One of the more useful ways to think about gay writing and its most important writer, Edmund White, is to first locate them in relation to the trajectory of contemporary gay political and literary history. It’s more than a quarter-century since gay writing emerged from the rights’ movement that noisily burst onto the North American scene with the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York (an event at which Ed White, then 29, was present). As White wrote to friends during the semi-accidental birth of Gay Liberation, “No one has a slogan, no one even has an attitude, but something’s brewing.” Was it ever! Or, as later gay quipsters put it, it was “the swish heard ’round the world.”
Now, in a period that can be described in some places as nearly “post-gay,” it’s possible to make some literary and political assessments of that trajectory, including White’s sizeable contribution to it. By describing the present as “nearly post-gay,” I mean that in some parts of the world, homosexual orientation and identity are no longer a conceptual puzzle; legal equality has been more or less established (up to and including gay marriage in countries like Canada); and there have been significant positive shifts in public attitudes toward homosexuality.
Of course, in other parts of the world, homosexuality continues to be a contested issue even where it’s publicly discussed and legally practiced (for example, in the U.S.) and, as well, there are large swatches of the planet where, although homosexual acts take place on a daily basis, the societies in which they occur are still “pre-gay.” There, homosexuals remain intellectually puzzled by their own sexual passions; the subject is forbidden in public discussion; and the activity is still proscribed by law, up to and including death sentences. Overall, then, homosexuality reflects a “law of uneven development,” to cite an old Marxist phrase, and the state of gay practices in any society is generally linked to particular cultures and histories.
Finally, it’s useful to note that post-gay does not mean, as is often thought, “the end of gay.” That is, even in post-gay societies, where gay politics are less vital, homosexuals, as a permanent minority, continue to face the practical chore of locating each other or other available partners (the ubiquitous Internet notwithstanding); gay organizations remain necessary as institutions of vigilance; and the experience of homosexuality in relation to other aspects of life elicits ongoing interpretation. It’s also the case that there is “uneven development” within post-gay societies, just as there is globally. Being a 20- or 30-something-year-old gay man in Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal perhaps doesn’t any longer pose insurmountable problems, but that isn’t necessarily the case if you’re a 16-year-old gay youth in a high school in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley ‘burbs, or if you’re growing up in rural or small town Manitoba or New Brunswick. If one needed any reminders about the precariousness of even post-gay societies, a recent homosexual “pride” parade in Toronto elicted a surprising amount of anti-gay “reader response” in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, and a poll about gay parades in the same paper, which drew an unusually large number of votes, split pretty evenly for and against. So, still no sleeping permitted on the last watch of the night.
In sum, today we’re a long way, historically and conceptually, from White’s earliest essay, “The Gay Philosopher” (1969), in which he argued that it was crucial to begin to think about what gay meant. “Naturally, anyone who finds himself in the midst of an odd condition that determines so much of his life but that he doesn’t recall having chosen,” White wrote back then, “is bound to wonder where it came from.” For a younger generation, such thinking is perhaps only conceivable as a matter of ancient history.
Perhaps equally difficult to grasp now is the importance and urgency that gay writing had in the 1970s and 80s. The appearance of novels like Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978), or White’s non-fictional States of Desire: Travels in Gay America (1980), or the first of Dennis Cooper’s dark cycle of novels, Closer (1989), were not simply literary pleasures, but were just as much dispatches from the “front,” news from a sexual frontier. Apart from personal experience, writing provided the first mode of representation in the early gay era, prior to the presence of gay characters and stories in film, TV, theatre and commercial porn (excepting such rareties as John Schlesinger’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday or the less satisfactory film version of Mart Crowley’s play, The Boys in the Band).
What’s more, gay writing of the 1970s and 80s had few models from which to work. From Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray in the 1890s to the moment of gay liberation, English language fiction offered homoerotic hints and heavy breathing rather than anything useful. British writing from the first decades of the twentieth century to the 1950s — I’m thinking of both gay and straight writers, including Christopher Isherwood, E.M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Joe Ackerly and William Cooper — certainly alluded to gay relationships, even if seldom able to explore them as such. Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), for instance, would have been a great gay novel, if Waugh had had any idea of what his book was actually about. But it was two American books, Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948) and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) that broke the ground for gay novels in English, and had some social impact, in the sense of making the subject something more than a heretofore unmentionable “problem,” despite neither book being the best work of its respective author.
It wasn’t until 1964, five years before Stonewall, that a masterful gay novel appeared: A Single Man was the work of the transplanted-to-California British writer, Christopher Isherwood. Its existence allowed one to retrospectively see the gayness of his earlier works, Goodbye to Berlin and Down There on a Visit, a reading confirmed by Isherwood’s own post-Stonewall memoir, Christopher and His Kind (1976). A Single Man wasn’t simply a great gay novel, it also did what just about any good novel has to do, which is “to hold one’s own time in thought,” as various philosophers and critics have put it. The politics and culture of America in the early 1960s — at least, the sun-drenched, freeway crisscrossed, California version — is as much to the point in A Single Man as its eternal verities and unapologetic presentation of gay experience. For good reason, then, writers like Ed White would take Isherwood as a model.
At this remove from the initial political priorities of the gay movement, assessing gay writing becomes more a literary matter, and gay writing is measurable simply in relation to other writing of the time. It requires neither the defence of partisan “political correctness,” nor does it any longer need to be housed on those two obscure shelves marked “Gay & Lesbian” in big-box bookstores. On its own terms, it’s pretty clear that the major English-language writer who emerged from Gay Liberation is Edmund White, the now 66-year-old novelist, biographer and essayist born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1940. In terms of the consistency, breadth and quality of a body of literary work, White is unmatched by any of the gay writers of his generation. It’s also the case that White must be regarded as one of the better writers, gay or otherwise, of his generation, and though he’s written widely about other subjects, it’s as the gay writer of a new memoir, My Lives, that he attracts our attention here.
By “gay writer,” I mean that although the writer may have written about other things (as White has, for instance), the bulk of his work focuses on the interpretation of homosexual experience within the context of the larger world. White first came to gay notice in 1977 when he co-authored The Joy of Gay Sex with his former psychiatrist, Charles Silverstein (shrinks play a major role in White’s life and writing, including in his new book). In States of Desire, White’s 1980 travelogue about gay life across the U.S. a decade after the emergence of public homosexuality, it became clear to gay readers that an interesting, sharply-observant, challenging new gay writer had appeared on the horizon.
But it was only two years later, in 1982, when White published his coming-of-age novel, A Boy’s Own Story (which would turn out to be the first in an autobiographical quartet), that a gay writer “crossed-over” (as they say in the book trade) and found a general readership compelled to recognize that here was a book with a protagonist as distinctive as Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. What’s more, that general readership now had to include in its idea of coming-of-age the possibility that the generational rites of passage might be gay as well as straight.
A Boy’s Own Story is a beautifully-realized account of growing up gay in the American midwest in the mid-1950s. It holds up in re-readings a quarter-century after its publication, as I found out recently when I read it for the third or fourth time.
It’s a Bildungsroman that begins conventionally enough on summer holidays: “We’re going for a midnight boat ride. It’s a cold, clear summer night and the four of us — the two boys, my dad and I — are descending the stairs that zigzag down the hill from the house to the dock. Old Boy, my dad’s dog, knows where we’re headed; he rushes down the slope beside us, looks back, snorts and tears up a bit of grass as he twirls in a circle. ‘What is it, Old Boy, what is it?’ my father says, smiling faintly, delighted to be providing excitement for the dog, whom he always called his best friend.”
The setting is ordinary, but just from the quick-stroke sketch of a family dog and the not yet ominous note that Old Boy rather than his narrator son is his father’s best friend, we know in a single paragraph we’re in good hands. Before the midnight boat ride is over we have a good idea of the father, the sissy 15-year-old who is the unnamed narrator’s younger self, and Kevin, the athletic adolescent son of his father’s summer guests. The father is one of the central figures in Ed White’s literary-and-life cast of characters, and recurs throughout his writing, including his most recent memoir.
Again and again, White gives us convincing snapshots: “Dad’s most constant attribute was the cigar clenched between his small, stained teeth. Since he could usually be found in an air-conditioned house or office or car, the system under his control, he saw to it that the smoke and smell filtered evenly and thickly into every corner of his world, subduing those around him; perhaps, like a skunk parent, he was steeping us in his protective stink.”
The fraught father-son relationship is the early centre of this “boy’s own story.” The teenage Ed could despise a cold, unfeeling, parental tyrant, while at the same time boyishly and incestuously desiring him. But when his father is wounded by someone’s frank remark, “tears would come to my eyes in impotent compassion for Daddy: this invalid despot, this man who bullied everyone but suffered the consequences with such a tender, uneducated heart!” The overly-bright boy’s knowledge and the father’s power are the dynamic that provides the torque for White’s prose.
“But knowledge wasn’t power,” the boy recognizes. “He was the one with the power, the money, the right to read the newspaper through dinner as my stepmother and I watched him in silence; he was the one with the thirty tailor-made suits… and the two Cadillacs that waited for him in the garage, dripping oil on the concrete in the shape of a black Saturn and its gray blur of moons. It was his power that stupefied me and made me regard my knowledge as nothing more than hired cleverness he might choose to show off at a dinner party (‘Ask this young fellow, he reads, he’ll know’). Then why did his occasional faltering bring tears to my eyes? …Perhaps, despite my timidity, I was in a struggle against him. Did I want to hurt him because he didn’t love me?”
If fathers and sons are familiar fodder in such stories, the forbidden element is the sexual love/lust between boys, in this case, between the narrator and Kevin, his younger adolescent summer guest. It’s the very thing you could never read about in the hearty hypocrisy of Boy’s Own Magazine, an actual publication of the era that provides the conceit for the title of White’s novel. The “cornholing” scenes between the boys are brief, but also hot, detailed and persuasive, whether or not sex scenes between adolescent boys are among your interests. More important, they reassure the reader that White the writer knows what he’s doing, even if the boy he was is more than a little uncertain.
At one point, there’s a minor technical tussle between the boys over the merits of spit versus Vaseline for intercourse, with the younger Kevin insisting on the technologically-advanced lubricant. “We took the outboard to the village. I went into the store with him, though I made him ask for the Vaseline. I was blushing and couldn’t raise my eyes. He pulled it off without a trace of guilt, even asked to see the medium-size jar before settling for the small one… That little round jar of grease would be a clue for my father or his to find. Worse, it was the application of method to sex, the outward betrayal of what I wanted to consider love, the inward state.”
I cite this detail because in the narrator’s desire — “I see now that what I wanted was to be loved by men and to love them back but not to be a homosexual” — a notion of “betrayal,” both psychological and literal, reverberates through the heart of the story, from its dreamily romantic beginning to its brutal and brisk denouement.
I won’t reprise the whole of A Boy’s Own Story, but this is enough of a sample to give one a flavour of the prose. What I like about White’s storytelling is that he’s not overly-worried about the conventions of character or plot. There’s enough of it — parents’ divorce, summer job at Dad’s business, meeting hustlers in downtown Cincy, boys’ school adventures, dangerous psychiatrist, oddball bohemian acquaintances, and the rest — to keep things chugging along. The characters are particularly well-drawn, both recognizable and memorable. But as White says, “A quite different, less lurid, more scattered sort of story was taking place within me, one that lacked narrative drive or even direction… For the real movements of a life are gradual, then sudden; they resist becoming anecdotes, they pulse like quasars from long-dead stars to reach the vivid planet of the present… as in those perceptual tests where figure and ground reverse, the kissing couple in profile turn into the outlines of the mortuary urn that holds their own ashes.”
What follows A Boy’s Own Story is a full-scale literary career that includes a dozen or so unfailingly interesting and variegated volumes. The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988) continues White’s auto-fiction up to the Stonewall Riots of 1969. By the early 1980s, White had moved to Paris, where he settled for some 15 years, and his attention turned from the novel to a large biography of the French homosexual writer, Jean Genet, something that, curiously, hadn’t yet been written, even in French. Genet (1993) won the National Book Critics Circle Award and eventually garnered White membership in the French Order of Arts and Letters. Shortly after, White published his essays, The Burning LibrarySkinned Alive (1995). (1994) and a volume of short stories,
The third volume in White’s fictional autobiography is The Farewell Symphony (1997), a troubled elegy to the era of AIDS. White had been one of the early activists in the politics of AIDS, a founder of the first anti-AIDS organization, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, and had publicly announced his own HIV-positive status (though, as it luckily turned out, he belonged to a tiny group of people in whom the disease progresses very slowly). Written in the wake of the death of his French lover, and of several friends, Farewell Symphony is White’s most distressed book (the title recalls Haydn’s symphony where the musicians one by one snuff out the candles and leave the stage until only one or two players are left). It strains the boundaries between memoir and fiction, and it wonders aloud whether the author will have the courage to tell the story of the death of his lover. In the end, White decides he can’t tell that story, and so instead he provides a two-decade portrait of gay life in America and on the Continent. Some critics pretended to be shocked by the amount of sex in it, or at least the claims about the amount of sex spewed by gay life.
Three years later, White returned to the story of his former love, and wrote The Married Man (2000), to my mind his most elegant and technically accomplished novel since A Boy’s Own Story. White returned to the U.S. (and eventually a Princeton professorship) about a decade ago, but also continued to mine his Paris materials with a short bio of Marcel Proust, and a brief, wonderful tour of Paris, The Flaneur (2001). There have been additional books since then — another volume of essays, and a turn at a historical novel, Fanny (2003) — and now there’s the memoir, My Lives (2005), a mingling of twice-told and untold tales, which I’ll talk about in a minute.
Like almost all significant writers, White has his tenacious critics (in this country, think: Margaret Atwood) who don’t like his frankness (tasteless, in their view), his autobiographical emphasis, or his prose (too florid, overly-precious, they charge). But when you consider the other notable gay writers who emerged in what was a fertile literary period, I can’t think of any other body of work that stands up to White’s.
The Violet Quill, a short-lived gay writers’ group in the early 1980s, of which White was a member, also gave us Andrew Holleran, whose superbly Fitzgeraldesque Dancer from the Dance (1978) was the most haunting and widely-read gay novel of the era. Holleran subsequently published the underrated Nights in Aruba, but fell mostly silent as a novelist over the next decade and a half during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., concentrating instead on journalistic dispatches which were eventually collected in Ground Zero. When he returned to fiction toward the end of the century, his instinctive elegiac tone had been overwhelmed by melancholy, and the later fiction hasn’t been as interesting as his earlier writing. Nonetheless, he continues to work. A new novel, Grief (2006), has just been published, and Holleran still produces interesting essays (a piece about Brokeback Mountain appeared in The Gay and Lesbian Review, March-April 2006). As a whole, I don’t think Holleran’s work has the heft of White’s, though his early Dancer remains a good book by any standards, and his gorgeous landscape writing in Aruba remains to be rediscovered by readers.
The Violet Quill, and the gay movement generally, fostered other interesting writers, several of whom died of AIDS. For instance, I think of the now mostly forgotten David Feinberg, an apparently difficult soul, who lived long enough to write two energetic autofiction books, Eighty-Sixed and Spontaneous Combustion, or, by contrast, Paul Monette, whose writing life was refocused by AIDS, and whose memoir, Borrowed Time, remains for me the most poignant book of the plague years. In a sense, they’re the gay world’s war dead, and like those lives cut too short in other catastrophes, we’ll never know what they might have become.
There are other talented gay writers of second rank who have substantial bodies of work (David Leavitt and Christopher Bram come to mind), and there’s an interesting cluster of Irish and British writers — Alan Hollinghurst, Colm Toibin, and Jamie O’Neill — who write a sort of quasi-historical gay novel, but the only others I can think of whose work seemed to match the ambition of White’s, at least in the early period, were those connected to what was called “the new narrative.”
The most prominent of this loosely-affiliated avant-garde group was Dennis Cooper, who has published a cycle of a half-dozen novels that are self-declaredly “transgressive.” Cooper’s writing is brilliant (a lot of writers read him just to see what a sentence looks like from his idiosyncratic angle), and his morality interestingly Sadeian (at least for those willing to engage his ideas), but in the end, Cooper’s obsessive circling around a few themes (alienated youth, sexual torture, a brutal working through of psychological compulsions) strikes me as limited, too limited. I continue to wait for him to write about interesting adults, but then you can’t demand that a writer write about what he isn’t inclined to investigate. As an affiliation, “new narrative” still has its adherents, but its contemporary presence is much muted.
A consideration of a quarter-century of genuinely interesting gay writing returns me, repeatedly, to White as the legitimate successor of his own autobiographical literary master, Christopher Isherwood. I’ve gone into some detail about White’s career in comparison with other writers because there’s not a lot of satisfactory gay literary history around yet. The best book available on the subject, I think, remains Reed Woodhouse’s 1998 volume, Unlimited Embrace: A Canon of Gay Fiction, 1945-1995, which is refreshingly non-theoretical, and offers consistently intelligent readings of most of the important works of the period.
Let me get the requisite reviewer’s judgment out of the way: Ed White’s memoir, My Lives, is quite a good book, and provides a lot of the revealing insights one looks for in a self-examined, bumpy existence. If not “a work of staggering genius,” it is intelligent, invitingly readable, and courageously frank. I’m trying to avoid the hyperbole that gets clipped for book advertising while saying that this is a book worth reading. I’ve read My Lives twice now (for reasons I’ll get to below), and the second time through I was never for a minute bored, which is not something you can say about most things.
What I particularly like about My Lives, as someone interested in autobiographical narrative, is that it is structured by means of an unspectacular but ultimately brilliant conceptual move. Rather than offering a plodding, conventional autobiography, from Cincinnati-Ohio-cradle to 66-year-old novelist, essayist, and biographer in New York, White recognizes that our lives are not necessarily simple, linear, chronological affairs, and that a possibly more interesting way to investigate our experience is to see that life is pluralistic and can be reorganized thematically according to the multiple categories that have been of significance to us. Hence, the plural “lives” of White’s title, and the unfolding of the narrative through a set of categories that begins with “My Shrinks” and includes “My Hustlers,” “My Europe,” parents, friends, women, lovers, and Jean Genet.
White begins, appropriately enough, with his shrinks. “In the mid-1950s, when I was fourteen or fifteen,” he recalls, “I told my mother I was homosexual: that was the word, back then, homosexual, in its full satanic majesty, cloaked in ether fumes, a combination of evil and sickness.” His psychologist mother ships him off to a Freudian psychiatrist in the snazzy old-wealth town of Evanston, Illinois, near Chicago.
As in his novels, White is especially good on the wildly conflicting currents of teenage life, the sudden swerves from true romance — “Love was what I wanted, though I don’t think I could have been loved any more than a porcupine can be embraced” — to “defiance and a dandified insolence.” Of course, at fifteen, White could hardly argue that homosexuality was defensible. Neither, for that matter, could a psychiatrist, even if he was so inclined, and this one certainly wasn’t. “No one could escape his particular moment in history, especially since I, as an American living during the tranquilized 1950s, scarcely believed in history at all. For us nature had replaced history. What I was doing was against nature, anti-physical.” The shrink pronounces the boy “unsalvageable.”
Next up is his mother’s Rogerian “client-centred” therapist friend. “‘Have you,’ she asked with a tentativeness that suggested a sensitivity in me I was far from enjoying, ‘have you, dear, ever actually…’ ‘Had sex?’ I asked brightly. ‘Oh yes, many times.’ For an instant, I was proud of my experience, until I saw my admission shocked and saddened her. ‘I had no idea,’ she said, shaking her head…”
Eventually, along comes Dr. James Moloney, the monster psychiatrist who has a creepily important role in A Boy’s Own Story, and is reprised here in living colour. Not all the shrinks in White’s collection are awful, but looking back, particularly on the Freudian period that provided the dominant psychological ideology of his youth, White says, “I’d say the worst consequence of my years in psychoanalysis was the way it undermined my instincts… If today I have so few convictions and conceive of myself as merely an anthology of opinions… I owe this uncertainty to psychoanalysis. Fiction is my ideal form because a character, even a stand-in for me, occupies a dramatic moment, wants one thing rather than another, serves the master narration. The novel is a story rather than an assertion… It does not ask the author to adjudicate among his characters.”
Luckily, there are a couple of more patient-friendly shrinks, especially the gay psychiatrist Charles Silverstein, along the way. But perhaps the best thing Silverstein does for White, apart from actually listening to him, is to terminate the therapy and take him on as his writing partner for The Joy of Gay Sex. Since many of the crucial developments in White’s life revolve around self-conceptualization, the novel opening of this memoir, a picaresque tale of “My Shrinks,” makes perfect sense, as well as offering a refreshing way to configure the narrative.
There are two substantial chapters about “My Father” and “My Mother.” They present full-length portraits of figures who have appeared in White’s novels, but in both cases, the presentation here is richer and deeper than before, the writing is at once beautiful and relaxed, and all the ghosts of a Texas-raised clan on both sides of the family get to do one more turn on the stage of memory.
White’s particular strength as a writer (or at least the one I most envy), from the beginning of his career to the present, is his ability to quickly sketch both major and minor characters with utter believability. Here’s his mother’s small-town Texas brother, Uncle Jack: “He avoided church with a quip (‘Hard to smoke in there.’). A short little plump man, Uncle Jack was shaped like Tweedledum, with curly brown hair that grew low on his forehead and an unemphatic mutter people found killingly funny. He was the president of the Farmer’s First National Bank, a position he’d reached, it seemed, merely by murmuring wisecracks, which he delivered with just a pained pass at a smile. He never looked at the person he was addressing. His eyes always rolled here and there like a dented metal ball ricocheting its lazy way down through a pinball machine – though every time it collided with something it lit the machine up and drove the score higher… People cackled and stepped in closer to hear the funny man and repeated his remarks to the eavesdroppers behind them.” Whether the snapshots, sketches and portraits are merely a couple of pages or present an extended characterological analysis, there are two-dozen or more memorable figures in White’s memoir.
White is a teenager himself when finds the first of “My Hustlers” in nighttime Fountain Square, the slightly seedy heart of his small urban hometown. “Adolescents from across the river in Covington, Kentucky, or the outskirts of Cincinnati would perch on the metal guardrails around the central raised oval with its verdigrised fountain. The young men would spit and nurse a cigarette inside a cupped hand. They might have another cigarette tucked behind an ear, which looked like a white barrette pushed into their carded hair. Their hands were big, raw, rough-skinned working hands. They usually wore white T-shirts and beltless, low-riding jeans… Cars would creep around the oval and the older male drivers would look up at the guys sitting on the rails. If the car paused, the youngster would grudgingly slip down from his perch, throw away his cigarette, spit and lean into the open car window, his bare arm resting on the car roof. He might flash a smile that would reveal missing or ill-sorted teeth. The smile was so out of character in these faces with their thin lips, gnarled Adam’s apples and crafty, pale blue eyes that it came across as incongruous, like a curtsy from a prisoner.”
Though hustlers will punctuate White’s erotic narrative throughout his life, it’s his adolescent insight that understands the situation at first sight as well as any later wisdom: “How convenient that these young Kentucky men, smelling of beer and Camels, their bodies so lean they had no hips, a T-shirt sleeve swollen because it was folded back over a cigarette pack above a tattoo – how convenient that they were for hire.” I don’t imagine that White’s endorsement (or mine for that matter) of this particular gift of the gods will please everyone, particularly in our prickly, moralising times and climes. White’s always willing to explain (and more important, to conjure the tale), but he doesn’t feel obligated to apologise.
There’s much more to My Lives. White’s chapter about how he came to write the biography of Jean Genet (“The only hitch was that I didn’t know how to write a biography.”), a research and writing project that took seven years and led him into the labyrinthine recesses of French society, is itself, as they say, worth the price of admission. Chapters on women, blond lovers, friendships all have something that rings true. Though White is obviously charming, it’s still surprising how many of the people he met four decades ago are still friends today, a testimony to some sort of depth belied by the alleged shallowness of charm. And, of course, as White explicitly says toward the end of his book, there could have been a lot more or a lot other. He doesn’t write much about his writing, or about AIDS, or about the person he’s lived with for the last decade. But the important thing to remember is that My Lives is a memoir, not an autobiography, and the genre of memoir is a game of selections and omissions, not an attempt at a full documentary record. The measure of the memoir is not, is it complete, but rather, is it enough? My Lives handily passes that test.
There’s one chapter of My Lives that requires comment, if for no other reason than that it’s caused comment. About two-thirds of the way in, White begins a chapter called “My Master,” like this: “Here I am, way up in my mid-sixties, still suffering over young men as I did in my teens and twenties. The spasms come less often and don’t last as long (knock on wood) but they still drive every other thought out of my mind. I go to sleep grateful that I might find a few hours of peace, and yet I wake up before dawn to rush to the computer hoping that I’ll find an e-mail from him: ‘I made a terrible mistake. I want you back in my life.'”
There is no I-want-you-back e-mail, and what follows is a detailed, heartbroken account of a recent two-year or so S&M relationship with a man in his early 30s. The experience is still raw at the time of writing, and White knows he’s treading on perilous ground. As he remarks, “Not long ago I was interviewed by a gay magazine in Boston about the allure of physical beauty. In the next issue, a disgusted reader wrote in to deplore that I, a sort of gay ‘leader,’ had lived so long and learned so little. Was I still mooning over mere physical beauty and scheming to get laid with cute boys? Had I obtained no inner serenity? Had I acquired no elder-statesmanlike dignity?… Was I, in fact, wise? Or was I only one more shallow hedonist, one more unhappy old queen?” It’s exactly his critic’s tone of sanctimoniousness that makes one want to put in a word for unhappy old queens. As White provides the unflinching details of this affair, even the author “can imagine some of my friends reading this and muttering, ‘TMI – Too Much Information,’ or ‘Are we to be spared nothing? Must we have every detail about these tiresome senile shenanigans?'”
Well, I think it “works.” My judgment is about the writing, not about White’s character, which, since he’s not a serial killer, doesn’t stand in particular need of evaluation. White could have played it safe. There’s lots of sex talk in the book, there are adequate name-droppings (including a tender account of White’s acquaintance with Michel Foucault in which White portrays himself as the renowned intellectual’s “dumb pal”), there are tours of the exotic that ought to satisfy most gawkers. White could have left out the abjection of erotic worship, could have excused himself from a present that offers insufficient distance. He didn’t. If writing isn’t just fooling around, but “life’s only twin,” as Charles Olson put it, the risk is always worth taking.
I hadn’t planned to write about Edmund White or to review his new book. Then I read the reviews of My Lives. They were “mixed,” as they euphemistically say in the book business, which is to say that most reviewers didn’t much like it, thought it was a mish-mosh, or wished White had written something else. White himself is alert to the disdcordant responses, and has since published a talk about “My Lives and my autobiographical novels” (see “Lost in the funhouse,” Times Literary Supplement, May 19, 2006).
One of the snottiest reviews I read appeared in, of all places, the usually sober book pages of my national newspaper of record, the Globe and Mail (“Queer every which way,” April 22, 2006). It’s by Bert Archer, the author of the grandiosely-titled The End of Gay (and the Death of Heterosexuality) (1999), and while I suppose Archer is a plausible choice to review White, in the limited circles of Canadian book reviewing, he’s known more as a poison-pen artist than a reliable reader. His review plays coyly on the double meaning of “queer,” as “odd” and as “homosexual” (the latter usage also has two tones: one is threateningly pejorative, and the other offers a positive “reclamation” of a previously despised term).
“This is a queer sort of autobiography,” Archer begins. And though White “is one of the most successful and, occasionally, one of the best American gay novelists of his age,” that’s not what makes My Lives so queer. Rather, “it’s structurally queer, divided into frequently overlapping but non-continguous sections.” In short, despite offering crumbs from the table (that “occasionally” in the phrase about White being one of the best American gay novelists is typical of Archer’s, er, archness), Archer doesn’t get the structural intentions of the book.
Archer isn’t the only one who didn’t get it. Laura Miller’s review (“The Bearable Lightness of Being,” New York Times, April 9, 2006) opens, “Since Edmund White’s new autobiography refrains from explaining itself, we can only guess at its intentions.” My Lives, she notes, “is organized not chronologically but thematically,” and since “White doesn’t keep a journal… he might have decided he was better off following the meandering currents of memory rather than trying to summon up a linear narrative. Still, the ordering he’s chosen is peculiar…” Then comes the now-standard puzzlement about leading off with the chapter about psychiatrists.
At some point, one wants to say, like the Canadian Tire guy in those ads, “Gee, folks, this isn’t so hard. Work with me.” The genre in which White is working is memoir, not autobiography, and White has come up with a modest innovation in how to reconceive of one’s experience. Anybody can play the game he’s invented for us. We all think about our lives (assuming we bothered to “get a life”). Here’s a fresh way to re-view what it was about. Q.E.D., no? And, finally, Madam, we are all working from the “meandering currents of memory,” unless we’re engaged in accountancy.
Archer also thinks that White’s life is “queerly lived” (meaning “odd”). His reprise of it offers some odd conjunctions of Archer’s own. For instance, he says, White “started hiring prostitutes while well back in his teens, and though he’s been HIV positive for decades, he spent the plague years… not writing about it… but holed away researching a (very good) biography of Jean Genet.” Question: what’s the connection between sleeping with rent-boys and writing or not writing about AIDS? Answer: none. By the way, the claim happens to be factually wrong, too. In 1988, during the plague years’ high-tide, White co-authored, with British writer Adam Mars, The Darker Proof: Stories from a Crisis. But if he hadn’t, so what? White was active in the politics of AIDS, open about his own viral status, and eventually wrote two novels in which the issue prominently figures. Question to Archer: what’s your point?
Archer’s summation: “It quickly becomes clear that White has put his talent into his writing, his heart into his life, and whatever was left over into this autobiography.” (For readers not up on queer history, this is a quip echoing Oscar Wilde’s quip that he put his genius into his life and merely his talent into his art.) Adds Archer, “As it happens, these leftovers include some remarkably bad writing.” Samples follow. But over at the NYT, Laura Miller is complaining, “The writing here has White’s trademark elegance. The wit is burnished to a fare-thee-well; his opinions of people are dispensed like shiny pellets.” I’ve no idea what that last sentence actually says. But Miller’s complaint is, “Wit and charm this memoir has in abundance, but that, I’m afraid, is not to its credit.” That is, the good writing is merely clever, “compatible with sentimentality,” and lacking depth, violates “our faith in [human] complexity.” The reason I’ve quoted White at length above is so you can decide for yourself how to read it.
Finally, there’s Archer’s verdict on White, offered in the tones of a disappointed seminarian: “But it’s pointless to look for patterns in this book, or in this life. Edmund White, as depicted in these pages, is not a wise man. He’s not figured anything out; the only insights he ventures are tentative and unconvincing and very possibly self-serving.” Okay, I guess Archer didn’t like it.
I focus on these two reviews because of the way literary reviewing works in North America. Archer’s review in the Globe may be the only significant or widely-read evaluation the book gets in Canada, and the NYT piece is certainly the one that will be seen by the largest number of potential readers. (I’ll leave aside the unhappy analysis of how we’ve gotten to this state of book reviewing.) More important, upon reading the reviews, I had one of those are-they-reading-the-same-book-I’m-reading? moments. So, I sat down and read My Lives again.
Maybe I’m sympathetic to what White as a writer is trying to do primarily because I’m an exact contemporary, was raised in the American midwest, and share a lot of White’s interests concerning writing, sex, and places to live. But I don’t think that’s it. Naturally, what I think is that I’m simply a better reader of White than most of his other reviewers, but that, as with other messy aesthetic matters, is for you to judge.
6692 w. Berlin, July 9, 2006. Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in North Vancouver, British Columbia. His most recent book, The Short Version: An ABC Book won the 2006 Hubert Evans Prize for Non-Fiction.