Of all the great thinkers of the 20th Century, Sigmund Freud's theories on the inner workings of the mind have affected our perceptions of reality the most. Freud's psychoanalytic theories have become such a prominent aspect of culture — both pop culture as well as critical theory and analysis — that it has shaped how we view our world, and we've all become a little more self-conscious as a result.
In Willing, author Scott Spencer is clearly playing with some psychoanalytic ideas. He follows in the footsteps of authors such as Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow by revealing plot through the skewed lens of his protagonist Avery Jankowsky. Of course, what we are allowed to see is never the full truth, and we must take Avery's experiences at face value.
Willing follows Avery, a 37-year-old Manhattan freelance journalist whose young girlfriend Deirdre cheats on him with her grad school classmate Osip. When Avery finds out about the affair, he falls into a deep funk. Unable to find decent freelance work, his uncle refers him to his longtime friend Lincoln Castle, who hosts (at $135,000 a trip) a world sex tour for wealthy executives. Avery sees a book opportunity, gets a book deal, and embarks on the sex tour to "research" for his book.
Of course, Spencer doesn't let his protagonist off with an easy assignment like that, and Avery faces his own personal demons along the way. Despite declaring himself as "the guy in the stands at the World Series, …[with] his hand on his heart and his eyes bright with belief," Avery has a past that haunts him. The first sign that something is not all right with Avery is the way he internalizes his mother's four past marriages, his "four fathers" that he wears with pride in public but rejects in private. Not only does Avery deal with his own father issues, he has to face his mother's overbearing nature both directly and indirectly.
As a result of Avery's inner struggles, Spencer suggests that what's more important in Willing is not the bawdiness of a sex tour, or even the outright hypocrisy of those rich CEO types on the tour, but the conflicts faced by a man who has never actually confronted them. For example, Avery's mother seeks him throughout the novel (Avery keeps "seeing" his mother in various locations around the world) and Avery must face her directly in the middle of his sex tour escapades. Avery's response is not to assert himself as an adult male, but rather to seek her comfort. He also never faces his reaction to Dierdre's infidelity; even as he desperately wants to be with her, he assumes that his own insecurities will never allow him to connect with her directly. Avery's whole bizarre, textbook Oedipal complex approach to life is both pathetic and comic at the same time.
One of Willing's strengths, and a strength of Spencer's prose style in general, is that we never know where reality and the fantasy of Avery's narration actually meet. There is a dreamlike quality to the entire novel, and Avery's self-deprecating tone and recollection of events is full of the random and surreal. Spencer reflects this dreamlike quality on a technical level as well through his lack of quotation marks and stripped-down dialog.
Even though Spencer is successful in creating a bizarre, psycho-sexual narrator and protagonist, he is not as successful with some of the basic elements of continuity and plot. At times, Avery's experiences don't make sense. For example, Avery is able to secure a $400,000 book deal within 24 hours after sending off his pitch, justifying his sex tour trip. I wish I lived in that type of world, where a struggling freelance journalist can sign an amazing book contract deal that fast. Spencer also loses the reader at the end, when Lincoln Castle kicks Avery off the sex tour because of a string of unfortunate events and because he was "pulling the plugs out of computers" at his Reykjavik hotel. Seems like such a minor reason to be kicked off a sex tour. At the same time, Spencer's comic portrayal of Avery's antics makes up for it, even if it's a bit unbelievable.
Willing may have its flaws, but it is, for the most part, an enjoyable read. Spencer's portrayal of Avery is hilarious, and Avery's personal demons interweave with the plot well. Willing leaves the reader with an understanding that, in this world of psychoanalysis and obsession, there is still hope to laugh at our mistakes.