I ordered City of Night and this book was delivered instead. In it, a young man comes back to LA after a three year hiatus from hustling, hoping to prove to himself that the gay life he lived in that city was a fluke. Or at least that’s what he tells himself he’s doing. It’s clear when his initial attempt to have “recuperative” straight sex goes horribly wrong — the woman’s child interrupts in a way that suggests the protagonist is being hustled — that he’s deceiving himself.
The rest of the novel follows this man as he cruises the woods of a secluded park, obsessively counting sexual encounters according to a set of rules he establishes early on. His goal? Sex with thirty-three men before he leaves to go back home in ten days. If he succeeds, he tells himself, it will free him from his sexual past leaving him to spend the rest of his life a healthy straight Texan. This is folly, and the novel closes with him returning to the park for his thirty-fourth encounter, then his thirty-fifth and so on.
The tone of this return, and the tone of the novel as a whole, are not however easily discerned. On the one hand the novelist clearly aims for the succes de scandale. The protagonist accepts and relishes the degeneracy his sex with men, and his rules ensure that nothing else can emerge. The narration doubles this judgement in its discursive passages and in the ostensibly documentary exposure of baldly pornographic sex scenes. Even the publishing apparatus of the book plays the game: the author insists in the preface that his mother held the sheets of paper for him as he drafted, a declaration that compounds the gay sex of the narrative with the straight incest of the composition. The pleasure here — for the protagonist, the novelist, and the reader — is the giddy, excessive pleasure of broken taboo.
Yet there is little actual pleasure in this book. Quite to the contrary, the obsessive counting, the desperate belief that this ritual will liberate the protagonist from a desire he finds unspeakable, and the book’s insistence on its autobiographical authority together suggest genuine suffering. In this case, the debasement may be less a stunt than an image of the terrible consequences of an internalized, repressive conception of same-sex desire. The most obvious expression of this suffering is the protagonist’s rules. They have as their stated goal his release from a gay past, yet, their actual effect is very different: they enable him to act out his desire by having more and more sex with men, yet at the same time, they permit him to define that sex as something other than gay sex and himself as someone other than a gay man. In other words, they encourage him in a profound and destructive delusion.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the group of sympathetic, older gay men who offer him an alternative to the woods. They have created a world for themselves and a non (less?) repressive identity and they are ready to socialize the protagonist into their group as a friend. The protagonist, however, actively sabotages this opportunity, betraying these men each time he meets them, and then returning to the woods. With each return he presses further against the limits established by his rules, straining the delusion they maintain. Whenever he breaks them — and he does more and more as the novel progresses — he revises them, each time in more complex, more detailed ways, always recuperating his transgressions as steps along the path toward eventual liberation. The effort involved leaves him frenetic, bored and, by the final pages, fully trapped by desires he prevents himself from understanding.
So I leave this novel perplexed: how much of what I’m reading is a tragic portrait and how much of it is sexual sensationalism and exploitation? I resist thinking it’s doing both: Numbers is too unironic and it clearly isn’t attempting the poetic abjection of Our Lady of the Flowers (although I bet Rechy read that book). Yet despite my resistance, the book clearly isn’t artless; or at least, it’s artlessness suggests — in the way Kerouac often does — a stylistic choice. So I find it difficult to situate myself or to decide how to take what I’ve read. This in itself is an interesting effect.
Final thought on Shame
This book reminded me of Steve McQueen’s Shame. The obvious link is the compulsive sex that damages relationships, but the more significant echo is in the way public, exterior spaces are made (when used in a particular way) anonymous and private. This public anonymity organizes conceptions of time and desire in Maurice. In Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal, it is taken as characteristic of non-marital queer cultures.
This has, in turn, left me wondering to what extent the gay sex in the final scenes of Shame isn’t a discovery of the fundamental queerness of this non-normative straight man’s streetwalking and web browsing. And if that is the case, to what extent is the disavowal of that sex — by the character and by the film — a retreat from the queer conception of a privacy found in public spaces, a privacy at odds with the very different privacy defined and offered by domestic interiors.