A Taste of Honey

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?

Lie With Me

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.

iVegan

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.

Distraction as Metaphor

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.

Ink Master, Season 1

I’ve seen clips of later seasons and found them mesmerizing. So with lockdown wearing on me one day and looking for a short, easy lunch-break something to watch, I clicked “play” for season one.

It seems clear to me that no one filming this show knew if it was going to amount to anything or not, and there’s clearly some confusion about the basis for the competition: is it a pure skill test or is there also a social element to the game. The result is a very distanced, mercenary sensibility: the artists are here to win 100,000$ and never quite check into the show itself. They disagree with the judges at every moment, grant them zero credibility, and more or less think they (the judges) can go fuck themselves.

What I was surprised by is how macho the world of tattooing is. These people are aggressively cool, touchy as hell, and ready to fight. Very chill, very understanding people had done my few pieces, and I had automatically assumed most other tattooists were like that as well. So I was genuinely caught off guard by the general vibe of the world.

Cross Post: Criterion’s Pride Schedule

New post at Speaks at Home.

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Criterion has published their June schedule, which includes a series of queer films for Pride Month that actually has me pretty excited. It’s a great list of things with plenty I haven’t seen.
There’s a lot there, but the ones that interest me are:

  • Double Feature: The Red Tree (Paul Rowley) and A Special Day (Paul Rowley)
  • A series of Cheryl Dunye’s works
  • Parting Glances
  • But I’m a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit)
  • The “Queersighted: Turn the Gaze Around” curation materials
  • Another Country (Marek Kanievska)
  • Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette)
  • Olivia (Jacqueline Audry)

Still, despite all that goodness, the entry on the schedule that has me counting days is the “Three by Araki” series, which includes Totally F***ed Up, a film I’ve seen multiple times but only on crap VHS or on YouTube. I LOVE this film and the idea of seeing a clean Criterion-quality version of it’s camcorder scrappiness has me losing my shit.

And also, obviously,

(yes, yes, yes,)

My Own Private Idaho.

Cross Post: Errands Under Lockdown

New post at Speaks at Home.

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My last post, once I saw it online, startled me with how little it captured the experience of running the errands I spoke about during the COVID pandemic rather than normal times.
Quebec was still under lockdown when I went out, even if the plan for reopening is now under way. The Beav and I have been strict about following the orders: we’ve gone out for groceries, bought as much as we could when we did, and stayed home otherwise. And this since March 13th. It turns out though that bike shops and hardware stores are, along with grocery stores, “essential services.”

So my day started with me standing outside the bike shops wearing a mask, my bike in a rack and my explaining to a worker who was two metres away, what I thought needed to be done on the bike and him telling me he’d call if something else came up as they worked. They’d call in a week to let me know when to pick it up. I never set foot in the store.

At the grocery store, I stood in line, spaced two metres apart waiting for one of the fifty people inside to leave so the next person in line could go into the foyer, wash their hands at the sink, take a cleaned cart and go inside to shop. Arrows on the floor tell you which direction you can walk up the aisles in order to minimize the chance of getting too close to someone. When it was time to check out, there was another line: I stood on my circle waiting for the circle in front of me to clear off, then moved up. When I was at the front of the line, I waited until an employee sent me to a cashier who was empty and had finished cleaning their station from the last customer.

At the hardware store, it was just like at the grocery store, only harder to manage because how do you follow the arrows when you can’t know which plants you’re going to get until you’ve seen all that they have on offer?

These three errands took me nearly four hours.

Cross Post: This Year’s Garden

A new post at Speaks at Home.

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Early Wednesday, May 20, I got up and dropped off my bike at the shop to be serviced for the summer. Afterwards, I made our grocery run and then stopped by Rona to buy the basics for the garden. I hadn’t planned on planting everything that day and certainly didn’t plan on putting everything in all in one go. But once I had the seedlings, I didn’t see any reason to wait.

Five hours later, I was done, exhausted and watering. (And the next day, I could barely move I was so sore from all the squatting and standing and squatting and standing.)

So that I have some notes for later, this is this year’s garden.

Tomatoes

Big Beef

The same variety I’ve planted the past few summers. Thirty plants are arranged in four rows in the space behind the potatoes. I over planted in case I lost plants again this year but also because I’m thinking about canning rather than freezing the tomatoes we don’t eat.

We ate the last of the the frozen tomatoes from last year around the same time that I planted the garden.

Asparagus

  • Jersey Giant
  • Mary Washington

Planted in four short rows arranged in an L-shape behind the rhubarb.

Potatoes

  • Warba (early)
  • Kennebec (mid-season)
  • Russian Blue (late)

Planted in two rows along the long south side of the garden. The early season are planted in both rows close to the road. The mid-season are planted in the middle. The late season are planted at the west end of the rows.

Garlic

Planted in two short rows along the west side of the garden running from the rhubarb to the front.

A Solitary Eggplant

It’s not hot enough long enough to really grow eggplant here, but we love eggplant and managed to get eight off of one plant last year. I lost the ticket identifying the variety but this plant — if it bears anything — will bear a long skinny fruit with some write mottling on the skin when ripe. I planted it in the corner where the potatoes meet the garlic.

Cross Post: Embarrassed

New post at Speaks at Home.

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Yesterday I was going through some old posts on my blog for the first time in ages and what I realized reading was how clearly nervous I was about what I was writing. Posting to the open web was new to me, and once what I was doing had sunk in (it took awhile), I became very very self-conscious about what I was watching, about what I was reading, and about what I revealed by sharing my thoughts about these things honestly.

Reading now and knowing what I actually think and feel about what I logged, I can see how often I hedged or struck a knowing or ironic pose, how often I took cheap shots at disreputable works I enjoyed, and in dozens of other ways struck just to the side of truthfulness.

Years ago in a class, Eric Savoy, drawing on remarks by Henry James, defined “embarrassment” as the position of having said too much yet without having managed to say what you meant. My nervous logs — and not all of them are — are embarrassed in exactly this sense. They reveal passions without sharing love.

Abbott on Humane Scholarship

You should aspire to something better than the mere political use of the past or of the Other. Human scholarship aims to understand another world on its own terms and by that understanding to improve its own world. …We should see the subject of our research as a particular example of its own way of being human — good or bad, sightly or unsightly, politically correct or devastatingly evil.

Andrew Abbott, Digital Paper: A Manual for Research and Writing with Library and Internet Materials

J. A. Martin, Photographe

Set in the late 18th century in Quebec, a wife finds people to care for her children and sets out with her husband as he makes his yearly rounds to take portraits of local people. The wife loves her husband, desires him physically, and feels lost and alone in the daily work of housekeeping and childcare. The film records their rediscovery of their love for each other after fifteen years of marriage. 

This film, shot almost exclusively under overcast skies, is quiet and sombre. People rarely speak and most seem to live miserably. But the protagonist insists on forging some kind of happiness with the man she still loves and Monique Mercure finds genuine depth of feeling by inventing a strong personality that plays against crushing external constraints. 

The movie ends with the couple glad to be back home and surprised by how beautiful this ordinary place they had grown to resent looks. In the final shot, the two embrace in bed, and immediately the baby begins to cry from another room. They decide to ignore it in order to stay with each other, agreeing that it will fall to sleep soon.

Of note: over the course of a long sequence involving three different locations and at least a day of story time, the film shows miscarriage as it happens. We see it’s onset and development without knowing what it is, and then watch the mother suffer through the fausse couche. The sequence ends with the father taking the handful of remains, which have been wrapped up by his wife in some old cloth, and walking off with a shovel to bury them. Ironically, this miscarriage is the first sign we have confirming that the couple are now having sex.

Fall 2020

The announcement has been made and the decision now official: classes at my college will be online in the Fall. Figuring out how to make that work has now become a summer project.

Star Trek: Discovery

I lost track of the Star Trek series early on in Voyager. So aside from the three film reboots, I’ve been a bit disconnected. Recently though, I decided to give Discovery a try, and as I started the first episode, my hopes soared. Without a doubt, the opening credits and theme are the best to appear since the original series and The Next Generation. “This show,” I thought, “has figured out how to update the right way.” 

Unfortunately, our contemporary moment is quite ugly, and I’m not sure Roddenberry’s show survives the contact.

An Ethical Objection

I’ve only seen the first season at this point, but Discovery is, in important ways, not Star Trek. Not really. Instead, it’s like a half-bizarro Star Trek. The characters wear recognizable uniforms, the ships are discs with wings, and the Federation, Klingons and Vulcans are all there. But the utopian ethos that defined the earlier series is absent.

In Discovery, every room is dark enough to be gloomy, paranoia is normalized and horror elements abound in the cinematography and montage. Torture and violence are foregrounded and often sexualized. The emotional range of the narrative is also extremely constrained. People here are angry, afraid, desperate, resentful and confrontational. Thinking back, I can’t remember any character feeling a single moment of joy or happiness. This emotional constraint is signalled by the capacities of the show’s empath: no Betazoid, he can only sense fear and danger. Given the narrative, that’s enough. (Full disclosure: he’s also the character I find the most sympathetic.)

More troubling, however, are the many ways that the earlier series’ utopian commitments to non-violence and co-existence are absent. Phasers here are never set to stun. Violence and aggression are continually presented (by Vulcans no less!) as the best and most logical path toward peace. And all of this seems to be kind of okay because, in another dimension, things are even worse and because, in the end, the Discovery’s crew don’t act as bad as those really really bad guys. Go Federation! 

As a kid I aspired to become Nemoy’s Spock, and as a young adult, I (along with so many other nerdy boys) saw Stewart’s Picard as a role model. This show feels like a repudiation of their peaceful convictions.

Geeky Nitpicking

On a less fundamental level, there were Trek-fan things that bothered me too. Science has always been “science” in Star Trek, but Discovery jumps squarely into the realm of magic, eliminating basic spatial and temporal limits fundamental to good storytelling. Basically anything can happen here at any time and problems are problems only until someone activates a teleporter or releases blue glowing spores. Is this bad writing or a symptom of the shift from physical to biological science?

Speaking of bad writing, I also found the dialogue to be surprisingly weak. To cite only one example from the pilot, the Vulcan trained (and top of her class) first officer is on a space walk near a binary star and speaks about what she sees. Apparently thinking she’s on a home-reno show, she reports that “the only word to describe it is ‘wow.'” To which I can only say:

And yet, hope…

Despite all of this, I find it hard to say the show’s terrible. I’m not sure I liked it, but it’s well made and coherent within the bounds it sets for itself, and I’m definitely going to watch the later seasons.

My problem with it is that it more or less rejects the socialist, cooperative utopia of Roddenberry’s Star Trek, a legacy it evokes to lay claim to my attention and which, therefore, sets the horizon for my expectations and judgments. Watching the show from within that field, I can’t ignore how far the series has fallen from the original’s admirable hopes for our future.

My own hope for the future of the show is that there will be a course correction, that the whole spore drive business will go away and that this “Federation” will rediscover the value of cooperation, of ethical inquiry and of peaceful contact (and coexistence) with the unknown.

Because I want to love Star Trek.

New Normal

Talking about a “new normal” a few weeks ago felt like hysteria, but it seems pretty clear that many of the changes in daily life brought on by the COVID pandemic will be with us for the rest of the year.

The most obvious example is the rumblings about online courses in the Fall. Nothing’s been announced officially yet, but a few days ago I accepted that I should begin thinking about what classes given entirely online would look like. The difference between a course that finishes online and one offered there exclusively is like the difference between a whale and a fish: many of their similarities are only apparent and fall away when you pay closer attention. I’ve only just started and already I’m reconsidering things I took to be fundamental.

So with the promise of months of social distancing to come and plenty of work to do along the way, I’m grateful to be out of the city far enough to be able to sit outside watching the river or to take walks around the fields. I’m locked down but not confined, and I’m close enough to the natural world to see the muskrat swimming along the banks of the river or the mourning doves nesting under a corner of the roof or the squirrel braving the road to get at the stand of trees beyond the pavement.

It helps to see these creatures moving along at a familiar rhythm in a world that they take to be largely unchanged.

True Detective

My brother loved the first season of True Detective. My sister-in-law loved it too. So did my mother. It stars Woody, and both his and the show’s reviews were pretty great. So I gave in and watched it.

Why did I hesitate at all? Because crime fiction gives me nightmares. Few things do, but crime fiction does. Almost always.

Still, I watched, and the first season of this show is absolutely great television: beautifully shot, tightly written, well acted, and everything felt purposeful and controlled. I genuinely loved it.

And then the nightmares set it. They were bad, started immediately, and kept me from sleeping for days. They also set off my sleepwalking (alas, it’s a thing I do) which meant the Beav wasn’t sleeping either. It was miserable.

Things only went back to normal when, after a few days of rain, the skies cleared and the wind warmed up enough to feel like the beginnings of spring rather than the remnants of winter. I worked in the garden, I ate by the river and then I lounged in the grass under the sun. In short, I spent the day outside reminding myself of all that is right in the world. And that night, finally, I slept.

So are the rest of the seasons of this show as good as the first?

Maybe. But I promise you that I will never know.