Less

Less
Andrew Sean Greer
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

I wasn’t planning to do Less for a long time since this site is mostly geared toward bringing attention to books that may have flown under the radar, but it’s been a favorite punching bag of wannabe literary snobs for a couple years now and I every time I read another “wHaT wAs ThE PuLiTzEr CoMmItTeE tHiNkInG” I get all fired up about it again. So, here we are. There seems to be this bizarre idea that the Pulitzer should only be given to books that ‘measure up’ against the great classics of Western literature, as if we publish four or five such books every year instead of MAYBE one a decade if we’re lucky. And of course, what are these great classics? What makes them great? Who gets to decide the answers to those questions? You’ll be hard pressed to find any two people with precisely the same answers to those questions, much less an entire committee, which is the entire point of having a committee determine the winner rather than a single person. Less is as worthy of the award as any of its other winners regardless of its ability to measure up against the ‘classics.’ And, believe it or not, I think it actually has an important place in the history of gay literature.

The two biggest things about Less which work against its popularity in the mainstream are the fact that it’s about a gay man just living his life–instead of angstily grappling with cruel society or suffering like a good gay–and that it’s humorous (you wouldn’t believe how many people think ‘good literature’ shouldn’t be funny). Mediocre novelist Arthur Less is about to turn 50 when he receives an invitation to the wedding of his only recently separated partner of nine years. In a frantic attempt to make himself unavailable on that date, he accepts a number of invitations to dubious literary events around the world. Over the course of the next few months Arthur finds himself stumbling from one ill-conceived interview or party to the next, all the while reminiscing about his past relationships and desperately trying not to think of his impending 50th birthday.

I think Less is noteworthy as an early entry into a new era of gay literature, one determined to move forward from, but not forget, the struggles which earned us our status as a (somewhat) accepted group in American society. It’s a lighthearted and unapologetic presentation of contemporary gay culture, featuring casual relationships, age differences, and multiple partners. All very normal in the gay community, but still considered risqué by mainstream culture. Nobody likes to age, but aging is a particularly difficult topic in the gay community where youth is so highly valued, and there aren’t many people out there to show gay men how to age since the previous generation was decimated by AIDS. And it just feels good to laugh. Too much gay literature is soul-crushingly tragic, and comedies and other lighthearted books are sorely needed. I’m not here to say that Less is the greatest book ever written, but I think it brings a lot to the table. I complained in my post about What Belongs To You that the book appeared carefully crafted to appeal to a mainstream audience rather than a queer one. Less, on the other hand, seems to be a book about the gay community, for the gay community, and I think that makes it a worthy ambassador to the mainstream, which is probably why there’s so much complaining about it.

Queer

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Queer
by William S. Burroughs
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from Queer’s Amazon page:

“For more than three decades, while its writer’s world fame increased, Queer remained unpublished because of its forthright depiction of homosexual longings. Set in the corrupt and spectral Mexico City of the forties, Queer is the story of William Lee, a man afflicted with both acute heroin withdrawal and romantic and sexual yearnings for an indifferent user named Eugene Allerton. The narrative is punctuated by Lee’s outrageous “routines” — brilliant comic monologues that foreshadow Naked Lunch —yet the atmosphere is heavy with foreboding.

In his extraordinary introduction, Burroughs reflects on the shattering events in his life that lay behind this work.”

Where to start with Queer? It’s a short novel originally written as a loose sequel (though it can be read alone) to Burrough’s 1953 debut novel Junkie, because publishers thought the latter was too short and uninteresting on its own. But Queer wouldn’t be published until 1985 as American censorship laws likely would have prevented it before then. On the surface it’s a typical, semi-autobiographical story of an author/protagonist lusting after an unobtainable young man, but there’s something raw about this one. You could even say that it’s self-hating, which may be because it was written right after Burroughs accidently murdered his wife. Lee is narcissistic, self-centered, and overtly lecherous, and Burroughs makes no moves to justify or excuse any of it. It’s like he’s saying: ‘Look at this pathetic, disgusting old man (Burroughs was almost 40 when writing this). Isn’t he vile? Who could ever love him? Doesn’t he deserve what he gets?’

So why should you read this? Well, honestly it’s not for everyone. It’s not very graphic or explicit, and it doesn’t give that soul-crushing depression vibe that older gay literature can. Even if Burroughs is intentionally exposing himself to ridicule, Lee’s perspective is still authentic. It’s still a story raw homosexual desire, and it’s still interesting from that point of view. And I find it a bit fascinating to watch a man hate himself, but I’m a voyeur in that way. It’s short and easy to read, and maybe it’s that plainness that would have gotten it censored. Naked Lunch was written in the same decade and was very explicit, but it was all filtered through the hallucinatory paranoia which made the novel famous. It’s always funny to see what is and isn’t okay that way. Anyway, it’s still an early work by a famous gay author, so anyone interested in gay history and culture should give it a shot.

Dark Reflections

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Dark Reflections
Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Hard
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

From the Dark Reflections Goodreads page:

“Arnold Hawley, a gay, African–American poet, has lived in NYC for most of his life. Dark Reflections traces Hawley’s life in three sections — in reverse order. Part one: Hawley, at 50 years old, wins the an award for his sixth book of poems. Part two explores Hawley’s unhappy marriage, while the final section recalls his college days. Dark Reflections, moving back and forth in time, creates an extraordinary meditation on social attitudes, loneliness, and life’s triumphs.”

Dark Reflections might have been a better known book if it weren’t for an unfortunate publication history. Right before its release, Carroll & Graf, its publisher, was purchased by another company and Delany’s editor was laid off. As a result the book received very little publisher support, but still managed to pick up nominations for the Stonewall Book Award and Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction. There are depressingly few African-American authors writing gay fiction. To my knowledge, only three have done so successfully and at length: James Baldwin, E. Lynn Harris, and Samuel R. Delany. But while Delany has written many people of color into his science-fiction, the experiences of those characters sometimes feels far removed from the experiences of people of color today, which is why this book is a valuable one.

While Dark Reflections stands very well on its own, the book takes on interesting new dimensions when considered in the context of the author’s life and work. Arnold Hawley is something of a dark reflection of Delany himself, an exploration of the ways his life may have gone had he been a different person, and the ways in which it might be the same. Chief among these differences is Arnold’s rejection of his sexuality, something Delany wholeheartedly embraced. But Delany is careful to present Arnold’s life in an unbiased and neutral way. While I personally found it to be very sad at times, I’m not sure if Arnold would have considered it to be sad. The reverse chronological structure of the story created some interesting foreshadowing moments and gave the narrative a natural velocity that made it easy to read through to the end, even if the beginning can be a bit slow at times. The book definitely doesn’t deserve its obscure status, and I hope that future readers and critics will recognize its value.

A Single Man

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A Single Man
by Christopher Isherwood
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

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)