Thursday, June 28, 2007

When Anyone Says “God”, I Keep My Hand Over My Wallet

E. Lynn Harris is improving as a writer. I read several of his earlier novels, mainly out of a sense of duty, trying to keep my finger on the queer zeitgeist. He’s very much in the Harlequin tradition, African-American subdivision, except that his sculpted Nubian princes fall in love with each other. If we could just get a gay black Jennifer Crusie, now, I’d be a major fan. But Harris has the worst tin ear for English prose since Rita Mae Brown (though he’s improving), and his brand-name dropping gets on my nerves. Do novels do product placements like movies do? If so, most of the production costs of I Say a Little Prayer could have been covered before it got to the publisher:
I thought about taking an Excedrin PM, but instead I put on Luther Vandross’s Dance With My Father CD, slipped back into bed, and hoped that Luther’s voice could soothe me back to sleep.

We’d planned to go to the bar at the Ritz-Carlton and eat a nice dinner to celebrate the deal with Wal-Mart. [Don’t ask.]

I took out my wallet and dropped my jeans again, kicked off my Timbs, and unbuttoned my black starched shirt.
[I guess the jeans manufacturer didn’t pony up enough for a product placement.]
Not only that, but Michael Eric Dyson and Keith Boykin make cameo appearances in the novel. But that is an improvement. As the story proceeds, the brand names appear with less monotony, and the story moves ahead vigorously, hardly tripping over the prose at all. I think it’s because Harris is getting – bless me – political.

Briefly, then: fine brotha Chauncey Greer, age 38, has never gotten over his great adolescent love, the equally fine Damien “Sweet D” Upchurch, with whom he’d formed the boy group Reunion in the 1980s, when they were both in high school. As the group approached stardom, Chauncey was purged from the group and hasn’t sung since. Eventually he founded Cute Boy Card Company, and is doing well, even to the point of signing a contract as a Wal-Mart supplier. (I can’t make up my mind whether Harris has a sense of irony, but I don’t think so. Despite their throbbing religiosity, his characters are hardcore capitalists with no evident qualms.) Now he plays the field, refusing to let any man get too close, no matter how muscular his body or how many inches he’s packing.

I Say a Little Prayer (great title; I prefer Aretha’s version to Dionne’s myself) goes beyond the Harris fiction I’ve read before, for when an antigay minister with Senate aspirations comes to preach at a revival at Chauncey’s church (it’s tiny, only a few hundred members), Chauncey joins the resistance. Gay and gay-friendly members of the church boycott the revival, and Chauncey gives up a chance to kickstart his renewed singing career by refusing to sing for the bigots, coming out to his family and friends at the alternative Day Of Absence service. This is pretty militant stuff for Harris, and I was moved to tears by the courage of Chauncey and his allies. He’s still fairly closeted by my Greyboy Liberationist standards, but everyone starts somewhere.

So, I Say a Little Prayer worked quite well for me. As I indicated, Harris still focuses on conventionally masculine men with sculpted bodies, massive members, and designer wardrobes. Chauncey attends a sex party at a private club in a “mini mansion … advertised as a private party with only fifty members invited and … offering the finest black men in Atlanta on the DL. It even included the disclaimer of ‘no queens allowed.’” He has to show hard at the door before they’ll admit him, but eternal vigilance pays off “in a carnival of handsome men with perfect bodies.” This is all very well, and not too distracting in a novel, but someday I’d like to read a story about gay men – we do exist – who go wild for non-types, men with bodies that don’t fit a particular mold, not even Bears. And Harris gives a lot of space to Skylar, a friend of Chauncey’s notable for his utter fearlessness and tackiness. (Oh, Mary, it takes a fairy to make something tacky!) Skylar plays Sutherland to Chauncey’s Malone, undercutting his guilt and gloom with queeny abandon:
“I just want all of this over. I want my life to be normal again,” I sighed.
“What’s normal besides a city in Illinois?” Skylar laughed.
Without Skylar, I Say a Little Prayer would be a dreary, if politically earnest read.

I’m usually pretty tolerant of the flaunting of religiosity, and it doesn’t really hurt I Say a Little Prayer that much. But still, for the record, I don’t believe black folks when they claim to know what God thinks or wants, any more than I believe white folks when they claim to know it. I don’t believe queerfolk who claim to speak for God any more than I believe straight folks. If there is a god with opinions that it wants us earthlings to know, it’s time to dispense with the middlemen and women, and let us know directly just what it wants of us. (No interviews, either; a deity doesn't need a press secretary.) Then we can decide if we’ll cooperate. I agree with Terry Pratchetts Granny Weatherwax, who, when reminded by Nanny Ogg that gods do after all exist, snaps, “That’s no call to go around believing in them. It only encourages ‘em.”

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I Enjoy Being a Girl!

Tomorrow (June 28) will be Gay Pride Day, the 38th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, so it’s as good a time as any to reflect on how far we’ve come since then. And it’s true, the possibilities for gay people in the US and in many other parts of the world have increased a great deal since 1969.

People have a tendency, however, to see change as monolithic, evenly and instantly distributed throughout society, and usually on the basis of very small developments. For example, because Civil Rights laws were passed in the US in the 1960s, and because lip service is widely (but not universally) paid to equality, you’ll see claims that “society now refuses to discriminate on grounds of religion and race” by people who really do know better. (Martha Nussbaum, in this case.) Just because a law has been passed doesn’t mean it has successfully eradicated the offenses it addresses, even if it has been vigorously enforced. (Which, of course, the Civil Rights laws were not.) Nor does a law against certain carefully delineated forms of discrimination begin to take on the brute fact of racism itself, any more than laws against theft attempt to extirpate greed (let alone need) from human beings.

So, gay people have made important gains in American society, of which legal ones are possibly less important, though the legal gains have been greatly exaggerated. (Our civil rights still aren’t legally guaranteed in most of the US, for example.) But those gains are still being resisted, not just by the Religious Right but by ordinary citizens who distance themselves indignantly from such bogeymen as Fred Phelps (the Kansan who preaches that God Hates Fags). Not just by ignorant rednecks but by educated folks with good manners. And probably the most fiercely resisted change is the mere fact of our casual, unapologetic, open presence in the world.

I just finished reading Joan Acocella’s Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2000. The book is an expansion of a 1995 New Yorker article in which Acocella counted “the various ways in which Cather … had been manhandled by contemporary academic critics.” Womanhandled might be more accurate here, since most of Acocella’s targets were female, indeed feminist writers, and their thoughtcrime had something to do with seeing Cather as “a homosexual”, Acocella’s preferred if dated term. Terry Castle grants that Acocella’s “insights into Cather’s own artistic personality are stunningly clear-sighted and judiciously expressed” (Boss Ladies Watch Out! [London: Routledge, 2002], xx). I disagree. Acocella did find plenty of stupidity in the writings of contemporary academics, as who hasn’t? I too am disturbed when I see how badly many academic critics read, since it’s at least part of their job to teach reading to their students. But Acocella has stupidity of her own to spare, and much of it appears to express unresolved (at the critical level) conflicts about homosexuality in American society and art.

Begin at the end of the book, where Acocella reports on a 1997 conference in Cather’s home town of Red Cloud, Nebraska (93):

And some of the locals I talked to still don’t care for the word [‘lesbian’]. “She loved Isabelle – does that make her perverted?” said Bev Cooper. “These professors, they have to write things in order to get tenure. So they come up with these theories.” Actually, most of the Cather fans seemed inured to the issue. Sexual scandal is in fashion, said Carolyn Smith, the woman from Missouri: “They’re doing the same thing to Clinton.”

What most people objected to was not so much the idea of homosexuality, as the invasion of privacy. … But these people value their privacy, and not just about sex. Antonette Turner said that when My Ántonia was published, the Pavelkas were not proud that a novel had been written about their family. They were ashamed, because the book told how poor they had been. If Cather failed to dig the dirt on her characters’ sex lives, and her own, that was due in part to local training. In Red Cloud, you don’t have to be a lesbian to keep certain things to yourself.

No one knows whether Cather had some kind of sex with Isabelle McClung or Edith Lewis, the two women with whom she lived for long periods of her life. If she did, however, that would not “make her perverted.” Nor are the lesbian critics who believe that Cather was lesbian interested in stirring up “sexual scandal” – they don’t see lesbianism as either perverted or scandalous. It might not surprise worldly cosmopolitans that backward Midwesterners should hold such views, but Acocella (dance critic for The New Yorker, mind you) obviously shares them. For her, it’s very important that Cather never did the nasty with a woman, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just ‘digging the dirt.’

It’s so important that she lies about Cather’s own practice, for Cather certainly did “dig the dirt” on the folks in Red Cloud, including their sex lives. As Acocella observes, Cather used the lives of the people she knew for her fiction, including Ántonia’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy and the various drunken piano teachers whom she based on her own teacher and friend Herr Schindelmeisser. Acocella stresses “how minutely autobiographical Cather’s work was, just like Proust’s. Whatever names she gave to the little towns she described in her novels, they were all Red Cloud, and filled with Red Cloud people” (32). And as Acocella points out, this invasion of their privacy made them “ashamed.” Given her “local training,” Cather must have known what she was doing. But at least she didn’t call anybody a homosexual.

Acocella is aware that professional and literary critics before second-wave feminism had read Cather badly, in the service of their own agendas: she devotes two chapters to Marxist, masculist, and right-wing (especially Catholic) attempts to appropriate her, or to revile her for failure to toe various party lines. Some of these remind me of what someone (Robert K. Martin, I think) said about Whitman: some critics held that Whitman could not be a homosexual, because he was a great poet, while others held that he couldn’t be a great poet, because he was a homosexual. Many people would argue that an artist’s sex or sexuality should not be a factor in how we read his or her work; but what about cases like Whitman’s where it’s part of the work? Whitman wrote many poems celebrating what he called “the love of comrades” or “adhesiveness”, poems so ripely erotic in their imagery that they upset many male readers (while thrilling many others). You can argue about Whitman’s sexuality, but the sexuality of his poetry is intrinsic to its art.

But even those who want to keep artists’ sex lives out of criticism often can’t resist dragging in the topic themselves. Acocella quotes a famous early essay by Cather, in which Cather contrasted the actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. Bernhardt “has a much-advertised love life, but Duse seems to have no husband, no friends” (14). Cather sees Bernhardt’s florid, emotive acting style and Duse’s reserved containment as somehow connected to their styles in love, and Acocella goes along with her. “Cather was only twenty-two when she wrote this, but she seems to have seen her life before her: strait is the gate. Like Duse, she will not marry, not dissipate. And her art will be like Duse’s. She will not express things, but contain them.” (As it happens, though, Duse was married, divorced, and had numerous affairs, including a long, well-known one with Gabriele D’Annunzio, which ended when D’Annunzio gave the lead in one of his plays to Bernhardt instead of Duse. Oops.)

But it’s “the feminists” who really get Acocella’s goat, especially Jane Rule, the (American-born) “Canadian novelist and critic, [who] had matter-of-factly declared that Cather was homosexual” (43) in her 1975 book Lesbian Images. This Acocella regards as such a bombshell that she uses it to close a chapter, though she returns on 53 to “Rule, the woman – herself a declared lesbian – who first said in print that Cather was homosexual”, and again in an endnote. Acocella is also honked off at Sharon O’Brien, whose biography of Cather first set Acocella on her hobbyhorse. But Rule is the serpent in Eden: “The thought [that Cather might have been lesbian] clearly crossed many minds, but since it was not voiced in print, it did not become a subject” (101n5).

Acocella should have read Rule’s discussion of Cather with more care. Rule pointed out that earlier (male) critics had hinted at Cather’s sexuality, but only through innuendo and solely to discredit her. Rule also showed how those critics maliciously misread her. Cather, in their minds, couldn’t be a great writer because she was a dyke; Acocella holds that she couldn’t have been a dyke because she was a great writer. That she could have been both is evidently unthinkable.

Acocella can even forgive Joanna Russ for treating Cather as a dyke, because Russ sees Cather as “innocent” (73), which Acocella misreads as a declaration of Cather’s personal sexlessness. Which is the core of Acocella’s argument, stunningly enough: “What the evidence suggests is that Cather was homosexual in her feelings and celibate in her actions” (48; compare 79, where Cather is “presumably homosexual”). How quaint. This ploy has often been used before – by Justin Kaplan in his 1980 biography of Walt Whitman, for instance. It’s also, no doubt coincidentally, the position of the Roman Catholic Church: homosexuality is not in itself sinful, but homosexual acts are, especially if you get caught.

Since it’s virtually impossible to prove that long-dead people had sex of any kind, this claim is inarguable on its face, but it embodies some interesting assumptions. It’s less important whether Cather did or didn’t have a genitally-expressed sex life than why people like Acocella think it’s scandalous to suppose that she did, and praiseworthy to suppose that she didn’t – always without any material evidence either way. She cites Lillian Faderman’s 1981 tome Surpassing the Love of Men as one of the works which “gave me hope for a sane feminist criticism”, no doubt for its insistence that women who formed romantic friendships never Did It. But she misunderstands Faderman (another “declared lesbian”) too: Acocella shares the medical hostility to eroticism between women which Faderman decried.

Acocella also minimizes Cather’s youthful “William Cather” period, when she wore her hair cut short in a flattop (as Terry Castle says, she looked like the lesbian folksinger Phranc) and affected jacket, suspenders, a derby. “But what Cather did is not that remarkable. The William Cather period began and ended with adolescence. Around eighteen she got rid of the derby and grew her hair out. It seems late in the day to have to say that for certain girls, adolescence, with its enforcement of sex roles, is a disaster …Those were the days before such behavior placed one under suspicion of being a lesbian.” But they didn’t spare one’s being thought “eccentric”, let alone a “hermaphrodite,” as Cather was remembered in Red Cloud civic legend into the 1970s. Not so unremarkable. While many girls do indeed rebel against femininity in adolescence (more power to ‘em!), only the more “remarkable” resist heterosexual marriage altogether in favor of lifelong relationships with women. (Acocella says hopefully that “Cynthia Griffin Wolff is at work on a biography of Cather. To judge from her recent essay ‘New Cather Biographical Data,’ she has new evidence for heterosexuality and is interested in it.” And she’s not afraid to use it! To date, however, her biography has not been published. And how revealing that Acocella doesn't regard evidence of an active heterosexual life to be discrediting to Cather; only a homosexual one.)

She ought to have paid more attention to Faderman’s quotation from Cather’s role model Sarah Orne Jewett, who gently chided Cather for giving My Ántonia a male narrator: “The lover is as well done as he could be when a woman writes in the man’s character – it must always, I believe, be something of a masquerade … and you could almost have done it as yourself – a woman could love her in the same protecting way – a woman could even care enough to wish to take her away from such a life, by some means or other.” Faderman comments, “The letter must have made Cather blush – but Jewett probably would not have known what she was blushing about” (202). Jewett recognized, as later queer theorists would, that Jim Burden was a stand-in for Cather herself; and Faderman assumes that Cather was aware enough of the medical attack on lesbianism that she’d have blushed to acknowledge her love for Ántonia.

So. Nearly forty years after Stonewall, and even a sophisticated New York dance critic still regards homosexuality as a scandalous accusation, and an active homosexual love life as incompatible with artistic or other achievement. (She has to know of great artists in dance, at least, who aren’t celibate.) To repeat: I don’t know whether Cather had a sex life or not, but neither does Acocella. What’s revealing is that she thinks such a sex life would be discrediting to Cather, and must be denied with all the vehemence and bad arguments she can muster. Nor is Acocella alone in her proud heterosexual vigilance ... but of that, more another day.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Not That There's Anything Wrong With That!

Published in GCN, April 1980. At least one more book on the straight woman/gay man constellation appeared in the 1980s, and I was given a review copy but I don't think I ever finished the review. The archetype persists, through Will and Grace to numerous pop books on gay men and women, like 1997's Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man, written by (you guessed it) a gay man and his straight woman friend.

What annoyed me about The New Couple was its assumption that heterosexuality was an ideal for everyone, including gay men. (As you'll see if you read the review, a lesbian/straight man "new couple" - let alone lesbian/straight woman, or gay man/straight man - wasn't on the authors' radar.) The anthropologist Margaret Mead was reported to have said something like "Exclusive heterosexuality is as sick as exclusive homosexuality." Which is true: zero equals zero, by which I mean that neither is sick. It's revealing how the postulate that exclusive homosexuality is "sick" managed to sneak in there, isn't it?

The New Couple: Women and Gay Men
Rebecca Nahas and Myra Turley
Seaview Books, 1979

It is a commonplace of sexual folklore that homosexuality involves fear or hatred of the opposite sex, and yet as a corollary of the equally popular notion of gays as an intermediate sex it is taken for granted that gay men enjoy the company of women. Lately it seems that articles purporting to explore this paradox have been getting more common – the Village Voice rediscovers it every other year or so, most recently on December 24, 1979, and Christopher Street touted two articles on the cover of its October / November 1979 issue – so I was not surprised when a book, The New Couple: Women and Gay Men, turned up in the bookstores, and one of its authors turned up with live exhibits on Phil Donahue. Tomorrow, the Sunday Supplements.

I am immediately distrustful of books entitled The New anything, and I made no exception in this case, especially when I learned from the Donahue show that Naha and Turley’s utopian vision involves sexual relationships between gay men and straight women, including marriage. It also became rapidly clear as I read the book that in the authors’ universe gay women are a fringe phenomenon: the word “women” in the title means straight women, though one lesbian and one bisexual woman are among their interviewees.

The New Couple divides relationships between women and gay men into three categories: “Traditional couples,” defined as “Women and gay men, some married, who attempt to ignore, hide, or change the man’s homosexuality”; “Marginal relationships,” involving “Women and openly gay men who are not romantically involved, but are professional and/or social friends”; and “New couples,” who are “Women and openly gay men who have a primary, not necessarily exclusive, love commitment.” These categories are somewhat arbitrary – how “primary” some of the new-couple relationships are is arguable, as is the marginality of some of the marginal relationships – but then they are more designed to help market the book than to cast light on what is going on. What really differentiates “new” from “marginal” couples is that “new” men are able and willing to relate sexually and romantically to women, and “marginal” men are not. The authors not only take for granted that an exclusively homosexual man is less liberated than a bisexual one, they hint that he is unhip and probably neurotic. “The homosexual mindset can be just as narrow and exclusionary as any heterosexual approach to male/female relationships,” they chide: “… homosexuality was used as a reason not to have a successful [heterosexual] relationship.” Seems like a pretty good reason to me.

Of course, the woman in a new couple has to be a pretty special person herself. She must be “very warm, very motherly,” “not bitchy … not threatening … warm and open and love,” “diffident, unassuming, and pleasant,” must have “an ability to relate openly and affectionately to people regardless of their sexual orientation,” in short she must be “a very warm person, she wants to make you feel comfortable.” She should not be “a typical fruit fly, a woman who dresses a little bit sleazier than the norm,” and “misfits whom nobody likes” need not apply. But happily, according to one of the authors’ informants, “Gays are good at helping you decide what to wear. They like you to look well if you’re going to be with them.” In other words, they don’t have much tolerance for a woman who isn’t feminine in a very traditional way. But if she gives and accepts and relates openly and affectionately and doesn’t bitch or threaten or assume, if she lets herself be dressed up like a Barbie doll, she may graduate from traditional to marginal relationships, until she meets a gay man with whom she can have a primary, new-couple relationship – until he meets Mr. Right and moves out, anyway, or as sometimes happens, moves Mr. Right in.

Reading The New Couple, I would never have guessed that there is such a thing as gay male misogyny. But at best we are susceptible to the everyday woman-hating that pervades the society that reared us; at worst we are a subculture where the words “bitch,” “slut,” and “fish” are staples of repartee. The New Couple merely gives the impression that a woman who doesn’t get along with gay men must be a misfit whom nobody likes, perhaps because she bitches or threatens or isn’t motherly enough. There is not a hint that a woman might have something else to do with her life than mother gay men.

Lip service is paid to the gay liberation and women’s movements, but references are almost invariably to mental-health professionals with the feminist consciousness of an alpha-male Hamadryas baboon. The literature on homosexuality is represented by Bieber, Bergler, Ellis and Socarides at least as often as by Hooker, Hoffman, Bell and Weinberg. The only gay writers cited at all often are Howard Brown and John Rechy, and the only feminists cited are Elizabeth Janeway and Betty Friedan. Some of the gay men interviewed have been active in the gay movement, but none of the women seem to have been involved as a feminist.

There is a small but important truth, however, hidden here in the tangle of footnotes and pop-sociological platitudes: people don’t fit into categories, whether homosexual/heterosexual or traditional couple/new couple, and successful relationships may develop where they are least expected. Although “new couples” are supposedly “only as old as the gay liberation movement,” one mentioned in this book was in progress in 1964, five years before Stonewall. Just as there have always been healthy, happy gays, surely there have always been successful “new couples” that no one heard about because they didn’t end in the divorce courts or psychiatrists’ offices. What we need most is not trendy books with more useless categories, but a society that will encourage us to find happiness in our own weird, unlikely ways.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Tolliver Always

2007 has been a pretty good year for gay fiction, with a number of important (to me, anyway) writers putting out new work: Neil Bartlett’s Skin Lane, Emma Donoghue’s Landing, Samuel Delany’s Dark Reflections, Sarah Schulman’s The Child (which I haven’t seen yet). In the past week I’ve read two new novels that update established characters, long-awaited by their fans (including me).

According to several reports I’ve seen, Armistead Maupin denies that Michael Tolliver Lives is a new installment of his Tales of the City series, but I haven’t seen his rationale. It would almost have to be hairsplitting, maybe based on the switch from third to first-person narration that has characterized his books since Maybe the Moon. So, as the title suggests, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver is the viewpoint character, but we learn what’s up with everyone else, though not everyone makes an appearance. Of all the characters Michael has most in common with his creator – Southern boy relocated to San Francisco, has a new younger husband – so at times I wondered whether the voice was that of Mouse or Armistead. But don’t forget the differences: Michael’s a PWA and Armistead is not, Michael is fifty-six (my age) and Armistead is half a decade older, Armistead is an internationally known writer and Michael’s a nurseryman and gardener.

The book is sexier than its predecessors, though Maupin’s been moving in that direction all along. Remember that the series began to appear in the 1970s, and it was bold enough back then to have unapologetically, openly gay characters in fiction from mainstream publishers like Harper, let alone the San Francisco Chronicle, where Tales first appeared as a serial. Maupin is still tamer in that respect than many gay male writers; he’s simply matter-of-fact about sex, as he is about everything else, which I appreciate. I noticed from some of the customer reviews on Amazon.com, though, that not everyone does.

If you’re familiar with the series, you’ll want to read Michael Tolliver Lives, so if you haven’t read it yet I won’t summarize it. Suffice it to say that for me, anyway, Maupin did an excellent job of returning to characters he hadn’t written about since Sure of You appeared in 1989. Michael really feels like an acquaintance I’d lost touch with for a couple of decades – he’s changed with age but he’s recognizably the same person. Those of us who followed the series in its heyday came to feel about each book as the latest batch of news from beloved friends. (Alison Bechdel’s Dykes To Watch Out For comic strip, which has been running since the early 1980s, has the same effect on people.) I’ve never been sure whether Maupin counted as a “great” writer, whatever that means, though both Christopher Isherwood and Edmund White have compared him to Dickens. He makes it look so easy, doing what he does, that it’s easy not to take him seriously enough. (Just how much of a writer he is, is shown by his film projects. I finally saw The Night Listener last week, which he co-wrote and co-produced, and it was a turkey, far inferior to the book.) Maupin has created a world that a great many people want to visit, and if you haven’t done so yet, you should.

Then there’s Nicola Griffith’s Always, her third novel about Aud Torvingen, five years after its predecessor Stay. Griffith’s two science fiction novels, Ammonite and Slow River didn’t impress me (though lately I’m tempted to reread them and see how they look to me now), but The Blue Place, which introduced Torvingen, blew me away. For a while I reread it at least every year. It’s a strange, dark, very violent book, and Torvingen – a six foot tall Norwegian lesbian ex-cop resident in Atlanta – is a remarkable creation.

What I found most compelling about The Blue Place was the sensuousness of its writing. Aud (who, like Michael Tolliver, narrates) attends to everything she does – playing pool, having sex, working wood, killing a man with a flashlight, flying over the North Atlantic – with total concentration, and tells us about it with You Are There vividness.

I had been working for the last two weeks on a chair of English pine. My hand slid down the wood, zzst zzst, and buttery shavings curled to the floor. Zzst zzst. English pine is darker than its acid-yellow American cousin, so rich it makes you want to reach out and put it in your mouth. The grain is finer, denser, a little less spongy, such a joy to plane that when I first started working it I often took off more than I needed for the sheer pleasure of watching the blade slide through it. Zzst zzst. The shavings piled up. Sunlight, shivered and greened by the foliage outside the window, warmed the heaps, filling the room with the simple, uncomplicated scent of fresh-cut pie. Zzst zzst. I could feel my face relaxing, the muscles around my ribs letting go.

Always interlaces two stories in alternating chapters. In one, Aud goes to Seattle with her coffee-vending friend Dornan, to meet her diplomat mother and her mother’s new husband, and to tend to properties there that were left her by her late father. Though it’s supposed to be a short visit, she immediately begins digging into the city, looking for buried bodies – no particular reason, it’s just Aud’s way. In no time at all Aud finds that there’s hanky panky around a warehouse she owns, being used by a film company to shoot a TV pilot. Working at the shoot is Victoria “Kick” Kuiper, former stuntwoman and caterer extraordinaire, with a muscular body to die for.

The other story begins the previous year in Atlanta. Aud had decided to teach a class in self defense for women, in the basement of a New Age bookstore. She drew a varied crew of students, and struggled to get them to break through their Southern feminine conditioning and learn to get angry, to hit back. Much of this thread consists of lectures by Aud, Socratic dialogues with her students. We learn quickly in the Seattle thread that something had gone seriously wrong with this group, but just what is withheld until the end of the book. (It’s not much of a surprise.) Aud feels that she’s failed, a factor in her running away to Seattle.

Aud is often accused, even by her creator, of being cut off, detached, isolated. I’ve never been able to see this. A friend once told me that she’d been critical of my own defenses, until she realized how vulnerable I am. Of course. Aud’s vulnerability is deeply buried under her own formidable defenses, but Griffith gives us glimpses. I have the impression that some people think one should simply go out and (figuratively) lie in traffic, because being run over – or running over other people - builds character. Ever since I figured it out, I knew that I had better things to do with my life than get hurt simply for the sake of proving my vulnerability. I never take dares. Aud seems to me very connected to other people, and she takes those connections seriously.

Her most strained relationship is with her mother, whom we’ve met only over the phone in the previous books. (Aud hasn’t seen her in person either for many years.) I don’t believe that Aud sees how much she is like her own idea of her mother: formidable, coldly rational, emotionally controlled. So it’s a bit of a surprise, to Aud and to the reader, when we meet Else Torvingen in person, that she turns out to be a good deal warmer and more likable than Aud’s portrait of her. (She’s also a fan of Hothead Paisan.) It may be that her relationship with her new husband has changed her, but I suspect that years and distance have built up a caricature in Aud’s mind. The images, the stereotypes we construct of people, have as much to do with our own wishful thinking—what we want them to be—as with the people themselves. (In my own mind, for example, my 4’11” mother is still twelve feet tall, as she seemed when I was a child.)

Always is a vast book, almost 500 pages of small type, yet it moves along briskly. It’s packed with lore about martial arts (Griffith is a martial artist herself, who taught women’s self-defense classes in England before she moved to the US), cooking, the politics of real estate development, art, woodworking, cooking for people on chemotherapy, multiple sclerosis (Griffith was diagnosed in 1993), and more. It pulled me along as if Aud herself had a grip on my wrist and were making me keep up with her long-legged stride. Fortunately I could close the book when I just couldn’t keep up anymore, but I always returned for more as soon as I could. Griffith says there will be more about Aud; as with Michael Tolliver, I’m looking forward to it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Grand Old Party

Published in GCN, April 1980. I was embarrassed, as I was typing this in, to notice that I wrote confidently about the bulk of Maugham's writing as if I knew it. In fact I'd only read Of Human Bondage, and one or two his stories, and though I've had his collected stories on my shelves for many years, that is still all I've read. Time to do something about that, I guess.

Maugham

by Ted Morgan
Simon & Schuster, 1980

“Gossip is the food of the gods,” the noted raconteur and bon vivant Andrew Sutherland once remarked, and I don’t doubt that W. Somerset Maugham would have agreed with him. Gossip was the dust into which Maugham breathed the breath of life to make his best fictions, and what was the Villa Mauresque intended to be but his own private Olympus, where the witty and notable could sip ambrosia and be brilliant, with Maugham presiding over it all as Father Zeus? Complete, as Ted Morgan’s biography of Maugham reminds us, with thunderbolt.

Of course, Maugham’s fondness (indeed avidity) for gossip stopped short of his own affairs, and in his will he directed not only that all recipients of his letters should please destroy them, but that his estate should give no assistance to biographers. He had indulged in a certain amount of autobiographical writing, in which he had told the world as much as he was willing it should know. If he could not prevent the writing of biographies, he could at least hope to limit their revelations and their reliability. It is not surprising that few if any letters were burnt, but it is surprising that Maugham’s literary executor should have broken down and given his imprimatur to Ted Morgan’s Maugham, citing Morgan’s “scrupulous research” and “the fact that he had not attempted to pass any moral judgment on any character concerned.” About this “fact” I will have more to say presently.

The trouble with gossip about the great – and a biography is gossip – is that we who read it may not ourselves be great enough. We may titillate ourselves with shock that the famous (like our parents, another revelation from which many of us never quite recover) have genitals and use them. We may grab too eagerly at the subjects weaknesses for evidence that he was no better than we are, worse even, and so we are justified in being complacent.

As much generosity of spirit is required to write a biography as to read one. The biographer, flush with knowledge and power, may take too much pleasure in bringing a legend to earth. Maugham’s best fiction was an invitation to join him on a lofty, omniscient level where to understand all was to forgive all, to be as worldly and unshockable as the Old Party himself, to feel empathy with rather than smug superiority to the frailties of others. Biography can offer the same invitation, provided its literary model is Madame Bovary and not the National Enquirer. Mr. Morgan, it seems to me, tends toward the latter.

On one hand, reading Maugham requires the reader to play biographer. Mr. Morgan has certainly done his homework, and has assembled a huge mass of data – letters, gossip, interviews, summaries of Maugham’s books and plays with excerpts from reviews, passages from memoirs by Maugham’s friends and enemies, and trivia such as the number of the stateroom Maugham once occupied on the Queen Mary – and dumped it all together, undigested, imposing on it only a chronological order. Someone could write a fine shorter book on Maugham using this one as a source, and I wish someone (preferably gay) would. I can’t imagine anyone reading Mr. Morgan for, or with, pleasure. At best his prose is competent. It’s a pity he didn’t have the humility, as Maugham did, to ask a grammarian to pick over his manuscript.

On the other hand, where Mr. Morgan has made some effort to digest his material, I find myself grateful for the large amounts he leaves more or less untouched. He has a tendency to attribute statements to his sources indirectly so that it is hard to tell where the source ends and he begins. For example, he neds a long paragraph footnoted to Lady Alfred Ayer with the comment, “Homosexuality … had contributed to the death of the heart.” Who is passing judgment here? That Alan Searle’s “sexual services were still needed” by Maugham in his seventies is attributed to Searle, but judging by direct quotation from Searle elsewhere I don’t believe he would have worded it so clinically. Would Mr. Morgan sum up a heterosexual marriage in such terms as “In addition, he provided sexual relief whenever Maugham required it”? Barbara Back’s parties may have been known to heterosexual London “for the size of their heterosexual contingent,” a bigot’s way of saying that gays at at her parties were not required to wear a straight façade. If the isle of Capri became “a sanctuary for the third sex,” a sanctuary was, after all, needed. Mr. Morgan may feel impressively Olympian when he adopts these clinical, patronizing, and snide turns of phrase, but I have the impression that homosexuality makes him uncomfortable. But he is such a bad write that I can’t be sure.

Mr. Morgan is also given to facile psychologizing, so that he hardly needs the moral judgments which Maugham’s executor praised him for eschewing. He tries to pin Maugham’s misogyny on feelings of abandonment caused by his mother’s death when he was eight. “Women, going back to his mother, were a disappointment, an unreliable species,” he speculates on Maugham’s motivation. “He appears to have enjoyed turning [actresses] down for parts, as if through them he were punishing all women,” Morgan writes later, as though Maugham weren’t equally petty in the exercise of power over men. He seems to think Maugham’s homosexuality was caused by his misogyny, but if that were true there would be few straight men in the world. He goes on at great length about Maugham’s stammer – there are twenty-eight entries under “Maugham, W. Somerset, stammer of” in the index – citing “the list of negativistic syndromes developed by the psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan,” into which “Maugham’s behavior fits quite neatly.” The fact that “its origins are quite unknown” does not prevent Mr. Morgan from saying things like “a stammer is something you do to yourself,” “a way of telling the world that he was not like others,” “a way of guaranteeing the situation that you foresee.” “The stammerer has some quarrel with himself, he sets up his own roadblocks.” With comments like these, who needs moral judgments?

Still, the book is valuable. Everything you ever wanted to know about W. Somerset Maugham, plus much else, is in it: Maugham’s unhappy childhood, his wretched marriages (to Sylvie Barnardo and Gerald Haxton – Maugham once said of Haxton to Godfrey Winn, a young writer, “You do not know what it is like, Godfrey, and I hope you never will, to be married to someone who is married to drink”), his humiliating senescence (“If you think I’m gaga, you should see Winston [Churchill]”, he told S. N. Behrman). Yet he was a fascinating figure: his writing career spanned sixty-five years, he was famous for most of it, and he hobnobbed with the literary and social lions of three generations. It’s easy to despise him – he made it easy – and as a role model for gays he had little to offer. He never spoke up for the repeal of the British Sexual Offenses Act (but neither did W. H. Auden or that old darling E. M. Forster), and he never spoke again to one man who tried to get him to do so. But Maugham himself summed up the matter best, in a passage about Wagner quoted by Morgan:

I do not believe they are right who say that the defects of famous men should be ignored. I think it is better that we should know them. Then, though we are conscious of having faults as glaring as theirs, we can believe that that is no hindrance to our achieving some of their virtues.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Takeoff and Touchdown

Lesbian writers have had a lot of influence on me, ever since Jill Johnston's 1971 "Lois Lane Is a Lesbian" essays in the Village Voice prompted me to come out. Since then, lesbian writers have written many of my favorite books, whether about gay men (The Front Runner, Memoirs of Hadrian, The Persian Boy) or about, well, lesbians. From Kate Millett and Isabel Miller to Sarah Waters and Alison Bechdel, they've been among my role models as writers.

Emma Donoghue is another. I first read Passion Between Women, her historical study, and from there moved to her first two novels, Stir-fry and Hood. I liked the idea of Kissing the Witch, her retelling of fairy tales from a lesbian sensibility, but the result didn't do much for me, though the book seems to be one of her more popular. Slammerkin, a largely heterosexual historical novel, also enlarged her audience, though it wouldn't have won me over if it had been the first thing I'd read by her. After a collection of stories based on historical anomalies, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (which I almost wrote as Brith to Rabbis), and another historical novel, Life Mask, it's not surprising that many of her readers think of Donoghue primarily as a historical novelist, and were surprised by her move to the present in the stories of Touchy Subjects and her new novel, Landing.

To me that return was a relief. I feel sure that writing about historical subjects is important to Donoghue, but I also feel sure that her heart goes into her novels about contemporary, preferably Irish, lesbians. (I don't think this is because I can't connect to historical fiction; I really love Sarah Waters's books, for instance.) Hood swept me off my feet: it follows Pen O'Reilly, a young woman whose lover since high school has died in an auto accident, through her first week of shock, grief, and adjustment. It's exquisitely written, and her account of Pen's tangled feelings moved me deeply.

So I was eager to read Landing, and it didn't disappoint. Landing is about the coming together of Jude Turner, a small-town Canadian dyke of 25, who runs the historical museum in a hamlet called Ireland, Ontario. (Inspired by but not modeled on Dublin, Ontario.) Jude is stubbornly resistant to modernity: she has no cell phone, no e-mail (except for museum business), and has never flown. When her mother becomes ill during a visit to England, however, Jude bites the bullet and boards a plane. Along the trip she strikes up an acquaintance with a flight attendant, Síle (pronounced Sheila) O'Shaughnessy, a very cosmopolitan 39-year-old Indo-Irishwoman with a female partner of five years. It's just one of those random bumpings-together that happen during travel -- they don't even know at first that they're both gay -- but they find reasons to get in touch. They begin to correspond (Jude overcomes her aversion to e-mail), to bond, and next thing you know they're crossing the pond for holiday visits. Síle's relationship ends, messily, and Jude has loose ends of her own to tie up.

Donoghue does her usual wonderful job of recounting the progress of their growing connection. But the real barrier is their respective rootedness, or in Síle's case, her determined lack thereof. Who's going to risk giving up the life she's used to? Will Síle move to Canada, or Jude to Ireland? I suppose I'm especially ready to respond to a story like this, because I so often wonder about trying to start a life with someone new in middle age -- not a likely prospect right now, but it comforts me in my confirmed bachelorhood -- and fantasize about moving out of state, or (better) out of the country when I retire, but what will I do with all my books? One reason to read a novel like Landing is to experience vicariously how such scenarios might play out. It helps that Landing is told from the viewpoints of both protagonists alternatively, since I identified with both in different ways.

I see from customer reviews on Amazon that some people find the story insufficiently action-packed, which I suppose is true. In some ways Landing is a very old-fashioned novel, and Donoghue an old-fashioned novelist -- witness her fondness for the 18th century. (You want action, try something like Nicola Griffith's The Blue Place, another favorite of mine.) But one of the things a novel can do is to take things slowly, to take its time developing characters, to depict relationships in all their complexity. Donoghue does that very well, and I'm glad to have her back in the 21st century.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Not For the Squeamish

In his audio commentary for the Korean DVD of Kim In-shik's Road Movie, film writer Tony Rayns describes the opening sex scene as "brutal." May I comment that I don't see it that way? In the first place, this scene and the later one with a worker in a teahouse look less "brutal" than acrobatic to me; sort of like Dae-shik's Homo-Aerobic Workout Video. I'm reminded of the way many viewers reacted to the opening sex scene in Wong Kar Wai's Happy Together: terms like "rough sex, "dysfunctional", and the like appeared with scandalized prurience in print discussion of the film. Well, that's us homosexuals for you.

To my queer eye, however, that scene suggested words like "breathtaking" and "intimate"; it depicted a long term couple who know what works for them. Lai Yu-fai's (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) voice-over narration establishes the context: they've been together six years on and off, and whenever Ho Po-Wing says "We could start over," it gets him right here. The intensity of the scene comes from two long-term partners reunited after separation -- no wonder Ho gobbles Lai hungrily. As for "rough," that probably came from the light slap Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing delivered to Leung's ass as they wrestled playfully on the bed. Not exactly whips and chains and bruises, but... the eye of the beholder, darling. Or maybe: it takes one to know one.

On first viewing it's also easy to miss the edit between the foreplay and the homestretch to orgasm, which makes the sex feel rushed. Once that is taken into account, the scene seems merely realistic to me. I wish it were longer and more leisurely myself, but I suspect Wong knew that a longer, more "romantic" version would have driven homophobic audiences screaming from the theater: Eeeeeek! Two men! Having sex! That is so gay! And not just any two men, but two big Hong Kong stars! Like, my ghod! ... which is, of course, a major part of what I like about it. I want more. Please, Sir, can I have a little more?

In the second place, I detect in "brutal" a certain queasiness about the body that in the West dates back to Shakespeare at least. It's a gut level belief that nice sex isn't sweaty, noisy, or messy; by preference it should be soft-focus, candlelit, hushed, with a New Age or cool jazz soundtrack, and no noisome body fluids emitted, let alone exchanged. (I always loved to observe audience reactions to the closeup, in Lizzie Borden's Working Girls, of a used condom being wrapped in a tissue and deposited in the trash -- with lots of liquid squelching sound effects. Or the scene in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, where Saddam Hussein mounts and penetrates a whimpering Satan in total darkness, with similar slippery mucous noises on the soundtrack.) That may just be me, of course, but I think Road Movie's final sex scene bears me out. When you're In Love (or at least having a mercy fuck, as here), Sex Is Beautiful: nearly silent, dry, and clean. Maybe it would be nice if it were so, but it isn't so.

Third, "brutal" should be questioned because of the scene that follows the opening, where Dae-shik's pickup begs him to stay on. Would he do so if he'd just had brutal sex inflicted on him? It isn't gay sex, or even that sex scene, that is the problem so much as Dae-shik's self-hatred. The pickup, also Korean, doesn't seem to suffer from it. (Think what a very different breakthrough queer Korean film could have been made by making the pickup the main character.)

Road Movie is a much more conventional, and so less realistic work than Happy Together. It can be viewed as a three-hanky male weeper in the Glengarry Glenn Ross mode, about the pain of being a man in an uncaring, un-understanding world. It's also an advocacy tract in the mode of Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia, which teaches that minorities deserve our sympathy because they suffer beautifully and die at the end. (The only good queer is a dead queer -- an enduring principle of homosexual literature.) Gay self-pity is so much less threatening than gay pride; phobes want to be reassured that we don't really enjoy our nasty, brutal, and short lives. Family must be as unattainable as love. We can only wander in isolation until death releases us.

I don't believe in linear, developmental models of history, so it's not clear to me why Korean queer films (or life) must use these worn-out Western tropes and models. The rationale seems to be: Korean society is totally conservative, not ready to accept gays, and therefore Korean queer representations of the 1990s and after must begin by imitating or reinventing Western representations from the 1950s or earlier. If all goes well, in a century or two it will be possible to move forward from there. Get over it, children: The Well of Loneliness is, like, so 1928; it's been done.

In general, even many Western scholars of Asian queer culture exhibit near-total ignorance of Western queer culture, which is not surprising given the embattled and rudimentary status of queer studies in Western academia at present -- where would they learn what they need to know? Many if not most Asian scholars of Asian queer culture, at least those who publish in English, have been educated in the West, so their ignorance isn't surprising either. But that doesn't excuse the invidious and often homophobic generalizations they feel compelled to make about queer life and culture here.

It's true that tragedy, to say nothing of Liebestod, plays an enduring role in heterosexual love stories as well. But Road Movie is bathos, not tragedy. Thirty-five years after Stonewall, neutral (let alone affirmative) depictions of queers simply living their lives remain in short supply. Stephen Frears's My Beautiful Laundrette is still a beautiful, tantalizing anomaly, the exception that proves the rule -- a story of two boys in love that isn't "about" being gay.

This problem accompanies an Othering of the queer past by queers ourselves. In the bad old days (so the story goes), gays lived lives of fear, guilt, and isolation, often ending in suicide if some kindly phobe or speeding bus didn't come along to put us out of our misery -- so unlike us modern liberated Homo-Americans full of gay pride and a 30% suicide rate! Substance abusers! Victims of hate crimes! Pity us as we pity ourselves!

The Well of Loneliness is emblematic of this mythos, even or especially among those who've never read it. Or The Children's Hour -- remember, US society was so homophobic that the first film version had to be heterosexualized. Few people nowadays can have seen Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent (let alone read Allen Drury's novel), in which a closeted Senator, threatened with blackmail, kills himself. Many, though, will have seen excerpts from the film in The Celluloid Closet, a useful but flawed documentary that perpetuates the very stereotypes it deplores.

When a young lesbian friend of mine was reading The Well of Loneliness, I urged her to look also at Radclyffe Hall's other novels The Unlit Lamp (1924) and A Saturday Life (1925), both written before Well but depicting mythic mannish lesbians in a much less doom-laden way. A Saturday Life, in fact, is a comic novel. I could also point the interested reader to Sylvia Townsend Warner's Summer Will Show (1936), a remarkable historical novel set in mid-1800s France in which two women fall in love with each other, just like that, without benefit of Ani Di Franco CDs or Eddie Bauer apparel. Or to James Barr's Quatrefoil (1950), in which two butch sailor men fall in love and make it last. Or Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man (1964), a witty and humane religious novel about aging and mortality whose main character is queer and not particularly tortured about it. Or Sanford Friedman's Totempole (1965), about a tortured young American fag who comes to accept himself through an affair with a North Korean POW.

I could go on, but I hope you see my point. There's a lot of queer fiction from before 1969 in which the characters possess or find the courage to reject self-pity. (One of the achievements of gay scholarship has been to rediscover works like these and stress their importance over against the iconic works of heterosexual supremacy.) It has always been possible to do so; when artists have not done so, it was an artistic and moral choice to represent queers as wretched cripples. Neither artists nor critics should presume to claim this choice was a necessity; it wasn't.

(Again, I'm not constructing here a linear progression from self-hatred to acceptance, which historically is false anyhow, but pointing out that both attitudes have always coexisted. If self-hatred has been more visible, it's because homophobic straights have been more tolerant of depictions of queer life as a vale of tears; and because homophobic queers found it satisfying to view themselves as martyrs.)

The question, then, is why artists make this choice. To explore the answer fully is beyond the scope of this article. For now I'll just point briefly to overt censorship by government or publishers; to moral choice on the part of the artist, queer or straight, who genuinely believes that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered; to artistic choice, using anti-queer tropes as nodes of dramatic or narrative tension; or as in Road Movie, as political strategy to win sympathy for the downtrodden. Aside from my personal and principled distaste for this strategy, I don't believe it works very well. I have never heard of a bigot changing his or her mind because of it.

It might also be useful to remember that even in South Korean cinema it is possible to depict same-sex lovers in different ways: the earnest, awkwardly liberal Bungee Jumping of their Own, for instance, or the sweetly subversive and underrated Wanee and Junah. (To say nothing of Asian movies from outside Korea, such as The Accident and Hold You Tight from Hong Kong, both of which have happy but not unrealistic endings.) It may be that in time, Road Movie will look different. As the Korean critic Jung Jae-hyung points out (in "Road Movie: Queerish Reasonableness of Nomadic Existence", Film Critiques: FIPRESCI Korea vol. 3 [Seoul: Happy House, 2004], it draws on specifically Asian traditions of itinerancy that might appear more prominent as homosexuality becomes less of a hot-button issue in Korea. More good Korean queer films could contextualize Dae-Sik not as a tautologically self-hating homosexual but as a self-hating man. But self-hatred is not very interesting to me, personally or artistically, so I doubt I'll ever enjoy Road Movie despite its fine photography, acting, and other technical virtues. I doubt it will age as well as it might, had writer/director Kim In-sik made other artistic and moral choices. (As he tells it in this interview, the choice wasn't his: he was hired to make a movie about a gay man who dies in the end.) The wandering theme could have been handled as well, or better, with two men who didn't agonize over their sexualities. Or it could have been about a wandering gay man who picks up men along the way, not because he doesn't believe in love but because he doesn't believe in monogamy. As it stands, homosexuality is a distraction in Road Movie.

One final qualification: In an interview clip from The Celluloid Closet, actor/writer Harvey Fierstein declared, " ... my view has always been, visibility at any cost. I'd rather have negative than nothing." For those queers who wanted Hollywood to bless us with its cinematic attention, the alternatives historically have usually been "negative" or "nothing." Even dreck like Advise and Consent acknowledged that queers (barely) exist. The most negative images can be, and have been, a lifeline to young and/or isolated queers, reassuring them that somewhere there are others like them. (And what's "negative" to me might not be negative to you. As Fierstein also said, "I like the sissy ... because I am a sissy." Me too. But that also opens horizons that are beyond the scope, etc.) Road Movie may give hope to some young Korean fagling, who might even look at Dae-Shik and say to himself, not "Oh, god, I'm doomed!" but "My god, what a dork! Why didn't he, like, get over himself? And what's the phone number of that cute guy he dumped at the start of the movie?"

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Seeds And Stems Will Rend My Hems

Published in GCN, 15 March 1980. After writing this review I found a long article in Rolling Stone, from which I learned that "K. Levise" was Ryder's wife Kimberley. Ryder, born "William Levise, Jr." told the interviewer that the songs on How I Spent My Vacation were indeed born of his own experience, including a long-ago affair with politico John Sinclair of Detroit's White Panthers (and manager of the MC5) that inspired "The Jon." But, Ryder assured us, that was all in the past, though at article's end he invited the interviewer to accompany him to a gay bar -- just to hang out, of course. (That's how I remember it now, I haven't been able to track the article down.)

This 2004 Detroit Metro article has an impressive photo of Ryder in 1970. No wonder John Sinclair jumped his bones.


How I Spent My Vacation
Mitch Ryder
Seeds and Stems Records
SS 7801

This is not an album that inspires confidence at first glance. Nor does it warn the prospective buyer that its contents are - how shall I say it? - unusual. In the front cover painting a long-haired, mustachioed male in shades is snorting coke in the mountains while listening through headphones to a transistor radio. This is, the title informs, How I Spent My Vacation. On the back cover are the usual musicians' credits and photos (they look like the guy on the front), song titles, and a handwritten inset (liner notes?) that startles by its hostility: "Say sucker, Does this mean we start at the top/Does this needle in your eye ball feel good/...So screw ya!/I can't even get a good Cuban cigar - Willard."

I first saw How I Spent My Vacation in a used record store and passed it up despite Sixties nostalgia. Typical macho shit, I thought, nastier than usual though. Too much cocaine, I guess. Too bad...If Robert Christgau hadn't reviewed it in one of his Consumer Guides, I never would have reconsidered. "What he remembers best," wrote Christgau, "is sex with men." Mitch Ryder?!

Now that I have heard the album I can report that it still doesn't inspire confidence. It does inspire a wish to play it a lot, which I do. The music is quite competent: guitar-dominated, blues-derived rock 'n' roll, often catchy and danceable, and Ryder is indeed singing about buggery. Whether this means he's actually Doin' It, I have no idea. He did co-write the songs, sometimes with members of his band, sometimes with someone named K. Levise. Who is responsible for the lyrics is not specified. They are often pretty bad. Only once, as as I can tell ("Falling Forming"), are they addressed to a woman.

Whatever Ryder's sex life may be like, I think it's safe to say that he doesn't look on sex between men wholly positively. At times I even suspect that he is really a born-again Christian describing a descent into Hell as an indirect commercial for Jesus, partly because of the frequent religious references in the songs. How I Spent My Vacation is certainly not a commercial for homosexuality.

At first, though, that is what "Cherry Poppin" sounds like. Ryder seems to be exhorting young men to come into his arms, in terms that sometimes echo, sometimes almost parody, heterosexual cock-rock at its worst:

You will be first to feel this burst
of love and hate for Mommy
So dry your tears and dash your fears
roll over on your tummy

You are all men, you are a man
Now stop this shit, I swear to you again
Roll over a bit and left me stick it in
Nothin's queer, just the loss of fear

Cherry poppin', cherry poppin', love is grand
Cherry poppin', I hold it in my hand
Cherry poppin', poppa stick it unh
Cherry poppin', cherry poppin'

There's nothing resembling gay pride here. Rather we have the sort of arguments macho men have always used to rationalize a little friendly cornholing. Is Ryder satirizing this kind of attitude or endorsing it? I hear it either way at different times. The verses are so convoluted, changing attitudes from line to line, it is almost impossible to tell what is going on; but the chorus is simply celebration: "Cherry poppin', love is grand." The question is: Is sexual pleasure being celebrated, or is it power? Yet "Cherry Poppin'" is the closest thing to an upbeat gay song on the album.

"The Jon," a light jazzy shuffle, seems a reversal: the verse may be more positive than the chorus. And "Poster," which closes the album, sounds to me like a Doors retread. The lead guitar recalls Robbie Krieger's fluid style, and Ryder's voice recalls Jim Morrison's in his last sodden days. The lyrics are trendily decadent, apparently about a hustler: Strange Days meets City of Night.

This is certainly not the gay male rock 'n' roll I've been waiting for, though I've just about given up hope of ever getting that. Even Tom Robinson, whom I respect immensely, is at his best when he writes anthems like "Power in the Darkness"; when he writes non-political gay songs like "Crossin' Over the Road" (from TRB Two), the result is almost as ambivalent ("A dirty rat is what I am") as Ryder's songs. And Mitch Ryder makes much better, more exciting music than Robinson does.

And yet it must have taken courage to make this album. Ryder has been trying to make a comeback for a long time. I doubt How I Spent My Vacation will do it. There doesn't seem to be much of a market for rock 'n' roll among gay men, even (or especially) if it's overtly gay. Nor will this album enhance Ryder's following among straights, who would, it's true, rather hear bad things than good things about gays, but would much rather not hear anything about us at all. I suspect too that many straight men would find "Cherry Poppin'" a very threatening song. So I can't say that Ryder is pandering to bigotry, but I don't know what he thinks he is doing.

Coming out was not easy for me, and if (as I suspect) How I Spent My Vacation is largely autobiographical, I can sympathize with Ryder's evident conflict, if not his machismo. I'm glad he chose to write songs about what was happening to him and recorded them, considering how easy it would have been never to commit them to vinyl. That he did is reason for hope, and I hope and believe that this will prove to be a transitional album. Maybe in time Mitch Ryder will be able to give us, if not love songs, at least music which truly celebrates sex between men.

March 15, 1980

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.

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Girl in the Basement

This was the first book review I wrote for Gay Community News, a Boston gay liberationist newspaper published from 1973 to 1992. The review appeared in the fall of 1979. I haven´t changed it except for to correct punctuation here and there. Gertrude Baniszewski, I learned while preparing this post, got a second trial in 1971, and her sentence was changed from life without parole to 18 years to life. She was paroled, despite a great outcry, in 1985, and moved to Iowa where she died in 1990.

The book itself is long out of print, like most of Millett´s work, but the case of Sylvia Likens has not been forgotten. Like any gruesome crime, it has been written about by others beside Millett, in standard True Crime fashion. In fact, a movie about it is scheduled for release in August 2007. I doubt I´ll see it; I´ve never reread the book.

The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice
By Kate Millett
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979

To read The Basement is to have a haunted woman tugging at your sleeve, insisting that she has something important to tell you, demanding that you pay attention. She wants to upset you, and she can hardly fail, given her avowed obsession with her subject and its inherent horror. That it upsets the reader doesn't mean that a book is good, though -- only that it has got our attention, which is only the beginning.

In case you haven't heard, The Basement was inspired by a sixteen-year-old girl named Sylvia Likens, who was tortured to death over a period of months in 1965 in Indianapolis by a gang of teenager sled by Gertrude Baniszewski, a woman with whom Sylvia and her younger sister Jenny had been left to board by their parents. Emblematic of her treatment at their hands was the legend killers etched on Sylvia's belly: "I am a prostitute and proud of it!" At Gertrude Baniszewski's trial the Deputy Coroner testified: "At the time I saw the body ... I thought it was the work of a madman."

Kate Millett, at the time a graduate student at Columbia with her own fame years in the future, read of Sylvia Likens' death in Time, and found herself haunted by it. Her first artistic response, since she was primarily a sculptor, not yet a writer, was to build cages with statues of women in them. Not until 1978 did she devote an exhibition overtly to Sylvia, nor did she write about her till then. She was, she writes, "waiting for the time to be perfect, waiting to be good enough."

The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice is written in two modes. One is documentary and analytical: an account of Sylvia's long death and of Gertrude Banizsewski's trial (she was convicted, by the way, and sentenced to life in prison), attempting to find the meaning of Sylvia's ordeal, to put it in some kind of context, to understand how it could happen -- why, for example, Sylvia didn't run away, or why the neighbors, who heard her screams, didn't intervene. There is also some account of Millett's struggle with her material; for example, the story of her meeting a young woman who, years before, had gone to school briefly with Sylvia Likens.

The other mode might be called dramatic and projective: Millett attempts to imagine herself into the minds of Gertrude and Sylvia. These portions of the book, at first interspersed with portions in the first mode but gradually dominating it, consist sometimes of interior monologues and sometimes of narratives with dialogue. It is these sections of the book which give me -- and Millett herself-- the most difficulty. "I am a fraud," she writes, "my Gertrude never the real one. ... One does not say, 'I will torture this child to death.' Torture was surely not a word Gertrude permitted herself"(250). Or again: "Can a child in Sylvia's position, given the degree of her fright, even be said to think ... in the sense of coherent phrases[?] ... Do you think in coherent sentences and achieve Gertrude's acts?" (81). Millett thinks not, and I agree. Nevertheless she spends almost 150 pages out of 342 trying to make them think in sentences. At best, her Sylvia and Gertrude engage in introspection as though they were Kate Millett. At worst they are --well, see for yourself.

"That little slut, hole between her legs and she is gone learn to understan it. Probably thinks it's a toy. Plays with it when weleave her alone, I'll bet. If we could just catch her doin that! The devil's work right on her fingers. Her own dirty little smell" (258). That is supposed to be Gertrude. So is this: "They corner her and I get so excited my asthma flares up but I ain't felt so good in years, like bein young or waitin for a man to stick his thing in, not that we're doin nothin like that but the thing of bein all keyed up. ...Sometimes you wonder maybe it's gonna get outa hand and this much of a good time might be a sin, but all you gotta do is remember it's for her own good and she asked for it" (226). I don't doubt that Gertrude Banieszewski was obsessed with Sylvia's sexuality for sexual reasons of her own, but I do doubt that she ever let them hover so close to consciousness (and so does Millett -- see page 290). More important, I think that Millett's Gertrude is a straw woman, too clearly, too self-consciously manipulated, and that in passages like these the backdrop almost falls down to reveal the puppeteer.

Sometimes Millett's efforts at lifelike banality veer over the edge into the ridiculous: "A Coke bottle. Coke aint like that. Just the sight of it makes you feel good, the green bottle and the brown syrup. You stop and have a Coke. Pause that refreshes they always say and really it's the best damn thing on a hot day" (235). That is supposed to be Sylvia, musing on having been forced to jam a Coke bottle into her own vagina. I can't help feeling that Millett's craft is not yet up to the task she has set herself, that she is not yet good enough for Sylvia.

In Part Two of the book, when Millett's inventions alternate with excerpts from trial testimony, I found they came as a relief from the latter's horrifying simplicity and artlessness: "I have seen her cry before but I imagine the reason she did not cry [when they beat her] was because she did not have enough water" (91). That is Sylvia's sister Jenny, from the trial transcript. This is Gertrude's daughter Marie, telling what Gertrude did while one of her teenaged accomplices practiced judo on Sylvia by throwing her against a wall: "She just sit there and crochet" (178).

And yet, toward the end of the book, Millett's depiction of Sylvia's last days is powerfully affecting:
All in the dark. And I come to and hear the quiet. Cause after all I couldn't. Don't know how long. Tryin and it turned out I couldn't. Waited too long before I started. ... Never mind. I'm gettin out anyway. I got a way. I know one way still and it's less trouble than shovels. Just wait and you make it anyway. One way or another [337-8].

It don't matter. Finally it don't matter. You all go under, everybody gets to see the light comin through a window once just when it stops comin in your eyes [340].
Is this because Millett finally has gained control of her material, or is it because the reality she invokes is so overwhelming that she can't miss? I suspect I will go on rereading this part of the book for a long time, trying to decide.

The documentary / analytic parts of The Basement seem to me brilliant, a reminder that Kate Millett is one of the finest minds writing today. It is in these sections that I think she comes closest to achieving what appears to be her objective: a fusion of the impersonal analysis of Sexual Politics with the passionate personal witness of Flying and Sita. Of course, Flying and Sita were not raw journal entries, but the product of revision after time had permitted some perspective and distance; nor should Sexual Politics' doctoral-thesis style obscure Millett's intense personal concern with its subject. If I'm not mistaken, she must have become involved with the women's movement not long after she read about Sylvia Likens, with whom she identified so deeply: "Because I was Sylvia Likens. She was me. ... She was the terror at the back of the cave, she was what 'happens' to girls. ... We all had a story like this, and I had found mine" (14).

The reader of this review -- much less of the book -- is likely to wonder why Kate Millett wanted to write about such a repellent subject, and why anyone else should want to read about it. A reviewer in the September issue of The Atlantic complained that Gertrude Baniszewski's crime was "too eccentric to exemplify anything"; it had nothing to do with the everyday relations of adults and children, women and women, or men and women. Or, as Nancy Walker wrote in GCN last January a propos the "boylove" controversy, "Americans ... love their children." Only a minority abuse them, and that minority doesn't count.

In fact it would be much more accurate and honest to say that Americans (like adults everywhere) are intensely ambivalent about their children. What Millett is trying to do in The Basement is explore the depths of the ugly side of that ambivalence, in the belief that the extreme illuminates the ordinary. She isn't the first feminist writer to tie the oppression of children to that of women. In The Dialectic of Sex (1970) Shulamith Firestone concluded a long analysis of children's place in a world of adults by saying,
Childhood is hell. ... We must include the oppression of children in any program for feminist revolution or we will be subject to the same failing of which we have so often accused men: of not having gone deep enough in our analysis ... merely because it didn't directly concern us. ... The mother who wants to kill her child for what she has had to sacrifice for it (a common desire) learns to love that child only when she learns that it is as helpless, as oppressed, as she is. ...
In Of Woman Born (1976) Adrienne Rich devoted a chapter to "Violence: The Heart of Maternal Darkness". "When we think of motherhood," she wrote,
we are not supposed to think of what infanticide feels like, or fantasies of infanticide, or day after wintry day spent alone in the house with ailing children, or of months spent in sweatshop, prison, or someone else's kitchen, in anxiety for children left at home with an older child, or alone [276].
Writing of a woman who murdered two of her own children, Rich made`observations not inapplicable to Gertrude Baniszewski:
She became a scapegoat, the one around whom the darkness of maternity is allowed to swirl. ... So much of this heart of darkness is an undramatic, undramatized suffering: the woman who serves her family their food but cannot sit down with them, the woman who cannot get out of bed in the morning, the woman polishing the same place on the table over and over and over, reading labels in the supermarket as if they were in a foreign language, looking into a drawer where there is a butcher knife. ... The scapegoat is different from the martyr; she cannot teach resistance or revolt. She represents a terrible temptation: to suffer uniquely, to assume that I, the individual woman, am the "problem" [277].
Millett might have used material like this, for Rich could easily have been writing about Gertrude Baniszewski, who suffered chronically from asthma and so couldn't hold a job, whose common-law husband beat her (when he was around at all), who took in ironing -- and Sylvia and Jenny Likens -- to earn a little money. It is one of the flaws of The Basement that she did not, for it may be that a reader who has not read Firestone or Rich or, for that matter, John Holt's excellent book Escape from Childhood, may fail to understand why Sylvia Likens' ordeal was unique mainly in degree.

Consider why Sylvia didn't try to run away from her torturers. Millett gives a number of good reasons: she couldn't abandon Jenny to them, they had broken her spirit, and she had no faith in other adults' willingness to protect her. Indeed Millett argues correctly that before Sylvia's bruised and starved condition was visible -- after which she did make at least one futile attempt to escape -- she would most likely have been sent back to Gertrude's house by any adult she sought out. But would anyone believe this who hasn't read John Holt's account, in Escape from Childhood, of a six-year-old Chicago boy who begged social workers not to return him to his father from the foster home where he had been placed? Those benign adults sent him back to his "real home," where four months later his father beat him to death.

One reason Sylvia Likens' story is so threatening is that it shows that adults don't necessarily know what is best for children, and I am not referring here to Gertrude Baniszewski. I am talking about the neighbors who heard Sylvia's screams but accepted Gertrude's explanation that the girl was incorrigible, boy-crazy, a thief, a tramp. How frighteningly easily she seems to have convinced them. No one seems to have bothered to ask about Sylvia's side of the story until it was too late -- not the neighbors, not the pastor, not the public health nurse who came to see Gertrude because she had been told there was a child in the house with running sores. (Everybody wants to be reassured that Sylvia wasn't a prostitute, as if that makes any difference at all.) And if adults can make such errors of judgment in such an extreme case, who can doubt that they err every day in less extreme ones? And if they do, how can anyone argue that adults should have the power to punish children, to correct them, to direct their lives? My word, we can't even direct our own. There is no question that parents, including mothers, have all too often compensated for their own feelings of helplessness by exercising power over their children.

The "boylove" controversy that raised so many hackles in these pages during the past year is relevant here. Opponents of child/adult sexual relationships who argued that such relationships were necessarily exploitative were amazingly uncritical of the unequal power distribution in all other child/adult relationships. Usually they called for more "protection" of children by adults. When men offer to "protect" women we know what is really meant. I think children can best be protected by giving them more real control over their lives. Certainly one lesson of The Basement is that Sylvia Likens died partly because she had too little autonomy even though she was accused of having too much.

The only trouble with The Basement is that it doesn't go deep enough. It touches on the plight of children, but too briefly. But more important, Kate Millett has let herself hide behind her projections of Sylvia and Gertrude, which do not connect us to them or to her. I kept wishing she would say something about the sculptures she created out of her obsession with Sylvia, and more of the process by which she came to understand the meaning of that obsession, her identification with the girl in the basement. After fourteen years, Sylvia Likens and Gertrude Baniszewski remain opaque to her, if we are to judge by her attempts to imitate their voices. If she had told us more about Kate Millett, she would have told us more about them as well -- as in her previous books, by telling us about herself she has told us about ourselves.