Peter Wells reviews Our Young Man by Edmund White.
Can an author write too much? A glance down the inside page of Edmund White’s new novel discloses either a staggering productivity (13 novels, six works of nonfiction, three biographies and four memoirs) or an author’s unstoppable urge to create. His seminal A Boy’s Own Story virtually created the new category of gay fiction in 1982. He went on to enlarge the genre with a series of books that surveyed the landscape of homoerotic desire – literally when he co-authored The Joys of Gay Sex (1977), journalistically when he toured America just as gay desire lit up the boogie nights in States of Desire (1980). Then, seizing the historic moment, he helped limn in the stark landscape of death and desire as AIDS entered the picture – The Farewell Symphony (1997.)
White is at least as good a nonfiction writer as a fiction writer. His biography on Genet is scholarly and readable, an elusive mix for so many nonfiction pedants. But then the best part of White has always been his sharp wit, his propensity for bon mots and his astute, savvy take on American mores, American lust, American pathos. He understands the power of gossip or dish as he might call it and easily the best part of his thirteenth novel is the way the entire plot is underwritten by a life time’s observation of humans at play – more specifically gay men at play, at rest, in rut, in moments of melancholy.
He chooses a very clever ploy, making the most of the decades he spent in France by taking as his lead character a French male model of impeccable, almost Dorian Grey like beauty who makes it big in New York. This allows White to have a lot of fun with differing cultural mores – the earnestness of Americans as against the rather narrow “high culture” that the French believe gives them a special dispensation to grimace at the barbarism of everyone around them.
Henry James explored this as well as the great comic writer Nancy Mitford. In her case it was the dreariness of the English as against the sparkling wit and treachery of the French. She used one to critique the other, making up books that weren’t quite farces but had the delicacy of a soufflé laced with cyanide. White’s wit is different, more laconic, more louche. He also has the inside track on the logistics or mechanics of man on man sex. This might be more than some people want to know, or it may be exactly what some people want to know.
Our Young Man is a book about the evanescence of physical beauty, the heartlessness of fashion, the importance – or irrelevance – of love – the abject nature of sex yet its utter necessity – all served with a side dish of commentary on how humans function, deceive one another and themselves, often at the same time.
The story is paper thin (but then so were Nancy Mitford’s books.) Guy, pronounced in the French style to rhyme with key, comes from a poor family in Clermont Ferrand but manages to get to Paris where his entirely covetable beauty is snapped up by a worldly wise, seen-it-all-before merchant of human souls. This could be seen as a salute to Balzac and his famous coupling of handsome provincial Eugene de Rastignac with the worldly homosexual Vautrin in nineteenth century Paris. Or it could be seen as a nod to what happens in every metropolitan centre – raw beauty is harvested and brought into production, not so much prostituted as put to work. If you are lucky as a commodity, you are rewarded handsomely for being that moment’s object of desire.
This would have been a different book entirely if Guy had been picked up and put down rather the worse for wear, which is the tale of most young beauties past their sell-by date. But White is an unabashed snob like Capote, like Proust. He always wants to sit at the top table, not because he thinks it’s where the wit or intelligence or even beauty lies – but it is where you see the machine roiling in all its harsh ugliness – beauties being picked up and put down – money made, money lost – but all in the most glamorous, if slightly sticky, surroundings. There are elements of the fairy story in Guy’s ascension to the top ranks of male models just as there is something unreal in the way his looks never change. (He can pass for 25 when he is close to 40 – some achievement.) But somehow Guy’s interior always remains slightly bland, as if he lacks some key human ingredient, even the ability to feel hurt, or be warmed by love. His beauty remains his invincible armour, and he conserves his beauty with the careful attention of a concierge locked in a sunless box by the doors which open to a graceful, sun dappled mansion. The discrepancy between the two provides the engine of this novel.
Guy has travelled far from the tiny dirty rooms in which he was born, in which his mother wears a cardigan, his father is a drunken sot who rapes his mother every so often and his brother is a homophobic car mechanic. Guy did have a grandmother with plucked eyebrows who got to Paris and served on a till in a café. From her he receives the news that he must make his way to the metropolis or wither and die.
Guy’s contemporary world is the weird one of fashion wherein reality is anorexic and illusion is fatter than a pasha on a terminal eat-till-you-die bender. So Guy has to wade through a world of high class illusion which is full of expensive silliness. This gives the novel the feeling of a journey through a world we don’t know – but then voyeurism has always been an attractive aspect of the novel.
Age, as in gay life, increasingly as in heterosexual life, is the eternal enemy as well as the implacable god who is always poised to take revenge. Edmund White is the concierge of this painful rite of transition. He himself started off as a pudgy boy giving blowjobs to tricks in the southern states while his businessman father stayed in his hotel room and moodily sank another Scotch. Then White lost weight, got politics and changed into a young male beauty who fucked with the queer top end – Bruce Chatwin and Robert Mapplethorpe – and a hundred thousand other men, if White’s tales are true. What is true and what is dish is always an ambiguous territory with White and part of his deliciousness. When I last met him he had ballooned into a late Orson Welles but he was still being pursued – in this case by chubby chasers and daddy chasers – he had a hot date that evening with a skinny Asian boy of Auckland town. White’s continuum is the exploration of desire itself, how it runs like a thread through our lives, doesn’t alter that much even when our bodies alter. Its imperative is stark, eternal, coruscatingly harsh – by the flare of that light, so we see the realities of the world.
It’s this view that lights up the entire novel. You could say the novel has elements of Fellini overstatement, or satire. Guy’s problem as the central character in the novel is his stasis. This gives him special privileges in that he is always desirable to everyone right to the last page. Nobody ever glances at him and looks away. But I feel it gives the novel a certain problem. His glacial beauty protects him but also seals him in the tomb of his looks. It gives him the distanced view of a light house keeper viewing the shipwreck of other people’s lives. White counteracts this by creating a novel with an over vivacious story line, which tracts Guy’s sexual entanglements even while it reveals his emotional pallor.
First of all a repulsive Belgian baron falls for him but Guy’s manager, with the soul of a vendeuse, tells him the best way to maintain attraction is never to give in. Eventually the baron, believing Guy to be a beautiful unattainable youth at least a decade younger than his real age, gives him a house in Manhattan. In return Guy understands he has to perform sexually for the baron who enjoys voyeurism. Eventually the baron installs a glory hole in his exquisitely decorated Manhattan apartment so Guy delivers his cock to the baron in the manner of someone dropping off a long distance letter in the slot of a letterbox.
White’s enjoyment of louche mis en scene takes another step towards the comic grotesque when the baron requests Guy’s attendance at a S&M orgy. The baron, always the most epicene of creatures in his public life, functions as a toilet in private. “He was wearing a strange leather full-length coat, open to expose his chest, belly, and pitiful little erection.” This is followed by one of White’s witty asides – “The coat was very Wehrmacht. Guy hoped the liquid [of the piss] wouldn’t cause a short in his hearing aids.”
It’s hard not to laugh. The next grotesque to fall for Guy – and let’s be honest, beauty has the ability to make ordinary human looks seem defective – is one of the great tragedies of the age-obsessed gay world. This is the man who comes out too late. Fred is a Jewish Hollywood producer with two adult sons and three grandchildren. He’s a schmuck but a kind hearted tragedy on two skinny legs. He of course falls for the eternally youthful unapproachable Guy and his seduction technique, like the baron, is to bestow expensive real estate. This time it is a vast house on Fire Island. The night they spend together in the house, Guy realizes at long last he has to put out. “Guy had swilled three Rusty Nails over shaved ice and then willingly, drunkenly presented Fred with his asshole, with a full-sized replica of David in the corner, apparently carved out of soap, its penis no more erect than Fred’s.”
When I read this sentence, I had to look at it twice, even as I snickered. David Eggers is on the cover blurbing Edmund White as “one of the most virtuosic living writers of sentences in the English language”. And it’s true no less a master than Nabokov praised White’s supple and exquisite use of English. That was a long time ago. At times with this novel I felt a coarsening of his grip on language. In the above scenario, he has gone with gusto, maybe even the opera buffo of the situation – but the two “withs” in close proximity provide one of those momentary hesitations. This book is not a delicately shaped satire of a novel. At times it is quite blunt. One or two times I even noticed redundant descriptions which careful proofreading could have removed. This goes to the heart of the question: can an author over produce? At what point does the elegant automobile lurch to a halt, the wheels running round on the same spot, but this time only emitting huge spurts of smoke?
What I can say about this novel is it is an entirely entertaining read. I read it while I was recovering from a painful dental operation and it did the trick better than any opiate. What is the novel but an entertainment in its most basic form? Of course we ask far more of it – that it offers perceptions on how we live, make sense of the conundrum of our lives – what the world feels like, looks like, even how the human world pretends to be. Edmund White is now 76 and this novel, for me, is to be read on two levels – one is the roller coaster of narrative incident which goes back to the first novel of Pamela escaping the pursuit of a randy lecher – but it also offers a life-time’s wisdom about the tragi-comedy which is sex. We all know it sooner or later. Nothing is more capable of delivering pleasure and pain. White’s knowledge is grounded in a gay man’s experience – it may be a narrow view but the view has the depth of a life lived to the full, with the lens wide open.
Read it for the pithy asides, if nothing else. One could do far worse than spending a few afternoons or evenings, laughing appreciatively at Edmund White’s bon mots, his astute stare right into the absurdity of social and sexual relations, as well as enjoy a sightseers tour of the dirty linen life of the upper gratin.
Our Young Man (Bloomsbury, $29.99) by Edmund White is available at Unity Books
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.