We readily acknowledge in others an advantage in courage, in bodily strength, in experience, in agility, in beauty; but an advantage in judgment we yield to no one.Michel de Montaigne, “Of Presumption”
This fantasy novella recounts a gay, interracial, intercultural love story. Two young men — one the son of a low-ranking aristocrat, the other a soldier accompanying an imperial delegation — secretly begin a sexual relationship and fall in love over the course of eleven days. The story is set in a place where gay men are impaled alive and left on display. So when the two are found out by the aristocratic youth’s older brother, he is held captive by his family until the soldier leaves to return home.
The story of this brief relationship is told in alternating sections with the story of the young aristocrat’s later life as the husband of the king’s daughter, a life in which he seems to have chosen to live in hiding by passing as a straight man. However by the book’s end, it is revealed that the technologically advanced geneticists worshipped as “gods” have, as a favor to his wife, erased his memory of the eleven-day love affair. In other words, the man has not passed; he has been trapped in self-ignorance and been made incapable of discovering the reason for the sadness and loss he feels throughout his life.
Combined these two stories are pretty bleak: the beautiful moments seem designed to set off the cruelty and ugliness of the surrounding culture. This is of course a political effect, and point taken. Homophobia sucks, especially for people born in a place dominated by its most overt and violent forms.
However, this clarity is thrown into chaos by the novella’s completely unexpected final pages. There, in a surprise twist of the sort I always dislike, the curtain is pulled back, revealing that nothing except the first ten days of the men’s relationship is true. What actually happened, is that at the end of that day, the two men fled to safety together. In the decades since, they have lived in what amounts to a loving marriage that includes family. The terrible homophobic story we’ve read, is just a vision of an alternate life, a “what if” offered up by a magical/advanced-tech being who is responding to a question posed by the curious and no-longer-young aristocrat.
This feels like a cheat. If the tragedy of the protagonist’s life isn’t real, why wallow in its ugliness rather than showing me the happier world he built with his lover? Erasing the cruelties of a terrible world with the narrative equivalent of “Surprise! Just kidding!” seems dismissive of the very real resonances between this fantasy’s horrors and the real world of some readers.
But perhaps, that’s me being dogmatic. And in the days that followed, I did see how if you’re a geeky queer kid reading the book from inside a situation that looks like the world of the young aristocrat, it might be liberating to discover after a long gaze in the book/mirror that this/your world is just “an alternative.” And perhaps focusing on the bleak world and leaving the geeky kid to imagine what a alternative might look like is empowering. Or at least, I can see how this might have been the case for me if I’d read this book in my early teens when I was dreaming (for reasons I couldn’t quite understand) of someday living in Atlanta or New York.
Whatever the case, the flipping narrative makes this book a complicated piece of writing that I have trouble deciding what to do with. Theoretically that complication is a good thing, but in practice and given this story’s chosen stakes, it doesn’t sit well with me.
UPDATE: or maybe the audience is non-queer fantasy fans, giving them a picture of how crummy the traditional world can look to the queer kids they live with (even if they don’t know they live with them)? In which case, that final twist shows that things can be different, that there are alternatives, and that maybe they could help makes changes?
Philippe Besson’s short novel tells of two young men in a small village on the French border with Spain who begin a sexual relationship in the winter before they graduate from high school. They are frank with each other and beautifully open and generous, yet everything occurs in secrecy. It is 1984, AIDS looms, and this is the countryside. Still, both are, in the private spaces they make for themselves, happy.
Graduation arrives, and Thomas understands that his lover, Philippe, will soon go away to school and begin a life elsewhere. So to avoid heartbreak, he flees to Spain to toil on a family farm without saying goodbye.
In 2007, Philippe, now a writer, sees a man in a cafe, thinks he is Thomas, then realizes he must be Thomas’s son. They speak, and the son tells him of Thomas’s adult life as a married man. Nine years later, Philippe and Thomas’s son meet again, and this time Philippe learns of Thomas’s divorce and his relationship with a new lover, a relationship that fails because, as he had with Philippe, Thomas demands it be kept a secret. He also learns that Thomas has committed suicide and receives a letter, written by Thomas in 1984 but never sent, that he appears to have left where it would be found and delivered to Philippe after his death. The final words of the novel are the words of this letter.
The novel presents itself as an autobiographical fiction: the photograph on the cover of French edition is the photograph Philippe takes of Thomas the last time the boys see each other; the dedication is to “Thomas Andrieu (1966-2016)”; and the novel takes pains to include the exchange in which Philippe asks for and is granted permission to tell his and Thomas’s story. In these and myriad other ways, the novel insists “This is true, it happened.”
The story is not, however, idiosyncratic, and the boys’ story of a first gay love is a familiar one. I’ve lived it and reading through this account of their stumbling successes and bright failures, I heard myself sounding back the tune from my own memories. But reading it, I also heard the external echos of all the many accumulated movies, stories, TV shows and novels that have today recounted that same experience as affirmative, popular fictions. From them, I know how this story should go. And yet I also know that, for the story to go as it should, the boys and the men they eventually become would need more self-assurance and more support than I ever had when I was living through similar events. And they don’t have it. So what I know from my past life and what I know from my past reading butt against each other, the one never quite matching the other. This happened enough as I read to make the popular fictions I love begin to ring false, or as a wish.
By the time the men’s story reaches its tragic finale, the tension between what happened and what I knew I should wish for framed my sadness. I came away from the last pages thinking, “the book should have done this” or “the characters should have done that.” Eventually though, these frustrations fell away and I saw that, yes, these characters — these people — probably should have done things differently. But also and more importantly, they should have been allowed to do things differently. They weren’t, and my frustrations with that fact aren’t about the book or how it’s written. They are about the world.
So I come away from the book seeing that my sadness had become — because the book has made it so — a measure of the gap that still remains between the way things are for young queer people and the way we tell ourselves that they are (or will soon become) in our fictions. The gap is real.
I can easily maintain an opinion but not choose one.Michel de Montaigne, “Of Presumption”
WordPress is the equivalent of the vegan’s morning egg taken from the nest of the chickens roaming freely in the backyard. A small step toward change.
The problem, of course, with throwing people away is that they don’t go away. They stay in the society that turned its back on them. And whether that society likes it or not, they find all sorts of things to do.Octavia Butler
Walking today it occurred to me that I interact with the internet the way vegans interact with food: intensely but through difficult commitments and principles that easily isolate and limit possibilities.
It’s hard to hang out with a vegan because everything becomes an issue. In this, I speak from experience: I was vegan for a large swath of my university years and know how much of a pain I was.
And now, like a vegan, I hold to my internet principles deeply enough that even when I say “fuck it, I’m just going to give in and get an instagram account so I can keep up with friends,” I don’t make it past the create account page.
In this, I’m not unlike the vegan who decides that, dammit, they’re going to have a burger at their friend’s BBQ but can’t manage to take a first bite.
We talk a lot about distraction these days, and recently a few thoughts popped into my head about what our use of the term implies. I’m jotting them down for later without any sense of how true they are.
It seems to me that “distraction” implies that:
- there is a specific, meritorious activity or object of action from which we are distracted;
- this meritorious activity is somehow not pleasurable enough, present enough, attractive enough, interesting enough, rewarding enough or engaging enough to hold out attention;
- this is because, presumably, that action’s or object’s merit is somehow subtle enough or occulted enough or ephemeral enough to be continually at risk of being lost or overlooked or forgotten;
- that our instincts don’t respond to or point toward merit;
- that love or enthusiasm or pleasure are not trustworthy accounts of or guides to merit.
In other words, “distraction” implies the failure of the good to attract attention and the failure of my nature to recognize or to desire that good unaided. “Distraction” suggests my feelings betray me and cannot be trusted.
This feels wrong and living by it feels self-hating.