- Jack Holmes and His Friend by Edmund White
Bloomsbury, 390 pp, £18.99, January 2012, ISBN 978 1 4088 0579 4
The friend in the title of Edmund White’s new novel is a writer called Will Wright, a straight man with bad skin but a sterling pedigree. What little we learn about Will’s first novel – a metafictional romance about a man, the heiress he loves and an anthropomorphic cat – comes from Jack Holmes, a handsome, closeted editorial assistant who works with him at a literary quarterly in Manhattan. Jack is in love with Will, but his ardent affection and oversized penis fail to bend Will’s heterosexuality. Jack holds out hope that Will’s novel may betray affection for him, or at least an openness to sexual experimentation. Novelists, Jack believes, are under a professional obligation to be ‘odd’. And if Will’s novel turns out to be a hit and makes him a celebrity, he’ll need someone around to give him unconditional support. Who better than Jack? But then he reads a galley of Will’s book and his hopes are dashed. The novel is ‘sentimental horseshit’, ‘tepid’ and ‘gooey-sweet’, and he’s offended by the cartoon on the cover, an attempt to be ‘argotic and contemporary’, he thinks, that seems flimsy and ‘toothless’.
Vol. 34 No. 16 · 30 August 2012
From Stan Persky
Christopher Glazek asks how we can account for ‘one of the more puzzling features of the postwar literary era … the collapse of the gay novelist’ (LRB, 19 July). That’s like asking about the ‘collapse’ of the Eastern and Central European dissident novelist. Just as the collapse of communism diminished the need for ‘dissident’ novels, the success of the gay movement in North America and much of Europe diminished the need for ‘gay’ novels.
Gay novels may no longer be necessary in the way they once were, but representations of same-sex relations remain open to writers who can figure out their relevance to present conditions. When books like Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story (1982), Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978) and even Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (1978) appeared, they had, for their mainly gay readership, the function of newspapers, dispatches from the front. Indeed, Maupin’s book was first published in serialised form in the San Francisco Chronicle. Their merits as realist novels were inseparable from their political function. Glazek asks where the significant contemporary gay writers can be found. He should look in places (and there is no shortage of them) where homosexuality is still a contested issue. The Hungarian writer Péter Nádas is one example, Poland’s Michal Witkowski (Lovetown, 2005) another.
Glazek’s brief history of contemporary gay writing and writers who were homosexual doesn’t mention the ‘new narrative’ group of mostly gay writers, active from about 1985 to the mid-1990s, who were explicitly interested in modernist and postmodernist prose. The best known of these is Dennis Cooper, whose cycle of half a dozen novels from Closer (1989) to Guide (1997) explores the queer punk scene; other examples include Robert Gluck’s Jack the Modernist (1985), Kevin Killian’s various books and my own Buddy’s (1991).