Christopher and His Kind

Christopher and His Kind
Christopher Isherwood
Difficulty: Medium
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In 1938, when he was only 34, Christopher Isherwood published his first autobiography, Lions and Shadows, about his schoolboy days at Cambridge with W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and other rising literary stars. I think that alone reveals quite a bit about his character, cocky, a little vain (I mean look at that title), writing a personal history before he’s even halfway through his 30s. Or maybe it tells us more about his method. Isherwood was an endlessly attentive and remarkably perceptive observer, and those he observed regularly found their way into his work, albeit by different names. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that someone so young might have so much to say about their life. But trust me, it’s also because he was cocky and vain if his depiction of himself in Christopher and His Kind is anything to go by.

Isherwood didn’t write Christopher and His Kind until his 70s, and it picks up more or less where Lions and Shadows leaves off, documenting his ten year emigration from England to California. In 1929 Isherwood had been living in Germany, enjoying the wild, sexually liberated nightlife he depicted so vividly in Goodbye to Berlin, but the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party forced him and his german boyfriend Heinz Neddermeyer to flee the country. Isherwood then spends the next decade bouncing around Europe, desperately trying to wrest Heinz from the legal clutches of his homeland. Isherwood depicts his journey with the help of his usual perspicacity and detailed journals from the time, writing about his younger self in the third person and giving his story a literary sheen not often associated with autobiography. 

The reason I started this post talking about Lions and Shadows is that Isherwood mentions it frequently in Christopher and His Kind, mostly with regret. What he regrets is his thorough erasure of any mention of homosexuality from a book purported to be autobiographical, and that’s part of his motivation to create this newer one. Isherwood’s young Isherwood is quite a character. An absolute diva, but in an endearing way, cocky, vain, and probably a genius. Faultlessly loyal to his friends, adventurous, highly emotional, and very privileged. His travels were exciting and unpredictable, it was rarely clear which exotic location he’d end up at next, and, not already being familiar with his history, I was never sure what the outcome of his odyssey might be. I don’t have much more to say about this one, an author of Isherwood’s caliber simply speaks for himself.

Also, I would like to formally apologize for using the word perspicacity, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

What Belongs To You

What Belongs To You
Garth Greenwell
Difficulty: Medium
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Blurb from Amazon:

“On an unseasonably warm autumn day, an American teacher enters a public bathroom beneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. There he meets Mitko, a charismatic young hustler, and pays him for sex. He returns to Mitko again and again over the next few months, drawn by hunger and loneliness and risk, and finds himself ensnared in a relationship in which lust leads to mutual predation, and tenderness can transform into violence. As he struggles to reconcile his longing with the anguish it creates, he’s forced to grapple with his own fraught history, the world of his southern childhood where to be queer was to be a pariah. There are unnerving similarities between his past and the foreign country he finds himself in, a country whose geography and griefs he discovers as he learns more of Mitko’s own narrative, his private history of illness, exploitation, and want.”

It’s always interesting to me to see what kinds of queer fiction catches the attention of the mainstream. They seem to fall into a few different categories, the most popular of which is the classic gay tragedy. A Little Life is a prime example of this. People love a good tragedy, and queer people have the dubious honor of having one built right into their existence. Then there are the innovative or experimental books, like Fun Home or The Argonauts, which participate in the tradition of queer stories being told in queer ways. I usually enjoy these, but I sometimes wonder if the mainstream thinks there’s some queer ‘secret sauce’ that makes these books better than other experimental texts rather than them just being good books in their own right. The last common category that I see is what I’ve come to think of as the voyeur novel. What Belongs to You would fall under this label. These books offer outside readers a glimpse into a mysterious queer world, just a peek behind the moral curtain that obscures such deviant cultural practices as cruising or prostitution. They’re like tourist attractions: slum it with the Other before retreating back to the safety and cleanliness of ‘the real world,’ or at least that’s how my bitter ass interprets it. 

I don’t really know why I’m coming down so hard on What Belongs To You. It’s very well written, sleek and polished MFA prose, and it was nominated for a number of major awards, the full list of which you’ll find blaring out of any shop listing despite the fact that it didn’t actually win any of them. I think what rubs me the wrong way about the book is that it seems so carefully crafted to appeal to the heterosexual mainstream and was so successful at it. The Bulgarian setting adds this layer of foreignness that helps buffer the homosexuality for a straight reader, and for a book about loving a prostitute, Greenwell is pretty circumspect about what exactly they get up to, preferring instead to give us an Aciman-esque poetic meditation on desire and loneliness. And the plot of a lonely gay man lusting after rough trade is as old as gay literature. Queer, Our Lady of the Flowers, and The Thief’s Journal all follow that same pattern, and that’s just a few books already on this blog. But of course there’s nothing wrong with remixing classic plots for a present moment. And anyways, shouldn’t I be happy that a book featuring predominantly gay subject matter is getting so much attention? Probably, but I’m not. I think I’m turning into one of ornery, anti-assimilationist critics. Anyway, I decided to include What Belongs To You in the blog despite those complaints because 1. I’m interested in what other people are interested in, 2. I recognize it as a quality book even if it frustrates me, and 3. Y’all should be able to decide for yourselves whether my opinions are justified or not. Oh, and it’s got a phenomenal cover.

The Sins of the City on the Plains

The Sins of the City on the Plains
Anonymous
Difficulty: Medium
Project Gutenberg

The Sins of the City on the Plains was published in 1881, and is one of the first primarily homosexual works of pornography published in English. And it is porn, hardly different than the erotica we have available to us today. That’s what makes it such an interesting read. We usually imagine the Victorians as being socially rigid and highly moral, and while that’s true on the surface, the reality is that many Victorians adhered to those principles as little as we do today, and that fact is made abundantly clear in this text. The Sins of the City on the Plains is supposedly the memoirs of a male prostitute known pseudonymously as Jack Saul (a reference to the real-life prostitute John Saul, who was involved in multiple sex scandals at the time), though as the book was published anonymously, there is no way to know how ‘true’ it is. But whether or not the events of the book actually happened, it still offers us a window into Victorian-era homosexuality. Jack Saul recounts a variety of sexual experiences ranging from titillating to outright scandalous, featuring acts including but not limited to: rimming, sixty-nining, cross-dressing, mild-to-intense S&M, gangbangs, orgies, candlestick dildoes, and intercourse with a cow udder.

I don’t really know what I expected when I started reading this book, but it certainly wasn’t all of that. But why shouldn’t it be? Sexuality isn’t new, and there’s no reason to think that we’re particularly special in our own sexual practices. Though we fancy ourselves sexually liberated from the oppressive cultural regimes of the past, there’s actually quite a bit of evidence suggesting that isn’t true. Prior to the 1860’s, when intellectuals began categorizing sexualities, homosexual behavior wasn’t regarded as any more serious a sin than any other. Sodomites were looked down upon, but were viewed only as men incapable of controlling their impulses, not as a special class fundamentally flawed sinners. Foucault writes extensively about this in Volume One of his History of Sexuality, arguing that ‘homosexual’ did not exist before this impulse to categorize emerged, and it was the creation of this new category of people which formed the social framework that allowed them to be oppressed. Put another way, sodomy used to be something men did, not something men were. With that perspective in mind, it’s less surprising that the Victorians may have gotten up to such elaborate sexual hijinx.

The Sins of the City on the Plains was a fun, sometimes goofy, sometimes arousing read, but for anyone interested in checking it out themselves, I highly recommend reading the Project Gutenberg edition. The e-book version I originally acquired from Amazon features numerous revisions and additions that alter the tone and content of the book, and I’m very grateful to the Amazon reviewer who pointed this out. Some sexual descriptions are embellished to the point of comedy, and several of Jack’s heterosexual encounters are rewritten to feature men instead of women. Normally I wouldn’t complain about a book being made more gay, but since a significant part of its appeal stems from its historical authenticity, those changes make a difference.

Murmuration

Murmuration
TJ Klune
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from the Amazon page:

“In the small mountain town of Amorea, it’s stretching toward autumn of 1954. The memories of a world at war are fading in the face of a prosperous future. Doors are left unlocked at night, and neighbors are always there to give each other a helping hand. The people here know certain things as fact: Amorea is the best little town there is. The only good Commie is a dead Commie. The Women’s Club of Amorea runs the town with an immaculately gloved fist. And bookstore owner Mike Frazier loves that boy down at the diner, Sean Mellgard. Why they haven’t gotten their acts together is anybody’s guess. It may be the world’s longest courtship, but no one can deny the way they look at each other. Slow and steady wins the race, or so they say. But something’s wrong with Mike. He hears voices in his house late at night. There are shadows crawling along the walls and great clouds of birds overhead that only he can see. Something’s happening in Amorea. And Mike will do whatever he can to keep the man he loves.”

Of the many many (many) books TJ Klune has written (that I’ve read), I think Murmuration might be his strongest. Oftentimes in his work the conventions of the romance genre impose themselves in unfortunate, highly visible ways onto his narrative. An otherwise original idea or plot suddenly veers back into frustratingly familiar territory in the form of a random relationship crisis or an obligatory ending sex scene. But in Murmuration, Klune successfully avoids these pitfalls, or rather, he finds a way to turn them to his advantage, allowing his characters and dialogue to thrive uninhibited. But the success of the plot hinges on a central mystery, so unfortunately I can’t say much more than I already have without potential spoilers.

So here are some things I can talk about. Murmuration isn’t one of Klune’s humorous books, but it’s not too grim either (in my opinion) and it doesn’t have the suffocating angst of Into This River I Drown. It just takes its subject matter very seriously, and the reason for this becomes very clear when reading. While he previously dabbled in post-apocalyptic fiction in Withered + Sere, Murmuration is Klune’s first foray into the harder side of science fiction. Traditionally, hard sci-fi deals mostly with technologies and societies, but rarely with individuals, and I used to steer away from it for that reason (though I read it plenty now). So it’s refreshing to see a take on it that foregrounds real people with real lives and real relationships. I’m deleting every sentence after I write it because I’m unsure what’s safe to talk about without giving anything away, so I’m just going to cut this entry short. I recommend giving Murmuration a shot and going in blind, or as blind as you can after having read this.

The Last of the Wine

The Last of the Wine
Mary Renault
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from the Amazon page:
“Alexias is a young aristocrat living during the end of Athens’s Golden Age. Prized for his beauty and athletic prowess, Alexias studies under Sokrates with his closest friend, Lysis. Together, the young men come of age in an Athens on the verge of great upheaval. They attend the Olympics, partake in symposia, fight on the battlefields of the Peloponnesian War, and fall in love.

The first of Mary Renault’s celebrated historical novels of ancient Greece, The Last of the Wine follows Alexias and Lysis into adulthood, when Athens is defeated by Sparta, the Thirty Tyrants take hold of the city, and the lives of both men are changed forever. Through their friendship, Renault opens a vista onto ancient Greek life, uncovering its vibrancy, culture, and political strife, and offers an unforgettable story of love, honor, loyalty, and the remarkable bond between two men.”

I feel a bit under-qualified to speak about Mary Renault’s historical fiction. I’m not a classicist, and pretty much all of my knowledge of that period is drawn from popular works like The Odyssey or Symposium, so I really have no idea how historically accurate her work is. After thinking about it a bit, I decided it doesn’t really matter whether it’s accurate or not. The Last of the Wine’s value comes from its rich representation of an alternative culture, not from some intrinsic truthfulness. Historical fiction author Hilary Mantel expresses this in much more eloquent terms:

“[Mary Renault] does not pretend the past is like the present, or that the people of ancient Greece were just like us. She shows us their strangeness; discerning, sure-footed, challenging our values, piquing our curiosity, she leads us through an alien landscape that moves and delights us.”

To say that Renault’s Grecians are not like us might seem obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate just how alien they can seem at times. It’s not like a fantasy novel, where a fictional civilization still operates on modern western principles, Alexias and Lysis truly live by laws and values that today seem incredibly foreign to us (and even morally dubious). Sometimes this manifests itself in unexpected ways, such as Alexias’ father advising him on choosing an older male lover when he’s 16, or the practice of exposing infants when the child is undesirable, either because it is female or because the family is too poor. We know these things to be historical facts, but it’s unusual to see them performed without any of the usual reflexive commentary by our own culture.

I found it to be both a humbling and comforting experience to read. Humbling, because, more than sci-fi or fantasy, it caused me to reflect on my own culture and to remember that the way we are is not the way we have always been, and is not the way we always need to be. Comforting, for about the same reason. It was an exciting experience to watch Alexias, at 16, trotting around like a Victorian debutante, attracting the gaze of half the men in the city. I’m not saying that Greek pederasty is a key component of an ideal society, but it was something different. A different way of thinking about intimacy, sexuality, and society that helped expand my views of my own culture.

Warchild

Warchild
Karin Lowachee
Difficulty: Easy
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Ender’s Game was my absolute favorite book as a kid. I read it over and over, even listening to the audiobook while I was falling asleep. I’m not sure exactly why I was so into it, but, being the obnoxious child I was, it probably had something to do with the too-smart-for-you kid protagonist whose intelligence alienated him from his peers. Still love that book to death. Anyways, Warchild is channeling that same child-prodigy-in-a-space-opera energy and it’s still awesome. Joslyn Musey is only eight years old when he’s orphaned in a violent pirate attack and taken captive by one of Earthhub’s most infamous pirate captains. Suddenly finding himself in a hostile environment without family or friends to turn to, it will take all the strength and resolve Jos has to stay alive, but an unexpected turn of events delivers him from his captivity… straight into the arms of the alien strit, Earthub’s longtime enemies. Now he’s caught in the middle of an interstellar war and discovering that everything he thought he knew about it was wrong.

Warchild is first and foremost a story of trauma. It’s a deeply psychological and character driven military drama that departs from the traditional sci-fi focus on technology and society in order to concentrate more on individual people. Jos is not alright, but he’s trying to be, and that’s what Lowachee is writing about. What really gives the story its edge is the sexual dimension of Jos’ abuse. We’re never really told exactly what happened, but we can observe its effects on his character. The world of Warchild seems to be one of sexual fluidity, with little distinction made between hetero- and homosexual relations, but Jos himself displays little inclination towards either sex. It would be inappropriate to make assumptions about his sexuality given his past experiences, but his behavior at least tends towards asexual. 

After I finished rereading Warchild I was reflecting on how strongly the book stayed with me and how much I enjoyed it. I tend to shy away from too-tragic or depressing stories, a side-effect of reading too much mid-century gay literature, so why am I fine with this one? I guess I don’t really think it’s that depressing; it’s a story of trauma but it’s also one of recovery, and I find that really uplifting. I also wonder how much the sexual component of the book contributed to that. I never had an experience remotely similar to Jos’, but many years of denying a core part of yourself must cause its own type of damage. If Jos can recover, why can’t I? Or anyone else for that matter. That’s probably a little melodramatic and self-indulgent, but fuck it, it feels good to be that way sometimes.

The Queer Art of Failure

The Queer Art of Failure
by J Halberstam
Difficulty: Hard
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

I’ve been a little leery about including scholarly texts on this blog because I want it to be as accessible as possible, and many scholarly works aren’t interested in being accessible to the average person. They’ve all got interesting and important ideas in them, but many expect their readers to ‘learn the language,’ so to speak, and not everyone has time for that. Fortunately Jack (formerly known as Judith) Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure is geared as much towards the average reader as it is towards academics, which is fitting given the subject matter. As an example of this, it opens with a quote from Spongebob Squarepants.

Halberstam’s purpose, as evidenced in the title, is to explore what failure means in a modern society so enamored with success:

What kinds of rewards can failure offer us? Perhaps most obviously, failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods. Failure preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposedly clean boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers. And while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment, and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life. (3)

To do this, Halberstam offers close readings of films and texts often considered to be ‘low’ culture, ‘un-serious’ works too popular or simple to be considered intellectual such as Finding Nemo, Chicken Run, or Dude, Where’s My Car? But he also explores other forms of failure, as in his chapters on “Shadow Feminisms” or the relationship between homosexuality and facism (I admit this chapter fell a little flat for me). And all of this analysis is written in a fairly straightforward, if verbose, style, complete with jokes and even pictures. It is in my opinion exemplary of the kind of public-facing scholarship academics have the responsibility to produce. That doesn’t mean you won’t have to bust out the dictionary occasionally, but you don’t need to immerse yourself in Lacanian thought the way you might for a text like No Future.

Halberstam’s title alone evoked a certain reaction from me. I felt I already knew, intuitively, what the queer art of failure was. Because aren’t all queer people failures in the eyes of mainstream society? Failures to marry (correctly), failures to reproduce (naturally), failures to conform to binary gender? It seems to me that this is something all queer people struggle with on some level, whether they’re aware of it or not. We lost the game before we ever had the chance to play. Coming to terms with that is a big part of accepting who we are, which is why books like The Velvet Rage have been so impactful as they guide readers to that realization. But once I got there, I found queer failure to be supremely liberating. My identity is no longer built around a desire to achieve an unattainable, heternormative model of success, and I’m much happier for it. I am free, in my failure, to define success for myself, to create a new game or attempt to change the old.

I wanted to offer up my own anecdote on the benefits of failure. I like to play Dungeons and Dragons, a fantasy roleplaying game (yes, that one). Part of the game is about defeating monsters, but another part is about collaborative storytelling, and that’s the part I really care about. Very often in these games there is a type of player that always frustrates me. This type of player is concerned almost exclusively with how powerful they can make their character. They want to be the strongest, the best, and to never lose. But I think losing, failing, is the best part of D&D. We know how the story is ‘supposed’ to go: the good guys beat the bad guys and save the world. That’s what we’ll get if we always win, and that’s a painfully boring and predictable story. What’s the point of having this complex role playing system if we never make proper use of it? Victory really only has one outcome, but failure has many. Who knows what will happen if we fail to break a door down or to trick the guard into letting us by? Failure demands more from the players than does victory. It forces us to think on our feet, to be creative and to subvert expectations. It takes a two-dimensional story about good and evil and makes it into a three dimensional one with twists, turns, and fleshed out characters. The game is better with failure, in fact, there’s no game without it. When you win, it’s over, and if there was ever an activity where the journey is more important than the destination, it’s D&D. Halberstam wants us to see failure as more than just an obstacle to success, and I think that’s an attitude worth taking with us into whatever it is we’re doing, whether it’s D&D or life.