Faggots

Faggots
Larry Kramer
Difficulty: Medium
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Fred Lemish is on a mission: find love before turning 40. But that’s easier said than done in the chaotic world of 1970’s gay New York. From The Meat Rack to the Toilet Bowl, Fred trawls the all too familiar party, drug, and sex-obsessed scene searching high and low for something more. Published in 1978, Faggots is a viscious, merciless satire of urban gay culture before the AIDS epidemic, and I don’t mean that as a cliche. Kramer’s parody is so malicious it almost seems homophobic, an accusation not a few critics have leveled at him in the past, but anyone familiar with his career will likely be unsurprised by the confrontational nature of the book. Kramer made his name as a polemicist, someone who makes provoking, controversial claims ostensibly for the purpose of generating conversation, and has a long history of political activism and community organization.

When Faggots was first published, Kramer was all but run out of town. New York’s only gay bookstore at the time refused to sell it, and his nearby grocery store even banned him from shopping there. His repudiation of casual sex and party culture was viewed as regressive and puritanical, a return to pre-Stonewall era oppression. Many today still hold this view, but it must be acknowledged that the AIDS epidemic which so devastated the gay community was at least partially result of that lifestyle. In the end, Kramer was right, even if he might have had the wrong reasons. But I don’t know how quick I’d be to dismiss his reasons as entirely wrong. His critique of gay men as shallow and sex-obsessed is one I hear echoed frequently today. I will not hazard an opinion as to what lifestyles are ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ but it seems clear to me that something about our culture regularly leaves people wanting more, and that’s worth examining.

This book pairs very well with Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance. They were published the same year, they take place in the same setting, and they tackle the same themes. They even recount the some of the same recent historical events, such as the Everard Baths fire in 1977. But where Faggots is angry, spiteful, and cynical, Dancer is tragic, melancholic, and regretful. Holleran’s depiction of the culture clearly highlights its shortcomings, but also shows something beautiful and poignant in it. Together, the two books offer an intriguing, multifaceted perspective on a moment in our history often eclipsed by the tragedy which followed. Kramer claims he always tells “the fucking truth to everyone [he has] have ever met,” but I think it’s clear that stories like this have no one truth, and its up to individuals to read for themselves and develop their own conclusions.

The Last Sun

The Last Sun
K. D. Edwards
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from Amazon:

“In this debut novel and series starter, the last member of a murdered House searches for a missing nobleman, and uncovers clues about his own tortured past. Rune Saint John, last child of the fallen Sun Court, is hired to search for Lady Judgment’s missing son, Addam, on New Atlantis, the island city where the Atlanteans moved after ordinary humans destroyed their original home. With his companion and bodyguard, Brand, he questions Addam’s relatives and business contacts through the highest ranks of the nobles of New Atlantis. But as they investigate, they uncover more than a missing man: a legendary creature connected to the secret of the massacre of Rune’s Court. In looking for Addam, can Rune find the truth behind his family’s death and the torments of his past?”

This one was super unexpected and a ton of fun. It took me a long time to learn to enjoy urban fantasy as a genre since it’s usually just ‘the present, but with the magic,’ and I like my fantasy to be farther removed from reality. But The Last Sun is a welcome departure from that formula. Yes, it takes place in the present, and yes, there’s magic, but there’s also a significant amount of engaging world building that I think is often missing from the genre. New Atlantis turns out to be a fascinating city with a well-developed history. When it was first established, its creators ‘borrowed’ iconic buildings and spaces from all over the world to populate it, and the result is a varied, kaleidoscopic landscape that reflects the city’s diverse inhabitants. It makes for an exciting setting, and Edwards does a great job describing the buildings’ histories without being tedious or disrupting the narrative.

But as fun as the world building is, it’s really the characters that are the main attraction. Rune and company are all well-developed, sympathetic, and endlessly witty, and their interactions are easily my favorite part of the novel. The intimate relationship between Rune and Brand was particularly refreshing, as neither character was afraid to express how they felt about each other despite the absence of any romantic or sexual feelings. Funnily enough, I think the plot itself was my least favorite part of the book. It’s not bad, there’s just so much going on and it moves at such a blistering pace that it often got in the way of quieter moments where the characters just talk to each other. But despite its many moving parts, Edwards manages to pull it all together in the end, more or less. It is the first in a forthcoming series, so expect some unresolved plotlines and a bit of a wait for future books.

Lord of the White Hell

Lord of the White Hell
Ginn Hale
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from Goodreads:

“Kiram Kir-Zaki may be considered a mechanist prodigy among his own people, but when he becomes the first Haldiim ever admitted to the prestigious Sagrada Academy, he is thrown into a world where power, superstition and swordplay outweigh even the most scholarly of achievements.

But when the intimidation from his Cadeleonian classmates turns bloody, Kiram unexpectedly finds himself befriended by Javier Tornesal, the leader of a group of cardsharps, duelists and lotharios who call themselves Hellions.

However Javier is a dangerous friend to have. Wielder of the White Hell and sole heir of a dukedom, he is surrounded by rumors of forbidden seductions, murder and damnation. His enemies are many and any one of his secrets could not only end his life but Kiram’s as well.”

Lord of the White Hell’s chief asset is its diverse cast of likable characters. A regular complaint I have when reading YA or romance novels is that many plots rely on indefensibly poor judgement on the part of one or often more characters to generate conflict, making it difficult to sympathize with them. Youth and stupidity do not need to go hand in hand, but fortunately this is not a concern with Kiram and company. Though they may be young, they are cognizant of social and cultural practices and taboos, many of which mirror those in our world, and the potentially devastating consequences of failing to conform. At times I even found it a bit depressing since I usually read fantasy to escape reality, but I suppose that it speaks well of Hale’s ability to portray such a realistic society. And it’s not as though other prejudices like racism aren’t already staples of the fantasy genre, so I really can’t complain.

This book is definitely a romance before it’s a fantasy novel, but unlike most of the authors who attempt to bridge that genre gap Hale actually does a pretty good job building out her fantasy world. Granted, Cadelonia is essentially a medieval Christian nation subjugating a smaller indiginous population (the Haldiim), but Hale still gives it plenty of detail and character. Fans of romance might find it to be a bit slow paced, fans of fantasy a bit too fast and lacking intensive worldbuilding, but as a regular reader of both genres I still found it enjoyable. One important thing to know: this is only the first half of the complete story, so be aware that you’re signing up for two moderately long (~350 pgs each) but good books.

What Belongs To You

What Belongs To You
Garth Greenwell
Difficulty: Medium
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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.

The Sins of the City on the Plains

The Sins of the City on the Plains
Anonymous
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.

Murmuration

Murmuration
TJ Klune
Difficulty: Easy
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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.

Our Lady of the Flowers

Our Lady of the Flowers
by Jean Genet
Difficulty: Very Hard
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I said in my post on Genet’s The Thief’s Journal that I preferred it over Our Lady of the Flowers, and while that’s true, Our Lady definitely deserves some time in the spotlight too. Many of the themes present in the former will also be found in this book, most notably Genet’s inverted Christian value system, which is discussed at greater length in the post about The Thief’s Journal. But unlike Thief’s Journal, Our Lady has a bit more in the way of plot and story, and adopts an impressionistic, hallucinatory style to tell it. Genet himself appears frequently in it as the narrator, and sometimes even pauses the story to masturbate in his jail cell. In fact, he begins his tale by explaining to the reader that these are the stories he tells himself to masturbate to when he’s bored. While Our Lady does have some explicit moments, much of the novel’s content isn’t what most of us would consider to be pornographic.

Our Lady of the Flowers opens with the death of its main character, Divine, a cross-dressing homosexual (usually referred to as ‘she’) formerly known as Culafroy. Divine has died of tuberculosis, and Genet portrays her as a holy saint ascended to heaven and sets out to tell us about her life. Prior to her death, Divine lived in a cramped attic overlooking a graveyard with her true love, a pimp named Darling Daintyfoot. When Genet isn’t showing us Divine’s childhood (when she was still Culafroy), he’s following Divine and Darling through the Parisian underworld as they interact with all manner of social outcasts and criminals. One of these criminals is Our Lady of the Flowers, a small time dealer turned murderer, who temporarily forms a ménage a trois with Divine and Darling before being caught by the authorities and executed. As previously mentioned, Genet is heavily present as a narrator and is constantly breaking in on his own story, further fragmenting an already tenuous narrative. 

I’ve always found the story behind this novel’s creation and publication to be particularly fascinating. Before he became a writer, Genet was a career criminal, primarily a thief, prostitute, and, most unforgivably, a homosexual. Our Lady of the Flowers was composed entirely during one of his many stints in prison, and actually had to be written twice after a guard discovered his first draft and burned it. After his release, he introduced himself and his work to Jean Cocteau, and several years later, when Genet was facing a life sentence for repeated convictions, Cocteau, Gide, and other French luminaries advocated for his release on account of his great artistic potential, using Our Lady as evidence. And the French government let him go. It’s such a wild thing for me to imagine. I suppose we do similar things here in America, with pop stars and football players, but I don’t think they’re quite the same. Ours is a court of public opinion in an age of information for relatively small-time offenders, whereas Genet’s case was taken up by a few intellectuals arguing, it seems to me, for the primacy of art over law and order and actually winning. No doubt there’s a cultural divide that muddles my understanding of it, but there it is.