by Justin Torres.
Granta, 305 pp., £14.99, November 2023, 978 1 84708 397 5
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Jan Gay​ was born Helen Reitman in Leipzig in 1902. She came out as a lesbian in young adulthood, studied under the German sexologist Magnus Hirshfield, started a nudist colony with her partner, Zhenya, and eventually collected interviews with hundreds of queer women in European cities, in the hope that writing up their sexual histories would help make lesbianism more accepted. When she couldn’t find a publisher for her research, a panel of medical experts, the Committee for the Study of Sex Variants, was formed, with a view to giving the project institutional authority. But according to the version of the story recounted in Blackouts, Justin Torres’s second novel, when the work was finally published in 1941 as the two-volume Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns, along with interviews conducted by other researchers about men, Gay’s participation was all but erased. Her original interviews, which would have been a trove of historical detail about queer life in the first half of the 20th century, were destroyed. Sex Variants was instead published under the name of the committee’s lead researcher, a heterosexual doctor called George Henry, who pathologised the subjects. Despite its medicalised approach, the book remains an important document. But Gay herself was largely forgotten, at least in comparison to later researchers of sexuality such as Virginia Johnson, William Masters and Alfred Kinsey.

In Blackouts, Torres sets out to correct the historical record by telling the fictional story of a young man encountering Sex Variants and learning about its origins from an older man, Juan Gay, who knew Jan Gay personally. This isn’t biography, or historical fiction, but a kind of compilation of miscellanea that provides some primary texts, adds fictional embellishments, and then shrugs. ‘I’d love for someone more capable than I to write a true biography of Jan Gay,’ the narrator says at the end of the book. ‘I think she deserves that: a biography based in fact.’

Blackouts recently won the National Book Award. Torres’s first novel, We the Animals, was published in 2011. It tells the story of three brothers growing up in a working-class family with only intermittent parental supervision in a small town in upstate New York. With its sequence of short, distilled scenes, it has the impressionistic quality of a Terrence Malick movie – or maybe it just reminded me of the young family with three sons in Malick’s The Tree of Life (released, coincidentally, the same year). We the Animals is narrated by the youngest son, who discerns that he is somehow different from the rest of his family, though he only comes to understand that he is sexually attracted to men near the end of the book. The central figure in the novel is the boys’ father, an unpredictable and sometimes violent presence. He is Puerto Rican; the boys’ mother is white. They were teenagers when their first child was born, and they idealise their relationship despite their raging rows.

Torres’s portrayal of a family trapped in a crucible of love, rage and poverty can be a bit on the nose. ‘“We’re never gonna escape this,” Paps said. “Never,”’ one scene goes. ‘Ma stood and grabbed his outstretched hand with both of hers and pulled it down and buried it in the space between them. “Don’t,” she said in a voice more steady than we knew. “Don’t you dare.”’ In the end, the narrator’s family turn on him after they discover a notebook in which he has written down his sexual fantasies about men. ‘Two hours later, I am packed into the car and taken to the psych ward of the general hospital, where I will be turned over to the state and institutionalised,’ he writes.

The unnamed narrator of Blackouts is a gay man in his late twenties, possibly the same character from Torres’s earlier book. He has no job, ‘no feel for the game, no man to support me’, and so, as Americans tend to do at such junctures, he goes west. He gets on a series of long-distance buses, travelling to ‘a small city thousands of miles and several days away’. His destination is a place called the Palace. He crosses ‘the Big Muddy’ (the Missouri River), its colour reminding him of ‘Easter holidays, of bunnies wrapped in foil with lifeless, sugar-candy eyes’, and continues into the plains, where ‘the landscape really began to flatten and the visible horizon expanded in every direction, so that the sky grew bigger and more vaulted, and I found I could look and look forever into the desert.’ After hitchhiking the final miles to the Palace, he encounters the elderly Juan Gay, whom he first met a decade earlier when they were both on a psychiatric ward. Juan is standing outside, ‘at the point of egress, supporting himself against the doorframe, not just thin but skeletal’.

The nature of the Palace is never quite defined. It seems to be a boarding house or rest home for queer people with nowhere else to go. There are marble staircases and peeling plaster walls, visiting hours but no nurses. ‘I had no idea who ran the Palace,’ the narrator says. ‘A charity, I assumed, a place for those without family.’ These sorts of living spaces for single people on low incomes are an anachronism, their abandonment or conversion into condominiums often cited as one cause of America’s ever worsening housing crisis. I could picture the building in the form of the boarded-up shells of monasteries or asylums in cities I’ve lived in. The other residents of the Palace, Juan tells the narrator, are all bitter, broken or insane: ‘The Palace, he claimed, attracted those undone by trouble.’

Juan is dying. The narrator finds him living a spartan life in a room with a single bed and a mini fridge, eating soup that he heats in its own tin, and spending most of his days in bed. Outside, townspeople are rehearsing a Spanish-language production of A Streetcar Named Desire. The town could be an allegorical setting or it could just be somewhere the narrator has retreated to in his mind. But the novel is mostly an extended deathbed conversation, and Juan less a person than a device – a means of accessing a lost and fragmented history, of establishing a paternal lineage that isn’t biological.

The two men had been on the psych ward together for eighteen days. At the time, the narrator recalls, ‘Juan was deeply reserved and much older than the other patients, and I was deeply terrified and much younger.’ Like the narrator’s biological father, Juan is Puerto Rican, and he speaks Spanish with the same accent as the narrator’s relatives. But he also presents an altogether different model of being gay. ‘I saw only that Juan transcended what I thought I knew about sissies,’ the narrator says, remembering their first meeting. Juan ‘wanted me to understand how little I knew about myself, that I was missing out on something grand: a subversive, variant culture; an inheritance.’ Juan is elegant and speaks with campy flourishes; he introduces the narrator to Rimbaud (after getting out of hospital, the young man goes to the library and tries to look up ‘Rambo’).

Ten years later, in their conversations at the Palace, Juan asks his ‘nene’ (a Spanish term of endearment) for details about his relationships and life in the world outside, and shares his own memories in return. Since his hospitalisation the narrator has gained worldly experience. He got a scholarship to ‘a fine, expensive university’ but dropped out after a month (‘I was too much distracted to stay’), instead scraping by as a sex worker in New York – Juan gently chides him for romanticising the ideal of the ‘hoodlum homosexual’. Despite the age difference and Juan’s sickliness, the narrator desires him sexually, almost as a reflex, but Juan deflects the pass. Years of electroshock treatment have mostly eliminated his libido, but perhaps he also wants to reassure the narrator that they aren’t in an arrangement of mutual exploitation.

In interviews Torres has said he first encountered the two volumes of Sex Variants when they were donated to a bookshop where he was working, and was then prompted to seek out every biographical detail he could find about Jan Gay. In the novel, Juan has an edition of the study too, having fished it out of a box in the Palace. But as Juan’s surname indicates, Torres gives them a connection: Juan encountered Jan and Zhenya when he was a child in Puerto Rico, and the illustrations of a boy in the children’s books they published together were modelled on him. ‘For a very brief time, I was handed into their care,’ Juan says. ‘My chaperones when I was sent north, to New York.’

The edition that Juan finds at the Palace has been defaced, large blocks of the text blacked out with a marker. Images of these pages are scattered throughout Blackouts. The erasures are not a form of censorship, but a restoration: dehumanising or pathologising language has been removed, leaving fragments of the stories of those interviewed by Gay and her colleagues. The excerpts are a maddening tease, a glimpse of long-forgotten lives that will never be fully known. ‘I prefer the books just as I found them, covered in black,’ Juan says, before introducing the possibility that he might have blacked the passages out himself. ‘Filled with little poems of illumination. A counternarrative to whatever might have been Dr Henry’s agenda.’ The blackouts of the title refer to all of this: the gaps in history obscuring the details of lives that have been criminalised or stigmatised; the lost research of Jan Gay; the family secrets that have kept queer stories from being passed down from one generation to another; the literal blackouts in the text. Then there are the narrator’s own blackouts, fugue states that descend on him seemingly out of nowhere. One of these comes on while he is doing the dishes, and by the time it’s over his apartment has flooded. ‘When inside the blackout, I remembered, or relived, and sometimes I relived lives that were not my own,’ the narrator tells Juan. ‘I was somewhere else, with someone else. A woman, a scream, and a great silencing.’

Blackouts is written in a very different style from We the Animals, though the narrators of the two books share roughly the same biography and heritage. Where We the Animals sticks closely to the domestic sphere, Blackouts is laden with extratextual references: photographs of the pages of Sex Variants, stills from the film adaptation of Jan Gay’s book about naturism, illustrations from her children’s books. Then there is Juan himself, who gives a potted biography of the Puerto Rican socialist Jesús Colón, recites lines from Pound’s Cantos, and makes casual reference to Sartre and Jung. ‘One night Juan recounted the entire plot of an epic poem by Robert Browning,’ the narrator says. ‘Juan only brought up Browning because the poet raised pertinent questions about the very act of composition’ – as if Juan is a term paper come to life. Most of this amounts to little more than a list of reading recommendations; as it accumulates it becomes clear that Juan might be the narrator’s projection of the teacher he longed for but never had, an elder who can root him in a tradition. The images in Blackouts are sepia-toned, as if the novel were taking place in an ersatz speakeasy. Torres seems unable to land on a single form. At one point Juan and the narrator begin telling each other their stories as screenplays: ‘Give me one of your whore stories, only make it a film,’ Juan requests. The narrator then recounts a story about a diaper fetishist who hires him for sex as though it were a movie script.

When it’s Juan’s turn to tell a story in movie form, he narrates an unchronological biopic of Jan Gay. He seems to have been researching a biography of Gay, which he asks the narrator to continue after his death. He describes her background, in particular the story of her father, the anarchist doctor Ben Reitman, who was a lover of Emma Goldman and who wrote a study of pimps called The Second Oldest Profession. Juan encourages his protégé to be a little less glum. ‘In my time,’ he says,

we all prayed to our private idols, some famous woman, usually an actress; we memorised her lines, her looks, practised throwing ourselves down onto the divan, overcome – all of us old school sissies, we carried these women inside, or alongside, our consciousness, private icons, whose mannerisms and wit we’d call forth … mimesis, Dionysian imitatio … though I suppose that kind of thing has gone out of style.

‘What, like Greta Garbo?’ the narrator responds. Juan also admonishes him for not having read the Argentinian novelist Manuel Puig or the Puerto Rican playwright Miguel Piñero. ‘You really ought to know your fairy forefathers,’ Juan says. ‘What will you do when you bump into these eminent maricones in hell?’

At the end of the book, before an appendix, Torres includes ‘A Sort of Postface’. The ‘sort of’ is an indication that he doesn’t intend to clarify much, except that Blackouts is a work of fiction. ‘Even where there are undeniably real people named in this book – most significantly Jan and Zhenya Gay – they have become fictional characters, first filtered through Juan’s remembrances (who is himself a fictional character, whether or not he existed), and then my own remembering of his remembrances,’ the narrator writes. ‘You see what I’m getting at: wherever there are facts, those facts are embellished through both omission and exaggeration, beyond the factual.’ The ‘I’ here isn’t Torres – we are still in the realm of the novel. ‘I left the desert and kept heading west until I made it to the coast, to Los Angeles,’ the narrator continues, picking up the story where he left off after Juan’s death, and then describes the process of writing the manuscript. He shows it to friends, who ask the same questions most readers will have, namely whether the book is a novel, and whether Juan was a real person. ‘Not all ambiguities need be resolved, I said. Oh, fuck off, they said.’ The friends speculate that readers ‘might collapse this fictional narrative with the rough facts of my own biography’, the narrator goes on, ‘and deduce that Juan was based on someone I met during those months [in hospital]. I don’t care to endorse or deny that deduction.’ In any case, categorising the work as a novel allows Torres to give Juan a Yoda-like mysticism that might come off as too sentimental if the book were non-fiction. ‘The one thing I can say for sure is that I never tried to tell the truth on anyone,’ the narrator concludes.

Blackouts bears the influence of other books about lost or fragmented histories. As in W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, a survivor of a historical event (in Austerlitz’s case the Kindertransport from Prague to London) recounts his story to a narrator in an enigmatic, piecemeal fashion, leaving the reader to try and reconstruct it. In Blackouts Torres alternates between personal and historic artefacts: on one page a photo of a young mixed-heritage couple holding an infant that could be a picture of him and his parents; on another an illustration of a little boy – interpreted in the novel as Juan – from Jan Gay’s children’s books. In the endnotes Torres cites the work of Saidiya Hartman, who uses imaginative writing informed by extensive research to restore detail to the lives of enslaved people and their descendants. One of her subjects in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019), about Black women in New York and Philadelphia in the early 20th century, is the actor Edna Thomas, who was also interviewed by Gay, appearing in Sex Variants under a pseudonym.

But Blackouts reminds me less of those books, which have a sense of completion, than of Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World, a fictionalised account of a group of real-life quantum physicists that lends an air of mystical vagueness to their lives. Blackouts leaves you with fragments, like what’s left after a pile of earth has been sifted through an archaeologist’s screen. Here’s a story of the time the narrator worked on a communal farm with a lover; here’s a story of Juan being diagnosed with a colonial pathology called ‘Puerto Rican syndrome’; here’s a quote from a (real) Andy Warhol letter, in which he mentions his landlady, Jan Gay. Put this together and you end up with a dinosaur that never existed – but it looks plausible enough, so it’s put in a museum until the next generation of researchers comes along and sorts it all out.

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