The Queer Art of Failure

The Queer Art of Failure
J Halberstam
Difficulty: Hard
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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
Slade Roberson
Difficulty: Medium
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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
Sam Argent
Difficulty: Medium
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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
Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau
Difficulty: Easy
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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.

Greenwode

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Greenwode
J Tullos Hennig
Difficulty: Medium
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Blurb from the Amazon page:

“When an old druid foresees this harbinger of chaos, he also glimpses its future. A peasant from Loxley will wear the Hood and, with his sister, command a last, desperate bastion of Old Religion against New. Yet a devout nobleman’s son could well be their destruction-Gamelyn Boundys, whom Rob and Marion have befriended. Such acquaintance challenges both duty and destiny. The old druid warns that Rob and Gamelyn will be cast as sworn enemies, locked in timeless and symbolic struggle for the greenwode’s Maiden.

Instead, a defiant Rob dares his Horned God to reinterpret the ancient rites, allow Rob to take Gamelyn as lover instead of rival. But in the eyes of Gamelyn’s Church, sodomy is unthinkable… and the old pagan magics are an evil that must be vanquished.”

I love retellings of classic stories and fairytales, especially when they’re tweaked or expanded to focus on different types of people (especially when those people are like me!). But to call J Tullos Hennig’s Greenwode a simple retelling would not communicate the depth and substance of the book. Hennig’s version of the Robin Hood myth is much more like Stephen Lawhead’s than Disney’s: complex, meticulously researched, and vividly realized. The culture and conflicts of the middle age setting plays a major role in the plot, and Hennig devotes plenty of energy developing Gamelyn, Rob, Marian, and others into believable, sympathetic characters instead of leaving them as mere mythic archetypes.

It’s important to know up front that Greenwode is on the longer side and ends in a cliffhanger. The sequel, Shirewood, is worth reading regardless, but I understand why the necessity of reading a second book might be frustrating for some. I found Greenwode to be an enjoyable historical fantasy/coming of age story on its own, but definitely a bit grim. The spectre of religious conflict seemed always to be present and gave even happier or funnier scenes a darker tone and sense of foreboding, and hit a little too close to home for me. But maybe I’m just not cut out for forbidden romances. The prose is pleasant and easy to read, and though the phonetic accents sometimes gave me pause I think they helped flesh out the setting in a meaningful way. Recommended for fans of high fantasy, forbidden romance, and myths or fairy tales.

Tigers and Devils

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Tigers and Devils
Sean Kennedy
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Description from the Tigers and Devils Amazon page:

“The most important things in Simon Murray’s life are football, friends, and film—in that order. His friends despair of him ever meeting someone, but despite his loneliness, Simon is cautious about looking for more. Then his best friends drag him to a party, where he barges into a football conversation and ends up defending the honour of star forward Declan Tyler—unaware that the athlete is present. In that first awkward meeting, neither man has any idea they will change each other’s lives forever.”

I have no idea how Australian football works. I even went and watched a match while I was reading this to try to figure out what was going on. Still no clue. I ended up thinking of it as something like rugby mixed with quidditch minus the brooms, which was good enough for my purpose. Tigers and Devils isn’t really about Australian football anyway, so don’t worry too much if you’re clueless like me. All that really matters is that one of the guys is a super famous athlete in a less than accepting society.

I was initially worried that too much of the book would be focused on the difficulties of being a gay athlete and “kill the mood”, so to speak, but Kennedy does a good job of balancing that particular dimension of the story with fun characters and a solid romance. And in my opinion that’s the way it should be. I feel a very strong bias towards happier stories, or at least stories which contain some happiness. Gone are the days when we had to kill our characters to get published, and I think we should be taking advantage of that. Tigers and Devils adheres to many “requirements” of the romance genre, so there’s some high points and low points. Some of the crises feel very forced and left me asking “why are they being so stupid?”, but that’s just what you get with a genre like this. Even with these blemishes, the book is still a solid choice and makes for a fun, light read.

What’s Left of the Night

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What’s Left of the Night
Ersi Sotiropoulos
Difficulty: Hard
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To be honest I’d never heard of Constantine Cavafy before reading this book, which I purchased on a whim because I liked the cover. For those who are as clueless as me, Cavafy was a 20th century Greek poet now considered to be one of the most important of the century. He published few poems during his lifetime, possibly due to the explicit homosexual themes in many of them, instead sharing them mostly with friends or small newspapers. I’ve read claims that his poetry loses much of its meaning in translation, though I can’t confirm how true that is. He was admired by English writers such as Auden and Forster, so that should count for something.

What’s Left of the Night follows a younger Cavafy during a trip to Paris, well before he has become the accomplished poet we know he will. It’s a formative time for Cavafy, and Sotiropoulos depicts, in expressive, lyrical prose, his struggle with his sexuality, his family’s poor standing, and the numerous events shaping Europe at the turn of the century. It’s a window into the mind of a developing writer, one full of extended meditations on art and frustrating, even torturous struggles against his nature.

For me, the chief appeal of this book lies in the beauty of its prose. I do enjoy long beautiful sentences, and both the author and translator ensured that there are plenty of them. I have mixed feelings about the actual content. Knowing very little about Cavafy and Greek culture, there were numerous scenes in which I felt I was not able to grasp the entirety of the narrator’s internal commentary. But at the same time, I was exposed to many ideas and perspectives I had not previously considered. I enjoyed the book all the way through, but I’d be hard-pressed to explain what specifically made it so enjoyable to me (besides pretty sentences).