Wednesday, April 17, 2013

My Captain Rainbow Decoder Ring

I've run into a rough spot in Jaime Harker's Middlebrow Queer: Christopher Isherwood in America.  In her discussion of Isherwood's novel A Single Man, she talks about his "careful encoding of Los Angeles gay life" (126).  She refers to coding often, and I don't think it means what she thinks it means -- or rather, I'm not sure what she thinks it means.  My understanding is that "coding" means using signs to refer to subjects that can't, for whatever reason, be named directly.  (Or "explicitly," another term that seems to confuse not only Harker but many writers.  Is "explicitly" becoming the new "literally"?)

Harker claims, for example, that the description of George's gym is coded, because "Bodybuilding culture in Los Angeles was, of course, notoriously queer" (127).  But it's not clear that the gym is particularly gay, though like any homosocial space it draws some gay men.  I suspect Harker believes that only gay men indulge in "outrageous posing in front of the mirrors" or rub their faces with skin cream because "I can't afford to get old."

Immediately after, Harker describes George's reflections on young male "hustlers (recognizable at once to experienced eyes like George's) who stand scowling on the street corners or staring into shops with the maximum of peripheral vision" as another of Isherwood's "secret messages" (127).  But by pointing the hustlers out to the reader, Isherwood is acting less like a spy than like a colorful native tour guide, drawing the tourist's attention to local fauna.  There's no secret message here: on the next page of the novel George reflects that he could easily hire one of these boys, but doesn't want their "bought unwilling bodies" (A Single Man,104).  While Isherwood was aware of his gay readership, A Single Man is still written with an eye to the clueless straight reader.  Far from coding, Isherwood explains the codes.

Harker also takes George's visit to the bar where he met his late lover as "another encoded reference to Los Angeles gay culture.  He provides a detailed genealogy of the bar that isn't exclusively gay but nevertheless embraces a transgressive ethos of gay bars" (Harker, 129).  I'm not sure what that last clause is supposed to mean, and it's true that in this case Isherwood is less explicit about the Starboard Side than in the other cases I've discussed: he avoids specifying the sex of the clientele, though bars, like gyms, are traditionally homosocial spaces, so even a heterosexual reader might assume that most of the patrons were male -- except for the "Huge diesel-dikes slugging it out, grimmer far than the men" (130). But Isherwood is explicit that George went there expecting to find sexual partners, that George is only interested sexually in other males, and that he found his male lover there.  Perhaps this episode teeters on the edge of coding, but only a straight reader who was determined not to recognize that George is queer and lives in what used to be called the homosexual "underworld" could suppose that the Starboard Side was just another neighborhood tavern.

Coding in gay and lesbian writing has usually taken certain forms: casting erotic same-sex relationships as "platonic" friendships (usually called "homosocial" these days); addressing the beloved as "you" in poetry or love songs while leaving out any explicit signs of the beloved's sex; or Proust's Albertine strategy, where same-sex lovers in autobiographical material are recast as the other sex.  (For example, the faithless female character Albertine in Remembrance of Things Past is widely assumed to have been based on one of the author's boyfriends.)  In his earlier fiction Isherwood himself simply treated his stand-in character as a sexless observer ("I am a camera") of the queer goings-on around him.  None of these codes seems to be in use in A Single Man.  Even where Isherwood is not totally explicit in every detail, a novel told from the viewpoint of a gay protagonist is not likely to employ much coding.  I may be retrojecting my post-Stonewall assumptions here, but I read A Single Man as a forerunner of later works which don't intentionally exclude straight readers but don't cater to them either.

Jaime Harker does a good job excavating some of the historical context of Isherwood's American writing.  She's spent time in the archives, reading his rough drafts and correspondence, and that's very helpful.  Unfortunately she's not a very good critic.  But Middlebrow Queer was still worth reading.