Dec 302016

This is the second in Edmund White’s series of quasi-autobiographical novels and like the first, it follows a precocious and uncannily mature youth as he grows into adulthood.

Two threads of story stood out for me as I read. The first is the portrait of a youth as a budding artist. The youth knows he is a writer, an author. What he doesn’t yet know is what to do in order to author a story. He writes endlessly night after night, but he can’t figure out how to make something of it.

The second thread is a tale of sexual discovery. In it the youth has no idea who he is. What he knows is where to find men to have sex with. He trolls toilets endlessly, yet he is in turmoil because, although he recognizes a kinship with the men he meets, he doesn’t recognize himself in what he sees and defines himself against them. This leaves him incredibly alone.

These two threads of story mirror each other. In the first, the youth knows who he wishes to be but he isn’t sure what to do or how to act. In the second, he knows what do to, has the confidence to act, but suffers wondering what kind of person he is.

These two threads come together in the final pages of the book when the youth, now living in New York and playing out his efforts at sexual and artistic self-discovery in apartments in Greenwich Village and on the beaches of Fire Island, finds himself caught up in the Stonewall riots. These are iconic and historic events: in those nights of protest, a public queer community emerges onto the streets.

In the novel’s account of the riots the youth’s long search for voice and identity transforms into something transcendent. Without losing any of it’s specificity, the youth’s struggles take on the sheen of allegory. His discovery of public voice tracks the community’s, and the community’s, his.

Jan 262016

Late last year, I was flipping through some passages in some of Edmund White’s books (A Boy’s Own StoryHotel de DreamProust). I was also reading a bit about him, and I realized that I hadn’t read many of the novels he claimed as antecedents. I’d dealt with queer theory and criticism at the margins of my own research but for a variety of reasons had never systematically read through the major works or the corpus that served as its rough working canon. Curious, I sat down and put together an initial bibliography and began reading. Now, a couple months on I’m still reading, I’m revising and building that bibliography and, most importantly, I’m excited.

The past couple years have not been easy ones intellectually. When I settled into a job at a non-research institution with a non-liberal arts focus, I initially felt a sense of freedom: without the burden of teaching my research, I began to read with fewer constraints than I had in years. The very specific pleasures of picking a novel for its cover and reading it blind or picking based on a friend of a friend’s recommendations became more and more my norm. I could and did read anything. Unfortunately, I think this blog shows — without me meaning it to — that this got old quickly and that I’ve read with a fair amount of boredom for awhile now.

In part, I was reading a lot of books that weren’t very good. When I read ones that that were, I often lacked a context (or even a reason) for engaging with them in a meaningful way. So I was reduced to observing, noticing, and, when something was noteworthy, calling it out. But nothing stuck or built up. I was simultaneously struggling with my seemingly ever expanding and increasingly administrative responsibilities at work. Forced to choose between unsatisfying reading (and so nothing to write about) and complicated, “important,” problems at work, I slowly and without noticing devoted more and more of my mental life to helping to run a school.

I didn’t consciously turn to White’s novels for guidance but that’s what they offered by reminding me about the manner in which I’ve always read. For good or for ill, I’ve never been satisfied with random observation. Even as a kid, I always had what I called “my research projects.” I’d be curious about something and would go to the library and check out everything I could about it and would read until I felt I knew what I wanted to know. Then I’d move on to the next project. And there was always a next project because I was always bouncing from one thing to the next as my interests led me.

Sometimes my questions were simple and easily answered; at other times, complicated and involved. Once a very young me figured out what lips were. That was pretty easy. Learning Greek mythology — a childhood passion — took time. Curiosity was my guide not seriousness, and my curiosity always provided its own context and purpose even when I couldn’t put my finger on it at first: I once spent the better part of a year in my early twenties reading crap book after crap book about astrology and the tarot, wondering why on earth I was doing it, but keeping it up until I felt done. When I finally did and looked back, I realized that I’d just explored a highly developed and convoluted instance of archetypal interpretation that was distinct from Biblical exegesis. I found that interesting.

I’ve also always been an encyclopedic reader. I stumble upon a writer, become interested, and then read in a burst, often in chronological order, everything they’ve written up to that point. The first time I remember doing this was with Lloyd Alexander when I was twelve; the next was with Stephen King the summer turned I fourteen. Sometimes this led to great things: I discovered Faulkner and spotted the patterns I wrote a dissertation about by reading in the this way. Sometimes it didn’t: my summer of Stephen King turned me off him irremediably. The thing is though, that however random these bursts were — I often discovered these writers by chance — the bodies of works provided their own context. Operating as an oeuvre, they directed my thinking about my reading in the same way that my curiosity — expressed as a question — pointed my way in the library.

All of this may sound like ridiculous nostalgia but it’s not: I’m not yearning to return to some imaginary, childlike ideal. (Blech!) Rather, I’ve realized in the past few days that flipping through White’s novels last December was the beginning of a new curiosity-based project. My bibliography is me once again working through a corpus that provides individual works with a context and that the books I’ve read are already building upon each other. Seeing this I recognize that there’s something in this arrangement of things that fits with my disposition and supports the better angels of my nature. It’s a happy recognition because, looking back over the past year and a half of this blog, I realize how very boring it is to be bored. So good riddance.

Sep 022013

Hotel de DreamOne of the books I brought to Mexico was Edmund White’s Hotel de Dream. I’d just read A Boy’s Own Story and, after listening to Edmund talk about the book over lunch, I’d decided it should be the second book I read from him.

The novel’s origin is a short letter—which, as a note at the book’s end explains, may have been fabricated by an early biographer (but perhaps not)—a short letter that speaks of Stephen Crane’s accidental encounter with a gay hustler and the first pages of the book he decided to write about the boy. The pages, if they existed, were burnt in order to protect Crane’s fledgling celebrity.

White’s book imagines Crane in the final weeks before he died of tuberculosis, restarting and dictating the novel to his wife, the former Madam of the Jacksonville brothel, Hotel de Dream. As such, it narrates two stories: one of Crane, his health declining but troubled still by his passionately felt literary ambitions; the other of a young hustler in New York and his relationship with an older, married bank executive.

Both Henry James and Joseph Conrad  make appearances in the frame narrative, in letters and in person, and White offers convincing—and funny—portraits of both. An interesting survey of Crane’s life is also presented. The hustler’s story offers a tour of a queer New York absent from typical histories and fiction.

The center-piece of his story, however, is the lover’s decision to commission a statue of the boy. The commission leads to the boy’s and his own downfall but the statue as a literary symbol is quite powerful and moving, and makes this book about artists a meditation on Art.

Given the tragic nature of the stories told and the carefully artful construction of the fiction as historical fiction, it’s surprising to me how funny this book is. Over and over as I read, I would be brought short and laugh out loud. Many parts I read aloud to the Beav, which is something I just don’t do, and he would laugh too. And so, the book impresses me because it seems so delicate and light, even trashy, and yet, that filigree of jokes and period slang and literary history, carries the weight of tragic action and themes. This doubleness makes it an easy book to enjoy but a hard book to pin down or get out of your head.

I’m becoming a fan of White.

Sep 022013

A Boy's Own StoryI met Edmund White this summer at a lunch held in a friend’s house during Blue Metropolis. He was quite elderly,his mobility was limited, but his mind was sharp and his eyes sparkling and grasping. As he ate pastry after pastry, he stared at a young, smart Asian boy who did art-drag performances, openly enthralled. I’d only read his articles in the New York Review of Books, so I was the outsider. The theme of the discussion was “Writing Queerly in the First Person,” which I didn’t think sounded very promising, but Edmund turned the conversation to historical fiction and the discussion was worthwhile.

When I got home that evening I pulled my copy of A Boy’s Own Story off the shelf and promised myself that, come what may, I would force myself to read beyond the first few pages—which I’d never gotten past before. What I found when I did was unexpected. The book begins with knowing adolescent sex (rather than fumbling toward it as the point of arrival) and proceeds from there. It was a shock that was stoked—like a well tended fire—for the rest of the book.

The book was ultimately a portrait of the artist as a young man that reminded me of Joyce’s but with very different aesthetic aims and investments in its story. The foundation here is White’s precise agile language, which makes possible a frank, non-pornographic, explicit, non-apologetic representation of gay sexuality as the starting point for a portrait of coming of age rather than its terminus. This is not a novel that creeps toward sex hoping to get a glimpse without fainting away. It walks up, throws back the curtain and accepts that kids have sex, that gay kids have gay sex and then follows the story from there. The results are thrilling and all these years after it was first published, it still feels fresh. I’ve never read anything like it.

Ultimately, the book is not about sex, but about art, education, power and the effort to become an autonomous adult. Two moments remain with me. The first is the long scene of the boy as an 18 year-old spending time with the lesbian woman learning that his two mentors in the book shop were queer and knew he was and nurtured him when he was young. The second was the final scene where the boy finally masters himself by destroying a teacher with a cunning and brutal use of sex and institutional policies. The teacher’s mistake was to view the physical child as an emotional child, which he most certainly was not.