City of Night

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City of Night
John Rechy
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

City of Night is the single most important book about American LGBT culture ever published. I cannot think of any other work which so honestly and lucidly depicts the many marginalized and underground communities that existed, and continue to exist, in American cities. It was published in 1963, well before the Stonewall Riots, and much of the events are based on Rechy’s own experiences, including the lesser known Cooper Do-nuts Riot in 1959 in which Rechy himself was arrested. Nearly every contemporary gay author praised the book, and it was enormously influential to the many upcoming gay writers yet to appear. Characters like Miss Destiny and Chi-Chi are permanently etched into my mind as the ancestors of every campy queen character to come after, and I have never stopped thinking about Sylvia and her endless wait or the protagonist’s decision in the final chapter. Obviously I can go on praising this book forever, but some more practical info is probably more useful.

City of Night is the story of an unnamed young man who has taken up hustling in various American cities. It’s split into numerous episodes focusing on one or another of the many people the narrator comes in contact with, and each episode is separated by reflections on America’s grand “city of night.” Sometimes these people are clients, other hustlers, or just members of underground communities, but all reveal important truths about what it means to live this lifestyle, and why so many people chose to. And it’s written in a Beatnik style, with lots of invented, mashed-up words that help to give the interactions an authentic, even folksy, feel.

There aren’t a lot of books that I would consider to be essential, but this is one of them. With City of Night, Rechy helped to usher in a new era of American gay literature, one in which writers proudly presented their worlds, warts and all, and made no apologies for them. But of course nothing is perfect. Some of City of Night’s episodes are much stronger than others. For example, Chuck and Skipper’s chapters have proven to be very forgettable, while the entirety of Part Four is now a permanent fixture in my mind. And if I recall correctly, there’s a notable lack of lesbians throughout the book. They’re present of course, but don’t get quite as much screen time. But I don’t think these issues do much to tarnish the book’s value. It still remains a towering literary landmark in the history of gay culture and I encourage everyone to at least give it a try.

The Left Hand of Darkness

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The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Difficulty: Medium
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Ursula Le Guin was one of the most prominent figures in the science fiction New Wave movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which introduced a greater variety of voices to the genre and refocused on peoples and cultures rather than potential technologies. It’s difficult to overstate how groundbreaking The Left Hand of Darkness was when it was first published in 1969. Many sci-fi writers had dabbled with alien sex and gender before, but they did so in the same way they might give that alien an extra arm or eye; it still wasn’t something normal or natural to them, or even human. But in Le Guin’s work, these issues are nothing if not human. Her explicit goal was to “[eliminate] gender, to find out what was left”, and the result was a near-universally acclaimed classic work of literature.

Genly Ai is a human emissary tasked with contacting the planet of Gethen to invite them into the Ekumen, a galactic confederation of planets. For most of each month the Gethenians are androgynous, and only assume a male or female sex as needed when they enter their period of sexual fertility. The effective non-existence of gender has caused Gethenian culture to develop in ways never before seen by humans, and this creates a cultural gap Genly Ai must struggle to overcome. Together with his Gethenian patron, Estraven, he journeys across the planet and learns to navigate its complex political and cultural structures to accomplish his mission.

What I admire most about Le Guin’s writing is her ability to secure buy-in from skeptical readers. Her world-building is meticulous and strategic, designed to respond to those who might claim that her ideas are delusional and have nothing to do with humanity. All she asks of her readers is that they listen, even if they’re skeptical, because if they start to listen then she can start to change their minds. The Left Hand of Darkness is more like an anthropological journal than a galactic space-opera, but it still has a clear plot and narrative arc. The relationship between Genli and Estraven is ambiguous and dynamic, and there’s a nice dose of political intrigue to keep events moving. Plus, there’s cool sci-fi stuff like space travel, telepathy, and prophesying, which keeps the book interesting all the way through.

Also, nobody can make me like the ugly 50th anniversary cover 😡

A Single Man

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A Single Man
by Christopher Isherwood
Difficulty: Easy
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Normally I write my own summaries for these posts, but I like blurb from the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition too much:

“Welcome to sunny suburban 1960s Southern California. George is a gay middle-aged English professor, adjusting to solitude after the tragic death of his young partner. He is determined to persist in the routines of his former life. A Single Man follows him over the course of an ordinary twenty-four hours. Behind his British reserve, tides of grief, rage, and loneliness surge―but what is revealed is a man who loves being alive despite all the everyday injustices.”

Christopher Isherwood is best known for his novel Goodbye to Berlin, which, through a series of adaptations, eventually became the famous musical Cabaret, but he is also, in my opinion, one of the most interesting and talented English writers of the 20th century. Isherwood seems to have known almost everyone who was anyone in the english literary world, and slept with half of them. He travelled extensively around Europe, barely escaping Germany before the start of WWII, before finally emigrating to the United States where he lived with his lover, Don Bachardy, until he died in 1986.

When it came to writing, Isherwood was an exacting craftsman, and A Single Man may very well be the most skillfully composed of all the books that have or will appear on this website. In fewer than 200 pages of accessible, insightful, and dignified prose, Isherwood depicts a day in a life, not of a gay man, but simply of a man. He does so with quiet pride, never apologizing to or asking forgiveness or even mercy from, a disapproving society. A Single Man is about age, grief, sexuality, culture, and time, but more than anything it is a contemplation of life as an outsider.

Fun fact: Isherwood and the poet W.H. Auden were lifelong besties and slept together on and off for pretty much their entire lives. They was bangin’, a lot.

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Isherwood (left) and Auden (right)