When the Costume Comes Off

Adam Mars-Jones

  • King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher
    Fourth Estate, 436 pp, £18.99, March 2011, ISBN 978 0 00 730133 1

I remember being struck in the late 1970s by the vigour of gay culture in the American marketplace. Two novels were selling strongly and being urgently discussed: one was lyrical and would-be Proustian (Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance); the other was bilious and aspired to satire (Larry Kramer’s Faggots). I disliked them both, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that gay literary culture had room for two such opposite productions, could accommodate two very different bad books. A gay cultural presence is now taken for granted, despite several decades of viral decimation, with breakthroughs commercial and institutional (or both, in the case of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, which won the Booker Prize). At the same time the market for literary fiction has shrunk, and writers who were perhaps thrilled when bookshops began to have Gay and Lesbian sections were soon dismayed to find that their own books were filed there in a niche or annexe, rather than in the alphabetical run of the canon.

Preaching to the converted gets a bad press (in fact, isn’t preaching always to the converted?). Preaching to the unconverted, a more specialised activity, goes by a different name: missionary work. Christopher Isherwood harboured a certain amount of rancour towards the majority, but disciplined himself for the missionary purposes of A Single Man, where his mouthpiece George is in mourning for a dead lover, and so benefits from the status of honorary widower. The sexual acts that the majority find so troublesome could be underplayed for the duration, in favour of a more palatable theme, equal rights to bereavement. These days reaching out to majority readers is more common: there’s nothing like a dwindling congregation to inflame the ecumenical impulse. Feeling perhaps that there are only so many minority coming-of-age stories a majority readership can be expected to embrace, a number of novelists have started to look for ways of remaining unapologetically gay writers without writing ‘gay novels’. Michael Cunningham won a large readership with The Hours, in which gay lives featured without being allowed to predominate, though his touch seems less sure in his most recent offering, By Nightfall. A narrative about a married man’s brief and inconclusive obsession with his brother-in-law is likely to miss both markets, striking gay readers as evasive and straight ones as paying only lip service to majority choices.

But what about the traffic in the other direction? For a straight writer to have a gay hero is still highly unusual. A fascinating essay in this context is Norman Mailer’s ‘The Homosexual as Villain’, commissioned by the gay magazine ONE in the 1950s. He’s pretty unsparing of his own past novelistic practice, saying that when he thought homosexuality was evil it made sense to dole it out to negative characters without bothering with more nuanced psychology. At the time of writing the essay he was working on The Deer Park, which included a villainous gay character, and set himself, if not to redeem him, then at least to build up his complexity. He refers to a growing depression

that I had been acting as a bigot in this matter, and ‘bigot’ was one word I did not enjoy applying to myself. With that came the realisation I had been closing myself off from understanding a very large part of life. This thought is always disturbing to a writer. A writer has his talent, and for all one knows, he is born with it, but whether his talent develops is to some degree responsive to his use of it. He can grow as a person or he can shrink, and by this I don’t intend any facile parallels between moral and artistic growth. The writer can become a bigger hoodlum if need be, but his alertness, his curiosity, his reaction to life must not diminish. The fatal thing is to shrink, to be interested in less, sympathetic to less, desiccating to the point where life itself loses its flavour, and one’s passion for human understanding changes to weariness and distaste.

Open-minded, self-critical, conciliatory – it couldn’t last. Mailer’s later career wasn’t an exercise in dismantling the male ego.

The most famous and successful venture in homosexual ventriloquism by a novelist is still Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers. I had doubts about the book when it came out in 1980, disliking the easy equation of homosexuality with cowardliness, even though this was an equation accepted by many homosexuals of the generation of Burgess’s octogenarian narrator, Kenneth Toomey. Terrence Rattigan was surprised to find during war service that he was brave in an ordinary way. Out of this realisation came his interest in such non-cowardly homosexuals as T.E. Lawrence (Ross) and Alexander the Great (Adventure Story).

But perhaps the question to be asked is: why should a heterosexual writer adopt a gay point of view? What’s the benefit, not to the person, but to the novel? There needs to be some novelistic payoff, if we accept that the mere desire to extend your range, to become a god in your medium, speaks more reliably to vanity than talent. For Burgess, the project of writing a long novel bringing together far-flung crises and corners of 20th-century history more or less required for plausibility a rogue element, taboo-breaking and border-crossing, plentifully supplied by that ‘reprobate section of the human collectivity, but an important one, suspected where it does not exist, flaunting itself, insolent and immune, where its existence is never guessed’ (that’s Proust, of course).

With Philip Hensher, there’s no question of having to crank up an interest outside his constituency, since homosexuality has until now played a relatively small part in his fiction. The Northern Clemency (2008) showed an extraordinary flair for building up the large social picture, and the same amplitude is there in his new book, King of the Badgers, with the addition of a genre element, which intermittently brings it close to crime thriller territory. The setting is the seaside town of Hanmouth, a genteel Devon resort with an underclass hinterland, bearing enough resemblance to Topsham – where Hensher lives – to make his neighbours anticipate the book with a certain tension, I suspect, despite the altered topography.

The crime element concerns the disappearance from the hinterland – where they don’t even have the breeding to pronounce the town’s name Hammuth – of an eight-year-old girl called China. The way the alarm is sounded, the mother’s fears first allayed then confirmed, allows Hensher to establish the main social currents of the town, before they become complicated by doubts and strange alliances: ‘On the whole, Hanmouth thought little of the despoiling and misspeaking suburbs that surrounded it and had taken on its name. Though they poured right up to the gates of Hanmouth, they were obviously the city’s, Barnstaple’s, suburbs, not Hanmouth’s. Hanmouth could never have suburbs.’ A whiff of mystery and potential horror is almost enough to override the genteel town’s distaste, at least for a while.

There was a new noise in the air, of disagreement and disapproval and pleasure. It was like the load of a substantial lorry shifting and rumbling; it was like the bass voice that announced coming attractions at the cinema clearing its throat; it was like a Welsh male voice choir saying ‘RUM’ in unison. It was the sound of a community centre in the west of England, every chair filled and every spare standing space occupied with onlookers, journalists, locals, cameramen, people who had no reason or every good reason to be there.

The circumstances of China’s disappearance are likely to stir tabloid echoes in the reader’s mind, and before too long the name of Shannon Matthews will pop up – but Hensher is too wily to follow that case very closely, and enjoys laying a trail that combines real clues and pieces of misdirection.

The trick of incorporating genre features into a literary novel, to judge by such successes as The Witches of Eastwick and Beyond Black, is to establish a slower pace than is typical of thrillers. Only when the tempo is allowed to accelerate does the genre element seem to take over, in a way that usually disappoints. The ability to manipulate a formula rarely overlaps with the ability to do without one. Hensher is confident enough of his handling to put the thriller plot on hold for 150 pages in the middle of the book, before picking it up again in a darker key. The genre stabilisers are taken off the bicycle – and it glides off again with hardly a wobble. Any loss of tension is made good by Hensher’s remarkable gift of invention.

One of the stranger allies of the missing child’s mother is a self-appointed representative called John Calvin, the moving spirit behind the local Neighbourhood Watch. Borrowing for this character the name of a punitive theologian, who doled out self-satisfaction to the elect and despair to those destined to be damned, isn’t likely to be a novelist’s mark of favour. Calvin is referred to in the first scene as someone whose permission must be asked before photographs of the town can be taken from the estuary. A private citizen, unelected, unaccountable, has somehow usurped the public spaces of the town and the private actions of his fellows. And if the god he worships is all-seeing it is also pettifogging in the extreme:

In the last couple of years, security cameras had been put up over the station in both directions, and at the quay where people waited for buses into Barnstaple. Then a little more lobbying secured six more, and as John Calvin said he had explained to Neighbourhood Watch, and Neighbourhood Watch would explain in turn to everyone they knew, now you could walk from one end of the Fore street to the other at any time of the day or night without fear, watched by CCTV. Even quite old ladies knew to say ‘CCTV’ now. ‘You’ve got nothing to fear if you’ve done nothing wrong,’ John Calvin said. ‘Nothing to hide: nothing to fear,’ he added, quoting a government slogan of the day, and in the open-faced and street-fronting houses of Hanmouth, often wanting to boast about the elegant opulence of their private lives, the rich of Hanmouth tended to agree.

All the security cameras, of course, make no contribution to the solution of China’s disappearance. They’re little black holes in the fabric of modern life, sucking out light and heat, and they return nothing but dead information. The two halves of Calvin’s slogan, ‘Nothing to Hide’ and ‘Nothing to Fear’, give Hensher the titles for his first and last chapters, and the theme of the private realm as something easily forfeited may engage him more profoundly than his thriller plot, for all the casual mastery of his handling. The meeting of Calvin’s Neighbourhood Watch, long delayed, beautifully led up to, is a classic of grotesque comedy.

Only one little incident, early on in the narrative, shows that there is a limit to Hensher’s structural sense. Kenyon, a character who works in London, makes huge efforts to catch a particular train back home from Paddington (his ticket lacks any flexibility). He makes it, just before the doors are electronically locked. On the platform, at almost at the same moment, someone he has noticed takes action:

the young man in the nondescript camel-coloured duffel coat, completely wrong for the temperature and the time of year, raised himself in a leisurely way from his crouching position over the black case. Somewhere further away there was a cry, then a number of shouts. The sound was muffled in the compartment. The train began to move away. The man raised his right arm, his left hand gripping his right wrist. There was a popping sound, as if of a balloon, then another. The train continued to move. Kenyon’s last impression was of a vague and retreating mass of people, running and throwing themselves to the marble floor, or perhaps being shot and falling to the floor. The small resolute figure stayed where it was, its arms outstretched with a firing weapon at the end of them. The train slid out from the station canopy around the concealing curve, into the sunlit railway path, lined with sunlit towers, of West London.

  ‘Did you see that?’ Kenyon asked. He asked nobody in particular, and nobody answered.

This is dramatic stuff – the Hanmouth crime story, relatively low-key and slow-moving, certainly can’t compete. The next reference to the half-glimpsed massacre is nearly 400 pages later. It’s only a passing mention. Kenyon refers to the incident in conversation with his wife, and she duly says, ‘Awful. Frightful,’ but he isn’t sure that ‘he had ever managed to tell her about the event in a way she would remember’. It’s as if Hensher himself had forgotten the scene, until he realised it would come in handy for a late plot twist (one of Kenyon’s colleagues turns out to have been among those killed) and rescued it from an abandoned draft.

In an interview, Hensher said that the incident at the station was his homage to John Cheever’s celebrated story ‘The Country Husband’, in which a man whose plane nearly crashed can’t get his family to be all that interested in his ordeal and escape. It still seems mystifying though: the dramatic incident that no one wants to hear about is the core situation of Cheever’s story, just a stray thread here. Hensher has pointed out, with justice, that Proust demands much greater feats of memory from his readers than remembering a stray thread over 400 pages – Gilberte’s way of writing a capital G so that it looks like an A produces confusion about the authorship of a telegram more than a thousand pages after the peculiarity of her script is mentioned. But no one reads Proust for the deftness of his plotting, and there comes a point when you must let sleeping red herrings lie. A thread that has been left dangling for so long can’t be tugged in any meaningful way.

The station massacre is an isolated blind spot. If there’s a more serious problem in King of the Badgers, it’s a sort of astigmatism. Hensher has said that he took no grand decision not to include any gay characters in The Northern Clemency, but felt that after a certain point their introduction would unbalance the narrative. He was specifically addressing the reader’s experience of the book: a single gay character in a novel by a writer known to be gay can too obviously seem to speak for the author, when in fact Hensher’s identification with his cast members was more indirect. Multiplying the gay contingent can also create more problems than it solves. But perhaps there was more to the decision than that. In King of the Badgers there is a large handful of gay characters, and their sexuality seems to give them a special glamour and exemption. These are the lives in the book which glow. Viewed with thermal imaging they would show up in different colours, red and yellow against the prevailing blue and purple.

Soon after China’s disappearance, the Hanmouth police check up on the registered sex offenders in the area:

Some of them had fucked eight-year-old nieces 30 years ago, and had recently been released from decades of drinking prison tea, pissed in by generations of kitchen-serving muggers. Others had been found with images of carefree naked toddlers on their computers, each one fairly unobjectionable, but amounting to a collection of tens of thousands. One unfortunate had, in 1987, had sex with a bricklayer who turned out to be 20 years old and thus below the age of consent; he, too, found himself on the police’s list of slavering lunatics beside the others with horrible designs on toddlers. There seemed no means of removing him from the police list, and he, like all the others, received a visit from the police in the little pink-fronted terraced house in Drewsteignton with a rainbow sticker in the window where he lived with the same bricklayer, now in his forties.

That’s fair comment, and a tiny stab at the received wisdom of the press. What I mean is the way, for instance, that a sexy waiter called Mauro, down from London on a visit, outranks the locals. Nothing a Hanmouth woman might wear could compete with Mauro’s trainers (Onitsuka Tigers in brown with this season’s orange trim). They’re a fashion statement in a language straights can’t learn, a sexual signal pitched above heterosexual hearing. Mauro is in town with homely, miserable David, who imagines that his parents will be reassured to see him with someone so personable and charming. Mauro isn’t a paid escort, although David has lent him money that isn’t going to come back, and this is a small way of calling in the debt. But at least a paid escort might have the professionalism to stay with the client instead of sloping off with sexier company.

Straight sex is portrayed as unappetising, whether marital or extra. A couple called the Lovells, now their children have left the nest, have taken to

early evening sex in the sitting-room, kitchen or even hallway. Mr Lovell returned from his GP’s practice in Barnstaple and dropped his clothes in the hall; Mrs Lovell, abundantly fleshy, would come from the garden to meet him, wriggling out of skirt and blouse as she came. Tonight, the little squeaks of joy came with treble clusters of tintinnabulating piano chords … They were doing it in the dining-room, on the keyboard of their untuned Yamaha upright.

Adventures outside marriage are equally unglamorous:

Fluffysdoggingqueen had posted to say that she’d had a fantastic time in a concealed thicket two miles up the B3227. At the time Gordon had wondered whether she really meant the B3227 – in his view, fluffysdoggingqueen was an idiot with badly dyed roots, terrible halitosis and at least three stone overweight. In the world of lay-bys and car parks she was a celebrity, a star. He wouldn’t cross the road to see her buggered by an Irish builder on the bonnet of a BMW one more time.

Meanwhile a gay man like Sam, who runs a cheese shop in the town, can have a tender live-in relationship with handsome Harry that is refreshed rather than undermined by regular orgies, well-run and splendidly catered.

As an individual I have a huge vested interest in the viability of gay lives, but even I find the discontinuity of the novel’s sexual vision unsatisfying. Hensher doesn’t quite make out that fulfilment comes naturally to gay men – in fact he almost overdoes it when it comes to David’s misery and hopelessness. Here his inventiveness falls some way short of its usual scrupulous freedom. Out of the goodness of his heart Sam tries to give David some orgy counselling:

It’s not what shape you are, or the size of your nose. It’s – you know what it is – it’s that hunted expression. You really do. You have a hunted expression. When you were going round the room, you copped a feel of all of them, one after the other. Usually a pretty quick feel. You didn’t even give them a chance to say, piss off, fat boy. They aren’t going to say that, you know. It’s just that hunted expression on your face. It’s not doing it for anyone. And when you got near anyone you thought was out of your league – when you got anywhere near Spencer – it was like you were waiting until he was turned in another direction before you were going anywhere near him. You didn’t want him to realise it might be you putting your finger up his bum. I tell you, he wouldn’t care.

This works as well as any attempt to tell someone that his low self-esteem repels others, as if he didn’t already hold himself to blame for his failures.

Sam’s common sense comes rather too easily:

He was solid rather than fat when his clothes were off; he gave the general impression of burliness, even of stoutness, in his clothes, but naked, his chest came out like a sergeant major’s. He was a curious, cuboid sort of shape, and a curious, rather appealing animal odour came from him. Clothed, in the street or in his shop, he seemed languid, indulged, lazy, with probable areas of softness at waist and big arse. Naked, he gave the impression of compressed hairy power, as if he could fell a policeman, chop down a tree, outrun a milk float. In a friendly gesture, he reached out his big hairy right hand and weighed David’s balls where they hung. ‘All right? Having a good time?’

This is funny, charming, even seductive: Sam is a superhero with a twist, his powers activated only when the costume comes off. Still, his specialised body type gives him unlimited appeal in the sexual world of his preferences, and David is being lectured on the unimportance of money by a million-pound note.

Well-adjusted, loosely partnered, preferably hairy gay men already nestle in a privileged compartment of the novel’s world, but Hensher lays out his plushest rhetoric in the description of guests heading for a group sex event:

Like timber dislodged by spring floods; like unmoored boats swept into the stream; like cast-off objects driven before the force of a renewed river, taking possession of a dried-up channel at the end of a hot Devon August; like the return of beasts to their place of spawning at the close of their season of youth; like all of that, the Bears turned and followed the scent back to the house in Hanmouth, upriver, along the country routes, speeding up, shedding their concerns as they went, flying in their Toyota Civics, their Ford Primeras, their VW Golf GTis, their Peugeots, their Fiats, their Ford Kas, their Jaguars, their Bentleys, in shades of royal blue and silver, and silver and white, and red and silver, and silver, silver, blue and silver, catching the evening light like trout turning in a stream.

The granddaddy of this magnificence, which is maintained at full stretch for another page, can only be Proust’s description in terms of the courtship of bees and flowers of Charlus picking up Jupien, where he uses the language of natural history to explore that which is ‘against nature’. Hensher’s tone is complex, self-subverting as well as exalted: towards the end of the passage the men are described as being ‘not like people going to something, but like those fleeing a threat behind them’. But no other occasion in the book opens the floodgates of lyricism. It’s clear that gay men are part of nature. It’s heterosexuality that seems cut off from it.

Between the novel’s three Books come two Impromptus, the first of which announces its formal significance by its title: ‘The Omniscient Narrator Speaks’. This short section starts by describing a modest journey made by a Hanmouth citizen through the traces he leaves on CCTV (‘He had been filmed or his actions recorded 50 times between getting up and nine thirty, when he got to the place he was getting to’). It’s an assignation (‘they fell on each other, feeding on each other with a fury concentrated in the mouth and lips’) but with a transcendental function, the ability to break down barriers: ‘The cameras in the street could not have told the secrets of the human heart; they could not and did not see Kenyon and Ahmed, meeting for the ninth time in this way. But you did, and I did.’

Love between men has long been enfranchised in the novel – now it’s virtually sacramental. This isn’t the licensed exploration approved within the tribe, since Kenyon is married but has no plans to tell his wife. This is no more than adultery. Still, the Holy Grail of man-man orgasm sheds its pulses of light impartially, washing away all grubbiness, dishonesty, compromise. Proust got there first in terms of delineating this border-crossing aspect of homosexuality, its discontinuous omnipresence. He didn’t spell out that only exchanges involving youth, beauty, money, status or some combination of these currencies can make such border crossings possible, but he certainly showed Charlus overplaying his hand, letting his infatuation with the violinist Morel make him socially vulnerable, until the day comes when the lion-tamer is mauled at last.

In Hensher’s world there seem to be no such drawbacks for those who can muster the currency. It’s a jovial freemasonry where the ritual handshakes have moved inside the trousers. The characters who aren’t gay have interests and emotions, but not quite passions, and they don’t turn the author on as much. They’re further from his heart. It’s as if the unsocial functioning of the gay world comes to be seen as a transferable virtue. The same might be said of the ability to balance openness and commitment, which is hardly something that can be extended to more asymmetrical arrangements, particularly those that involve children. When the state of being rooted without being tethered becomes the novel’s ideal, it’s inevitable that those who don’t have access to sexual hyperspace or companionable orgies turn into an underclass, people who stay where they’re put or stridently assert themselves in the few dimensions available to them. The sources of evil in the book are a chav, a yokel and a jumped-up lower-middle, which seems an ungenerous piece of patterning.

The divide between broad social range and orientation-based partisanship is odd and uncomfortable, even if there are milder precedents for an existential rift of this sort. Angus Wilson’s novels of the 1950s, for instance, offered a panorama of society but also sent covert messages of shared experience to homosexual readers. There’s an extra crackle of suggestive authenticity in the byplay between unrespectable males (‘Oh Christ! You get on my tits’ being hardly standard dialogue in 1956, the year of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes). Wilson was running the risk of having his books labelled sordid and unwholesome. Awkward breakfast-table conversations were on the cards, with the brigadier’s wife saying brightly, ‘Doesn’t he do all those spivs and pouffs well?’ and her husband muttering: ‘Damn sight too well, if you ask me.’ If he had put more homosexual reality into the book, it would either have been rejected by publishers or else approached by reviewers with gas masks, pomanders and tongs.

Representations of minorities are most welcome when they come from outsiders. This isn’t a new paradox, but it’s one that doesn’t lose its sting. Gay men make a strong showing in the novels of Iris Murdoch, with Michael in The Bell (1958) judged not on the basis of his orientation but for his refusal of the claim love made on him. Axel and Simon in A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970) are luckier and happier, but here again no privileges or penalties attach to their choice of object. A (partial) decriminalising of gay sex came about between the two dates of publication, but Murdoch didn’t need to be instructed by the statute book. When I read A Fairly Honourable Defeat, ten years after it was published, I was so affected by Simon and Axel that I turned them into the heroes of my experience of the novel. One passage in particular I found quietly miraculous. Simon and Axel have an asymmetrical relationship of the sort that gay liberation tended to stigmatise. Simon is younger, impulsive, self-doubting, likes to do the cooking and can’t drive, while Axel is older, worldly, dominant and undemonstrative. Then, 50 or so pages into the book, Simon is busy at the stove when Axel puts his arms round his waist, to pull him round. Simon looks at him coldly while Axel rhapsodises with borrowed lyricism: ‘When I lie tangled in your hair and fettered to your eye, the birds that wanton in the air know no such liberty.’ Simon says only, ‘Good show,’ and the narrative voice chips in with ‘Sometimes they exchanged roles.’ This is wonderfully matter-of-fact, Murdoch innocently overruling the gay liberation dogmas beginning to be current at the time her book was published, which insisted on the culpability of sexual roles as mimicry of corrupt heterosexual norms (though a roleless role is hard to play). Certainly gay people can’t appeal to biology to justify patterns of behaviour, but with those four words Iris Murdoch asserted that roles are a matter of habit and convenience rather than prisons rebuilt every day.

Murdoch’s sexual politics is thoroughly progressive and admirable as it concerns the minority – inspirational, at a pinch – until you realise how narrowly it operates. She proposes a continuous moral universe for homosexuality and heterosexuality, but there’s some sleight of hand involved. To make her case, she must discount the differences between the orientations, although even those gay men who end up in monogamous relationships will have taken a non-standard route to that destination. Interviewed in the 1980s, she was asked about the absence of promiscuity in her novels, of people for whom individual sexual acts aren’t necessarily life-changing. Did she object as a private person, or as a novelist whose plots depended on passionate choices? Both, she replied (a little strangely, considering her own tangled history). She insisted that even those of her homosexual friends who ‘frequented louche scenes’ were looking for the Ideal Friend. It’s charming, and quaint, to assume a level playing field for the rival orientations in this way. With a level playing field (not to mention fair referees and an even-tempered crowd) homosexual lives would only ever have presented a modest challenge.

Murdoch’s portrait of an equitable cosmos of love may not hold up, but she does make the attempt. In King of the Badgers there’s no such integrated perspective, though the structure of the novel seems to cry out for one. Reading it, I found myself disproportionately bound up in the lives of gay characters, and felt mildly ashamed of this, guilty that I couldn’t always remember which elderly lady was which. Then I realised that I wasn’t necessarily imposing my own priorities. If the mechanism of making art is the same as the mechanism of dreaming, then the primary processes are displacement and condensation – and perhaps Philip Hensher needs material that’s either closer to home or further from it. Whatever the explanation, the minority and the mainstream don’t converge in his new novel. They slide past each other, they change places in the hierarchy, but they don’t make up a single world.