24 November 2007

White, Edmund. The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988). New York: Vintage, 1994.

Avid readers will recall the first book of this autobiographical novel trilogy, A Boy’s Own Story, and how much I disliked it, mostly for its awful prose. In this book, the writing’s better on a stylistic level—White having learned a bit more about what readers of any sexuality can stomach—but the book still falls flat.

It’s a shame that White is our Updike, which is to say that he’s our learned and well read and omnipresent white-male writer born decades ago whom we are meant to revere solely because of his status and age and productivity. It means that I have to read the final book of the trilogy, The Farewell Symphony, which I’m hoping to god is a lot more palatable.

The problem with these novels is that they aren’t novels. They’re memoirs labeled as novels at a time, I imagine, when the memoir wasn’t as marketable a genre. And so they’re all coming-of-age stories through various ages, this one being the narrator’s college life and post-college life in New York; it ends at the Stonewall riots, which would be interesting if White wasn’t so committed to his own narrow perspective in retelling the events.

But the narrator (which is White’s self) is often so callous and repellent, and the novels never seem to place their narrator in a position of critique. We’re meant to sympathize with whatever his plight is (the lonely sadness of cruising men’s rooms for sex up to three times a day), but it’s hard to when sex in these novels is treated as a kind of sporty inevitability. Unfulfilling emotionally, sure, but that doesn’t mean the narrator should try to really feel for anyone.

I mean:
I met a pretty Korean [. . .] who lived next door. Whenever the mechanical world frustrated him—if his bike jammed or the laundry machine swallowed his coins, or his key snapped off in a lock—he’d ring my bell, trudge in, take off his clothes, fold them neatly on my white wood chair, and lie face down on my white bed. He’d take it like a man, bite the pillow if I hurt him, and nothing had ever felt quite so good as those small taut muscles under that chamois-soft skin, the color of cinnamon when it’s sprinkled on cappuccino. That’s my way of saying that a low fire, a pilot light, burned under that glove-smooth skin, and that he smelled excitingly of that foul fermented cabbage the Koreans like to snack on. The minute it was over he’d dress and leave, his eyebrows raised in painful doubt as though he didn’t quite understand what had just happened. He had the whitest teeth. (107).
Paging Edward Said.... And this is 1988!

20 November 2007

Capote, Truman. "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Stories. New York: Random House, 1958.

I've never seen this movie, but I know that through it Mickey Rooney proliferates racist ideas.

This, in the end, is the novel I'll teach next semester. It's funny in places, humorous throughout, though apparently the movie ends more like a comedy and less, as in the novel, like a tragedy. The unnamed narrator is bitchy and catty and clearly gay to me at least, though I wonder whether my students will pick up on it.

At any rate, this is just to say Finished! I read the thing in a matter of hours, and I supposed I recommend it when one finds oneself with a few hours to kill. Check back next term for more to be said.

19 November 2007

White, Edmund. Forgetting Elena. New York: Random House, 1973.

Amnesia stories fall into two camps, I think. One is the case where the person gets amnesia and knows it, and everyone else knows it, and so the drama is whether or not the amnesiac can be teased or lured back into full awareness. This is the romantic-comedy camp of the genre, though maybe The Bourne Identity could be fit in here, too. The other camp is the one where the amnesiac wakes to a world where he knows no one (including himself) and no one seems to know him (or they don't let on that they do). This is a horror/suspense camp of, like, Memento and Dark City and the like.

The one interesting thing about White's first novel is that it fits into neither of these camps. The narrator wakes up not knowing who or where he is, but that to announce such an affliction would be a very big mistake (why? unclear), so he hides his amnesia from everyone around him. As a result, everyone treats him as they always have, and he must use these clues to figure out who he is.

I suppose one reason he can't let on he's amnesiac is the setting of the novel. This is an island culture (it's post-Stonewall Fire Island, really) where decorum is everything and people are judged by their social position. It opens room for some comedy, though not much for those who were born right around the time Fire Island's heyday was winding down.

I read the book looking for a funny or maybe even just humorous novel written by a gay man or about gay men to teach in my 20th Century Fiction class next fall. I thought this would be an easy task, but it's proven near impossible. We've taken ourselves so seriously for so long. I mean, we've had to, one could argue. I may have to settle for Breakfast at Tiffany's.

16 November 2007

Leavitt, David. The Lost Language of Cranes (1986). New York: Bloomsbury, 2005.

Leavitt's first novel is a kind of twinned coming-out narrative. At its start, Philip is a mid-twentysomething editor of romance novels who hasn't come out to his folks yet. Rose, his mother, is a copy editor, who doesn't seem to take any interest in other people and is as a result pretty uninteresting herself. Owen, her husband, spends every Sunday trolling for sex at a gay porno theater. The plot of the novel throws everyone together, all secrets uncovered, and then tears them apart as a family, until the final scene, where father and son are left together, neither knowing what to do about the other.

A Phylis Schlafley or a Pat Robertson would condemn this novel as a homosexual fantasy in which fathers and sons can fuck one another without feeling bad about it. Perhaps they did, way back when it was published. Leavitt's not a sicko, nor is he the kind of radical sex-positive fag that would force his reader to confront the beauty of Owen and Philip's love. The possibility of any coupling is simply unspeakable, as it would be with you and your father, and when the story ends on a final image of Owen's "white ankles in the bright moonlight," the result is touching.

This novel should be required reading for any high-school boy, in case that boy is working through confusing feelings about sexuality. Oh, to have come across the following passage fifteen years ago!
His sexual life had been bred in secret; he had never spoken of it with anyone, not even himself. Could something so private be real, he wondered? Wouldn't he someday soon meet a girl, fall in love with her? Wouldn't there be some shifting in the hormones he was just learning about in science class, so that he could make love to a woman like any other man, marry her like any other man? He would be free of it, then, that other life, the secret life; it would fall away, unknown to anyone but him, and he would look back on it as a distant dream. (75)

07 November 2007

Kopelson, Kevin. Sedaris. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2007.

I Finished! this attempt at critical, scholarly analysis of David Sedaris's work more than a month ago, but have been working on a review of it for a periodical on whose staff I happily sit, and am not sure whether posting a review here constitutes previous publication, so I'm withholding sharing it. Plus it's, like, 1500 words.

At any rate, the book is much too interested in interpreting Sedaris's life through his essays, and even his fiction. "Some truths ... need masks," the guy argues, which is a dangerous way, I think, to read short stories. At one point Kopelson—a queer theorist with much to say on Proust—says that Sedaris is definitely "a bottom—not to mention a size queen" (196).

Well thank god someone's finally figured it out....

04 November 2007

McEwan, Ian. Atonement. London: Vintage, 2002.

Since you've last heard from me, I've been packing up one apartment and moving to another. I picked up McCarthy's Blood Meridian and could never stay awake beyond five pages. A dull, dull novel. So dull I didn't even want to read for a while. Then I lost it in the move and was so glad.* I picked up this novel instead. Why oh why did I wait so long to discover McEwan?

Not counting the 19th century novels I read this past spring, Atonement rivals probably only American Pastoral for best read of the year. Told in three parts, it tells the story of Briony Tallis, an eleven- or twelve-year-old girl who writes stories of princesses and heroism, and how one observation made out a window of her house leads her to turn away from writing fantasy stories and toward, as McEwan puts it, "the strangeness of the here and now, of what passed between people, the ordinary people that she knew, and what power one could have over the other, and how easy it was to get everything wrong, completely wrong" (39).

So: literary fiction. I started out the novel hopelessly enamored with Briony, so precious in her attempts to stage a play with her toddler cousins as silly bad actors, seeking always praise from her mother and older siblings, walking around her house as though she knew so much more than she actually did. And then her convictions get her wrong and, not to spoil the opening section's ingenious shifting, she acts in a way that does another character—someone about whom I'd theretofore felt very little—such stupid harm, it's very hard by the end of Part One not to vehemently hate her.

It has something to do with the fact that Briony is a child in full, not just a child-aged character, not a child in the Home Alone sense—a child onto whom we can safely project our own ids. She's such a child in full that she acts fully like a child, and for a while it's fun and cute to read and spend time in her head, but then as must happen in all novels consequences come into play, and as she continues to act like a child we readers can't forget that we're not children, and our feelings toward Briony become too complicated to get a comfortable hold of.

And then we have 200 more pages to read.

Two more things to share. One is the best thing I've ever read about the cunt, or the word "cunt":
No one in her presence had ever referred to the word's existence and what was more, no one, not even her mother, had ever referred to the existence of that part of her to which—Briony was certain—the word referred. She had no doubt that that was what it was. The context [of the letter in which the word appeared to her for the first time] helped, but more than that, the word was at one with its meaning, and was almost onomatopoetic. The smooth-hollowed, partly enclosed forms of its first three letters were as clear as a set of anatomical drawings. Three figures huddling at the foot of the cross. That the word had been written by a man confessing to an image in his mind, confiding a lonely preoccupation, disgusted her profoundly. (114)
The other thing I can't share without ruining the book's entirety for you, so all I'll say is that somewhere in its pages this book provides me with the most indisputable defense of realism's chief lie ("This didn't happen but I'm going to do everything in my power to convince you that it did.") that I've come across in recent memory. This novel argues for realism's unending importance.


* I found it, alas. And as you may have seen it's on my comp list so I'll have to slug through it eventually. Stay tuned.