29 November 2006

Cunningham, Michael. A Home at the End of the World. New York: Picador, 1999.

This novel was unusual in that it was only minimally invested in the gay experience, at least in comparison to the others I’ve read thus far. This is probably because Jonathan, its gay character, is only one of four first-person narrators—the others being his friend (and short-lived sexual partner) Bobby, his roommate Clare, and his mother Alice. Jonathan’s coming out isn’t ever dramatized or made a part of the plot. In his passages of narration, he describes his coming to the realization of being gay almost exclusively in terms of Bobby. He comes to realize that he loves Bobby, and only later, living apart from him in New York, does he identify as gay. At one point, Alice catches the two of them together, but this never leads to a discussion between them. Jonathan’s is a family not much able to communicate.

So while it’s a coming-of-age story, it’s hard to read it as a coming-out story. Jonathan’s sexuality doesn’t lead him to who he is, it’s just a part of his identity. What the book is mostly concerned with is family and the kinds of families people form. Early in Bobby’s life, his brother dies accidentally and his mother commits suicide shortly thereafter. When his father dies after his graduation from high school, he moves in with Jonathan’s mom and dad, considering them as much his parents as any he’s ever had. Jonathan, meanwhile, has moved to New York City and begun living with Clare, a woman about ten years older than him. Their relationship is very often that of siblings, but the two of them make lazy, half-serious plans to have a kid together someday. To stay brief, Bobby eventually moves in with them, ends up sleeping with Clare, and they have a child together. Jonathan tries to leave but finds that he equally loves Clare and Bobby, and the three of them move just outside Woodstock to raise the child together.

I thought it was going to be a book about redefining and restructuring family, and it was, but I was surprised by the ending, in which Clare leaves with her baby and doesn’t come back. A baby should be with her mother, she believes, and has every right to take the child and raise her on her own. Much in the writing and structure of the book makes this seem inevitable and thematically sound. In that sense, it’s a pretty conservative book. The radical thing to do, it seems to me, is end the novel with Rebecca, the baby, having three parents living in harmony with one another. In the end, it seems Cunningham is trying to say that people often try to (re)create families of their own, but that these can’t succeed. Families, of any stripe, are doomed for destruction.

21 November 2006

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). New York: Modern Library, 2004.

I have to run and catch a plane. I Finished! this two days ago and didn't love it. I like it, but I didn't love it. I love its opening sentence-paragraph:
The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.
I don't like chapter XI, its catalogue of objets d'art, its dull, litanic depiction of an aesthete becoming more decadent.

I do like the way in which Wilde seems to have split his personality into this novel's three main characters. I mean, he's written about this explicitly. "Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry what the world thinks me; Dorian what I would like to be." It's very interesting that he puts what he would like to be at the center of the love triangle, beloved by his public and private personae. It's interesting, to spoil the end, that it's only What the World Thinks of Oscar Wilde that survives at the end of the novel.

13 November 2006

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim (1901). New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.

No good. Look at this paragraph:
He could see what the woman was about, but heard the clish-clash of her jewellery for many minutes. A match lit up the darkness; he caught the well-known purr and fizzle of grains of incense. Then the room filled with smoke—heavy, aromatic, and stupefying. Through growing drowse he heard the named of devils—of Zulbazan, Son of Eblis, who lives in bazars and paraos, making all the sudden lewd wickedness of wayside halts; of Dulhan, invisible about mosques, the dweller among the slippers of the Faithful, who hinders folk with their prayers; and Musboot, Lord of lies and panic. Huneefa, now whispering in his ear, now talking as from an immense distance, touched him with horrible soft fingers, but Mahbub's grip never shifted from his neck till, relaxing with a sigh, the boy lost his senses. (175)
I can't quite explain how that paragraph stands like an opaque monolith in front of me, much as the book as a whole did. It is 270 pages of paragraphs like that sprinkled between pages of back-and-forth dialogue, much of it without speaker-tags.

If this novel has a narrator he is extremely lax in his duties.

06 November 2006

Merlis, Mark. American Studies. New York: Penguin, 1996.

What's mostly interesting about this book is the way it looks at the 1950s' effect on gay adults of varying ages. A gay history text I've been reading tells numerous detailed stories about the extent to which gay men were outed or cornered by the McCarthy witch hunts, which succeeded in removing from government positions far more gay men and women than actual communists—entrapment being the chief tactic.

The story of the novel is simple. It’s the plot that’s complex. Reeve, a scholarshipped charity case at a small college in the Northeast somewhere, is taken under the wing of Tom Slater, a professor of American Studies who has published The Invincible City, a revered-though-outdated critical tome that seems to encompass the entirety of American literature. Tom’s relationship with Reeve is mostly chaste, and he (Tom) eventually falls in love with a sturdy, athletic boy named Jimmy. This love is returned, leading after a few years to a sneaky operation on the part of the school’s president to get Tom fired. The operation is successful, and without much recourse, Tom commits suicide.

This all happens in the 1950s, and is retold in intermittent flashbacks by Reeve in 1989. He’s lying in a hospital bed the morning after being beaten and robbed in his own home by a trick he picked up at a local bar. After asking Howard, a friend, for books to read, Howard brings Tom’s book, and this sets his mind in motion. Reeve’s retelling of the past is both circuitous and constructed; he repeats certain scenes and landmark events, and much of Tom’s life he wasn’t himself present for (e.g., Tom’s suicide), and so much of it is guesswork and myth, Reeve telling himself the story of Tom he thinks he most wants to hear.

I didn’t much care for this novel, I think mostly because Tom’s story wasn’t ever very compelling. Sure, it was interesting to see that gay life and culture were both named and, in a sense, thriving in the Fifties, despite all the oppression and secrecy, but during the passages where Reeve would dip into the past I kept wanting him to reveal more about himself. And I think the narrative removal that happens here (by which I mean the way it’s like The Great Gatsby in Reeve doing the first-person narrating about Tom, who remains mysterious) isn’t as unified and elegant as is it in the Fitzgerald novel. Not too many people talk about Tom, or at least, if they do, few to none of them are quoted. And as I said above, there’s a lot about Tom that Reeve can’t ever know, and yet he needs to dramatize these things in scene. As such, the storytelling is sketchy and speculative. Reeve admits as much, but it wasn’t enough to absorb me in his telling.

I did, though, enjoy the writing itself. It’s at all times superb, both in the language of its description and the smart wording of its ideas. Here’s the opening paragraph:
The boy in the next bed lies sprawled atop the sheets, his gown riding up on his heroic thighs, an inch or so short of indecency. I would stare, but he is on my blind side and it hurts a little to turn my head. They have tapped me like a sugar maple: a vial taped to my forehead, over the bandaged eye, is collecting some fluid I apparently don’t require. Sap, sapience. When my head is empty it will cease to ache.
Indeed, the novel could be read as Reeve’s long attempt, over three days, to empty his head. I think he succeeds.

One of the problems, or maybe questions or puzzles are better words, filling that head is the problem of the straight man. To the gay man, the straight man is object of both oppression and adoration (though, of course, in different directions). I mean by this that Reeve isn’t just in lust with the boy in the hospital bed next to his, he’s in full love with him, if only for his physicality. At the same time, as Reeve writes, these straight men that draw his attractions "own the world. They can do whatever they want and declare it normal by simple force of numbers" (206). This tension is made manifest in Reeve’s trick: he realized all along that the boy he was eyeing in the bar was straight, but the thrill of access was too great to pass up, and, of course, it led in his nearly being killed. This novel is very much aware that to tell oneself that one loves men is to realize that one loves all men, or could potentially love all men—gay or straight. And then it’s aware of the danger of this. "I think there has never been a night," Reeve writes, "when I wasn’t a little afraid ... that [a trick] might turn on me and beat me up. Give me the licking, not that I deserved, but that I somehow was bound to get, in this world that belongs to them" (197).

It’s in the end a sad book, even though Reeve comes out of it okay, with a new plan for a new life ahead of him. I just finished it an hour ago, and right now it feels like a book about limitations and frustrations—being gay as being a member of a close-knit community, yes, but also as finding oneself in a kind of trap. Reeve is not, and never has been, in a loving, committed relationship, and come the end of the novel Merlis doesn’t suggest he ever will be. And I guess what I’m getting at is that this lack of a relationship is never presented in a liberating, down-with-monogamy way. Instead it comes across as a sad but inexorable consolation for this life that Reeve chose.

03 November 2006

Hollinghurst, Alan. The Swimming-Pool Library. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Halfway through this novel—first one by Hollinghurst, who won the 2004 Man Booker Prize for the extraordinarily good The Line of Beauty—an aging weightlifter named Bill, who helps coach adolescent boys in the art of boxing, has this exchange with Alastair, one of his top fighters:
[Alastair] said to Bill: 'I got to go see my girlfriend.'

Bill grinned at him wretchedly. 'Don't do anything I wouldn't do,' he said. (162)
This is an enormously funny joke when you know that Bill is quite closeted and in love with sprting young gents just like Alastair. His message might as well have been: "Don't even touch her."

There's tons of men lusting after adolescents in this novel, and to call the thing pedophilia seems off, somehow. It's like there are pedophiles, who seem to get off on the age difference and power dynamic therein, and there are gay men who admire the bodies and innocence of post-pubescent boys. God, even typing it out sounds dangerous. Here are two lines of defense I'm going to attempt:
  1. Straight men do this too in ways our culture not only accepts but kind of also congratulates. When the Olsen twins hosted SNL, there was this whole joke in their opening monologue about how their 18th birthday was this-many days away, because then of course the unquestioned lust American men have had for these teens would finally be "okay".
  2. This exchange, just a few pages after the above, between Will (25), the novel's narrator, and his current bedmate Phil (himself 17/18).
    'Are you into kids?' Phil asked.
    'I'm into you, darling.'
    [. . .]
    'No, I think kids can be quite something. After fourteen or so. I mean I wouldn't touch them when they were really small...' [Phil said.]
    'No—but a little chap who's already got a big donger on him gets a hard-on all the time, doesn't know what to do with this thing that's taking over his life—that's quite something, as you say.'
This book is unabashed in the ways it discusses the erotic power of teen boys, but maybe what I'm trying to say is I wasn't taken as aback by it as I was by its other obsession: black men. I won't go all into it, but the things the narrator says about how a certain character was "a marvellous black" really stopped me for a second.

Psychoanalyze at will.

The only other thing I'll mention about this book—which is total gay fantasy, seeing as how it was written in the thick of the AIDS crisis and seems to take place in the mid-Seventies, so any kind of sex is had without any kind of forethought—is that it's completely devoid of women. At one point, the narrator's sister is heard over the phone, but when she says she'll be leaving at once to come pick up her son, she sends her husband instead. Most scenes that don't take place in Will's flat take place at the men's-only club he's a member of, or gay bars. They even go to the opera, he and his friend James, and what opera do they see? Billy Budd, itself devoid of women.

It would seem to me damn near impossible to write a 336-page novel without a single woman in it, but Hollinghurst has done it. Talk about gay fantasy....