18 December 2007

White, Edmund. The Farewell Symphony. New York: Vintage, 1997.

Now that the semester is over I'll be able to Finish! a lot more books, thanks for your patience. I thought I'd get White out of the way and read this third book in the autobiographical trilogy. I'm glad I did. It's as long as the first two put together and blows them both out of the water.

White, and we all, have AIDS to thank. Whereas A Boy's Own Story had nothing to connect its narrative to outside of the narrator's own obsessions, The Beautiful Room is Empty had the Stonewall Uprising of 1969. Except the book ends with this event, it's literally on the last page, which is stupid seeing as how it was such a beginning of something; the book as a result isn't so much about gay liberation as it is about the narrator's obsessions—this time over hunky Midwestern Sean with the big dick and the swimmer's build.

The Farewell Symphony takes its name from a Haydn work in which all the musicians leave the stage one by one toward the end of the symphony, leaving just a single violinist on the stage. This violinist is White, blessed (or cursed) with having lived to tell the story of the AIDS crisis despite his own seropositive status. And he tells it well. Now that he has some serious human drama to write from, his little obsessions can fall to the background as the story of gay men in the latter half of the 20th century comes to the fore. As he puts it, "I thought that never had a group been placed on such a rapid cycle—oppressed in the fifties, freed in the sixties, exalted in the seventies and wiped out in the eighties" (405).

And AIDS does more in this novel than give White something real to report. Let me try to put it this way. Never had a book (or series of books) made me feel less..."authentically gay" than White's had. White's fucking a new dude on practically every page, half of whom we never get names of because he never bothered to. For gay men of White's generation (at least two removed from my own, I suppose) sexual promiscuity wasn't just a cake-and-eat-it-too matter of hedonism, it was an act of rebellion. Given that I was three when the AIDS crisis was first reported in a major newspaper, it's hard for me to get a hold of this, but I think I trust it. I buy the argument. If I knew myself to be gay at a time when gay people were not just hated but invisible—not in the U.S. legislative branch, not in primetime sitcoms, not hosting the Oscars—I imagine that encountering another man who wanted sex with men (even if anonymously in some public toilet) would feel like an affirmation.

What this results in is eighty percent of White's three novels—crazy, wild, rampant sex of every kinky variety with every shape and color of man that exists in this world. And quickly the parade of names of cock details becomes a tired and lonely parade of one man waving a banner nobody cares to look at anymore. And so reading White has always felt like reading first drafts of students' composition papers where they write about their mother or the home they grew up in, and all they can say is how "she always knew the exact thing to say" or "she's always there for me when I'm hungry or sad" or "it always feels so great to be sitting around our big deck on a summer night." On these papers I write things like get specific! or put us in a scene!

In short, there's no story here, and in the end there's no story in the recounting of one man's promiscuity. I've come to think that the whole notion of coupling comes from some inherent need we have to instill a narrative on our relationships. To string events in an order of some tangible length, enabling our sexual encounters to grow up from passing anecdotes to full-fledged stories. Seen this way, gay men (or at least gay writers) have a lot to be grateful for with the coming of AIDS. Yes, it's killed so many of us (and others), and yes it's put a puritanical (some might say heteronormative*) shame on the idea of promiscuity, but it's also given us a real narrative complication. Perhaps more importantly, though, AIDS has tossed our anonymity out the window. We know each other now, and we know each other by name.


* One great passage (on the tricky intricacies of cruising) I wanted to quote and couldn't find a place to do it:
Heterosexuals, who revolved in a closed circle of friends under the brilliant scrutiny of their parents, who turned like the gleaming horses in an indoors training stable, could be sure their slightest signal would be observed. They could afford the luxury of elusiveness. They were accompanied by a reputation—for money, charm, intelligence, achievement, heritage or for poverty, boorishness, idiocy, idleness and obscurity (even the obscurity, paradoxically, was sure to be registered, even pedigreed). But all of my anonymous males [. . .] could not risk feigning rejection. Everyone had to be unambiguous, as glowing as a peacock's tail and as towering as a stag's antlers, secondary sexual characteristics evolved on the principle that more is more, even if the lyre bird's seductive tail so encumbers him that he can no longer escape a predator. (11)