Fumbling Toward Ecstasy

Alfred Kinsey, the zoologist-cum-sex researcher whose two books in the 1940s, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, revolutionized the scientific study of sex, twitter-pated and/or revolted an entire nation in the process, and helped set the stage for the sexual revolution of the 1960s, makes a great subject for a film or novel.

Kinsey, as his latest biographers have made clear, was nowhere near the straight-arrow objective scientist and Midwest family man he claimed to be for the press and his financial backers. In fact, in addition to some decidedly masochistic tendencies (he got off on sticking slim objects into his urethra), he encouraged, maybe even demanded, that the men who helped him in his research (as well as their wives) be as sexually free as he himself grew to be.

Eventually, Kinsey (known by the priapic nickname of Prok), his wife Mac and his inner circle were fucking one another, sometimes in groups (in all manner of homosexual and heterosexual combinations), making grainy black-and-white films of themselves and their research subjects having sex or masturbating (and clinically analyzing their faces and genitals as they approached orgasm), and exposing themselves to the incredible sexual oddnesses of their research subjects in ways that couldn't help but plunge them into dangerous psychic cauldrons of Dionysianism that we've been warned about since Euripides' The Bacchae.

Now, it so happens that T.C. Boyle's novel about Kinsey and his band of student researchers, The Inner Circle,and Bill Condon's biopic Kinsey are coming out at about the same time—Boyle's novel has been a best-seller for a number of weeks, and Condon's film opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. You can chalk this up to synchronicity if you want, or to some serendipitous flare-up in America's longtime fascination with sexual expression and the best ways to repress it, but I'm too depressed by the election to think about America right now, so let's just say the coincidence is nothing but dumb luck.

Condon's film, though opaque at crucial points about Kinsey's psychology, is far superior to Boyle's genuinely awful novel. Starring Liam Neeson as Prok, Laura Linney as Mac, and Peter Skarsgaard, Timothy Hutton and Chris O'Donnell as his researchers (Oliver Platt also co-stars), the film is a sympathetic portrayal of a driven scientist who shifted his zoological interests from gall wasps to sexuality in humans when, the film suggests, he and his wife, both virgins when they married but after all grown-ups, couldn't properly consummate.

Why, Prok wondered, did otherwise-intelligent people know nothing about sex? Why the shroud of secrecy about a subject that should be as exposed to the light of scientific illumination as any other? Why the myths about masturbation driving you crazy or the “sickness” of homosexuals? Why the suppression of any kind of deviation from married, missionary sex or the prevailing idea in the '30s and '40s that women couldn't come vaginally—or shouldn't come at all? Kinsey, dogged taxonomist that he was, began the process of gathering data.

He began teaching a class at Indiana University in human sexuality, asking students in his packed lectures to fill out sexual-history questionnaires between slide presentations of erect penises entering vaginas. He and a carefully selected group of young researchers began interviewing almost anyone who would talk (Prok aimed for 100,000 eventual interview subjects, though he died before reaching a fifth of that figure). He and his cohorts went on trips to far-flung cities to interview regular folk or prostitutes or prisoners—as well as a man who claimed to have had more than 30,000 sexual experiences, including hundreds with prepubescents and several with other species, and who could come in 10 seconds, from limp to ejaculation, and proved it to Prok in the interview room. During one of these trips, Prok discovered his bisexuality with one of his assistants, and after breaking it to his wife—honesty was everything—encouraged Mac to sleep with his assistants and, well, for everybody to fuck everybody else.

Condon doesn't quite have a handle on the fissures of Kinsey's personality. He has Neeson portray Prok as obsessive and tortured but essentially likeable—this is a prestige Hollywood picture after all, clearly shooting for Oscar consideration—and Neeson is such an enormously sympathetic presence we can't help but root for him. But that means slighting the fact that Prok insisted on the complete separation of the physicality of sex from any emotion it might inspire (insisted, as well, that his inner circle keep that separation intact, which caused everybody a great deal of confusion and pain) as well as underplaying the nearly fascistic control he exerted over his staff.

It's quite possible, of course, that Condon thinks of Kinsey's attitude toward sex as unfathomable, and so sets the scientist, the husband, the bisexual and the overbearing boss side by side without trying to gather him all up into a man who makes sense. Condon and Neeson are such tolerant, empathic artists who possess such a sweet, light touch that they can pull off such an inchoate portrayal—Kinsey in the end tips the scales as a benign liberator, a man whose passion for science and obsession with our hidden bedroom lives opened the door to a sexual self-acceptance and tolerance for others that most all of us (in the blue states, anyway) now take for granted.

Boyle's novel seems to me barely readable. Boyle is known as a consummate pro who writes with the fluidity, humor and bounce of the great 19th century comic realists (notably Dickens), and who re-creates their broad social canvases, but like his contemporary Tom Wolfe, the man can't do character, so he populates his novels and stories with walking clichs that weigh down his otherwise-strenuous exertions to bring his stories to life.

Boyle did his homework with the biographies but seems to have no idea what to make of Kinsey's contradictions, and unlike Condon, he doesn't seem to even struggle with them—Boyle's Prok comes off as an unsympathetic Midwest loudmouth with a big cock and an even bigger ambition to make his inner circle do what he wants them to do, and to make America at large wake up to its inane puritanism. What's worse is that Boyle makes the disastrous decision to tell the story from the point of view of John Milk, one of Prok's researchers whose case of hero worship for his boss makes him wholly unreliable as a narrator (it's like Condoleezza Rice writing a novel about Bush), and who, further, suffers from a case of wimpiness that makes the reader want to run.

It's hard to fathom why Boyle decided on Milk as a narrator—Milk is continually apologizing to the reader for not telling the story right, and possesses neither the distance nor the psychological acuity to make Kinsey, his ostensible subject, at all comprehensible. There's some pathos toward the end in Milk's confusions arising from his desire to please Prok and his desire to conventionally love his wife, but even that gets resolved by a wholly contrived happy ending. It's a paint-by-numbers novel about a man who requires a master portraitist to do him justice.


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