Queer Time in Edmund White’s [A Boy’s Own Story]

Front cover of Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story (1982)

Front cover of Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story (1982)

Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story is a coming-of-age novel centered on the sexual awakening of a queer teenage boy in the Midwest during the 1950s. The novel discusses topics such as the corruption of innocence, the pressures of masculinity in the lives of young boys, the emergence of childhood sexuality, and the exploration of humanity through the lens of homosexuality. The unnamed narrator of the novel quickly addresses the issues that he has in terms of his body and his sense of masculinity. He feels as if his “feminine” qualities–such as his voice, his mannerisms, and his overall attitudes– not only prevent him from bonding with other people, but that they also prevent him from obtaining any of the power that promised to those who embody the masculine myth. The narrator notices that everything from the way he sits to the way he acts marks his body as Other, and he even goes as far as to point out that he often fails small and meaningless quizzes used to assess his masculinity:

A popular quiz for masculinity in those days asked three questions, all of which I flunked: (1) Look at your nails (a girl extends her fingers, a boy cups his in his upturned palm); (2) Look up (a girl lifts her eyes, a boy throws back his whole head); (3) Light a match (a girl strikes away from her body, a boy toward–or perhaps the reverse, I can’t recall). (9)

The structure of this novel can seem slightly confusing, especially since it deviates from the traditional linear narrative that we have come to expect when reading coming-of-age novels. The first chapter, for instance, begins when the narrator is fifteen years-old. In this chapter, he painstakingly describes a relationship that he has with Kevin, the twelve year-old son of a guest that visits his summer home. In this chapter, the narrator describes how he paradoxically wants to be considered heterosexual while still being loved by a man. His relationship with Kevin slowly but surely starts to teach him how sex is not only a physical act, but how it is also a discursive act–leading him to realize that sex is also “a social rite that registered, even brought about shifts in the balance of power, but something that was discussed more than performed” (198). Because of this realization, he notices how performance and discourse shapes and forms his relationships with other men. For instance, he approaches Kevin as the “older” and more “dominant” person in the relationship because he is the more confident person of the two, and because he controls what happens during sexual intercourse:

I was chagrined by [his] clowning because I’d already imagined Kevin as a sort of husband. No matter that he was younger; his cockiness had turned him into the Older One (23).

The first chapter concludes by depicting how the narrator and Kevin part ways, and the second chapter goes back an entire year, allowing the narrator to discuss events that shaped who he is in his present day. Subsequent chapters go back in time even further, depicting events that the narrator encounters when he was twelve and seven years-old. The jumping back and forth between the past and the present not only disrupts the linearity of the coming-of-age narrative, but it also presents, as Elizabeth Freeman would put it, a manifestation of queer time. 

In Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Elizabeth Freeman describes queer time as a “hiccup in sequential time” that “has the capacity to connect a group of people beyond monogamous, enduring couplehood” (3). Furthermore, queer time allows queer subjects to envision alternative structures and forms of belonging, precisely because it deviates from the linearity and “productivity” of chrononormativity–in which human bodies arrange their time and bodies towards maximum productivity. In A Boy’s Own Story, queer time manifests through this combination of the past and the present, precisely because the narration deviates from the productive and generative elements that are closely associated with narratives of personal development. White, rather than depicting growth and development as sequential events, the narrator approaches them as fractured and disjointed processes. Rather than offering readers an equation, in which event 1, event 2, and event 3 equal the narrator, White disrupts temporality by beginning with event 3, going back to event 1, and covering the decimal points (small or micro events) that occur between these numbers. I think that this novel embraces queerness through it’s denial of both chronos (sequential time) and kairos (significant time), in favor of small non-sequential and non-significant time. This is particularly clear in the fourth chapter of the novel, in which the narrator breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader:

in writing one draws in the rest, the forgotten parts. One even composes one’s improvisations into a quite new face never glimpsed before, the likeness of an invention. Busoni once said he prizes the most those empty passages composers make up to get from one “good part” to another. He said such womanlike but minor transitions reveal more about a composer–the actual vernacular of his imagination–than the deliberately bravura moments. I say all this by way of hoping that the lies I’ve made up to get from one poor truth to another may mean something–may even mean something most particular to you, my eccentric, patient, scrupulous reader, willing to make so much of so little, more patient and more respectful of life, or a life, than the author you’re allowing for a moment to exist again. (84)

I believe that this passage is quite significant, because it highlights the role that queer time plays in the novel’s political agenda. By disrupting linearity and by painstakingly focusing on minor events, the reader must develop patience and spend more time concentrating on the narrator’s words rather than on major events. The narrator affirms that by reading his words, the reader becomes not only more respectful of the narrator’s life, but the reader also brings the narrator back into existence. Therefore, through the act of reading, one gives the narrator a sense of legitimacy that was denied to him during his childhood. This interpretation gains even more validity when taking into account that most of the novel is focused on the narrator’s struggle to survive in his society, and even more so, his struggle to be approached and categorized as a legitimate human being. The narrator, for instance, acknowledged that he has little time to focus on “theory” or “philosophy” because he is too busy focusing on pragmatic aspects of his life such as survival. This notion is evidenced when the narrator compares himself to his jockish friend, Tom, who spends most of his time daydreaming and philosophizing:

Ironic, then, that [Tom] was the one who did all the thinking, who had the taste for philosophy–ironic but predictable, since his sovereignty gave him the ease to wonder about what it all meant, whereas I had to concentrate on means, not meaning. The meaning seemed quite clear: to survive and then to become popular. (113)

Although popularity may at first be approached as a self-centered and selfish goal, it is important to keep in mind that the narrator believes that popularity will give him the recognition and the legitimacy that he has been denied in his life, not only because he is queer, but also because he is unable to situate himself within the frame of traditional masculinity that his father upholds. Popularity would give the narrator the means to become a legitimate person rather than an unreal subject:

Being popular was equivalent to becoming a character, perhaps even a person, since if to be is to be perceived, then to be perceived by many eyes and with envy, interest, respect, or affection is to exist more densely, more articulately, ever last detail minutely observed and thereby richly rendered. (127)

All in all, A Boy’s Own Story is a rich and provocative novel that definitely raises interesting insights in terms of the role that temporality plays within the issues of livability that haunt all queer lives. The narrative is at times convoluted and difficult to follow, but getting lost is definitely an essential component towards grasping the novel’s central themes and agenda.

You can purchase a copy of White’s novel by clicking here.


Works Cited

Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

White, Edmund. A Boy’s Own Story. New York: Plume, 1982. Print.




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