Is it possible for an otherwise straight man to be struck by a bolt of gay lightning and next scene end up declaring his undying love to a beautiful young Adonis? It’s a question Thomas Mann addressed with searing insight and eloquence almost 100 years ago in his famous novella Death in Venice, and one that was more recently revived in novels by Michael Cunningham (By Nightfall) and Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding). All three works feature middle-aged men ensconced in intellectual careers who find themselves unexpectedly obsessed with much much-younger men — or in Death in Venice, a 14-year-old boy — of great or “classical” beauty in the ancient Greek tradition, which leads to crisis, self-evaluation, and — ultimately — destruction.
Death in Venice is about a 50 year-old famous writer — Gustav von Aschenbach — who was once married (his wife died long ago) and is the father of a now-grown daughter. One day, after basically being cruised (Mann does not use the expression, of course) by another man on the train platform in Munich, Aschenbach makes the impulsive decision to travel to Venice, where he quickly finds himself in the grips of an obsession for a 14-year-old Polish boy of “godlike beauty” named Tadzio, who is staying at the same hotel. Mann’s character is what we would now probably call a “closet case,” someone who has long had homosexual feelings but possessed the “common sense” and “self-discipline” (Mann’s words) not to act on them. After Aschenbach sees Tadzio, he remembers “[f]eelings he had had long ago, early and precious dolors of the heart, which had died out in his life’s austere service and were now, so strangely transformed, returning to him.”
Before you get too creeped out by the pederastic nature of the attraction — which is not in any way to deny its creepiness — it’s worth noting that except for some returned glances of indeterminate meaning from Tadzio, who is not unaware of the older man staring at him and (eventually) following him around, the relationship remains through the end completely one-sided. Most of the action unfolds in Aschenbach’s mind where he wrestles with doubts, melancholy, and increasing helplessness as he watches a life and career built on intellectual order unravel in the face of Tadzio’s beauty.
In many respects — including the trip to Italy and the distant but intense infatuation with a Polish boy — Mann’s story was autobiographical; by his own admission and despite being married with six children, he fell in love with a number of men throughout his life, leaving behind only the question of whether any of these relationships were consummated. Not that it matters in light of Mann’s intention to create a character who — like so many people — has spent a lifetime plagued by unrequited or even unstated desire. For this reason (and because he does not in fact molest a 14-year-old), we end up understanding Aschenbach’s plight and pitying him, not hating him.
In By Nightfall, Michael Cunningham creates a situation that at first glance feels similar to Mann’s, but becomes much different — and in some ways, more complicated — as the story unfolds. The man in question is a 43-year-old art dealer named Peter Harris. Over the course of a few days, Harris succumbs to an unexpected desire for his 20-something-year-old brother-in-law, Ethan (or Mizzy, short for “the Mistake”), who moves in with Harris and his wife in their Soho apartment while he (Mizzy) figures out his next step in life. Mizzy has had affairs with both men and women, although he expresses a desire to settle down with “a regular girlfriend.” Harris, in contrast to Mizzy and the ghost of Aschenbach, is pretty much 100 percent straight, as he acknowledges a few seconds after resisting the impulse to touch Mizzy’s sleeping face. “Whoa. What’s that about?” he asks before Cunningham tells us. “Okay, there’s gay DNA in the family, and he whacked off with his friend, Rick, throughout junior high, and sure, he can see the beauty of men, there’ve been moments (a teenage boy in a pool in South Beach, a young Italian waiter at Babbo), but nothing’s happened and he hasn’t, as far as he can tell, been suppressing it. Men are great (well, some of them), but they’re not sexy.”
Elsewhere, Cunningham describes Harris enjoying sex with his wife (including a cunnilingus scene that clearly is not something your average gay man ever wants to contemplate) and mulling over the affairs he could have had with various women he’s been attracted to over the years. More intriguingly, Harris is haunted by a teenage crush he had on the best (girl) friend of his older gay brother, who (the brother) died years earlier after contracting AIDS, and in particular by a memory of his brother and the girl standing in the water as he sat on the beach, an image that (except for the girl part) is lifted from the final scene in Death in Venice, where, as Aschenbach suffers a cholera-induced heart attack, he watches Tadzio wade into the ocean.
Whether or not you believe in the psychology of Harris — and while reading, I had my doubts, which Cunningham anticipated and addressed — he’s not a typical, self-hating closet case in the modern sense of the term, which would be difficult to avoid if Cunningham were just rewriting Death in Venice 100 years later. You get the sense that Harris is trying to figure out in a serious way what’s happening to him, and to act accordingly. I also wondered if it might be possible for a teenage kid watching his older brother die of AIDS to completely sublimate his own homosexual feelings, to the point that they are a total shock to him when they surface 25 years later.
Whatever the answer, Cunningham uses of an array of striking symbols and imagery related to Harris’s understanding of beauty (he is an art dealer) and his memories of the past, which all work to transcend more obvious and — in today’s world — possibly banal questions related to his sexuality. If I ultimately didn’t empathize with Harris to the degree I did Aschenbach, I found him interesting and challenging on an intellectual level (if not exactly emotional, because I couldn’t quite imagine the same thing happening to me, or anyone I know).
In The Art of Fielding, Guert Affenlight is the 60-year-old president of a fictional Wisconsin college who one day falls hard for a 20-year-old student/baseball player named Owen Dunne. Because Harbach explores many other forms of male or “homosocial” relationships in the book — friendship, mentoring, competition, enmity — to include a sexual affair between two men makes perfect schematic sense, and was a courageous decision if you consider the general reluctance of writers (and publishers) to tackle the subject.
Like Cunningham, Harbach draws on Death in Venice for inspiration, giving his lead character a similar name (Aschenbach/Affenlight) and making him an unmarried man of letters with an adult daughter whose biological mother died long before the start of the story. Also similar is the way both characters are effectively blinded or even awestruck by their feelings for the younger men in question. Upon meeting Owen, Affenlight is “steamrolled [by] a feeling…sweet and fortuitous,” which nicely echoes the florid language that Mann uses to such great effect in describing Aschenbach’s obsession.
As the stories continue, however, the two characters begin to diverge. Whereas Mann unveils many clues about Aschenbach’s homosexual past (in thought, if not action), Harbach — much like Cunningham — presents us with a man who has apparently never had homosexual feelings, and moreover has spent a lifetime making “brilliant” love to numerous Cambridge-educated women; but unlike Cunningham, Harbach doesn’t offer an alternate explanation (meaning something besides repressed homosexual desire) for his character’s sudden infatuation. The only real hint readers are given about Affenlight’s past is a dissertation he wrote about homoerotic elements in 19th-century letters, although his daughter clarifies that the paper is about male friendship, thus placing it more squarely in the homosocial category. Affenlight is in a striking and unusual position, but to simply repeat that he’s in love with Owen doesn’t get below the surface. His lack of articulation makes it hard not to feel a bit slighted by him; we want to know more about what’s really going on in his head. By alluding so heavily to Aschenbach/Death in Venice, Harbach seems to think he has given us enough to go on, except that as discussed above, Mann makes it clear that Aschenbach is dealing with long-repressed feelings, which is not the case with Affenlight.
Affenlight’s lack of insight is compounded by the way he (or Harbach) continually describes Owen in terms that seem at odds with physical attraction for another man, even if the attraction is unprecedented. When Owen sits in the dugout, for example, his contours are “slender-limbed, right knee flipped girlishly over left” and when after Owen’s jaw is shattered, he still looks “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful… possessed of an Asian delicacy.” When the relationship becomes sexual, Owen kisses Affenlight “on the tip of the penis in a womanly way.” After they go to a hotel to (vaguely) “make love,” Affenlight “lay on his side…[in a] a quintessentially feminine posture…[as] with his free hand he caressed Owen’s belly, which itself felt almost feminine, not muscled but soft…” (Emphasis mine throughout.)
Men who are having sex with other men (even for the first time) might wish they were thinking about a woman, or have a lot of associated torment and angst before and after the event, but that’s a different issue, and one from which Affenlight does not apparently suffer. While it’s possible that Harbach (like Mann and Cunningham) wants to allude to a more classical tradition in which the androgynous qualities of young men were extolled, there’s a big difference between framing beauty in gender-neutral terms, as Mann and Cunningham are both careful to do, and framing it in exclusively feminized terms. Owen is also a sexually experienced 20-year-old man, which though young by almost any reckoning is miles away from an adolescent boy of 14.
There’s an undercurrent of cognitive dissonance in the many scenes in which Affenlight appears; it’s difficult to like him, which does not seem to be Harbach’s intent. Though it’s true that Affenlight at times comes off as unevolved (Affen = “monkeys” in German) and immature — he has never had a long-term romantic relationship, for example, and he still lives in campus housing — the other characters in the book without exception go out of their way to praise and to honor him. Even Owen is very forgiving of the older man when he seems to least deserve it, such as when he tells Affenlight (who is nauseated after giving his first blow job) that he was “wonderful” while also offering that “if you’re straight, you’re straight…C’est la vie.” Affenlight’s daughter confronts him after she discovers his affair with Owen, but she’s more concerned with protecting her father’s reputation — and hers — than seriously questioning him or his professions of love for a man younger than her.
Owen, in contrast to Affenlight, is very articulate and open about his feelings. He’s a self-professed “gay mulatto” who as a freshman (most of the book unfolds two years later, during his junior year) has a college-age boyfriend. While it’s certainly conceivable that a 20-year-old would have sex with (and deeper feelings for) a 60-year-old, Harbach gives us no particular reason to understand why Owen is interested in Affenlight. On a physical level, Owen seems to go for more typical fare, such as the hairless, muscled 20-something stroking a ginormous cock we see on his computer. On an intellectual level, Owen admires Affenlight’s research, but that doesn’t really make a compelling case for a sustained relationship, particularly one so far outside the bounds of convention (even gay convention). Harbach hints at the possibility that Owen may be using Affenlight to promote the agenda of a student environmental group, but this theory doesn’t really square with the high regard Owen seems to have for Affenlight at the end of the book.
Harbach also adorns Owen with an array of pointless clichés that long ago felt more tired than funny in television sit-coms. When we meet Owen, he’s busy scrubbing the grout in his bathroom (wearing the long, yellow rubber gloves) as he listens to techno music. His dorm room is decorated with fine art and expensive rugs, he keeps guest towels, he is disturbed by the mere sight of a canister of protein powder that his roommate Henry brings into the room because it clashes with his aesthetic sensibilities. In the Queer Eye tradition he mandates that Henry join him on a shopping trip to buy some skinny jeans. He speaks with a “melted-butterscotch” or “sonorous butterscotch” voice, and uses world-weary expressions like “verily” and “kindly desist,” which though no doubt intended to read as witty or self-consciously ironic does not excuse his overall two-dimensionality, particularly when viewed in the context of the other serious athletes (and well-rounded characters) who are his teammates.
That Owen is a varsity baseball player could in theory cut against the stereotype he presents, until we learn that he spends the fall and winter of his first year rehearsing and acting in a play, not to mention his habit of reading literature in the dugout. Meanwhile, Henry and the other guys on the team are training hard; they run stairs and lift weights until they puke. The team captain, Mike Schwartz, is a blue-collar, Jewish bear (but straight) who plays in great pain, expects 1,000 percent at all times from the rest of the team, delivers rousing pre-game talks, throws guys up against the lockers when they mouth off, and is generally a hard-ass, albeit one with a good heart. Harbach, in other words, does not assemble a comedic team of misfits, outcasts, and nose-pickers along the lines of the Bad News Bears, but a team of competitive baseball players and one Lamar Latrell (the “limp-wristed” javelin champion from Revenge of the Nerds).
None of this is to say I didn’t enjoy reading The Art of Fielding; there are many places where Harbach offers earnest descriptions of situations we can all relate to, such as the way Henry — the prodigiously talented shortstop — begins to lose his cool under pressure, or the awkwardness he feels entering a social milieu so different than what he has been exposed to before college. But Harbach’s success in these other parts of the book is exactly why the relationship between Affenlight and Owen feels so ungrounded and disconnected from the way people (and especially gay people) arrive at and understand our sexuality. Love can strike anyone at any time, Harbach seems to believe, which though possibly interesting or even commendable in the abstract, is a sensitive and possibly perilous idea to play around with when you get down to the details, particularly in a culture where the issue is still politically and socially loaded, where presidential candidates can still maintain their legitimacy while arguing that homosexuality is a choice and that it’s dangerous for men to shower together in the army, or where only one professional baseball player in the history of the league has come out. Harbach could have easily deconstructed or at least analyzed such misguided attitudes, not for the sake of political activism or correctness, but to make the gay relationship at the heart of his story as compelling as the baseball games in which Henry heartbreakingly commits one error after the next; in short, to give readers the chance to feel the same empathy for his gay characters as we do for his straight ones.