Less

Less
Andrew Sean Greer
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

I wasn’t planning to do Less for a long time since this site is mostly geared toward bringing attention to books that may have flown under the radar, but it’s been a favorite punching bag of wannabe literary snobs for a couple years now and I every time I read another “wHaT wAs ThE PuLiTzEr CoMmItTeE tHiNkInG” I get all fired up about it again. So, here we are. There seems to be this bizarre idea that the Pulitzer should only be given to books that ‘measure up’ against the great classics of Western literature, as if we publish four or five such books every year instead of MAYBE one a decade if we’re lucky. And of course, what are these great classics? What makes them great? Who gets to decide the answers to those questions? You’ll be hard pressed to find any two people with precisely the same answers to those questions, much less an entire committee, which is the entire point of having a committee determine the winner rather than a single person. Less is as worthy of the award as any of its other winners regardless of its ability to measure up against the ‘classics.’ And, believe it or not, I think it actually has an important place in the history of gay literature.

The two biggest things about Less which work against its popularity in the mainstream are the fact that it’s about a gay man just living his life–instead of angstily grappling with cruel society or suffering like a good gay–and that it’s humorous (you wouldn’t believe how many people think ‘good literature’ shouldn’t be funny). Mediocre novelist Arthur Less is about to turn 50 when he receives an invitation to the wedding of his only recently separated partner of nine years. In a frantic attempt to make himself unavailable on that date, he accepts a number of invitations to dubious literary events around the world. Over the course of the next few months Arthur finds himself stumbling from one ill-conceived interview or party to the next, all the while reminiscing about his past relationships and desperately trying not to think of his impending 50th birthday.

I think Less is noteworthy as an early entry into a new era of gay literature, one determined to move forward from, but not forget, the struggles which earned us our status as a (somewhat) accepted group in American society. It’s a lighthearted and unapologetic presentation of contemporary gay culture, featuring casual relationships, age differences, and multiple partners. All very normal in the gay community, but still considered risqué by mainstream culture. Nobody likes to age, but aging is a particularly difficult topic in the gay community where youth is so highly valued, and there aren’t many people out there to show gay men how to age since the previous generation was decimated by AIDS. And it just feels good to laugh. Too much gay literature is soul-crushingly tragic, and comedies and other lighthearted books are sorely needed. I’m not here to say that Less is the greatest book ever written, but I think it brings a lot to the table. I complained in my post about What Belongs To You that the book appeared carefully crafted to appeal to a mainstream audience rather than a queer one. Less, on the other hand, seems to be a book about the gay community, for the gay community, and I think that makes it a worthy ambassador to the mainstream, which is probably why there’s so much complaining about it.

What Belongs To You

What Belongs To You
Garth Greenwell
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

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 those 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.

Murmuration

Murmuration
TJ Klune
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

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 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.

Cloudbusting

Cloudbusting
by Slade Roberson
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

A common refrain I hear in the gay community is the desire for stories with gay characters “that aren’t about being gay.” I’ve always had mixed feelings about that line, because on the one hand, I understand what they mean and why they want it, but on the other, I’m not sure people agree on what that looks like. And that’s because the experience of being gay involves much more than romantic or sexual attraction to the same sex. Being in the closet, coming out, the scarcity of partners, the special attention to behavior, even just the relentless awareness of a fundamental difference between you and most of the people around you are all a part of being gay, though it’s experienced differently by different people. So the desire for a “normal” character who “just happens to be gay” sometimes seems to me to be a fallacy or an act of self-erasure. But occasionally I come across a story like Eric Slade’s Cloudbusting and it starts to make a lot more sense.

After his boyfriend unexpectedly left him for another man, college student Rusty Stewart finds himself alone and aimless one summer break in 1980s Georgia. But things become a little more interesting when his friend and drug dealer introduces him to Charlotte, an unusual woman who behaves like a southern belle and claims to control the weather, and thinks Rusty can too. Happy to have something to do, Rusty follows her lead and experiments with his dormant magic, when he’s not working or stumbling into awkward social situations that is. But as the summer wears on, it becomes increasingly unclear if Charlotte has Rusty’s best interests at heart.

Cloudbusting is an unusual book. It’s too short to be properly a novel and doesn’t fit into any marketable genre. The magical elements in the story are so subtle it’s ambiguous as to whether or not they’re even there at all, and while there is a plot, there isn’t much of a resolution. It’s like a smaller part of a larger story, and the feeling that there’s no beginning or end adds a lot to the sense of ennui and nostalgia that permeates it. As previously noted, Rusty is a complex, three-dimensional gay man, and while his experiences greatly inform his character, they don’t define it. Cloudbusting isn’t a romance, and I don’t even really think of it as a coming of age tale, it’s just a strange little novella I’m afraid few people will ever read because it’s hard to stumble upon something like this on accident in a digital marketplace where categorization is king. That’s partly why I started this blog to begin with, to curate overlooked books so that others don’t have to spend as much time sifting through the digital muck as I did. But even though I don’t really know how to define it, Cloudbusting has always stuck out to me as unique among the masses, and I hope it gets read.

Also, I greatly prefer the original ebook cover (featured above) to the print edition, which isn’t terrible, but does little to capture the feeling of the story.

Family of Lies: Sebastian

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Family of Lies: Sebastian
by Sam Argent
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

This is my guilty pleasure book. It’s like a concentrated shot of angst, humor, and romance in a fantasy setting with no frills and I love it. Sebastian Orwell is the youngest son of a disgraced noble family and he just wants to be left alone. But when he finally gets a break from his incorrigible relatives, he chances upon the wounded Prince Turrin and knows his vacation is doomed. He tries leaving the prince in a nearby inn, where he’ll be someone else’s problem, but of course the prince insists on tracking him down to thank him in person. Now Sebastian finds himself unwillingly involved in combating a conspiracy against the Turrin, made all the more frustrating by the prince’s relentless romantic designs on him. Somehow, Sebastian will need to handle all of this without revealing his own powers, or the true reason he hides his face

For me, the chief appeal of this book lies in its dialogue. Every line in it is dripping in wit, and each character seems to have their own special brand. Sebastian and his improbably dysfunctional family share some of the most blistering exchanges, and it quickly becomes apparent why the title is Family of Lies, and why he’s always eager to get away from his relatives. Although this is a fantasy book, Argent doesn’t devote much time to initial world-building. Instead, much like a science fiction novel, she gives the reader information on the go, usually revealing it through interactions and dialogue between characters. This helps set a brisk pace that I found very engaging, but I could see as being a bit bewildering for some readers.

I know that the dynamic between Sebastien and Turrin is not particularly realistic or maybe even healthy (you probably shouldn’t go racing from town to town after someone who treats you with contempt), but it sure is fun to think about. It’s a bit heartwarming to watch Sebastian thaw towards Turrin over the course of the story, and as we learn more about both of the characters (and their families) their respective behaviors and attitudes start to make a lot more sense. For me, Family of Lies pushes all the right buttons so I don’t have much bad to say about it, but it’s definitely not a traditional romance or a traditional fantasy, so be prepared for something a little different if you decide to give it a shot.

Bloom

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Bloom
by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

When I was younger I never had much to do with graphic novels, comics, or manga. They somehow managed to be the one ‘nerdy’ thing I never participated in. Looking back I think it was mostly an economical decision. A novel could provide many hours of reading whereas comics or graphic novels only gave me one or two, and I needed enough material to tide me over until the next time my parents could take me to the library. I remember checking a manga out at the library once, I think it was a chapter from Inuyasha, and finishing it before we even left, so they just weren’t a viable time sink for me then. Unrelatedly, I think that manga was the first place I ever saw a boob (just one). Needless to say it was an anti-climactic experience for me. Anyways, this is my really roundabout way of explaining that I don’t know squat about the graphic novel medium, so take my brief opinions on Bloom with a grain of salt.

Beautifully illustrated in monochromatic blue, Bloom tells the story of Ari during the summer after his last year of high school. He’s more than ready to move to the big city with his friends, but the family bakery is struggling and his parents don’t want him to go. But Ari is determined to escape  a lifetime of baking in a small town, and when he starts searching for a replacement he meets Hector, a culinary student on hiatus from school. Over the summer the two grow closer as they work together to keep the bakery in business, and as the months go on Ari finds that he has some important choices to make.

I’m a fan of monochromatic art styles so Bloom caught my eye pretty quickly after its release, but it wasn’t until I came across it in a bookstore months later that I actually bought it. Truth be told I’ve been feeling a little chagrined at my ignorance of visual mediums like comics, and this book seemed like a fine place to start exploring. And I had a lot of fun reading it! Panetta and Ganucheau do a good job showing instead of telling, and the baking scene spreads were beautiful and inspiring (or would be if I knew how to bake). From a narrative perspective I don’t really have a lot to say. It’s a pretty standard coming of age, small town meet cute affair, which there’s nothing wrong with, there’s just a lot of it. I will mention that the ending did feel rushed, but the slow-burn relationship leading up to it was still very satisfying (most romances seem to have the opposite problem). All in all it was definitely worth the purchase, and I feel inspired to continue exploring other graphic novels like this.