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.

Magic’s Pawn

Magic’s Pawn
Mercedes Lackey
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from the Amazon page:

“Though Vanyel has been born with near-legendary abilities to work both Herald and Mage magic, he wasn’t no part in such things. Nor does he seek a warrior’s path, wishing instead to become a Bard. Yet such talent as his, if left untrained, may prove a menace not only to Vanyel but to others as well. So he is sent to be fostered with his aunt, Savil, one of the fame Herald-Mages of Valdemar.

But, strong-willed and self-centered, Vanyel is a challenge which even Savil cannot master alone. For soon he will become the focus of frightening forces, lending his raw magic to a spell that unleashes terrifying wyr-hunters on the land. And by the time Savil seeks the assistance of a Shin’a’in Adept, Vanyel’s wild talent may have already grown beyond anyone’s ability to contain, placing Vanyel, Savil, and Valdemar itself in desperate peril.”

I gave Magic’s Pawn a bit of short shrift in my write-up for Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, so I hope to do it a little more credit here. I initially implied that this book is a gay tragedy, but as I reflect on it, it seems very unjust to reduce it to that label. Just because a tragedy may be present doesn’t mean that a work needs to be defined by it (though plenty are). Lackey’s depiction of homosexuality is sophisticated and reveals a deeper understanding of real-world issues which she reflects onto the land of Valdemar. Modern fantasy novels with queer characters often present worlds in which gender and orientation are a non-issue, and while that’s nice to imagine, it’s too far removed from reality to carry much impact. Lackey’s more realistic approach grants the story a lot more weight, which is perhaps why it was so difficult for me to read when I was younger.

Vanyel’s journey to self-acceptance is a long one chock full of angst and melodrama, just like real ones often are. It’s probably most enjoyable (and useful) when the reader is at a similar stage of their personal development or if they’re in the mood to feel sorry for themselves (that’s not a dig, everyone needs a pity party sometimes!). Subject matter aside, it’s an excellent work of fantasy and easily stands alone on those merits. Mercedes Lackey is a household name in fantasy world after all, and she’s published a ridiculous amount of books, many in the same world of Valdemar. I’ve read several others by her and found them all of equally high quality, with Foundation being a favorite. I still think that Magic’s Pawn is too tragic for me, but I suppose the late ‘80s were a pretty tragic time and it’s only natural that the book would reflect that. And of course not everyone will feel that way about tragedy. I think my aversion to it comes from spending too much time immersed in classic gay literature, which is invariably depressing. Anyways, it’s worth a read so be sure to give it a shot.

City of Night

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City of Night
John Rechy
Difficulty: Medium
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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.

Mysterious Skin

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Mysterious Skin
Scott Heim
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from the Mysterious Skin Amazon page:

“At the age of eight Brian Lackey is found bleeding under the crawl space of his house, having endured something so traumatic that he cannot remember an entire five–hour period of time.

During the following years he slowly recalls details from that night, but these fragments are not enough to explain what happened to him, and he begins to believe that he may have been the victim of an alien encounter. Neil McCormick is fully aware of the events from that summer of 1981. Wise beyond his years, curious about his developing sexuality, Neil found what he perceived to be love and guidance from his baseball coach. Now, ten years later, he is a teenage hustler, a terrorist of sorts, unaware of the dangerous path his life is taking. His recklessness is governed by idealized memories of his coach, memories that unexpectedly change when Brian comes to Neil for help and, ultimately, the truth.”

I love me some gritty ‘90s angst, but for some reason there wasn’t a lot of notable gay literature published that decade, possibly due to the public response to the AIDS crisis. But Mysterious Skin has plenty of grit and angst to go around with its abusive fathers and underage hustlers. I can’t say it’s a comfortable read, but many do find it to be cathartic. There was a pretty well-received movie adaptation in 2004 starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is definitely worth checking out if the book doesn’t appeal to you. Of course I feel I should warn potential viewers that the movie is just as dark.

Mysterious Skin is one of the more interesting coming of age stories I’ve read, with Neil and Brian playing out two very different comings of age. I suppose it’s ultimately a story about child abuse and its after effects, but it doesn’t really feel like that to me. There’s something optimistic about it. Neil and Brian internalize and process their abuse in different ways, but they are never defined by it. It is only one small part of who they are, and they eventually grow beyond it. I would say that Neil even finds a way to channel it to aid his own personal development. I think that’s part of what makes ‘90s angst so appealing to me: no matter how shitty the world so often is, we can be resilient and still find ways to lead fulfilling lives.

Something Like Summer

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Something Like Summer
Jay Bell
Difficulty: Easy
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It’s a sweltering Houston summer in 1996, and Benjamin Bentley may or may not have been spying on the attractive Tim Wyman for the past few weeks. He seems like the perfect guy, an athlete with a hot body, popular at school, generous parents, what’s not to love? But when Ben’s crush brings them face-to-face, he learns that things aren’t always as they seem. Over the next ten years, Ben and Tim continue to grow and change, sometimes together, sometimes apart, but all the while learning more about what it means to be in love.

Something Like Summer feels like the quintessential gay coming of age romance to me. Even though it was only published in 2011, for some reason it seems like it’s been around forever. Maybe it’s the ‘90s setting or the long time period over which the story takes place, or maybe it’s because the book has grown into a series a of eleven(!) over the last decade. But whatever the reason, that reputation isn’t entirely unwarranted. There’s something timeless about the relationships between Ben, Tim, and Jace. It doesn’t have any of the exciting or fantastic plots that garnish many popular romances (no detectives or werewolves), and there is no love at first sight. It’s just a story of boy meets boy, and of boys growing up, and it feels like a treat to read something so… normal.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect novel of course. Tim in particular can be difficult to like at times (though this is more of a personal opinion than a criticism), but this is somewhat alleviated by the second book, Something Like Winter, which tells the story from Tim’s perspective and makes him a more sympathetic character. I also think that Bell at times takes liberties with his narrative in order to sidestep some difficult issues, which makes some events in the story a bit hard to believe. The three other books in the quartet are all enjoyable, especially if you liked the first one, though every character’s relationships feel identical, which is a little bit weird to me. But none these points detracted from my overall enjoyment of the book, and I definitely recommend giving it a read.

Dancer from the Dance

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Dancer from the Dance
Andrew Holleran
Difficulty: Medium
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Dancer from the Dance is one of my favorite novels from what I’ve come to call the “gay halcyon days,” referring to the years between the birth of the modern gay rights movement, with the Stonewall Riots in 1969, and the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the early ‘80s (books in this category are tagged as pre-AIDS on this site). I use this term partially ironically, since that era is revered nowadays for the sexual freedom it offered gay men in big cities despite the suffering experienced by those in rural areas, among countless other serious gay rights issues. Nevertheless it is still a historically significant novel, documenting some important cultural events of the decade including the Everard Baths fire and the Fire Island experience.

Anthony Malone is on a quest for love in the streets of New York. He’s given up his life as a heterosexual lawyer and moved to the Big Apple to explore its gay underground and live a life he’d been denying himself. There he meets Andrew Sutherland, a debutante, drag queen, and addict who sees Malone’s beauty as an exciting development in the gay scene and is determined to leverage it to his own advantage. Dancer from the Dance follows the two in their adventures through discos, bathhouses, Fire Island, and more in their pursuit of their respective goals.

To be entirely honest, Dancer from the Dance would have benefited from several more passes through the editing process before publication. While the prose is enjoyable, Holleran could have easily lopped off 50 pages without losing anything too important. The framing of the novel doesn’t seem to serve too great a purpose either, since he rarely takes advantage of the anonymous narrator to develop another perspective on the story. But I’ve come to find that the rough, unfinished feel of the book is now one of its most appealing traits. It’s very much a novel of its time: self-indulgent, underground, and unpolished, and that’s okay. More than okay, I would argue, as the contemporary “literary” market is saturated with overly-polished, tightly-controlled, MFA debut novels which, of course, are very skillfully written, but so often seem to lack soul. Dancer’s got that, at least, and that fact combined with its historical value makes it worth a read.