The Gay American Novel
Over the last two years I've been on a literary limb of sorts, and I think that my careful attempts to stay balanced upon it have required some interesting acrobatics. I've had a great view, though.
I have enjoyed vitriolic indictments of urban gay Americana for the past two years so much that I'm almost certain I will never be able to read another and-then-I-came-out-and-I-was-happy story ever again.
It started somewhat harmlessly. I was in the first iteration of the Gay Fiction class at Cornell and found that I really enjoyed Forster's Maurice, despised Hollinghurst's The Swimming Pool Library, could not digest or enjoy Genet's Thief's Journal, and found Death in Venice generally icky. The foppishness of Hugh Grant's portrayal in the Merchant Ivory-style production of Forster's novel struck the tear-jerk chord in me, while I hated every discussion of abjection, self-negation and deindividuation inspired by some of the novels and movies that Ellis Hanson had chosen for the syllabus.
I was looking for happy-feel-good validation. I did not want to discuss abjection.
Then I spent a spring semester in Washington DC living only a few blocks from Dupont Circle and almost uncomfortably close to DC's gay night life. And I saw myself for the first time in my life in this country actually exploring an urban gay setting. Not the idyllic, self-actualized, fully-inclusive, multi-cultural, gender-balancing community that I had experienced in Ithaca, NY, full of multi-letter acronyms and references to obscure movies that intersected all boundaries of gender, ethnicity, religion, class, sexuality, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam et infinitum, but rather this lower-intensity version of the Castro (and all the things that I had disliked about it when I visited...).
After a few trips to the sweater bars and gogo bars and clubs and restaurants with pretty waiters with production-line haircuts I had had my fill. I had also had my fill of feelgood narratives that emphasized that I lived in a WONDERFUL community ("rich and diverse" says Torie Osborn; "full of artists and trend-setters" says Brian McNaught). I didn't see that wonderfulness in either DC OR Ithaca... not in the warm and fuzzies of upstate NY LGBTQQA life or in Washington's Froot Loop... I decided to visit Lambda Rising, the friendly neighborhood bookstore, with a different purpose in mind.
Rather than pick up the next novel about gorgeous guys living fabulous lives I picked up Faggots because of its first, mocking paragraph. Yes, it felt GOOD to read about this man making fun of the felchers and the serial urine imbibers and the passionate disco queens and the Winston men and boys-next-door-in-the-big-Gay-city. I felt a wonderful rush of energy reading and laughing in insensitive mockery at all these things, despite the diligent (and up to then successful) education my oppression-aware brothers-and-sisters-of-the-Cornell-forest had made sure I had received in all our meetings and retreats and chat sessions.
I finished Faggots and was hungry for MORE mockery, MORE indictment. Signorile's Life Outside came next. Yes, yes, he criticizes the same gymbot culture he's a part of, but it was thrilling to read someone saying "no, we're not all one happy family." Yes, yes, he ended on that "we could all be one happy family if we behaved like I say we should", but I just kinda ignored that piece and focused on the bile...
And then came Anti Gay, edited by Mark Simpson. WOW! What a head rush! Not just a Kramer-esque "maybe we shouldn't live like this" but a full-fledged "fags are so god-damn stupid!". A self-described post-gay "fuck you" to an aromatherapized, Absolut-drinkin', Ellen-watchin', Coors-imbibin', Focaccia-eatin', Madonna-list'nin', Abercrombie-wearin', XTC-hittin', Ab-Fab-watchin', party-all-nite-till-you-drop-drop-drop soul living in the cities or our nation and in the hearts of many a small-town me-too-fag.
So why do I find all these so fascinating? What is it about my previous reading lists that has led me down this path? Now I can't read The Penguin Book of Short Stories without rolling my eyes at the endless narratives of white men lusting after the boys they once knew when they were young, I can't look at Monette's book without thinking "Yeah, yeah, we've all been there... what next?".
Am I just hating the world for no reason? Has anyone else also become sick of the happy-feel-good politics of admitting no fault within our community "lest the conservatives see us as weak and rip us to shreds"? Or of the hollow, shallow, not-quite-post-AIDS not-me-ism of urban gays in the late 90s? What next? Suggestions are welcome.
I'll still try to reach that leaf on the far end of the limb. Hopefully my brothers and sisters of the forest won't mind my horrible transgression upon the natural essence of the tree's being and will help me up and nurse me to health while the fags in the background laugh and snicker because I fell without a lot of style. I'm sure the community exists. I have felt its power. I just think there's too much noise.