18 March 2008

Delany, Samuel R. Hogg (1995). Normal: FC2, 2004.

As a quick game take a moment to think of the most vile and perverse sex act you can. Really, push yourself. That sex act is in this novel somewhere.

(Corpses? Yes.)

A lot of the criticism or reviews I've seen for this novel, written way back in 1972 but never published until 1995 (and published by FC2, whose mission is "to publish books of high quality and exceptional ambition whose style, subject matter, or form push the limits of American publishing and reshape our literary culture"), spends a good amount of time confessing how harrowing the experience of reading it is, but that it's in the end so worth it, for the gift I guess we're given of a portrait so honest and revoltionary. Hogg, a rapist-for-hire who never bathes and regularly voids both bowels and bladder right in his crusty jeans, is—so the critics argue—repulsive and yet alluring, immoral and yet moral, hateful and yet capable of love. Delany, the point is, has found a way to make evil sympathetic.

I don't buy it, maybe because I don't buy the representation of evil in these pages. Surely I'm not the first person to read and write about this novel who has slid shamed eyes across the scattershot lines of gay pornographic fiction before, right? And Hogg's taken right out of good old raunchy gay porno. Yes, the critics allow this novel to be labeled as pornographic, but their attempts are to hoist the novel out of the gutter and into fine art.

To me, I think it just wants to wallow in the gutter. Who would read such a novel? Or, rather, who can enjoy such a novel? Men who violently and fiercely hate women, first and foremost, will find much to love here. Also certain scatophilic fetishists. I'll even admit to having been aroused by a sex scene or two, but was quickly put off by all the wretchedness that followed.

There's one other important demographic for the book, folks I'll call for lack of a better term Readers on the Wild Side. Reading this book reminded me of an entry I read recently on Stuff White People Like about the self-righteous joys of Having Gay Friends. Readers on the Wild Side love this book because it's so dangerous and because they feel their eyes are being opened to some difficult truth.

It's bullshit. The opposite is true. Hogg is Delany's silly but successful attempt to pull some pervy wool over the literary establishment's courageous eyes. It's such a trifling, bratty read. Everything in it is phonier than Juno.

Cooper, Dennis. Closer. New York: Grove, 1989.

I ordered my copy of this novel—those are naked men on its cover—online and the back cover came coated in a tacky, pasty grey-white goo. Why can't people take better care of things? I mean pay attention, right?

Closer is Dennis Cooper's first novel in a pentology of novels about George Miles, who in this novel is the beloved figure for half a dozen high school boys, all gay and all pretty much cool with it. George gets involved with a middle-aged French man named Philippe, and through that connection travels down a dark road of dangerous, filthy sex that almost gets him killed in the basement of some suburban home.

In line with the literary fads that I think produced these stories (in many ways the novel is a bunch of separate linked narratives), the writing is always very stripped down and gritty. My favorite story—which is to say the only one I actually liked—was told from the point of view of Alex, who is in love with a boy who is in love with George, and who wants to be a filmmaker. Perhaps its this ambition, and this once-removed relationship to the novel's central figure, that creates in him a cool critical stance I found refreshing. Of especial interest is a scene where Alex first sleeps with another boy, this one somewhat older, and can only get involved in the sex by narrating what's going on in the cold, absurdist voice of a pornographic novel.

And Alex is also responsible for this line, the novel's best: "Oh, that was simple, like fishing probably is" (84). Otherwise I can't really recommend anyone read the book, despite the reputation Cooper's gained.

14 March 2008

Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo Jumbo (1972). New York: Scribner, 1996.

I assigned for my students a book I'd never before read. Now I've read it. I'm not disappointed. This happens sometimes. One professor put Amidon's Human Capital on a booklist of a class I took before he'd actually read it, and that turned into Snoozefest '07. This book has Gates, Jr. cred. It's got Baldwin cred. I should be fine once I figure out what on earth I'm going to talk about in class.

In brief: Mumbo Jumbo tracks the growing infestation of "Jes Grew" from Chicago eastward as it heads to 1920s NYC. Everyone in the Harlem Renaissance is at least named, and often appears in a scene or two. Cab Calloway. Langston Hughes. What Jes Grew is is a need to dance and shake your booty, and it turns out that this urge has been suppressed by a certain fascistic group dating back to Ancient Egypt. The Knights Templar—so beloved by a lot of backward looking storytellers nowadays—are painted as especially evil and, well perhaps even more so, stupid and buffoonish.

In a class looking at the humorous novel it'll be tough pointing out the humor to my students. Much of the stuff I wrote "ha!" about in the margins of the book were things that I thought I pretty much got the joke of, because I'm down with the history of African-American culture in the 20th century, right? I'm worried in class in a couple of weeks that I'll be gratingly with-it like I was back in college when I used to brag about liking Digable Planets and Soul Coughing. Like it made me urban.

In the end, I think Flight to Canada—about lots of the writers of the antebellum/transcendental era of U.S. lit—is a more engaging book, and a funnier one. But that's probably because I got all the jokes.