Kramer vs. everybody

FaggotsFaggots by Larry Kramer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Larry Kramer’s eponymous 1978 novel is one whose reputation precedes it. Apparently condemned upon its publication due to its singular (and single-minded) focus on drugs-and-fucking in the New York gay scene in the 1970s, the truth is always both more. And less.

Reading the book today, especially given the international brouhaha over gay marriage, and the manifestation of strange forms of agit-prop like the Kim Davis case in the US, what I found most surprising about Faggots is how unpolitical it seems.

A good example of this is the infamous Everhard fire, with Kramer noting that “seven brothers perished”. But this becomes more of a footnote than a warning to the general refrain that “We have to disco and drug and fuck if we want to live fantastic!”

Also, and this is probably one of the side-effects of the novel that Kramer could not possibly have foreseen: Faggots today reads like an elegy to a lost age, rather than a dire warning of a pending gay apocalypse in the form of the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s.

Many gay people today come from cultures, families and countries where being gay is an exceedingly complex negotiation between societal and religious expectations and personal convictions. Many gay people have never, ever experienced the kind of totally open and life-affirming community that Kramer describes in Faggots, and which one could argue was both its artistic and personal peak.

Those detractors who argue that the book focuses on drugs-and-fucking to the total exclusion of any sense of these characters’ ordinary lives ignore Kramer’s savviness as a writer. There is an astonishing set piece early on, where Garfield’s doorman clocks in a record 80 ‘single gentlemen’ before 21:30 to his apartment.
The vast range of occupations and class status gives a tantalising glimpse into the depth that the gay community had achieved in what is an incredibly short period. Kramer lists these with a kind of journalistic fervour:

…five attorneys, three art directors, seven models, ten would-be models, twelve said-they-were models, one journalist, three hairdressers (one specialising in colour), two antique dealers, one typewriter repairman, one manager of a Holiday Inn, one garbage collector, two construction workers, one toll collector from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, three policemen, two firemen (one out of state), seven hustlers (three full-time), one elevator operator (Garfield’s landlord’s son), one bass player, five doctors, twelve students, one ethnic dancer, two restauranteurs (one fancy, one shit food), one judge (rather old, but Garfield had to remember business), one newscaster, one weather man, one football player, one folk singer, four truck drivers, twenty-nine on unemployment, eleven unidentified, and the new assistant Orthodox rabbi for a congregation in Seattle.

(The latter is part of a very funny Jewish riff running throughout the book about the fagolim and their weird proclivities, such as ‘tinkling’ on each other).

I suppose another wholly unintentional aspect of Kramer’s book is how much ammunition it gives to anti-gay detractors and protestors to decry the ‘gay lifestyle’ as utterly immoral and devoid of any meaningful social relevance or human contact.

A good example of Kramer’s refreshingly direct, and therefore scandalously provocative, approach to this issue is the following comment: “Sex and love are different and any faggot given half a choice will take the former. And probably fucked with Adolf Hitler if he’d been cute!” The implication here is that sex is the be-all and end-all of gay life, and that gay men are completely indiscriminate in service of their cocks. Kramer points out that:

…whatever prodigies the male genitals can perform, the human mind is incapable of emotional focus when it’s asked to experience so much emotional intensity with so many different objects. And when orgasmic sex ceases to constitute emotional intensity for its participants, then what remains in the realm of sensory possibility for the deadened veteran – human torture, murder, the consumption of children?

Drugs-and-fucking are still very much a mainstay of the gay lifestyle even today, post-AIDS, especially in countries where the simple act of being gay can be punished by death (simply think of vast swathes of Africa and the entire Middle East, while general intolerance and bigotry continues to simmer in countries like Russia).

This is much more an act of defiance, I think, whereas Kramer’s point is that the energy and vitality expended on drugs-and-fucking would result in a Trojan horse type of situation within the gay community itself.

Well, of course that particular dark horse was AIDS, and not even Kramer could have foreseen the subsequent decimation of the gay community that he loved, as much as its excesses and shortcomings exasperated and upset him.

Of course, detractors have drawn an arrow-straight line between the excesses that Kramer depicts and the pandemic that followed. There is no doubt that the rampant promiscuity and drug use added to the death toll (and continues to do so).

However, there is equally no doubt that the energy and vitality that found expression in such promiscuity and drug use also resulted in one of the brightest artistic and cultural renaissances we have ever experienced, and one whose light we still look to today, in tantalising wonder at both its fierceness and its warmth. And Kramer himself is a product of this renaissance.

Another very real point to be made is that the book can be read as a general reflection of Kramer’s own prudishness, despite its explicitness. There is as much laughter as there is vulgarity, but it is a gallows humour that gives the novel a frenetic energy and pace.

The fact it is also written without any chapter breaks, with short sections and short sentences almost akin to dialogue in a play, inevitably means that the characters themselves get the short end of the stick (so to speak). The names and types do tend to blur after a while, but I think this is a deliberate narrative strategy on the part of Kramer, given his subject matter.

People unfamiliar with gay history (which sadly includes many gay people themselves) tend to see Faggots in isolation, but one has to bear in mind that the equally extraordinary Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran was published in the same year, another indication of the gay renaissance that Kramer seems so curiously dismissive of.

Is Faggots as negative and bile-ridden as it has been made out to be? I certainly do not think so. While Kramer has a keen eye for the absurd, he also has a deep and abiding love for his characters, and the community they define and inhabit. The fact that the book ends so prosaically, with one of the protagonists turning 40, is an abiding affirmation of this enduring love.

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The Beautiful Bureaucrat

The Beautiful BureaucratThe Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

At a slim 135 pages (Kindle version, in Amazon’s sexy new Bookerly font), Helen Phillips’s book reads more like a novella than a fully-fledged novel. Indeed, I also think it would have worked far better as a novel if she had focused more on the relationship between Joseph and Josephine, which implodes so suddenly and so dramatically that I was caught rather unawares.

Also, one is able to guess the big Plot Twist well before the end, which deprives the denouement of much of its power. A good description of this would be part existentialist conundrum and part Kafka nightmare.

The book’s focus on the minutiae of a typical suburban couple’s life sits uncomfortably with the broader weirdness which Phillips tries to inject into her story (people without faces, mysterious strangers following her, a mysterious concrete building with staircases and rows of doors that seem to go on forever).

I was also unable to conclude if the writing was deliberately deflective. Early on Josephine sees a door down the hallway from their sublet open, with “a huge dog there, straining and snarling as though it had three heads.”

Every time the dog is referenced thereafter, it is referred to as being three-headed. Which is not the same thing … so did the bloody dog have three heads or not? (And why does it have its own apartment, I kept on thinking? You can see why I ended up being quite frustrated by this).

I think the book’s biggest failure is the character of Joseph, who remains pretty much a cipher throughout (larger because his masculinity is reserved for a rather unpalatable deus ex machina at the end).

The depiction of sexual tension between the couple, and the (d)evolution of their relationship into a rape-like territorial battle, is too broadly played to be as dreadful as similar gender dynamics in an Ian McEwan novel, for example.

And then there is the bloody pomegranate, which features prominently on the cover. Again this is an instance of symbolism being bent to perform the dual role of foreshadowing and psychological nuance.

I think this book would serve best as an introduction to a general reader not overly familiar with such related genres as the New Weird. My response to it was muted, to the point of actively not liking it by the end, as I was expecting so much more.

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Karen Memory

Karen MemoryKaren Memory by Elizabeth Bear
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, what a wonderful novel! This heady mash-up of steampunk and Wild West tropes leaves the reader with a huge grin on the face, rooting for the girls of Madame Damnable’s establishment as they fight a dastardly plot by the Russians to take control of Alaska during the Gold Rush.

Karen Memory is a masterclass in voice and place: while it takes a while to familiarise oneself with the particular patois of the main character, her sassy worldliness and unconquerable spirit in the face of adversity will soon win over even the most hard-hearted of readers.

Throw in a deaf cat called Signor, various thrilling set pieces involving chases through a labyrinthine, China Mievillesque frontier town on horseback (actually, Indian ponies, who generally take a dim view of unskilled human riders), a dark and brooding sheriff who is a Master of Disguise, not to mention a robot-like Singer sewing machine and a submarine with an octopus-like battering ram, and you have all the ingredients of a truly fantastic yarn.

Of course, this is a love story as well, with Karen’s slow-catching flame for Priya providing much of the warmth and tenderness of the book. Elizabeth Bear has a lot to say about gender and identity politics in her Wild West milieu, but she never becomes strident or didactic. A fantastic contribution to the wondrous diversity of the SF genre!

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Muse

Muse: A novelMuse: A novel by Jonathan Galassi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I expected this take on the inner workings of the publishing industry, written by someone who has been on both sides of the fence, as a publisher and a poet, to be snarky and all-knowing. What I did not expect is how charming and delightful a novel it is. Muse is a love letter to the halcyon days of an industry where publishers were larger-than-life, and often more notorious than the authors they represented.

I always read reviews prior to embarking on a new book, mainly to get a feel of what people in general think (as opposed to prejudging an author or forming advance opinions.) In this case, a lot of reviewers bemoaned the fact that their enjoyment of Muse was affectively hobbled by Jonathan Galassi’s insider knowledge.

Yes, there is a whole level of allusion here that definitely escaped me. A cursory glance at Galassi’s biography reveals that he heads up Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which he joined in 1985 after being fired from Random House, for reasons I cannot discern.

If this had been another kind of book, Galassi would have loaded it to the teeth with broadside salvos aimed at the mercenary industry that had rejected him at one stage. Instead, the book opens with the following declaration: “This is a love story. It’s about the good old days, when men were men and women were women and books were books.”

Of course, this means real books, not e-books, which come in for some of the funniest ribbing towards the end, when Paul has a brief relationship with Rufus from Medusa, a clear reference to Amazon: “Content was king at Medusa, they claimed, but Rufus’s expertise ran more to genre novelists and management gurus than literary writers.”

While Galassi highlights the intrinsic appeal of this shiny new world, he also laments its inadequacies:

Paul was enchanted by the lingo of Rufus’s world: big data, scalability, pivoting, crowdsourcing, virtual convergence, geo-location, but before too long he came to understand that everything his guy was talking about – platforms and delivery systems and mini-books and nanotech and page rates and and and – had very little to do with what mattered to Paul, which was the words themselves and the men and women who’d written.

And, one might add, the men and women who champion them. This is not to suggest that Galassi paints a rosy-hued portrait of publishing: “The Impetus offices, in a venerable Meatpacking District building not far from Sterling’s apartment, were at least as scruffy as P&S’s, with upholstery that looked lice-infested and filthy walls that had not been washed, let along painted, in forty years.”

Providing a link between the two rival publishers of Impetus and P&S is the character of Paul, who idolises the work of a particular poet published by his boss’s nemesis. The plot kicks into high gear when he has a meeting with his literary idol, a meeting that not only changes a life-time’s worth of fanciful conjecture about her, but which also sees him bestowed with an explosive secret, like a ticking time bomb, set to destroy his world and its dinosaurs.

There are fantastic set pieces, such as a warts-and-all depiction of the Frankfurt Book Fair, while Galassi’s descriptions of Venice are achingly beautiful. I also loved the way he addresses such issues as attracting the ‘right’ readers and dealing with the ‘cult of personality’.

As much as Muse is a lament for this bygone era, it is equally a celebration of writers, publishers and readers, indeed the entire madcap magic circle that begins and ends every time a single book is opened and closed.

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In Cold Blood

In Cold BloodIn Cold Blood by Truman Capote
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While rereading this for the Literary Darkness group read on Goodreads, I also rewatched the 2005 movie for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Truman Capote.

While this made me realise how much the movie had short-changed the novel in its meticulous depiction of the Clutter family murders in Kansas in the late 1950s, it also made me aware of a fatal flaw of the novel: Capote, omniscient narrator and social darling of the literary set in New York of the day, had all but erased his own presence from the pages of In Cold Blood.

Or tried to. The result is a curious dissonance between the largely dispassionate pages of the novel, and Capote’s own over-the-top aggrandisement, not to mention both his personal and professional stake in this particular story. On the other hand, one can look at In Cold Blood as a supreme achievement in self-effacement.

Ultimately the result is curiously distancing and sanitising; one never really connects with any of the real-life ‘characters’ here, from the apple pie goodness of the proto-American Dream Clutters to the grim ugliness of the killers themselves – both physically and in the sad details of their wretched lives.

As to Capote’s contention that he had ‘invented’ a new literary form, namely the ‘non-fiction novel’, this was inextricably intertwined with his own relentless self-marketing. Certainly Capote did pave the way for similar journalistic-type novels such as Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night in 1968, which won the Pulitzer Prize (which Capote apparently hankered after for his own novel).

If only Capote had had the foresight, or the balls, to write the book from his own point of view, to recount the personal toll of those many hours spent interviewing the charismatic and deeply damaged Perry on Death Row.

Of course, this is a fairly modern take on the novel and the events it describes (transcribes?), largely inspired by Gerald Clarke’s biography, which also formed the basis for Bennet Miller’s movie.

From a technical point of view, In Cold Blood is a masterclass in non-fiction writing from a suspense point of view. Capote’s writing style is quite muted, but not so bland as to lack a distinctive voice. Also, the writing is quite pared-down and functional, which only adds to the tension.

Curiously, I found the ending to be quite rushed. The actual death-by-hanging of both Dick and Perry is barely given a page or two in the course of this nearly 400-page novel (the most horrific detail is that both killers took up to 20 minutes to die after they were hung).

And the final scene of Dewey at the Clutters’ graveside, where he just happens to bump into Susan Kidwell, just screams literary contrivance. What a disappointingly conventional way to end a novel that ostensibly was meant to be a new template for the possibility of fictive discourse in illuminating the hidden corners of a real-life tragedy.

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A Tight Fit

Narrow RoomsNarrow Rooms by James Purdy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The most forceful impression of Narrow Rooms is how politically incorrect a novel it is. In a modern age where all LGBT people are supposed to be happy, well-adjusted poster children for homo-normativity, Purdy’s novel is like a runny dog turd smeared on a hot pavement.

A gothic tour de force of lust, perversion, obsession and violence, all often on the same page, Narrow Rooms ostensibly centres on a lovers’ triangle gone wrong. To give away any more of the lurid plot, especially the ending, would be to deprive Purdy’s novel of much of its impact. This is a book to experience; beware that it will probably hit you like a sledgehammer in the nuts.

What struck me immediately about Narrow Rooms is how pared down the writing is. Gone is the often ornamental writing and baroque plot contrivances of earlier novels like Cabot Wright Begins and Eustace Chisholm and the Works.

Here Purdy strips his writing bare, just as he lays bare the tortured souls of this wretched trilogy of characters. As a result, the book reads like a parable, while also having the impact of a Biblical story. This is also quite a brief novel, barely 200 pages, that moves inexorably from Sidney arriving home from jail to the domestic apocalypse unleashed at the end.

What is one to make of Purdy’s contention that true love is as much a destructive force as it is a creative one? That desire or even lust thwarted is liable to fester in a person, leading him to lash out with all the pain and rejection that he himself feels he has been dealt?

I constantly use the male pronoun, although I would hesitate to label this a ‘gay’ novel, despite the proliferation of gay sex, which runs the gamut from enthusiastic tonguing to eyebrow-raising S&M (and this all in a 1978 novel).

Despite the violence and anguish, can one ultimately see this as a novel of hope rather than despair? I would like to think so. After this late novel Purdy himself had about 20 years left to live, holed up in the Brooklyn, NY apartment where he stayed for 45 years until his death in 2009, largely ignored by the literary establishment that had so fêted him at the start of his career.

And yet I do not think this is a bitter novel. Instead it is a remarkable distillation of the uncompromising vision that Purdy had been honing throughout his career. As Paul Binding writes in the 1985 Introduction to the reprint: “If love is what frequently brings people into damned-seeing states of being, it – and it alone – is what brings about redemption.”

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A New Dawn

A New DawnA New Dawn by John Jackson Miller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is ironic that Disney, the new home of Star Wars, has acted somewhat like the evil Empire itself in declaring the so-called Expanded Universe non-canon. A big corporate broom has come in and swept away all that has gone before. The first salvo in the New Approved (if not entirely Improved) Canon is, of course, A New Dawn, which also serves as a lead-in to the Star Wars: Rebels animated series.

George Lucas himself began the Disneyfication of Star Wars with the child-friendly Return of the Jedi, with those adorable little Ewoks yub-nubbing in their own telly-movie trilogy (culminating in the aw shucks cuteness of Jar Jar Binks, but that is another story).

What surprised me about A New Dawn is that it is probably not as Disneyfied as the Empire would like it to be, which could be a welcome holdover from the grittiness and entangled storylines of the Expanded Universe.

There are welcome shades of grey to the depiction of the rise of the Empire, with a particularly brilliant touch being the portrayal of Vidian as a famous ‘efficiency expert’ and motivational business lecturer. That he is more cyborg than human, of course, does not detract from his, er, efficiency, for when did the Empire ever quibble over something like humanity?

This is a colourful tale that teeters in the direction of fantasy rather than SF, particularly with the overly fanciful descriptions of the thorilide mining operation in the Gorse/Cynda system, not to mention that the planetary dynamics of this particular solar system are rather glossed over.

Vidian refers to Kanan as ‘gunslinger’, and while there is definitely something Wild West to Star Wars, a writer like John Jackson Miller has to be careful not to paint Kanan as too much of a louche. There is a seedy side to the Empire and the first flickers of rebellion, an anarchic dissolution, that can only be hinted at in broad strokes.

Hera is perhaps the least carefully delineated character here, as she has to bear the brunt of the background sexism and implicit patriarchy in this universe. She certainly has her work cut out in taming the overflowing testosterone of a character like Kanan.

At the end of the day, John Jackson Miller has delivered a perfectly adequate, if not scintillating, initial instalment in the New Canon. He does a great job of adding texture to what is essentially a cartoonish depiction of the ongoing battle between good and evil, where the good guys like Kanan inevitably have to have a hint of this evil in their own characters in order to fan the spark of rebellion.

That such careful gradation is achieved much more successfully in the written form of Star Wars than on the screen to date, especially with the later trilogy, reveals the hope riding on J.J. Abrams’ shoulders that The Force Awakens will, indeed, be the new dawn that all fans are longing for.

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