California novelist T.C. Boyle has long been obsessed with the 1960s and the decade's fallout. In his Budding Prospects (1984), two guys try to get rich by growing pot. In Drop City (2003), hippies and burnouts attempt to live off the land and fail spectacularly. With his latest, The Inner Circle, Boyle takes a look back at the life and work of Alfred C. Kinsey, the famed sex researcher (and subject of the controversial new film Kinsey starring Liam Neeson) whose research undoubtedly paved the way for the sexual revolution of the '60s.
We first meet the sexologist known here as Prok, short for Professor Kinsey through the eyes of Boyle's narrator, John Milk, who in 1940 accepts a job as Kinsey's lab assistant at Indiana University. In short order, Kinsey seduces the shy and naive Midwesterner, convincing him that sex is a simple and worthy biological need.
What follows is a picaresque tale about Prok and Milk's travels and research for Kinsey's landmark studies, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). Mr. Boyle's Kinsey is not just researching other people. His lab experiments include organizing, filming and often participating in orgies, wife swaps and thousand-man masturbation sessions. He encourages full staff participation.
I spoke to Boyle about the professor who laid the groundwork for the sexual revolution. Here's what he had to say:
In doing research for this book, what did you learn about America's attitudes about sex in the '40s?
I don't know what people would talk about privately at dinner parties, but as far as I know, there was no discussion of sex in the media. After Kinsey published his surveys, though, there was titillation and it seemed OK to discuss him. He loosened things up.
How much of the action here is made up? Did Kinsey really film a thousand men masturbating?
Everything is true to fact. I am amazed and struck and overjoyed to find these bizarre bits of our history. All that gives me a tremendous pleasure and I want to communicate that to the reader in the form of a story. Every fact about Kinsey is from his biography. Him filming a thousand men masturbating? It's all true. And that made it all the more fun for me.
Milk uses a lot of clinical words coitus, H-history, etc. when describing sex. Is that part of the times, or because he's a researcher?
I believe he's using the language of the sex researcher. But it also becomes euphemistic, doesn't it?
Yes, and it also makes the sex seem, well, cold and joyless more about power than anything.
One thing I am exploring is what it is like to give yourself over to a guru, to a great leader. The most poignant part of my research was to read the letters of people who would write to Kinsey with their stories. The sadness of those letters is that everyone has emotional problems related to sex. Here they are writing to a total stranger who is not a medical doctor and thinking that this man can resolve the dilemma for them. You can parallel this to a political movement come to me and I will anoint you. No one but the individual can do that.
There's a lot of gay sex in this book, but we don't get to see a whole lot of it. Did you feel uncomfortable writing those scenes?
Another editor wanted to know why I drew the curtains on the gay scenes but I drew the curtains on the heterosexual scenes, too. I think every good artist has an idea of the shape of a scene, and perhaps the actual moments with regards to sex or violence, for that matter are best left to the reader's imagination. There are more sex scenes in this book than in any other book I've published, but they are not much more graphic than scenes I've had in the past.
Why is there so little sex in fiction today?
In fiction, everything happens a lot less than it does in real life. Unless you're Nick Baker, where the physical details of life are more important than the sweep of events you have to move a story and create a story. In fact, I'm a quarter of the way through this identity-theft novel I'm writing and there's no sex in it none at all! Of course, the characters have sex, but it hasn't mattered to the story yet.