The inner circle

by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Hardcover, 2004





New York : Viking, c2004.


A virginal man with a beautiful wife accepts a job as an assistant to Dr. Alfred Kinsey, a charming professor whose life's calling is sex.

User reviews

LibraryThing member msf59
This is a fictionalized account of the infamous sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. This is both a fascinating and disturbing story and Boyle lays it out in his usual, smooth, potent narrative.
LibraryThing member sanddancer
This book is a fictionalised account of the work of Dr Alfred Kinsey, the renowned sex researcher, as seen through the eyes of his assistant John Milk. Whilst Milk claims to be telling Kinsey’s story, it is more about how working for him affected Milk himself and in particular his relationship with his wife. Milk and the other characters are fictional constructs with only Kinsey and his wife being base d on real people. So this is the story of a fictional marriage set within the story of a real scientist.

I thought it sounded an interesting idea and that Kinsey would provide fascinating material, but sadly that was not the case. It started off promisingly enough and the juxtaposition of the research work (always in the name of science!) with the morality of the day and basic human urges was amusing or raised some interesting questions.

But nothing more really happened.

We saw the evolution of their work from simply interviewing students up to much more “involved” research shall we say, but the characters didn’t really evolve. Some people had some sex while research about sex. There were no deeper insights.

Very disappointing.
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LibraryThing member Bookmarque
It’s a love story all right – between John Milk and Dr. Kinsey for the most part. While he never really sees the destructive nature of his devotion to Prok, John does eventually value the love he has for his wife over that he has for Prok. It takes pretty much the whole book for Milk (who is as pale and bland as his name) to figure it out.

Milk is one of those guys who have very low self-esteem, so when Kinsey shows an interest in him and gives him a job, Milk returns it with undying love and blind devotion. It’s amazing how empty Milk’s character is and how much he is ruled by circumstance. He’s a go with the flow kind of guy to the point of not being able to formulate his own thoughts. When Kinsey comes on to him sexually, he just goes along. He doesn’t seem to have a thought or feeling about sex with a man at all, he just does it. Blasé is too light a word for Milk’s inability to engage himself in anything. He’s just drifting along with a strong current and goes wherever it takes him.

Kinsey could behave as rigidly, coldly or cruelly as he liked and Milk would just take it. On more than one occasion Kinsey insults and berates Milk only to have Milk shrug it off and make excuses. No matter what the abuse, Milk takes it and one step further; thinks he deserves it. His lack of identity and self-reliance is wearing after a while.

In a way, this makes him a perfect sex researcher. His inability to form an opinion about anything leaves him as a pure instrument for data. There is no stamp of personality on his findings. He does not judge and soon, his weakness allows him to cross the line of research into voyeurism and exploitation. Kinsey’s mantra of not being ‘sex shy’ has let him to push the boundaries of science into pure hedonism. Not only is he having sex with his employees, but encouraging them to adultery, pornography and eventually orgies.

This last ultimately causes Milk to rebel. Instead of one of his usual at home ‘musicale’ gatherings where he plays obscure classical music for friends and acquaintances and instructs them as to what they are hearing, Kinsey invites only the inner circle and wives. He feeds everybody Zombie cocktails which are very potent and pretty soon they are all fairly lit. He leads them upstairs to an attic room where mattresses cover the floor. They obey his instructions to strip and a few of the bolder couples have sex while the rest watch. Kinsey has performed but stays aroused and casually masturbates during the proceedings. When it comes to Milk’s turn, his wife does not want to have sex with him, but with his colleague and sometimes lover to both of them. But Kinsey wants her instead and she flees at the prospect. Milk shoves Kinsey down and takes off after his wife.

This is the proverbial straw for Iris who takes their kid and escapes to her mother’s house. Eventually she comes back, but the time in between is killer for Milk. He drinks all day and doesn’t go to work. The house turns into a pit as does his person. Eventually he does go back to work and is scorned for having shoved Kinsey. How dare he lay hands on him in violence? But Kinsey is pompously forgiving and eventually helps Milk get Iris back. Having a divorced man on staff would be impossible and Milk would have to go otherwise.

Even though Milk remains with Kinsey and continues to do the research as well as participate in the more salacious activities that go along with the job, Iris returns with the knowledge of where the line is and how much John will preserve that line in order to protect her. He is literally lost without her and that appeals. Iris sets out to create as much distance as she can between herself and the rest of the inner circle, eventually she succeeds.

Sex is treated as frankly in this fictionalization as it probably was by the real inner circle. Nothing was taboo and Kinsey sincerely believed that nothing was immoral – all human sexual behavior was allowable and he even did research into children, pedophiles and rapists. I’m not sure that this didn’t warp the already liberal views of sex Kinsey and his closest employees had. Constant exposure to deviant practices allowed Kinsey a broader and broader range of sexual practices that even he at first must have balked at. I have read that towards the end of his life only men interested him and it is true in this novel as well.

The book’s lack of discernable plot was a bit off-putting to me. There wasn’t any point to the tale, just the tale itself which really only focused on Milk and Kinsey; the former completely the creature of the latter. I suppose it could be called a character study, but the narrator didn’t have any character and his subject was a caricature, so I don’t think that works. In the end, it was fairly enjoyable to read albeit not one with a purpose and point. No one in the end was much changed from the time we first encountered them. With Kinsey’s death a lot of their behaviors changed, but they themselves stayed constant.
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LibraryThing member thorold
Boyle has nearly as much fun with Alfred Kinsey as he did with John Harvey Kellogg, but the basic plot idea is the same as in The Road to Wellville: one half of a young couple becomes an ardent disciple of an eccentric midwestern guru; his other half remains sceptical and their relationship suffers. The difference, of course, is that this time the guru is obsessed with sex, rather than the bowels.

The novel, narrated in the first person by one of Kinsey's researchers, takes as its theme the relationships within the "inner circle" (Kinsey, his researchers, and their wives) as Kinsey leads them into various forms of sexual experimentation. The results are as bizarre as one could wish for, and some of the descriptions of Kinsey's experiments and interviews are hilarious.

The plot requires the narrator, John Milk, to be rather dim and lacking in perception, which is funny for a while, but Boyle doesn't really manage to carry it off for the full length of the book. At times, you have the feeling that Boyle is as fed up with Milk as we are.
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LibraryThing member ChicGeekGirl21
By no means a perfect novel, but still very fun. The Inner Circle is loosely based on Alfred Kinsey's close knit group of associates who helped him with the research for his seminal books on sexual behavior in men and women. The book is filled with sex, barely any of it erotic or even pleasant. Boyle's interpretation of Kinsey as a domineering obsessive is supposedly pretty close to reality though.… (more)
LibraryThing member Gary10
I loved this book! Story of Alfred Kinsey's Sex Institute told from the viewpoint of his first research assistant. Great references to Bloomington, Indiana and also the relentless scientific pursuit of knowledge--in this case, about sex. Well written.
LibraryThing member bobbieharv
I thought I'd love this book, but while I read it avidly, I really didn't like it at all. About Kinsey's circle - I guess the movie must have been made from it. But it was smarmy, somehow, with no real character insight or development - as I also noticed in his book Drop City.
LibraryThing member samfsmith
I’m a big fan of T. C. Boyle, and this book is well-written and meticulously crafted, as I have come to expect from Boyle, but, I was just disgusted with two of the main characters. The novel tells the story of Professor Kinsey and his inner circle of sex researchers. Kinsey and his wife are historical figures, the rest of the characters are fictional. Kinsey is portrayed as overbearing, authoritarian, obsessed, domineering, abusive, and borderline perverted – all of which is probably close to the mark historically. And I really hated him.

The other major character, and the narrator, is John Milk, the first researcher that Kinsey hired. He is weak and easily led, treating Kinsey as a god, to the detriment of his own marriage. I’m sure Boyle, in the manner of Dickens, chose Milk’s name on purpose – he really is a milquetoast. I wanted him to stand up to Kinsey, quit his job, maybe buy a gun and take some revenge, but he could never bring himself to do much of anything.

So I liked the writing but hated the two most important characters! What a dilemma…
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LibraryThing member chorn369
This is a fictionalized account of the pioneering sex researcher and zoology professor Dr. Alfred Kinsey and his relationship with one of his students, John Milk, who eventually became his most important assistant. Boyle does his usual fantastic job elucidating details about social mores of the times (late 1930s--mid 1950s) when Kinsey conducted his most important research--which included collecting extraordinarily detailed sex histories of some 20,000 people and filming both animals and humans engaged in sex. Kinsey was brilliant, demanding, singularly focused, and very unconventional, even by (arguably) more tolerant standards about sex and morality today. The plot moves along believably tas Kinsey, Milk and other members of the "inner circle" of sex researchers conducted the research which eventually was published in two text books.… (more)
LibraryThing member mazeway
If Boyle's goal was to show us how boring sex became to Kinsey's researchers, he did a bang-up job. Never has something that should be titillating been so dull. Not his best work, by far.
LibraryThing member Periodista
Given the subject matter and TC Boyle's reliable talent, it's rather amazing how dull this book is. Maybe he is too prolific. I actually didn't read the whole thing but I did get through most of it, including the end.

As everyone probably knows, the narrator is a fictional member of Kinsey's inner circle that conducted the monumental surveys that eventually produced Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female.

Maybe this would have worked if the movie hadn't been released at the same time. Both this novel and the movie cover much the same ground, in the same way, including the most shocking/immoral bit--the interview with the lifelong pedophile. Not for a moment did Kinsey consider that perhaps the guy should have been reported to the police. If you were expecting more of such monsters and freaks--well, this seems to be pretty much it. There weren't hordes of other ones, apparently. (There were also many interviews of prisoners, but at least they're where they belong.)

But even before the movie, all this stuff--the not exactly voluntarily sex among and between all the research assistants and their wives, etc., was covered in biographies and the like.

Boyle's choice of a narrator also contributes to the soporific effect. Milk is passive, numbed. I half wondered if he and the others were supposed to be hypnotized by Kinsey; they are sometimes drunk or drugged. Milk's wife is more independent and opinionated, but I can't see such a character marrying someone as mopey as Milk.

Funny to see one of the press reviews describing this novel as having a lot of sex. I guess it's like pornography or the survey itself: mechanical, repetitious, no smells or feelings. Only words that would fit in a scientific survey report. But Milk was an English lit major! And didn't their interviewees ever/often offer up their own feelings? How feelings affect their sexual responses and so on? Would Kinsey just brush these aside as non germane? None of this occurs to our mopey Milk toast.

Near the end, all the couples congregate at Prok's for customary festivities when he ends up asking/expecting them to participate in an orgy. Everybody dutifully strips down, until Milk's wife gags at Kinsey's expectation that she'll do it with him. What do all those bodies look like? How do they sit? Pose? Does Boyle not have it in him to describe this? Or is it Milk?

Maybe the silliest/not credible bit concerns Milk's sexual relations with Kinsey. Proving he's not "sex shy" (which none of these whiz-bang researchers, including PhDs in psychology and anthropology has the intellectual equipment to challenge) he pads off for his first encounter with Prok. The curtains discreetly drop. So is this anal sex? Blow job? Mutual handjobs? The last two might be common experiences among straight boys, especially in the 1930s, but wouldn't anal sex be a big deal? There are many other summons from Kinsey and we never near any more.

I think I'd prefer to read a bio.
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LibraryThing member nog
I don't know what happened. This is particularly lifeless for Boyle. You certainly don't want to start here if you are new to his fiction; you would want to try Drop City or Tortilla Curtain, for example.
LibraryThing member hennis
gripping story, interesting subject :)
LibraryThing member sbarany
This book is one of the best I have read in the last years, so exciting like Middlesex (by Jeffrey Eugenides). T. C. Boyle, the author of more than ten bestsellers, is a writer of 'real' American stories, so the interest in his books can be limited outside the US. But this one is about the famous sex researcher, Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who wrote the two earth-breaking books near the beginning of the 50's about human sexuality. Those scientific publications were sold better as any other books from that era, and were the main vehicle to debunk Victorian morality and tear down sexual repression in America (I am not sure if using past tense is totally right here).

Prok (this is the name of Dr. Kinsey used by friends) is the real hero of the book, even if it is told by one of his assistants, Milk, and formally is about Milk's life, his common life with Iris, his wife. Clara, Prok's wife is also an important figure.

Prok is a sex- and science-maniac tyrant, there is no doubt on that, even if he is adored by a lot of or even all of his 'inner circle'. Clara and Iris are the most sympathico figures (and as usual, all the everyday duties of the families are on the shoulders of the wives, while the men are doing 'research' and all that stuff).

What confuses me is where exactly to find the right balance between the "human animal's" needs and the miracle of love and marriage. There are many situations in the book where the reader easily sees some extremes are out of question, but there are too many others as well where it is not clear at all if a possible refusal would come from our shyness, false reflexes or from our good taste? I think there is a big dilemma and a problem with finding the proper way to interiorize or suppress our 'human animal' needs, due to our morals or cultural believes.

There is an independent movie titled 'Kinsey' (2004) from Bill Condon, which tells the same story. Of course, it is hard to be basically different, but as usual, a book and a movie are not in the same worlds. I was amused, however, by the story of Clara, teaching the naive John Milk in both worlds. This is one of the rare occasions where the film was unbeatable - Prok (played by the marvelous Liam Neeson) standing totally perplexed on the first floor and shouting up to the own bedroom to the strange pair... Laura Linney as Clara is unforgettable.
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LibraryThing member JenneB
I thought it was pretty interesting, but the book club mostly hated it.
LibraryThing member kirstiecat
Though this is technically a work of fiction, Boyle did some research into Kinsey via biographies to lay down a great deal of the groundwork. I've read other works about Kinsey and seen the film around him, of course. This goes into greater detail. I'm not sure it's really life changing but if you're interested in the person behind all of the stir that was created, this is worth picking up. I think what I was fascinated by the most is the characterization of Kinsey as someone who was so malleable in terms of his personality that he could adjust himself to fit given situations with any varieties of people. He was just so driven on getting his interviews and discovering the real sexual habits of the populace. Though, it's funny how Kinsey seems to think of the very physical act as something that is free from emotions and attachments and it's clear through this book and most life experience of people that this can become very difficult, especially when you have wives and husbands committing adultery and friends running off with spouses for affairs. It's clear that the characters in this novel sometimes realize that they have huge double standards (in thinking they can have affairs but their wives can't, especially the main protagonist.) But it was also clear to me that something exists within human nature that makes detached intimacy a difficult possibility for quite a few people. Kinsey was doing his research back in the time when things like oral sex (even between a married couple) and homosexuality were outlawed in many states and it's baffling how Kinsey was able to do this research considering the nation's attitudes towards the subject. Yet, it's also clear that this level of repression and ignorance weren't good for the country. What the safe middle ground is I'm sure varies from person to person and is just something one has to decide for him/herself.

This is a well written novel and if you're interested in the subject, I'd recommend it, keeping in mind that it is still considered fiction.
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LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
This is the fictionalized story of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the zoologist at Indiana University who revolutionized the field of sex research and authored The Kinsey Report. The novel is narrated by John Milk, a (fictional) assistant to Kinsey and a member of his inner circle of aides, assistants and their spouses. Milk is presented as a worshipful innocent, and Kinsey as charismatic and manipulative of his circle--Kinsey's view is that sex is strictly animalistic, and he requires all his "inner circle" to have sex with him, his wife, and with each other's spouses--sometimes with an audience.

Boyle is an excellent writer, although this is not his best book. The plot keeps the pages turning and all the characters are well-developed. An interesting look at an iconic figure.
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LibraryThing member vlcraven
This is a fictionalised account by one of Professor Kinsey’s protégés and is so engrossing it’s difficult to keep in mind that on the whole it actually happened. Boyle captures the '50s beautifully and by the end the characters were some of the most well-drawn that I’ve read, though not necessarily people I’d like to know. Yes, it’s about sex research, but it’s not at all salacious. Boyle had a case of over-blown prose in the first fifty pages, but it cleared up after that (thank goodness).… (more)
LibraryThing member maryreinert
This book caused more mixed feelings than any that I have read in quite a while. I picked up the book because it was a TC Boyle book without any idea that it was about Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the famous sex researcher in the 40’s. The story is told through the voice of John Milk, Kinsey’s easily manipulated assistant. Through Milk, we learn of the research Dr. Kinsey is performing (and sometimes he really is performing), and the effect that research has on Milk’s own personal life. Milk goes from a sexually naïve undergraduate at Indiana University to a man who buys into Kinsey’s idea that any form of sexual experience is perfectly normal. There are some scenes in the book that are really disturbing. I suppose Dr. Kinsey would call me “sex shy”, but a scene involving an infant is disturbing as is any sexual encounter when one of the participants has been forced or manipulated.

I read “Loving Frank” by Boyle and couldn’t help thinking that Kinsey and Frank Lloyd Wright both were masters in controlling others while they had difficulty controlling themselves. Although I’m sure that Kinsey’s research has been valuable, from this book, I’m not convinced his motives were altogether altruistic. Was he really trying to free society from unnecessary guilt and sexual repression, or was he a sexual predator or sex addict (for lack of better terms).

I developed no sympathy for any of the characters in the book except for Iris, Milk’s wife, and then only toward the very end of the book. All of the women appear to be either used or so enthralled by Kinsey that they lost all sense of judgment. In short, it’s a well written book which presents the very “hot topic” of sex in a most detached way.
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LibraryThing member verenka
I am not sure what to think about this book. I don't think it is a badly written book or bad storytelling at all, but I hated the main character so much that it spoiled the book for me. The story was told from a first person perspective by a coworker of the sex researcher Kinsey, but instead of making me inclined to understand the storyteller's dilemmas it made me loathe him even more.
He was hypocritical, two-faced, and a weak character. He did everything to please Kinsey, even if it meant alienating his wife. He prided himself on being liberated but applied totally different standards to his wife's liberation. His reluctance to let anyone criticise Kinsey didn't help. In short: he was not a likable character.
I'm unsure if T.C Boyle did this on purpose: question the so called liberator of America by exposing how two faced even he and his "Inner Circle" acted. If that was the intend, then it wasn't successful. It only exposed his weak little underling. I don't mind weak heroes, but they have to have at least one redeeming quality. This storyteller didn't redeem himself at all and I hated the book even more for that.

I know a lot of people who like T.C Boyle's books, so I assume it's just me who either doesn't get it, or just plainly doesn't like that kind of writing.
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