Less Than Zero

Less Than Zero
Bret Easton Ellis
Difficulty: Easy
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Set in Los Angeles in the early 1980’s, Less than Zero has become a timeless classic. This coolly mesmerizing novel is a raw, powerful portrait of a lost generation who have experienced sex, drugs, and disaffection at too early an age. They live in a world shaped by casual nihilism, passivity, and too much money in a place devoid of feeling or hope.

Clay comes home for Christmas vacation from his Eastern college and re-enters a landscape of limitless privilege and absolute moral entropy, where everyone drives Porches, dines at Spago, and snorts mountains of cocaine. He tries to renew feelings for his girlfriend, Blair, and for his best friend from high school, Julian, who is careering into hustling and heroin. Clay’s holiday turns into a dizzying spiral of desperation that takes him through the relentless parties in glitzy mansions, seedy bars, and underground rock clubs and also into the seamy world of L.A. after dark.

Less Than Zero is the angsty, juvenile love child of Catcher in the Rye and 120 Days of Sodom. Ellis wrote it when he was 20 and, well, it kind of shows. But who better to speak to disaffected, nihilistic adolescents than a disaffected, nihilistic adolescent? And it turns out Ellis was pretty good at that, speaking to adolescents that is. Less Than Zero’s depiction of 1980’s decadence made it a touchstone of the era, securing a movie adaptation (which I’ve heard good things about), and inspiring an unexpectedly large amount of music. The novel is said to be surprisingly accurate, which is unfortunate considering its subject matter. Fair warning, there’s some pretty grotesque stuff in here including rape and snuff, though fortunately Clay is a little too squeamish to spend much time around it.

Less Than Zero is one of those books where everyone’s fucked up, including the bisexual Clay. He’s so numb to the culture of sex and drugs that he seems incapable of actually wanting anything. Instead, there’s only a vague sense that he should want something, but can’t make himself mean it. The L.A. crew of overprivileged, under-supervised teenagers waste their days taking every drug they can get their hands on and fucking each other out of boredom, all while pushing the boundaries of human experience (à la de Sade) in an effort to feel something. The style of storytelling reflects this ennui, lots of short scenes depicting parties or sex or drugs, strung together with little in the way of plot. It’s a shallow story about shallow people’s shallow lives, but that doesn’t make it less accurate. If you’re the type to dislike angsty, Catcher in the Rye-style coming of age stories, I’d probably skip Less Than Zero. But if you’re at a personal crossroads and struggling to make sense of the world, it can be tremendously reassuring to discover that you’re not alone. I was around 20 or 21 when I first read the book, and I remember it making quite an impression on me, so I’m sure it can do so for others.

The Immoralist

The Immoralist
André Gide
Difficulty: Hard
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Compare these descriptions of The Immoralist from two separate publishers:

Penguin Classics description:

In The Immoralist, André Gide presents the confessional account of a man seeking the truth of his own nature. The story’s protagonist, Michel, knows nothing about love when he marries the gentle Marceline out of duty to his father. On the couple’s honeymoon to Tunisia, Michel becomes very ill, and during his recovery he meets a young Arab boy whose radiant health and beauty captivate him. An awakening for him both sexually and morally, Michel discovers a new freedom in seeking to live according to his own desires. But, as he also discovers, freedom can be a burden. A frank defense of homosexuality and a challenge to prevailing ethical concepts, The Immoralist is a literary landmark, marked by Gide’s masterful, pure, simple style.

Vintage International description:

First published in 1902 and immediately assailed for its themes of omnisexual abandon and perverse aestheticism, The Immoralist is the novel that launched André Gide’s reputation as one of France’s most audacious literary stylists, a groundbreaking work that opens the door onto a universe of unfettered impulse whose possibilities still seem exhilarating and shocking.

Gide’s protagonist is the frail, scholarly Michel, who shortly after his wedding nearly dies of tuberculosis. He recovers only through the ministrations of his wife, Marceline, and his sudden, ruthless determination to live a life unencumbered by God or values. What ensues is a wild flight into the realm of the senses that culminates in a remote outpost in the Sahara–where Michel’s hunger for new experiences at any cost bears lethal consequences. The Immoralist is a book with the power of an erotic fever dream–lush, prophetic, and eerily seductive.

Notice how the second one makes practically no mention of homosexuality? This is actually a pretty common occurrence with this book; there is a large subset of readers who are absolutely adamant that The Immoralist is NOT about being gay. Homosexuality is only present, they would argue, it’s not the focus. In my opinion, that attitude is a product of that common problematic perception of sexuality as a purely physical trait or behavior. Gide’s book is not about the physical dimension of homosexuality, it’s about the psychological and ethical ones. Michel’s recognition of his true desires inspires a moral rebellion against the unspoken codes that govern our behavior. It awakens him to the realization that traditional morality often denies people the things they really want, and that very little stops us from shucking those chains and living as we like. I consider this book essential reading for queer men because we should be asking: If I am happier bucking the moral conventions of heterosexuality, what other moral standards should I question? Perhaps the answer is none, but the question should be asked anyways.

Be forewarned that The Immoralist’s transgressive themes are wrapped up tight in the coded language of the era and will require a little interpretation. It’s not a thriller or even a drama, it’s more a quiet, philosophical meditation on how one should live one’s life. Chances are many readers will have an intense dislike for Michel and his philosophy, which is an entirely valid position. In my experience, everyone seems to read this book a little differently. Some agree with Michel, some pity him, some revile him, but it is precisely because there is no consensus that it remains such a useful book after more than 100 years. It reminds me a bit of Lolita in that way, a cultural and moral flashpoint at which fundamental tenets of society are attacked and defended. And as I said, it’s not really about who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s about having the conversation at all. We become so used to the way things are that it’s easy to forget it’s not the way things need to be, and texts like The Immoralist remind us of that.

Another Country

Another Country
James Baldwin
Difficulty: Medium
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Can I tell you a secret? I hate Giovanni’s Room. I mean, I really hate that book. It’s a masterpiece of course, arguably the public face of gay literature. But I hate it. Like a lot of American gay young men, Giovanni’s Room was one of the first books featuring gay men I’d ever read because it was one of the only ones I’d ever heard of. But while it may be about gay men, I don’t think it’s for them. Giovanni’s Room is a public tragedy, a cry for help designed to inspire public sympathy for the plight of gay men, a goal which it unquestionably accomplished. But when I read it, what I saw was that I was doomed to a life of misery, and that wasn’t a message I wanted or needed to hear. I wish I’d read Another Country instead at that time, instead of many years later. It’s still tragic, but there’s an optimism and a humanity in it different from Giovanni’s Room’s nihilism. Another Country feels like an instruction manual for loving yourself and the people around you, regardless of your differences, and that’s much more valuable to me.

Set in the 1950s against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, Another Country tells the story of a small group of friends coping with the suicide of one of their own. They’re a diverse group: black and white, straight and not, at home and abroad, and they struggle mightily against the prejudices of the age, both as they exist externally in the world and as they do inside each individual person. Juggling themes of sexuality, race, politics, and art, Baldwin strips away the masks that define so much about us and reveals his characters to be simply people, men and women who deserve each other’s sympathy and support as they try to navigate the world together.

In Another Country, more than any of his other books (except perhaps If Beale Street Could Talk), Baldwin relaxed his characteristic restraint and really let loose with some of his more radical ideas. Prostitution, interracial relationships, homo- and bisexuality, and extra-marital affairs all feature prominently in the story, making it  pretty transgressive for its time and definitely a bit out of step with some of his more controlled, strategic works, like Go Tell It On The Mountain or Giovanni’s Room. Because I’ve only got so much space to talk about this book, I’m going to focus on one aspect that really stood out to me: anger. More specifically, how to be angry, angry in a way that doesn’t destroy you from within. Baldwin is afraid of people becoming Wright’s Bigger Thomas or his own Rufus Scott, so beaten down by the world that the only thing they can do is lash out and be crushed. All of the characters in Another Country have good reason to be angry, and oftentimes they take it out on each other, but in the end they always manage, even if only barely, to see the humanity in each other. That sounds annoyingly vague when I write it out, but if the secret to shared humanity were simple Baldwin wouldn’t be writing so many books about it.

The Sins of the City on the Plains

The Sins of the City on the Plains
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.

The Last of the Wine

The Last of the Wine
Mary Renault
Difficulty: Medium
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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.



by Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Very Hard
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Samuel R. Delany was the first commercially successful black sci-fi author and the first commercially successful gay sci-fi author. He was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction in 2013, and is often cited as a primary inspiration for both the afrofuturist and cyberpunk movements. Many consider Dhalgren to be his magnum opus, with its unbridled formal experimentation, critical dialogue on minority cultures, and intense, unexplained surrealism.

Dhalgren takes place in Bellona, a burned out, hollow husk of a city in the American midwest, inhabited only by the margins of society and forgotten about by the rest of the country. What exactly happened to Bellona is never made clear, as, indeed, is the case for most things in the novel. At this city arrives the protagonist, a Half-native American amnesiac wearing one sandal and trying to remember his name. As he explores the constantly shifting city he encounters many different types of people, finds a girlfriend, finds a boyfriend, and becomes a poet, hero, and gang leader all at once.

Full disclosure, Dhalgren is pretty much my favorite book and I’ve got a lot of nice things to say about it. So before I do, let’s talk about some of the less nice things. This book is notoriously difficult to finish, on par with or perhaps even surpassing other postmodern door stoppers like Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, or The Recognitions. Most of the book appears to have little to no plot, and long stretches of it are intentionally, infuriatingly boring. It opens with the second half of a sentence only completed by the fragment which ends the book, and the story is periodically punctuated by inexplicable schizophrenic soliloquies. Many find the experience of reading Dhalgren to be literally maddening.

But many others, like myself, find the experience to be revelatory instead. It must be read with a willingness to accept, but not understand, and in a way that came very naturally to me. The real world is full of many things I cannot understand, yet must accept anyway, so why should I approach Dhalgren any differently? Bellona’s society showed me a new perspective on what it means to be a social minority, ways in which it can actually be liberating, freeing me from the oppressive institutions of heteronormativity, capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism. Dhalgren was a tremendously influential book for me, and I have since dedicated myself to reading and studying the rest of Delany’s bibliography in order to better understand the man behind it.

Luck in the Shadows


Luck in the Shadows
by Lynn Flewelling
Difficulty: Medium
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When young Alec of Kerry is taken prisoner for a crime he didn’t commit, he is certain that his life is at an end. But one thing he never expected was his cellmate. Spy, rogue, thief, and noble, Seregil of Rhiminee is many things–none of them predictable. And when he offers to take on Alec as his apprentice, things may never be the same for either of them. Soon Alec is traveling roads he never knew existed, toward a war he never suspected was brewing. Before long he and Seregil are embroiled in a sinister plot that runs deeper than either can imagine, and that may cost them far more than their lives if they fail. But fortune is as unpredictable as Alec’s new mentor, and this time there just might be…Luck in the Shadows.

Around the age of 14 or 15 I was chewing through the entire Fantasy section at Barnes and Nobles, shelf-by-shelf, when Lynn Flewelling’s Luck in the Shadows made its way into my pile. It is, to the best of my memory, the first book I ever read containing openly gay or bisexual characters, and as protagonists too. Of course it took me a while to figure that out, as it’s rather subtle until the second book, and I was especially oblivious. When I finally understood what was going on I hid the book under my bed and didn’t dare look at it for a week. Fortunately I got over it and kept reading, or I’d have missed out on a landmark series in the queer fantasy genre.

Luck in the Shadows was published in 1996 and bears many hallmarks of fantasy from that era, so expect lots of world-building and a patient plot. It’s also not particularly steamy as far as romances go, that element takes a distant back seat to sword and sorcery so adjust your expectations accordingly. But that’s not to say that sexuality is entirely absent. The city of Rhiminee (in which the bulk of the novel is set) is host to a myriad of sexual orientations and gender identities, though perhaps not with the labels we use today. Alec and Seregil are entertaining characters in their own right, if a bit cliche, even if it takes a while for their relationship to blossom. It’s worth remembering that Flewelling was writing at a time when queer characters were not widely accepted in popular genres like fantasy, so patience and subtlety were necessary ingredients for publication. Part of me wonders if Flewelling didn’t outright trick Spectra into publishing something with queer characters by taking it so slow, and if she did, I salute her.