lineofbeautycover

Fact Versus Fiction: Alan Hollinghurst’s [The Line of Beauty]

Front cover of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty (2004)

Front cover of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (2004)

I find it so easy to get lost in the elegance and artistry of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. I originally planned to read this book in a day or two, but it took me a while longer simply because I was so enthralled and moved by the novel’s baroque descriptions and its aesthetic focus on issues pertaining to gayness and queerness during the 1980s. Blurring the lines between gay historical fiction, the Bildungsroman, and the novel of mannersThe Line of Beauty explores the lines that divide British upper-class and middle-class society, and the relationship between homosexual identity and class during the conservative boom in the United Kingdom under the rule of  Margaret Thatcher. Even more so, Hollinghurst’s novel offers readers an opportunity to examine the heartbreaking effects of AIDS during the rise of the disease.

The novel centers on the life and experiences of Nick Guest in his early twenties, as he graduates from Oxford University and begins a postgraduate degree in English at another university–where he specializes on the issue of style in the works of Henry James. Nick becomes close friends with Toby and Catherine, who are the children of Gerald Fedden, a wealthy Member of the British Parliament. Although Toby and Nick are best friends, Nick becomes very close and intimate with Catherine, a manic-depressive. Because of Nick’s ability to understand and help Catherine, Gerald invites Nick to stay in his mansion so that he can keep a watchful eye over his daughter. Nick stays at the Fedden residence for four years; here, he not only learns about the radical differences that exist between the lavish lifestyle of the Feddens and his own middle-class upbringing, but he also begins to explore his gay identity by dating  an older and much more experienced black council worker named Leo. Although Nick is out to the Fedden family, the issue of homosexuality instills a sense of discomfort in Gerald and his wife, Rachel. The family’s attitude towards homosexuality is made apparent early in the novel, when the family discusses the case of Hector Maltby, a junior minister of the Foreign Office who was caught having sex with a rent boy in his Jaguar:

The story had been all over the papers last week, and it was silly of Nick to feel as self-conscious as he suddenly did, blushing as if he’d been caught in a Jaguar himself. It was often like this when the homosexual subject came up, and even in the Fedden’s tolerant kitchen he stiffened in apprehension about what might carelessly be said–some indirect insult to swallow, a joke to be weakly smiled at. (22)

The residents of the Fedden estate are characterized not only by their social hypocrisy, but also by their silences: by refusing to talk of certain issues, they strive to act as if said issues are minor, non-consequential, and non-existent. As a matter of fact, Nick is characterized by his penchant for concealing or hiding information to assure that certain perceptions or attitudes are upheld in the Fedden residence. For instance, at the beginning of the novel, Nick discovers that Catherine, who has already attempted to harm herself, has been storing sharp tools within her bedroom. Rather than discussing this detail with Catherine’s parents, he decides to keep this information concealed to avoid upsetting Gerald and Rachel when they return from their trip. Nick not only conceals truths that he believes will upset the Fedden family, but he also has issues when it comes to separating fact from fiction–which leads to the manifestation of the vicious cycles that are so characteristic of postmodern texts:

In the course of their long conversations about men he had let one or two of his fantasies assume the status of fact, had lied a little, and had left some of Catherine’s assumptions about him unchallenged. His confessed but entirely imaginary seductions took on–partly through the special effort required to invent them and repeat them consistently–the quality of real memories. (24)

Sometimes his memory of books he pretended to have read became almost as vivid as books he had read and half-forgotten, by some fertile process of auto-suggestion. (48)

As evidenced above, Nick not only strives to conceal truth to uphold his social image, but he also fabricates stories to uphold a socially appealing facade. He frets when it comes to revealing his lack of knowledge or his lack of sexual experience–to the point where his fabrications become entirely real to him, or even worse, to the point where he deliberately forgets or represses truths about himself. This is perhaps most apparent when the novel, which is comprised of three parts, transitions from part one to part two. Part one, which takes place in 1983, concludes with Nick and Leo sleeping together in the Fedden’s house. The second part of the book takes place three years later, and it begins with a description of Nick’s affair with Wani Ouradi, a multi-millionaire of Lebanese descent who is engaged to a woman. This temporal leap leaves a gap in the narrative of the story. As readers, we have no clue what happened between Leo and Nick during this three-year span–all we are sure of is that they are no longer together, and that Nick’s relationship with Wani is masochistic and unhealthy. Not only is Wani into promiscuous and unsafe sex with strangers, but he is also addicted to porn and cocaine, and he is also deeply closeted. Nick, however, remains by Wani’s side not because the relationship is practical, but rather, because Wani is beautiful. This connects to one of the novel’s main themes, in which appearances trump pragmatics and livability. This desire for beauty and for appearance ultimately affects Nick’s ability to face his own truths, as is seen in the instance in which he encounters Wani seducing a stranger:

He went across the room and put the car keys down on the side table, and when he looked back Ricky and Wani were snogging, nothing had been said, there were sighs of consent, a moment’s glitter of saliva before a shockingly tender second kiss. Nick gave a breathy laugh, and looked away, in the grip of a misery unfelt since childhood, and too fierce and shaming to be allowed to last. (173)

Later on in the novel, Nick finds out that Leo has died due to AIDS-related complications. As Leo’s sister tells Nick the news, he at first wants to lie to her by stating that Leo dumped him, but he recognizes that this lie would seem petty, especially when considering the fact that Leo is no longer alive. Although Nick convinces himself that Leo was seeing someone else, we realize that he develops this “memory” to conceal the fact that he broke up with Leo soon after finding out that he was sick– “to screen a glimpse he’d had of a much worse story, that Leo was ill” (350). It becomes clear at this point that the three-year gap in the novel represents Nick’s unwillingness to deal with or recall the truths behind his relationship with Leo. Leo’s illness, in Nick’s eyes, would corrupt his beauty and make him imperfect, which is why he pursues a relationship with the physically flawless and beautiful Wani. However, towards the conclusion of the novel, it is revealed that Wani is also dying of AIDS-related complications–thus forcing Nick to meet truth face-to-face, while simultaneously forcing him to confront the realities of his own life.

I find it interesting that Catherine, the manic-depressive sisterly figure of the novel, is represented as the only person capable of dealing with truth and looking beyond the lies fabricated by her peers. For instance, when one of her friends, Pat, dies of AIDS, her family desperately tries to conceal that he died of this illness to prevent themselves being associated with a so-called “gay-related” disease. Catherine, however, forces the family to face the truth about Pat’s death, even though this confrontation leads to public shame and embarrassment. She later tries to convince Nick that “People are lovely because we love them, not the other way round” (304), to make him realize how toxic his relationship with Wani truly is, and to prove to him that the value that we bestow to people and objects should be based on more than just aesthetics. Catherine ultimately induces both the downfall of Nick and of her father, by revealing truths to the press: she not only reveals the fact that her father is having an affair with another woman, but she also reveals how Nick and Wani’s affair is taking place within the Fedden household–thus collapsing the differences between the gay and the straight world upheld by the Fedden family. The novel isn’t explicit of whether Catherine’s thirst for truth is triggered by her depression, or whether her depression was caused by her desire for truth in a mendacious environment–but it is interesting to observe how a character with a non-normative state of mind is able to look beyond the social masks and constructs that haunt the lives of these characters.

I love this novel. It is dense, thematically rich, and it is full of gaps and plot holes. It is not an easy novel to read or follow, but it excels at portraying the triumphs and failures of characters who are enticed and enslaved by the pursuit of beauty, even at the cost of truth, pragmatism, and reality. I also appreciate how this novel uses pastiche in order to invoke historical conceptions of AIDS in a contemporary platform–especially since discussions of AIDS have unfortunately diminished since the normativization of the disease due to the advent of anti-viral medications.

What are your thoughts or impressions of this novel? Feel free to add to this conversation!

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

Work Cited

Hollinghurst, Alan. The Line of Beauty. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004. Print (hardcover edition).

coverblackwater

What is Gay Literature? The Case of Colm Tóibín’s [The Blackwater Lightship]

Jeanette Winterson, author of the celebrated novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruittakes a rather defensive stance when asked if she considers Oranges to be a lesbian novel. She explicitly addresses this question in her personal website by answering it in the negative:

No. [Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is] for anyone interested in what happens at the frontiers of common-sense. Do you stay safe or do you follow your heart? I’ve never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers. That said, I’m really glad the book has made a difference to so many young women.

Winterson’s answer strikes into the heart of a question that has perplexed me for some time: what is, and more importantly, what is not gay literature? Part of the difficulties of answering this question stem from the fact that the term gay literature can either allude to a work’s readership (as Winterson implies in her answer), its themes, its characters, or perhaps a combination of these elements. Whereas some works tend to unanimously be approached as prime examples of LGBTQ literature–as in the case of novels such as Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle and E.M. Forster’s Maurice–other works complicate the ease of categorizing a text as such.

Good examples of this complication are most of the works of David Sedaris–particularly his collections of autobiographical essays such as Me Talk Pretty One Day and NakedThese essay collections usually discuss gay themes quite prominently: Sedaris depicts the hardships of growing up gay, he talks about his partner constantly, and he openly discusses how he is perceived as effeminate by his teachers and friends. Despite the presence of these themes and characters, Sedaris’ works are typically not approached as gay literature. Sedaris’ works are also read by a massive mainstream audience–people will literary pay to attend a Sedaris reading. Does the genre define the audience, or does the audience define the genre?  Is LGBTQ literature completely audience-based, or is there more at stake when approaching a group of literary texts under the guise of this category?

The questions that surface when approaching this genre do not stop here. Does the presence of a queer character in a literary work automatically make it a gay literature? If a work is approached as a gay one, does this pose any restrictions on the novel’s readership or audience? While I completely understand the cultural and marketing reasons why Winterson denies approaching Oranges as a lesbian novel–this novel is almost always alluded to when speaking of well-known LGBTQ fiction. Trying to pin down parameters used to classify a work as gay literature is no easy task–we are dealing with a very queer genre here.

The difficulties of pinning down the genre of LGBTQ fiction and of creating a queer canon can also be attributed to two other factors: the relative novelty of gay fiction within the entire scope of literary history, and furthermore, the queerness of the genre itself. In terms of its novelty, literature with explicitly queer themes or characters was not produced in Western culture until the twentieth century, with the advent of works written by Forster, James Baldwin, and Christopher Isherwood, among others. Keep in mind that queerness and queer sexualities were definitely encoded in texts before the gay literary boom, however, it was not until the mid-twentieth century that we began to see the emergence of a group of texts that could be explicitly categorized as LGBTQ literary works.

This questioning of the factors that shape the genre of LGBTQ literature was recently sparked after I finished reading Colm Tóibín’s 1999 novel entitled The Blackwater Lightship–mostly because I’ve had difficulties assessing whether it is a gay novel. The novel has a central queer character, which at first seems to be a good enough reason to approach it as a gay novel. However, the main themes and tensions present in this work are triggered through the queer character’s presence, but they are not exactly centered on this queer character per se. 

Front cover of Colm Tóibín's The Blackwater Nightship (2004 edition)

Front cover of Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Nightship (2004 edition)

This novel focuses mostly on the strenuous relationship between Helen and her mother Lily, and their efforts to repair their relationship after Helen’s brother, Declan, reveals that he is dying of AIDS. Declan’s impending death serves at the catalyst that forces Helen to reunite with her mother after a nearly ten-year hiatus–and it also forces Declan’s family to come into contact with his rather private queer life. After his revelation, Declan’s family and his close gay friends spend a week living together in the house that belongs to Helen’s grandmother. During this time, the characters come face-to-face with Declan’s declining health, Helen and Lily struggle to repair their relationship, and Lily tries to comprehend why Declan shares an intense connection with his friends and not with his family.

The novel, although told in the third person, is distilled through Helen’s thoughts and perspectives. The novel opens in Helen’s home, where she interacts with her husband and her two children; the novel concludes in this same location, albeit centered on Helen’s first interaction with her mother in her house. Not only has Lily never visited Helen’s home, but she has also not met Helen’s husband or her own grandchildren due to the estranged relationship that she and her daughter share. The novel weaves a narrative focused on the past and the present–Helen’s interactions with her mother and her dying brother force her to think about and retell the reasons why their family is so estranged to begin with.

Among the past events that Helen recalls, significant attention is placed on the death of her father. While her father was being treated for cancer, Helen and Declan lived with their grandmother. Lily stays with her husband at the hospital, never bothering to visit her children or to abandon her husband’s side. The distance between Helen and her mother widens after her father dies–pushing a teenage Helen to interpret her mother’s absence as abandonment. In their efforts to cope with Declan’s declining health, Helen and Lily reach a degree of closeness that they haven’t experienced in years. The novel culminates with the mother and daughter expressing a desire to spend more time with each other.

Even though the events mentioned above comprise the core narrative of the novel, The Blackwater Lightship also places significant attention on queer themes, issues and characters, particularly in its depiction alternative, non-normative forms of kindship, and in its depiction of queer subversion. Declan’s declining health due to AIDS puts him in a position in which he is forced to come out to his mother and his grandmother. Declan’s deteriorating health is described with much detail, which verges on the point of discomfort. Interestingly, Declan’s gay friends, Paul and Larry, are shown to be better caregivers than his actual family due to the fact that they were present in his life during the advent of the syndrome. Paul and Larry also seem to know more about Declan’s life than his own mother and sister. At one point, Paul and Lily have a heated argument that manifests when Paul interferes in Lily’s attempts to comfort her son–which prompts Lily to kick Paul out of her mother’s home. Paul confronts Lily by stating the following:

I’m here as long as Declan is here and you can take that written in stone, and I’m here because he asked me to be here, and when he asked me to be here he used words and phrases and sentences about you which were not edifying and which I will not repeat. He is also concerned about you and loves you and wants your approval. He is also very sick. So stop feeling sorry for yourself, Mrs. Breen. Declan stays here, I stay here, Larry stays here. One of us goes, we all go, and if you don’t believe me, ask Declan. (223)

As seen above, Declan, Paul, and Larry can be approached as a family–even though none of them are romantically involved, these three men understand each other, and unlike Declan’s family, they stick together and they do not abandon each other even when things get rough. The novel explores the importance of this alternate form of kinship in the lives of queer subjects–a theme that is present in many texts categorized as LGBTQ literature. This is not the only instance in which the notion of family is queered. A moment  that particularly caught my attention was the instance in which Paul tells Helen how a Catholic priest performed a secret marriage ceremony for him and his partner, François:

He changed into his vestments and said Mass and gave us Communion and then he married us. He used the word “spouse” instead of husband and wife. He had it all prepared. He was very solemn and serious. And we felt the light of the Holy Spirit on us, even though Declan thought this was the maddest thing he’d ever heard… (173)

The novel presents not only alternative forms of kinship, but it even goes as far as to present a queer subversion of normative institutions such as religion and marriage. What we see in the case of The Blackwater Lightship is an instance in which gay themes and characters are implemented within a narrative not only to serve as a foil to other characters in the novel, but to ultimately queer heternomative manifestations like the nuclear family. One cannot help but compare the relationship that Declan has with his friends with the central relationship of the novel between Helen and her mother. The message of the novel is clear: blood is definitely not thicker than water.

Given all the above, can we, and more importantly, should we approach The Blackwater Lightship as an example of gay literature? Although the answer to this question is still somewhat fuzzy, I think it’s important to bear in mind that when we categorize a work as such, we have to look beyond matters of audience, and we also have to take more than just the characters, the plot, or the work’s themes into consideration. When it comes to approaching a literary work as gay (or as any other category within the LGBTQ spectrum), we must keep in mind not only the work’s elements, but even more importantly, the work’s aims, purposes, and its alignment towards non-normativity and queer livability.

What are your thoughts on LGBTQ literature? What makes a literary work gay? What criteria must we keep in mind when categorizing a novel as LGBTQ fiction? Please share your thoughts and opinions below!

Work Cited

Tóibín, Colm. The Blackwater Lightship. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print (Paperback edition).

Angels in America

On Stasis, Mobility, and Postmodernism: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America

Front cover of Tony Kushner's Angels in America (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika)

Front cover of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika)

Well I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word “free” to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me. (Kushner 228)

The quote above depicts the moment in which Belize, one of the central characters of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, challenges the optimistic view of American freedom, and he ultimately challenges idealism and “Big Ideas.” Belize, a black, gay, ex-drag queen and nurse, is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of queerdom in the play in terms of his anti-normative positionality in a mid-1980s America. This liminal position not only allows Belize to notice and question the limits and destructiveness of idealism, but it also allows him to reject it all together: “I live in America, Louis, that’s hard enough, I don’t have to love it. You do that” (Kushner 228). Belize complies with the overall aim and objective of the play, which is the importance of questioning everything in light of the inevitable unsustainability and paradoxical nature of (American) life. In a world full of hate, sickness, global warming, religious and spiritual incongruity, corruption, greed, and inequality, how is it even possible to find stability and meaning? What does it mean to be sexual, spiritual, healthy, or successful in a world where these concepts are approached discordantly by different people?

Kushner’s Angels in America, a Pulitzer Prize-wining play which takes place within the peak of the AIDS crisis, attempts to address all of the questions above through the lives of characters who are in one way or another affected by the syndrome. It is through the play’s exploration of AIDS that the goal of postmodernism, which is to question everythingis put into practice. Naturally, the juxtaposition of AIDS and postmodernism is absolutely feasible given their similarities of structure and meaning. In Spaces of Belonging, for instance, Elizabeth H. Jones alludes to Lee Edelman’s views to argue that AIDS and postmodernism are similar in their “disrespect for the laws of orderly representation and hierarchy” (263) and their linkage to contemporary issues such as the “decline of faith in rational, transparent representation” (263). Thus, Belize’s confrontation with Louis, as illustrated above, mocks the view of America as a stable entity, and more importantly, it ridicules Louis’s belief in his knowledge–despite Louis’s assertions, he understands little about his Mormon/closeted/Republican boyfriend Joe, he knows nothing about America, and he is oblivious about how the society he idealizes is crumbling beneath his feet.

A similar obliviousness can be seen through the character of Roy Cohn, the cartoonishly evil lawyer and powerbroker that we can’t help but pity (to some extent) towards the end of the play. When he is diagnosed with AIDS, Roy takes it as a personal offence because he deems that his doctor is labeling him as a homosexual. The doctor tries to state the facts of Roy’s condition and its causes, ultimately affirming that Roy has “had sex with men, many many times” (Kushner 51). Roy proceeds to make the claim that who he sleeps with does not define who he is:

Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors. This is what a label refers to. (Kushner 51)

Here, we observe Elizabeth H. Jones’ views on AIDS and postmodernity manifesting within the play. Roy not only argues that labels place one within a social hierarchy, but he also points out that they serve to represent and restrict an individual to certain forms of being. He then proceeds to establish that labels  ultimately indicate how much power (“clout”) an individual possesses. Given that Roy views the label of homosexuality as a label for individuals with no power, and seeing as he repeatedly affirms “I have clout. A lot” (Kushner 51), he challenges the extent to which homosexuality is able to transparently represent him. Though his rejection of homosexuality may seem to be an attempt to disrupt stable representation, he does so by embracing another hierarchical binary: the powerful versus the powerless. It is here that AIDS works as a postmodern agent in the play. Despite the fact that Roy declares himself to be on the top of the food chain, and despite the fact that he declares himself as a man with a lot of clout, AIDS renders him powerless, while simultaneously putting him on the same level as everyone else who dies with AIDS. Despite the fact that he views his power as stable, AIDS destabilizes it. Now, we run the risk of viewing AIDS as a karmic agent in the play, out to feed on the evil and the power-hungry, but this changes when we realize that AIDS is not controlled by power or hierarchy, and there are relatively good and sympathetic characters (such as Prior) who are affected by the syndrome as well.

Stability is also challenged through the character of Prior Walter, who can in many ways be approached as the protagonist of the play. In the climax of Angels in America, Prior is approached (in a dream) by an Angel (also known as the Continental Principality of America). The Angel declares that Prior is a prophet who must disperse the ideas present within the sacred implements, which turn out to be “The Tome of Immobility, of respite, of cessation” (Kushner 265). This Tome is meant to aid Prior in bringing a halt to the instability caused by humanity’s upward mobility: “As the human race began to progress, travel, intermingle, everything started to come unglued” (Kushner 176). Thus, stasis, finality, and ultimately, death are seen as a solution to the world’s postmodern state–a way of bringing order to chaos. Prior ultimately rejects his role as a prophet, simply because he views life as dynamic rather than stable. He finds stasis to be a paradoxical mode of being, because to achieve stillness in an active environment requires exertion and yearning:

It just. . . . It just. . . . We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks–progress, migration, motion is . . . modernity. It’s animateit’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s desire for. Even if we go faster than we should. We can’t wait. (Kushner 264)

In this case, progress is not viewed as linear, but it is viewed as motion. Progress involves desire, a denial of stasis, and a refusal of order and permanence. Rather than embracing death, Prior desires to embrace life and the ability to keep on moving: “I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do” (266). Immobility, stability, and transparency are impossible in a postmodern world. But as Belize would say, just because we live in it, it doesn’t mean we have to love it. Being, according to Kushner’s play, is not a teleological movement, but rather, a movement with no fixed endpoint.

– – –

Acknowledgments: I’d like to thank Leanne MacDonald, Evan Scott Bryson, and Lindsay Haney for their insightful comments on this play. They really helped me to sort out my own thoughts in this analysis.

Works Cited

Jones, Elizabeth H. Spaces of Belonging. New York: Rodopi, 2007. Web.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2003. Print.

Graveyard

AIDS, Gay Rhetoric, and Resistance: Leo Bersani’s “Is the Rectum a Grave?”

Written during the height of the AIDS crisis during the late 1980s and a few years prior to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s groundbreaking Epistemology of the Closet, Leo Bersani’s striking essay titled “Is the Rectum a Grave?” was published in the 43rd volume of AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism. The essay begins with a discussion of the violence and anger that the topic of AIDS invokes, especially to people who are not part of the communities that were hit the hardest by the disease. During the drastic outbreak of HIV and AIDS, not only did the US Justice Department issue a legal opinion that enabled employers to fire employees with AIDS if they suspected that the disease could be spread in the work environment (201), but it was also deemed that AIDS was an acceptable motive for exerting violence on People With AIDS (PWAs).

After delving into the legal and social ramifications faced by PWAs, especially gay men during the pinnacle of the AIDS crisis, Bersani makes a bold claim by stating that gay rhetoric has developed a series of lies that have been developed in order to approach gay sex as democratic or compliant with heternormative aims such as monogamy. While Bersani acknowledges the strategic value of these lies, he ultimately believes that “the AIDS crises has rendered [these lies] obsolescent” (206). One of the first “lies” of gay rhetoric that Bersani attacks of Dennis Altman’s suggestion that gay bathhouses are a manifestation of “Whitmanesque democracy” (206) where hierarchies are obliterated, by truthfully describing gay bathhouses for what they truly are: “one of the most ruthlessly ranked, hierarchized, and competitive encounters”  (206).

Screen capture from Season 1, Episode 18 of Queer as Folk (U.S. Version). This scene depicts the "Whitmanesque" version of gay bathhouses according to the views of Dennis Altman. Notice that similar to the fantasy of the bathhouse as a democratic space, the bathhouse in this scene projects an aura of fantasy and the mystical as male bodies mingle indiscriminately with each other.

Screen capture from Season 1, Episode 18 of Queer as Folk (U.S. Version). This scene depicts the “Whitmanesque” version of gay bathhouses according to the views of Dennis Altman. Notice that similar to the fantasy of the bathhouse as a democratic space, the bathhouse in this scene projects an aura of fantasy and the mystical as male bodies mingle indiscriminately with each other.

Another lie of gay rhetoric that Bersani challenges is that which views butch-fem lesbian couples and the gay-macho style as subversive parodies of the behaviors that inspire these styles. The effects of the gay-macho style on the heterosexual world is particularly scrutinized by Bersani, for not only does the straight male with power fail to see any relation between the gay-macho style and their own masculinity, but to some extent, the male with power could recognize that the gay-macho “at least intends to pay worshipful tribute to the style and behavior he defiles” (207). The problem with gay machismo is that it alludes to the possibility that gay men might idealize certain representations of masculinity or feel inferior to these representations, especially when considering that they are already judged according to these standards. With this in mind, Bersani posits that an authentic gay male political identity:

implies a struggle not only against definitions of maleness and of homosexuality as they are reiterated and imposed in a heterosexist social discourse, but also against those very same definitions so seductively and so faithfully reflected by those (in large part culturally invented and elaborated) male bodies that we carry within us as permanently renewable sources of excitement. (209)

Screen capture from Arrested Development showing Tobias and George Michael wearing typical gay-macho attire. Would this be considered a subversion or a perversion to heterosexual man of power? To what extent can the gay-macho be considered a true parody of heteronormativity?

Screen capture from Arrested Development showing Tobias and George Michael wearing what would be approached as gay-macho attire. Would this be considered a subversion or a perversion to heterosexual man of power? To what extent can the gay-macho be considered a true parody of heteronormativity?

In what I consider to be one of the more radical moves in the essay, Bersani argues for an “explosion” of the gay ideological boundary. Instead of gay rhetoric attempting to deny or soften important (although at times politically unpleasant) truths of homosexual desire, Bersani proposes an embrace of truths as acts of resistance. His take is that  even though sexist power might be able to resist social revolutions, it cannot resist gay truths being embraced in a way that they assume or take-on this power (209). Thus, rather than viewing gay identities as a way of parodying male sexist norms, Bersani approaches them as joys derived from transgressing social norms: “it is not because of the parodistic distance that [gay men] take from that identity, but rather because, from within their nearly mad identification with it, they never cease to feel the appeal of its being violated” (209).

It is after this move that Bersani returns to the discussion of AIDS and the violence it induces. He focus on the notion of the media and the government (during the rise of the epidemic), to (erroneously) focus on gay men as agents who deliberately want to see the disease spread: “those being killed are killers” (211). He also begins to focus on how the representation of gay men during the AIDS crisis is remarkably similar to the representation of prostitutes in the 19th century. Prostitutes were not only represented as vessels that carried disease, but they were also characterized as being sexually insatiable (seeing as prostitutes were able to have have multiple orgasms and uninterrupted sex). Bersani then draws a correlation between 19th century views of prostitutes and contemporary views of gay men and anal sex (especially when anal sex is viewed in its “capacity” of being a recipient to uninterrupted penetration, possibly from multiple partners). Thus, both prostitution and gay sex perpetuate the idea of “female” sexuality being “intrinsically diseased,” and where both women and gay men “spread their legs with an unquenchable appetite for destruction” (211).

In the final move made by Bersani, he goes on to contest most (hetero)sexual relationships because they automatically convert the sexual act and sexuality into a struggle of power. He then goes on to discuss how power is generally attributed to the man due to his active role as the penetrator; thus, phallocentrism becomes “not primarily the denial of power to women […] but above all the denial of the value of powerlessness in both men and women” (217). With this in mind, Bersani makes his conclusive claim (which years later will influence Lee Edelman’s views of reproductive futurity), in which gay men, instead of welcoming heternormative models (i.e. monogamy) as a positive outcome of AIDS, should “ceaslessly lament the practical necessity, now, of such relationships, should resist being drawn into mimicking the unrelenting warfare between men and women, which nothing has ever changed” (218).

While I see some value of Bersani’s work in terms of assuring that queerness remains actively positioned against normativity, I am skeptical about the anti-assimilationist views that he pushes in that they undermine the social and personal value of monogamy. By suggesting a resistance to monogamy, isn’t there still an imposition of power and control over sexuality? True, the power will not be phallocentric, but under his views, power is still approached in a hierarchical fashion that prioritizes the rejection rather than the embrace of monogamy ( becoming a power that he deems effective enough to overthrow the binds of heteronormativity).

What are your thoughts and suggestions on Bersani’s views? I’d love to know what you think!

Work Cited:

Bersani, Leo. “Is the Rectum a Grave?” AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism 43 (1987): 197-222. Web.

Levithan Two Boys Kissing

Queer Times: An Analysis of David Levithan’s [Two Boys Kissing]

Front cover of David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing

Front cover of David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing (2013)

In the notes and acknowledgments section written at the end of Two Boys Kissing, author David Levithan states that “This isn’t a book I could have written ten years ago” (199). Levithan is absolutely right. Back in 2003, when I was still a sophomore in high school, I could never fathom the possibility of finding a book that so openly and proudly embraces gay themes. Could you imagine walking through a bookstore in 2003 and identifying a single book written for a young reader with two boys kissing on the cover? Absolutely not. Levithan rightfully acknowledges that his book is symptomatic of the major events, challenges, and changes that the LGBT community has been facing for decades. However, Two Boys Kissing is much more than a focal point of gay and lesbian history. As I was approaching the end of this novel, I could sense that this book will trigger (or already has triggered) a major paradigm shift in the realm of gay (young adult) fiction. This is the book that we’ve been waiting for; this is the book that will change the game.

The heart of this novel’s plot is a narrative focused on two teenage boys named Craig and Harry, who are attempting to break the record for the world’s longest kiss in order to challenge heteronormative attitudes and ideologies present in their lives. But in addition to this central narrative, Levithan weaves the stories of other queer youths that are somehow connected to this record-breaking kiss: Neil and Peter,  who are in a relationship that would’ve been deemed impossible a couple of years ago; Avery, a pink-haired FTM transgender teen, and Ryan, a blue-haired boy Avery meets at an LGBT prom; Tariq Johnson, a teen who was gay-bashed–an event that inspires Craig and Harry to give a shot at breaking a world record; and Cooper Riggs, a gay teen who “could be outside his room, surrounded by people, and it would still feel like nowhere” (5). All of these narratives weave a complex web that attempts to illustrate the state of gay youth today, focusing not only on the progress that has been made throughout the decades, but also the issues that still need to be challenged in order for a progressive politics to take place.

There are two things that I find absolutely ground-breaking in terms of this novel: first and foremost, the novel is an overt attack on the lack of futurity that supposedly haunts queer lives. Rather than viewing queerness as limiting and as a domain of identity that embraces the “death drive” (think Lee Edelman), Levithan constructs a narrative that tries to disrupt these limits by constructing the future as a space that lacks precise definition but that is full of possibility. As the narrators of the novel eloquently put it:

What a powerful word, future. Of all the abstractions we can articulate to ourselves, of all the concepts we have that other animals do not, how extraordinary the ability to consider a time that’s never been experienced. And how tragic not to consider it. It galls us, we with such a limited future, to see someone brush it aside as meaningless, when it has an endless capacity for meaning, and an endless number of meanings that can be found within it. (155)

The second thing that I find groundbreaking comes into perspective when focusing on the passage above. Who are the narrators of this novel? Who are these subjects with such a limited future? The novel is narrated by the collective voice (i.e. Greek chorus) that consists of “your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers, your mother’s or your grandmother’s best friend from college, […]. We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out anymore. We are the ghosts of the remaining older generation” (3). Indeed, the novel is narrated by a generation of gay men who succumbed to AIDS during the advent and rise of disease. What we have then is a web of the present, weaved by the voices of the past, in order to enable a future. It can be argued that Levithan’s novel queers time to the extent that the boundaries of the past and present are no longer valid, turning the present into a state that can be perceived, scrutinized, and observed by voices from the past.

The attempt to bridge the past to the present creates a lot of tension within the novel, not only because the narrators seem to inhabit a space where time has no control, but also because these voices are unable to alter or change anything happening in the present. The voices are given the gift of knowledge, but they are unable to do anything with this knowledge other than observe, or give advice to the reader rather than to the characters of the novel itself (this is done several times when the narrators break the fourth wall to address the audience). Despite this tension, I think that the novel is novel in terms of altering the typical discourse of gay fiction. This discourse is altered by working towards a futuristic and emancipatory queer politics, while still keeping hold of the past–a past that triggered the need for a queer politics in the first place. Many gay works that perpetuate a sense of futurity do so by sacrificing the pain and torment found in the past. Levithan’s novel, on the other hand, embraces and highlights the pains and joys of the past-but also depicts this embrace as one that is willing to loosen its hold on queer subjects so they can continue moving forward. The past, in this case, becomes a launchpad to futurity rather than the binds that prevent any forward movement.

I think this novel greatly addresses questions pushed forth by Heather Love in her book Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Queer HistoryIn her book, Love constantly asks the reader to assess whether or not it is possible to have an awareness of the past without being consumed by it. Furthermore, Love ultimately wonders if it is possible to look back while still moving forward, or in other words, whether it is possible to work toward an emancipatory future without forgetting the past that necessitated this work in the first place. I don’t know if Levithan is familiar with Love’s work, but his novel seems to be a response, and perhaps, a solution towards the temporal issues found in queer lives. If he is not familiar with Love’s work, I think that Two Boys Kissing is the product of the same cultural demands that drove the creation of Love’s book in 2004.

Given that the genre of gay literature is usually saturated with perspectives that are driven by temporal extremes (i.e. the past and the future), it is frankly amazing to encounter an author that has been able to channel both the past and the present in order to envision a queer future. Thank you, David Levithan, for writing this book. Although you are right to establish that this book is a product of many past and current events, you are ultimately the agent that channeled a progressive queer history that still pays its homage to the past (and for young readers, nonetheless). I am more than certain that Two Boys Kissing will shift the paradigm of young adult and LGBT literature. The novel has already been nominated for the 2013 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and I’m sure that this is only the first of many nominations and accolades to come.

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

Works Cited and Consulted

Levithan, David. Two Boys Kissing. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Harvard University Press, 2007. Print