Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane


-Book Cover

A few years ago, a colleague suggested that I read the young adult novel Sexy by Joyce Carol Oates. I did and found it well-done and moving, but also disturbing. However sensitively done, this book sides with the straights in a world divided by sexuality. I jotted down my thoughts about the novel over the course of several days. Those pages are printed uncorrected or revised below the fold.

Just read Sexy by JCOates. It is the Uni teacher sex harassment novel, transposed, flipped–high school, from student perspective. Teacher as victim–that’s normal, but doesn’t come out on top, no existential insight. Student isn’t the mysterious, threatening other either. Makes the student a mind, imagines them–contrast with Maxime Prose’s Blue Angel where the student remains the villain with whom we cannot empathize.

This novel catches the impossibilities–the human impossibilities–of the class room. The inherent vulnerability of that space for teachers. How much reaching out is an incomprehensible dangerous act that has to happen unless you hope to become the teacher with a class where nothing happens and you prepare for tests. How Lowell Tracy is vulnerable precisely because he teaches lit he loves, speaks to students as if they matter and what they say can be taken seriously. How the teacher who replaces him succeeds because she helps them with yearbooks and drama club. What might matter to them as children, older children, but children still. Thoreau matters to them as people, as humans (used as an aspiration rather than as a species designation). The way the students respond to expressions of value–vocabulary, clear accounting of merit–as alien and unfair.

And how much of it is a portrait of boyhood, the problems and difficulties of boyhood?

The shock of coming from a sense–not yet worked out–that the book cuts across assumptions and obligations we take for granted:

What to make of the email–the seeming admission that something happened and that he wanted it. The photos. The fucking photos.

So walking Sunday, what I realized:

Sexyis Sedgwick as fiction–sexuality as a fundamental, foundational (concept? aspect? practice? no) constituant of our society and selves. In the story, the rejection of homosexuality and the homosexual constructs the narrator as: 1) heterosexual, 2) masculine, 3) adult.

1 Heterosexual: think the scene when the nameless gays and lesbians come out to support the teacher. He recognizes that he doesn’t recognize any of them. He’s not like them. He throws up and burns the pics.
2 Masculine: a guy’s guy, over and over.
3 Adult: Rejecting homo, he rejects father and brother who think he is homo or has acted homo.

Homo is abject here, nameless and unnameable: “ffeminite” (which recalls sodom through “sodomite”) and “feminate.” A joke, on the father I suppose, it underscores the unspeakability of the queer. Think too of people. all of the narrator’s friends have names, even if we know nothing about them. The queer students are nameless, identified by category alone, a category to be relegated.

Then the end. The self newly constituted is caught up in difference fights. Then incredibly, the sex. The masculine violence that has constituted the narrator as male, adult and heterosexual has its continuation in heterosexual sex. Sex with a woman is a product of and continuation of masculine violence.

Scene is a rejection of the mother–narrator chooses sex (woman is identified as a predator, naked–her top transparent) rather than the emotional, potentially maternal figure. He invites her to summer on a farm. The Garden. But here heterosexual sex–the original sin that cast Adam and Eve from the garden–here heterosexual sex arising from masculine violence provides for the return to paradise.

The over-determination of the heterosexual theme points towards the power and danger of the homosexual (because it is fundamental and pervasive) in this particular narrative of masculinity.

Posted May 26, 2013