The Inner Circle by T C Boyle

The sweet smell of sexology
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America did not know it but, during the 1940s when it assumed it had only a world war to win, Alfred Kinsey was plotting to overthrow some of the country's most cherished illusions. At Indiana University, deep in the innocuous heartland, the eminent zoologist was turning his relentless attention to human sexuality and had begun accumulating the personal sex histories (he aimed for 100,000) which would be the basis of his two great books: Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female (1953). The latter unleashed a scandal which toppled the sexologist, but the Kinsey Report was a prequel to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

The Inner Circle is TC Boyle's fictionalised account of Kinsey's rise and fall, also the subject of Bill Condon's forthcoming film, based on the biography by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy. Boyle's recent novel, Drop City, seems to have been a dress rehearsal for this superior production, in that it dealt with the psychology of cults but lacked its charismatic protagonist and emotive subject matter.

Kinsey estimated that if the US were to prosecute the dozens of sexual offences on its statute books, 85 per cent of the adult population would be in jail. In the novel, the virginal John Milk is anxious to break free of the national hypocrisy, but is shy and often inarticulate. He is also fatherless, a perfect victim for the seductive Kinsey, who hires and trains him as his first sex researcher. Milk, the narrator, is both disciple and apologist, while remaining the lowest-paid member of the staff. Yet he does what is expected of him and interviews hundreds of volunteers who "give up'", in Kinsey parlance, their sexual histories.

Through that otherwise lame device of the tape recorder, we are privy to the secrets not only of the interviewees, but of Kinsey and his acolytes, the eponymous Inner Circle. Milk becomes the lover of both Kinsey (who preferred men) and his wife Mac, though he does marry Iris, the Circle's sole dissenter.

Part Oberon, part Baden Powell, Kinsey or "Prok" is never happier than when leading his troops on field-trips to collect yet more histories. A crusader sworn to eliminate the twin oppressions of ignorance and monotheism, he is devoid of humour, indifferent to current events and a confirmed tightwad, opposed to drink, games or anything which precludes his assuming the role of instructor.

While defending his strictly scientific approach, he employs methods as voyeuristic as this novel's dustjacket. The researchers hide in closets to spy on prostitutes and clients, film live sex and roomfuls of masturbating men: "It's the human animal. There's nothing to be ashamed of, nothing at all."

Which is true, except that while enforcing a façade of rigorous normality, Kinsey is adamant that the Inner Circle practise the sexual democracy they preach. He offers Mac to his new assistants and engineers a series of internicine wife-swaps, with calamitous results. Milk is devastated when Iris deserts him for fellow-researcher and Prok favourite, Purvis Corcoran. "We can't have that,'" says Prok, and orders her immediate return. For the Inner Circle is a man's world in which women are helpmates and cheerleaders for The Project.

Kinsey makes sex slaves of his staff, and works himself and them to breaking point. Like Saturn, he gorges on his children while protesting his love for them. Yet Milk remains unwilling to condemn: "I loved him. I did. In the way a patriot loves his country or a zealot his God, and if that meant molding my needs to his then so be it." As to the master's real motivations, readers are left to draw their own mainly inescapable conclusions.

Boyle writes with pace, verve and breathtaking insight. The novel is a marvel of construction and delivers a damning verdict on mechanistic views of nature. Their indulgence in "sexual relations of every kind... without inhibition or prohibition" has failed to liberate the Inner Circle, and this is a sad ending to what was an idealistic exercise to advance human freedom. It's the inevitable outcome when life is reduced to a single impulse and wisdom attributed to a single individual.

Mary Flanagan's 'Adèle' is published by Bloomsbury

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