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 Snow Queen

The Snow Queen: A NovelThe Snow Queen: A Novel by Michael Cunningham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some books ravish you with their beauty and their truth. This is one of those books.

Firstly, a note on the effortless technical mastery eschewed here: a lot of Goodreads reviewers have commented unfavourably on the (extensive) use of parentheses and commas. Cunningham references both Henry James and Flaubert, and these are obvious influences on the style of this novel. It is interesting how pared down and distilled Cunningham’s writing style has become since early novels like Flesh and Blood, resulting in one of the most singular voices in contemporary (gay?) fiction.

There is not a single word out of place here. This is a fairly short novel, but I found myself lingering over it as I often wanted to read whole chunks out loud, simply to feel and breathe the words. The cadences, the rhythms, the scene setting and descriptions (especially of New York in all of its grimy and quotidian splendour), the quirky details that jolt the reader into a particular state of awareness, Cunningham’s sly use of the omniscient narrator, the heartbreaking individuality and sheer aliveness of the characters … This is quite simply an extraordinary novel.

Secondly, it was fascinating to read this in the context of Cunningham’s recent comments in the Chicago Tribune about a ‘post-gay fiction era’, where both sex and sexuality are merely facets of the lives of characters. The era of gay fiction focused exclusively on gay (male) protagonists, written for and read by a very limited audience, is not only no longer fashionable (or desirable?), but no longer reflects the lived reality of the gay majority.

Indeed, while Barrett Meeks is gay, I do not recall him so much as kissing another man in this book. The single, intense sex scene is resolutely heterosexual (but linked to a larger truth that only becomes apparent much later). So is Cunningham perhaps being too defiantly ‘post-gay’? I really do not think so. Cunningham’s specialism (how can one resist such a delicious phrase?) is polymorphous perversity: there is a definite erotic undertone to this story of two brothers and a girlfriend (and their mutual female sidekick). It is a sense of lived, breathed intimacy that goes so far beyond sex itself.

My only quibble with the book is the smattering of political diatribe. It starts with the election of Reagan and ends with Palin, as I recall (Obama gets an aside as that black leftfielder), with characters remarking on the pending political apocalypse at various points. I understand this is meant to bookmark the narrative in terms of chronology, but it does not add much to the story other than signposting Cunningham’s (gay?) liberal bent. However, I feel it means this book will become dated very quickly and actually robs it of the timelessness that accrued to The Hours – which is a great pity, for this is in many respects a much braver novel.

And then there are Cunningham’s extraordinary female characters, in particular the middle-aged Liz and her hankering for younger men, even though she knows that they will all inevitably leave her. One of Cunningham’s (perhaps unique) problems as a writer catapulted into the limelight after the acclaim that followed The Hours is that one cannot but help see the author himself in his characters, particularly the middle-aged ones.

There is a strong sense of ‘authorial drag’, of Cunningham trying on various masks and roles like Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (it just struck me writing this that, perhaps, Glenn Close and Michael Cunningham are one and the same person …)

I actually think Cunningham acknowledges this and plays with the idea with the ‘celestial light’ (or ‘cosmic wink’, as it is later referred to) that sets the novel in motion. What better way to describe the role of the author himself and his impact on his characters’ lives and world?

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