boyle

  • Publication Date: September 9, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0670033448
  • ISBN-13: 9780670033447