Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Skin To Skin

I just finished reading two new gay-themed novels from the British Isles. The first, Neil Bartlett's new novel Skin Lane (London: Serpent's Tail, 2007), doesn't seem to be scheduled for US publication (it's not listed on Amazon US), though the copy I read lists the price in US dollars as well as English pounds.

Bartlett first came to my attention with Who Was That Man?: A Present for Mr. Oscar Wilde, an extended essay in gay history that went deeper than most gay history I'd read up to that time. Instead of reciting the Acts and Martyrdom of St. Oscar, Bartlett probed nineteenth-century English life to show where Wilde fit into it: the scandals were after all just the tip of the iceberg, the people who got caught and made examples of, the ones the heterosexuals couldn't pretend weren't there. Bartlett pointed out that "the prosecution's pose of outraged, fascinated ignorance, its portrayal (amplified in the press) of homosexuality as something which had suddenly, shockingly appeared in the form of Oscar Wilde was precisely that -- a pose." But then too, "Wilde, throughout his three trials, was lying all the time. ... He was a sodomite." (Strictly speaking, it appears that Wilde didn't engage in sodomy, but such niceties were of little interest to his persecutors and prosecutors. Wilde wasn't charged with sodomy anyway, but of "gross indecency with another male person" under the Labouchere Amendment of 1885, which punished a far wider range of acts than mere buggery, and of that he was certainly guilty as charged.) Who Was That Man? would have been difficult for anyone but an openly gay man to write. At the time it appeared, most biographies of famous queers were written by heterosexuals who tried to psychoanalyze their subjects , searching for someone or something to blame, to explain why they hadn't turned out normal. Bartlett simply took for granted that we exist in the world, a radical approach in 1989 and still not common enough today.

Bartlett followed Who Was That Man? in 1991 with Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall, which I recall (I'd better reread it) as an icy, rather opaque prose poem about English gay bar life. Then, in 1997, he returned to historical settings with Mr Clive and Mr Page (The House on Brooke Street in the US), which narrated, in a prim middle-class English diction, from the viewpoint of the 1950s a romantic obsession between two men that began in 1923. (Rock Hudson made a cameo appearance, too.) I'd had to work to get through Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall, but Mr Clive and Mr Page entranced and moved me.

Since then Bartlett has apparently concentrated on theatre work, but after ten years we have Skin Lane, another historical novel. In 1967, Mr F (as the protagonist, Mr Freeman, is known) has worked for thirty-three years for M. Scheiner Ltd., a furrier on Skin Lane, where he is now Head Cutter. Mr F is forty-six years old, "a rather large man, nearly six foot, with broad shoulders and the sort of build that most people would describe as sturdy" (7). In the well-worn routine of his life, "he has never invited anyone to join him in that single bed of his" (45), nor does he seem to be conscious of having wanted to.

An omniscient narrator tells us this story from the standpoint of, roughly, the present, with a great deal of lore about the fur trade and the redevelopment of London since the 1960s. But he tells the story in the present tense, which creates an eerie tension, where 1967 and (let's say) 2007 are both Now. Since 1967 was the year that sexual relations between adult males were made legal in Britain, as well as the prime of swinging London (the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released on June 1), it makes a conveniently symbolic time to set this story.

Two things happen to jolt Mr F out of his rut. First, he begins to have a recurring dream of the naked body of a dead man, hung up by its ankles in his bathroom, arms dangling into the tub. He can see and remember everything about this body but its face. Second, the sixteen-year-old nephew of Mr F's employer comes to learn the ropes at M. Scheiner Ltd, expecting that ultimately he will take over the business. "Quick, dark and bright-eyed, he is one of those neatly built young men who not only knows exactly what they look like ... but is already well-versed in the uses such looks can be put to" (93). The young women who work downstairs, stitching skins into stoles and coats, nickname him Mr Schein, Mr. Beautiful, and the novel's narrator calls him simply Beauty.

When the youth is moved upstairs and Mr F is assigned to tutor him in the craft of cutting skins, he must struggle to maintain his composure as he becomes increasingly obsessed with Beauty. He also comes to realize that, if he were to invite anyone into that single bed of his, it would be a male. Beauty is busy flirting with one of the young women downstairs, but he's aware that he has an unsettling effect on Mr F. I don't believe I'll be giving away too much if I reveal that Mr F comes to realize that the young man in (of) his dreams is Beauty (oh, the metaphorical possibilities of that proper noun!).

By now I was getting nervous, between the narrator's calm account of Mr F's skill with all those skin-cutting knives and the dead Beauty dangling in Mr F's dream. The sly cover blurb from Will Self ("A fiendishly tight little psycho-shocker") didn't help. Though the narrator is quite garrulous, he doesn't give much away and is not averse to hinting that there are dreadful things to come. Which, in a way, there are. With The Silence of the Lambs now part of the cultural background of most people in the English-speaking world, I began to read faster, both wanting to know how things turned out and afraid that Bartlett had written another Queer Monster story. There's a place for such things, I concede, but Skin Lane was so vivid that I didn't want anyone in it, even the cocky and adolescently obnoxious Beauty, to be disposable for the sake of genre.

I'm relieved to report that Skin Lane doesn't end horribly, and I hope that's not a spoiler. My complaint is that Bartlett turns out to be something of a tease. He seems to be setting up his story so that the reader will anticipate horror, yet it feels odd to feel let down because the horror is not delivered. Since Bartlett comes within a hair's breadth of doing so, I'm sure that the forebodings I felt were not just something I brought to my reading: the author wanted me to feel them. But to what end? To suggest that, although gay men have so often figured as monsters in art and entertainment, we really are just regular folks who want to love and be loved? I think I already know that. Would the story have carried me along as well without the tease, just accompanying Mr F on his voyage of self-discovery? I don't know.

Still, Skin Lane is wonderful to read. With its rich factual background, its sure-footed, sneaky narrator, and its strange ending, it immerses the reader in one queer English life forty years ago.

I wanted to write about Emma Donoghue's new novel too, but this is already long enough. Tomorrow, then, or the day after.