Jack the Modernist

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Jack the Modernist
Robert Glück
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from the inside cover:

“Set in the early 1980’s, Robert Glück’s first novel, Jack the Modernist, has become a classic of postmodern gay fiction. Bob is excited and lonely. He meets and pursues the elusive Jack, a director who is able to transform others without altering himself. Bob goes to the baths, gossips on the phone, goes to a bar, thinks about werewolves, has an orgasm, and discovers a number of truths about Jack. A paean to love and obsession, Glück’s novel explores the everyday in a language that is both intimate and lush.”

This is probably one of the edgier novels on this website. Robert Glück was one of the founders of New Narrative, a 1970s literary movement that aimed to depict subjective experiences as honestly and candidly as possible. In the case of Jack the Modernist, that means a lot of graphic sex. I admit I’m deeply skeptical of New Narrative–‘honestly depicting subjective experiences’ doesn’t seem very unique to me–but I do find something interesting about Glück’s pornography (though he might resent that label). In a way we’ve been scared of sex since the AIDS crisis, and our literature reflects that fear through our unwillingness to depict it in detail. So where should people go for honest, authentic portrayals of the act? The modern porn industry isn’t exactly the best place to learn about it, so books like Glück’s definitely have a purpose to serve in the culture.

I had a pretty lukewarm response to the actual story. A fairly typical tale of unrequited love in a promiscuous, pre-AIDS gay community. Very reminiscent of other ‘halcyon era’ books like Dancer from the Dance. Glück’s prose is pleasant, and the book is full of little postmodern flourishes which keeps it fun and flexible (some conversations are carried out like plays, for example). It’s also fairly short, which is to its benefit as I can only read about shallow gay men fucking each other for so long before I start to get bored. I don’t usually comment on the actual physical book itself, but the copy I own (linked above) is a nice little piece. Great cover, french flaps, with full page (black and white) images that complement the story’s events. All in all, while Jack the Modernist probably isn’t going to blow your mind, it’s interesting enough to warrant a look, and it’s low-commitment enough to probably be worth the time.

Dancer from the Dance

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Dancer from the Dance
Andrew Holleran
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

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.

Dhalgren

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Dhalgren
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.

The Swimming-Pool Library

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The Swimming Pool Library
by Alan Hollinghurst
Difficulty: Hard
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Alan Hollinghurst’s debut novel was considered by many to be a gay modern classic upon its publication in 1988, winning both the Somerset Maugham Award and the E. M. Forster Award. Though Hollinghurst has since outdone himself, winning the coveted Man Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty (2004), The Swimming-Pool Library still retains a well-deserved place among the best of gay literature.

William Beckwith is an attractive, promiscuous, and exceptionally privileged young man. He is the grandson and heir of the very wealthy Viscount Beckwith, who has already bestowed much of his estate onto Will. As a result, Will does not need to work to sustain himself, and instead spends his time swimming at a prestigious club and cruising men in the locker room (and everywhere else). By chance, Will saves the life of an aging aristocrat, beginning a friendship between the two which ultimately leads to Will reassessing his perspective on the world.

To be entirely honest, I didn’t much care for this book when I first read it. Will is rather difficult to like, being an extravagantly wealthy, pre-AIDS fuckboy (still hot though), and the book has a narrative arc so shallow I didn’t even realize what it was about until I’d already finished it. By shallow arc, I mean that the events constituting the plot are not immediately obvious as being so. But over time the book grew on me. It is delightfully erotic, though rarely explicit, and modern, pre-AIDS stories are uncommon at best, and reveal an era before the intense sexual paranoia we are still recovering from today. It’s also, as you’ve probably already noticed, the place from which this blog takes its name, proving that it does have some staying power.