Truth and Denial: On Choire Sicha’s Very Recent History


At first glance, Choire Sicha’s new book — Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City — is like a literary version of The Hills, the reality television show produced by MTV that ran from 2006-2010. Both works focus on groups of 20-somethings in the city who are negotiating the always-perilous transition from adolescence to adulthood; they form friendships and see them fade away, they strive to find jobs and careers, they look for sex and love.

As in life, there’s rarely much resolution for these individuals; they mostly “get by.” They don’t come across as particularly talented or driven (which is understandable at their age), they don’t have unlimited reserves of wit or intelligence. They watch bad television and listen to crappy music. They are, at times, hilariously misinformed about the past. They smoke and drink and use drugs socially. Their lives are messy, flawed, and often seem very pedestrian, at least compared to average Hollywood (or New York publishing) fare, given that they are the subjects of a television show (or a book). Mostly we see them gossiping — at bars, at parties, at each other’s apartments — in ways that feel very familiar to those of us who have also grown up in the city, or probably anywhere else. We love and detest them in the same way that we love and detest ourselves.

And just as The Hills was compelling because it presented a largely disenfranchised group (young women, albeit very privileged in an economic sense) in a quasi-realistic manner, Very Recent History does the same thing for young gay men (and also in a quasi-realistic manner). Although technically non-fiction, Sicha’s book does not have the feel of a documentary or “long-read” internet magazine article but, like The Hills, juxtaposes dialogue with gorgeously written descriptions (akin to the transitional cinematography that would become a trademark of the MTV reality spinoffs) of the mutating landscape of the city, which — another similarity — is a central “character” in these stories. (The Hills was set in Hollywood, whereas Very Recent History unfolds in New York, not that Sicha specifies the location.)

The city in Sicha’s book, however, can be distinguished from the Los Angeles of The Hills in two important ways, the first being that 2009 was a year (in case you are just returning from another planet) of extreme economic turmoil. There are multiple rounds of layoffs and reorganizations at the media company where “John” — the young man with whom we spend the most time — works; in an era of growing disparity between the rich and the poor, we see him struggling under a mountain of personal debt as his ability to hold on to his job becomes increasingly tenuous; “Edward” — one of John’s lovers — lives with his parents for much of the book and feels ruined by the Internet. Other characters drift in and out of financial stability. Meanwhile, the rich are throwing lavish parties and spending fortunes on apartments. If none of this feels particularly newsworthy, Sicha presents these facts with a combination of wry humor, melancholy, bitterness, and distance (he narrates the book from some unspecified time in the future) that makes the reader question the moral compass of our society (which of course has not changed in any meaningful way since 2009).

The second distinguishing factor is AIDS, which, in keeping with the rest of the book, is never explicitly named beyond a “virus,” but hovers like a miasma through which we must peer to understand the actions (or inactions) of everyone involved. “There was something missing and no one knew what it was,” Sicha writes, not long after introducing us to his ensemble of young men. “This was an absence that people didn’t really think about very much, or at all,” he adds, and goes on to describe how the virus took the lives of approximately 100,000 men (in the city alone) and how these dead men, had they been alive, would have been John’s “co-workers, mentors, bosses,” artists and lovers.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of what Sicha has done here, simply by acknowledging a fact that remains largely ignored at this juncture in our society. There are many reasons for this: We are a country of youth-obsessed optimists who don’t like to think about death. We move on, we get back to work. We buy wrinkle cream. We live in denial. But as Sicha makes clear, this disaster actually happened, and ignoring it hasn’t made it go away. We are also very homophobic, which is why, even in New York City, there are no large-scale monuments to these dead, no museums to acknowledge or contemplate the impact of this plague, no annual day of reckoning or remembrance to consider the true extent of what happened, which can only be understood as a knife through the heart of the city, perhaps not a fatal wound, but a crippling one nonetheless.

Given these conditions, is it any wonder that the young men in Sicha’s book often seem maddeningly feckless, misguided, and self-destructive? If you take a step back and consider the history from which they arise (and Sicha provides this history), you understand that we are seeing an entire generation of orphans who — like John, who lost both parents at a young age — have grown up without any of the support (cultural, intellectual, or financial) that earlier generations of gay men in the city took for granted. If it seems like Sicha’s characters are living in a vacuum, it’s because they are; they don’t deserve our scorn, however, they deserve our sympathy.

Since its beginnings, the modern city — by which I mean the “industrial” or (now) “post-industrial” city — has been a sanctuary for gay men. More than any other place in society, the city allowed men to find each other and, amid the urban chaos, to lead relatively anonymous lives, unshackled from the onerous expectations and responsibilities of heterosexual marriage and childbearing. Nor — to some important degree (and this is how we distinguish gay men from their even more maligned female counterparts) — did they have to labor under the oppressive weight of misogyny. Obviously there have long been “codes” of conduct that had to be followed to avoid the scrutiny and abuse of religious zealots, reactionary thugs, and government officials, but by and large, gay men in the city were free to do pretty much whatever they wanted, assuming they could pay for food and shelter.

It’s no surprise that the great cities of the 20th century were marked by two important developments, the first being the number of gay men who — especially in the arts — shattered traditional modes of creative expression. Which is not to say every gay man spent all of his time making revolutionary art. To the contrary, the same conditions that fomented artistic genius — namely free time and disdain for societal convention — allowed gay men of all stripes to have unprecedented amounts of sex. The supply of partners was basically infinite, and many men felt no compunction about taking full advantage of this windfall. And really, who can blame them? When you stepped off — or more likely, were kicked off — the field of respectable society, there was really no reason not to wander into caressing wilds of the forest.

AIDS threw a big wrench into these gears of art and sex (to put it mildly), and in Sicha’s book, we see the continuing legacy of the disease. The city of 2009 (or 2013 for that matter) has been replenished with a new generation of gay men who — like their predecessors — are eager to have as much sex as possible, and the city (and now, technology) gives them every opportunity to do so. What’s lacking is a concomitant sense of gay culture or “heritage”; the young gays described by Sicha have nobody to introduce them to the important works of their elders or to inspire some number of them to follow in their footsteps. The men in Sicha’s book are groping through the night, and there’s nobody to take their collective hand.

In Very Recent History, there’s a grand total of one gay man from an older generation who imparts any wisdom to John, and this concerns 1) the best time to go to different bars on Fire Island, where John spends a weekend, and 2) how to tell who on the beach is a “loser” because he can’t afford the $26,000 (minimum) cost of a summer rental. In the context of what’s missing, this advice — though offered in a benign manner — comes off as heartbreakingly vacuous, particularly when, around the same time, we learn that John is busy having sex without condoms. John seems to be angry and grieving, but has little idea why; by telling his story, Sicha becomes the older gay man who offers much-needed guidance, compassion, and consolation.

To portray gay life in the city as Sicha has done — in a manner that’s both realistic and insightful — would be a noteworthy accomplishment in any era, but must be considered particularly remarkable in today’s publishing climate, in which major publishing houses offer readers more gay characters written by straight authors than gay ones.* Which is not to say you should read Very Recent History out of a sense of obligation or guilt; it’s a beautifully written and carefully documented (and often very funny) book about a group of people that, to our society’s collective detriment, continues to be largely ignored, dismissed, and stereotyped.

Sicha doesn’t use the words “gay” or “homosexual” in his book. He transcends these labels, not in the “universal” manner we’ve come to expect from treacly book-jacket copy written by marketers with the hope of appealing to the widest possible audience, but by telling stories in which such labels are washed away in the waves of specificity and truth that make up the days of our mostly unremarkable but precious and fragile lives. With any luck, Very Recent History will help to resurrect the gay narrative, so that we won’t need another book like this in 50 more years.

*I will be happy to hash this out in the comments with anyone who disagrees!

A Year in Reading: Matthew Gallaway


To be gay in a civil-rights era often seems like an us-versus-them declaration, which — as much as I support the cause — can be exhausting. Like most people, I don’t always want to feel like a placard. So whenever I’m feeling burned out on the news, I look for more nuanced and complicated or let’s just say “literary” characters/voices, which this year I found in two amazing novels, one older that I re-read and one new, both of which transcend two-dimensional arguments about homosexuality and weave questions about what it means to be gay into narratives about humanity and — perhaps more important — becoming an artist.

A Book of Memories by Peter Nadas was first published in Europe in the mid-80s and follows a Hungarian living in Cold War East Berlin, where he falls in love with a frustrated poet (another man) who longs to escape to the West. Chapters jump between the narrator’s adult life and memories of his childhood, a structure made almost insanely complicated by a third series of chapters — again written in the first person — by a belle-epoch writer who also moves back and forth between his past and present. Despite the logistical challenges — and at first it can be hard to tell exactly who’s writing — it’s a beautiful and rewarding read. Nadas captures the many selves and desires, often conflicting, which reside in all of us, and his descriptions of adolescence are particularly gripping, when he must come to terms with living in a police state and with a secret love he feels for another boy. The book should resonate with anyone who has endured questions about identity while navigating through what often feels like terrifying, brutal, and shifting alliances in our circles of friends and enemies.

Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) by Eileen Myles is much easier to digest on a sentence-by-sentence level, but no less profound. In what feels more like a memoir (albeit one concerned with self-invention) Myles — though again, not chronologically — after growing up in Boston describes moving to Manhattan to pursue a career as a poet and, later, a lesbian. (And she uses the word “career” to describe both, which is painful, hilarious, and not exactly PC in the manner of much of the book.) Myles has an intoxicating willingness to try anything — or well, just about, whether involving sex, drugs, or supplicating herself to important people in her downtown scene — in her decades-long march to become a paid artist. At times her deadpan cool seems emotionally detached (and no coincidence, one of her favorite books is The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil), but by the end it’s clear she has mastered her craft to an extent that as a reader it’s almost impossible not to feel deficient for being anything but a poet/lesbian, and specifically anyone but Eileen Myles. (Which is a pretty amazing trick when you step back and consider the political power held by lesbian poets in our society at this juncture generally speaking.) For Myles, the issue is not “it gets better” but a rather more punk-rock “it IS better,” which I found to be the perfect antidote — a kind of artistic redemption — to the more depressing tedium that so often accompanies the painstaking march for political/social equality.

More from A Year in Reading 2011

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The Gay Question: Death in Venice, By Nightfall, and The Art of Fielding

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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.

Image: Wikipedia

What a Wonderful Drag It Is Getting Old: Mona Simpson’s Anywhere but Here

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Editor’s Note: We’ve had this piece on the schedule to run today for a while, but in an odd coincidence, it turns out that Mona Simpson is the biological sister of Steve Jobs. Read about it here.

One of my favorite books/presents to give to the coming-of-agers in my life has long been Anywhere but Here, by Mona Simpson. Set in the 1960s and 70s, the book follows the 12-year-old Ann August as she and her twice-divorced mother, Adele, move from Bay City, Wis., to Beverly Hills, Calif., with little more than a new car and vague aspirations of having Ann get television work in Hollywood. It’s a book that I think provides a nice picture of my own past — not in literal ways, but emotional, or perhaps even generational — as well as one that might give some insight into what the future might hold for those on the cusp of figuring out what life has to offer.

I first read it in college, a few years after it was published in 1986. As a 20-year-old, I remember being excited by Simpson’s prose, which seemed almost miraculously informal and lyrical, particularly in comparison to some of the stilted so-called classics I slogged through in my classes. To spend time with Ann in particular (other chapters are narrated by her mother, aunt, and grandmother) felt like hanging out with a cool older sister or cousin, or maybe even one of the effortlessly precocious girls around whom I always seemed to orbit during that phase of my life. In one second she would describe a character as “laughing, but not really,” or admit to feeling “I don’t know, kind of proud,” and then in the next offer some startlingly beautiful image: “The weeds moved under the water like swollen hair. I pulled the cattail hard with my hand and the silver seeds blew off into the tall grass like scattered wishes.”

I recently read the book again and in addition to laughing nostalgically at 1970s references like “prime tanning hours” and Jamoca Almond Fudge ice cream, was struck by how Ann seems to be almost an archetype for a certain kind teenager we see a lot today, a girl who is understandably very skeptical about the adult world, even as she acknowledges the desire or need to navigate her way into it, and with the desire to turn out better or, more bluntly, at least not quite as fucked up as her parents. It’s a very muted form of Gen-X optimism/insecurity that evokes memories of a lot of inward (and sometimes, regrettably, outward) eye-rolling and cringing. I’m thinking specifically about characters like Angela Chase in My So-Called Life, or Daria from the eponymous animated show — or maybe even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, if you want to look at the entire ensemble as they more or less evolve from high-school kids into adults, confronting monsters all the way.

In keeping with this theme, the 12-year-old Ann often seems more adult than her mother. In the opening pages of the book, for example, when Ann and Adele are en route to Los Angeles, Ann questions whether they can afford to stay at a nice hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz. She  says that “I worried about money. And I knew that it was a bigger system than I understood. I tried to pick the cheaper thing, like a superstition.” At the same time, though, Ann (like her mother), is not exactly consistent, and capable of tween petulance, like when a few pages later, after arriving at the Bel Air Hotel in Beverly Hills, she angrily orders a steak off the menu, reasoning that “if we could afford to stay here then we could afford to eat, and I was going to eat.”

Later in the book, as Ann struggles to fit in with her, generally speaking, much wealthier Beverly Hills classmates, she starts telling lies, exactly like her mother has always done. Unlike her mother, however, who in the moment of lying actually seems to believe what she’s saying, Ann is more self-aware, and clearly understands what she’s doing, even if she’s not quite interested in stopping. Adele, who lies about everything from gifts she claims she sent to her relatives that must have been lost in the mail to the level of interest a man holds for her (when in fact she is basically stalking him), is pretty much certifiable, whereas Ann manages to remind us that she’s the teenager, acting in ways that are perhaps typical, or at least not unexpected, for someone who doesn’t fit in anywhere and knows exactly why. What’s great about Ann is that she doesn’t indulge in the kind of overly dramatic rebellion we often associate with adolescence, but exudes a slyer, more introspective type of dissonance that allows us to keep rooting for her, perhaps because it’s a feeling that we know will never quite go away.

If teenage Ann is the moral center of the book, her mother, Adele, is the star, a woman who walks thin lines between charisma and cruelty — at times monstrous cruelty, even — intelligence and insanity, or perhaps more accurately veers into all of these areas, sometimes all at once. Now is probably as good a time as any to admit that I haven’t seen the movie version of Anywhere But Here, mostly because as much as I love Susan Sarandon, I didn’t want the film to wreck my image of Adele; some characters are really too perfect — too complicated, too charming, too demented — for the movies.

Adele is nothing if not demented and charming, someone you do in fact want to meet and watch, but only from a distance or for a short time, the kind of person who is great fun at a party but can destroy your life if you make the mistake of getting involved. The best example from the book is probably how Adele, until Ann is 12 and “old enough to get in trouble,” makes a habit of abandoning her daughter by the side of whatever road or highway they happen to be driving on, making her get out of the car and leaving her there until “she drove back…nodding, grateful-looking, as if we had another chance, as if something had been washed out of her.” Later in the book (but earlier in Ann’s life), Adele takes her daughter to an orphanage, where she tells Ann that “‘I brought you here because I’m telling you, Honey, you can’t act the way you’ve been doing. I’m warning you.’”

At other times, Adele’s cruelty is almost campy, such as when she confronts her 10-year-old daughter in the basement of their Wisconsin house and, after noting her displeasure at the way she fidgets on the couch as she watches television, demands to know who has “fucked” Ann, “because they really ruined you.” Or how Adele constantly harps on her daughter’s appearance, telling her she needs to take off about 10 pounds because she “just gobble[s] down the milkshakes” or how after a couple of neighborhood kids attacked Ann and cut off her hair on Halloween: “‘You talk about going to California and auditions for television, well, let me tell you, other kids are cuter. Your hair was what you had going for you. Without it, I just don’t think you’ll stand out.”

Still, for all of these Mommie Dearest moments, Adele is never one-dimensional. It’s hard not to develop compassion for her — and this is clearly Simpson’s genius — to identify with her longing to escape the tedious confines of her Wisconsin existence and create opportunities for her daughter that she never had, or at least squandered, and later — once she’s in L.A. — the terrifying prospect of establishing herself with very few connections as a single mother in an expensive, socially foreign city where she will do pretty much anything to “catch a man.”

Despite the occasional breakdown and the many, many lies she tells (some sad, many funny), Adele is a woman who scrapes by, bouncing more than a few checks along the way, but is always willing to splurge on something “smashing” (like a suede jacket or a great hat) for her daughter or to take them out for ice cream, which is a constant ritual throughout the book. Also constant is Adele’s desire to instill “class” into her daughter, whether it involves getting rid of her Midwestern twang — Adele has a master’s degree in speech therapy, which she uses to get a job in Los Angeles — or more hilariously by encouraging Ann to impress her new Beverly Hills classmates by alluding to a “bunnyfur” jacket like the one she used to wear in Wisconsin.

In the end, I ended up liking — maybe even loving — Adele in spite of myself. Despite her cruelty, the many lapses into selfishness or irresponsibility, the failures to provide much in the way of furniture or even food (except for ice cream) for her daughter, it’s easy to understand why Ann ultimately forgives her mother, which of course is the adult thing to do.

When I give Anywhere But Here as a present, it’s my way of telling someone I love that I understand what it feels like not to fit in, which it turns out is a feeling that doesn’t exactly fade away with the years (so be prepared, in other words). But as much as the book is about the pain our families can bring us, it’s about relinquishing and sometimes laughing at it. It’s about the need to honor our parents, our crazy mothers and absent/distant fathers, who instilled this discomfort with the larger world into us, along with the yearning to escape. I would never say this explicitly, but I think to myself, here you go, dear niece or nephew: I understand how exasperating or sometimes insane your parents (my siblings) can seem, but try to remember that they would do anything for you, that they have lived for you. Which in my mind is a message that sounds better coming from me, an uncle, than it would from an actual parent, because I’m more impartial, someone who wants everyone involved to forgive the worst tendencies in each other as much as they appreciate the best.

I Could Show You Memories to Rival Berlin in the ’30s: Christopher Isherwood and ‘The Berlin Stories’

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“I am a camera, with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” The year is 1930, and Christopher Isherwood, writing his “Berlin Diary,” is looking out his window at the “dirty plaster frontages” of houses “crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.” Which depending on your perspective may or may not sound disturbingly familiar 80 years later, as we too confront a society that seems plagued by a kind of decadence and political turmoil that makes the future feel very precarious, to say the least.

Obviously there are big differences between 1930s Berlin and the present state of affairs in say, New York City; in descriptions of Isherwood’s society (not that he ever used the word himself, as far I can tell), “decadence” is generally understood to refer to the let’s just say “adventurous” sexual mores that fell (and pretty much still fall) far outside the mainstream, to the transvestites, prostitutes, and burlesque performers who scraped out an existence in the underbelly of Berlin, whereas today’s brand of decadence seems more aptly to describe the material excesses of an upper class who think nothing of for example spending thousands of dollars on shoes while the rest of the country reels from debt and unemployment. Another difference is that we don’t have Nazis running around terrorizing the city (or at least not yet, lol?), whereas by the time Isherwood was writing, political strife in Berlin had already reached a point where the gangs of (unemployed) thugs who helped bring Hitler to power were regularly beating up (or worse) the Jews and communists who had the misfortune of attracting their attention.

Which leaving aside the question of exactly where (politically speaking) we are now in relation to where we were then nevertheless raises some interesting or troubling questions for writers like Isherwood who might also think of themselves as a camera, recording with political ambivalence, to present the world around us with an objective truth or at least the sheen of truth, to the extent that such a thing could be said to exist. If we look at The Berlin Stories for guidance, there are several moments when Isherwood and those he romanticizes come off as ignorant or cruel, for example when Isherwood describes a day on the verge of “Hitler’s summer” when his “street looked quite gay when you turned into it and saw the black-white-red flags hanging motionless from windows against the blue spring sky.”

I mean yeah, no.

Or when Arthur Norris repeatedly makes a joke about living in “stirring times, tea-stirring times,” as he sits down to a cup of tea with the narrator (Isherwood). Or when the young cabaret performer Sally Bowles looks out her window at the passing funeral cortege for German Chancellor Hermann Muller without a clue who he was: “I guess he must have been a big swell?” says her American friend, and Isherwood, also present, agrees: “We had nothing to do with those Germans down there, marching, or the dead man in the coffin, or with the words on the banners.”

Speaking of cameras in 1930s Berlin, it’s worth nothing that the German philosopher/literary critic/mystic/Marxist romantic Walter Benjamin wrote his famous essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” [pdf] — about the use of film as propaganda by fascist governments — in 1936, which at first glance might seem to serve as a rebuke to Isherwood and a warning to those who would follow his path. A closer examination of The Berlin Stories, however, and despite the above examples of political ambivalence, reveals Isherwood’s camera metaphor to be not quite as facile as it may appear. For starters, while Isherwood may have not been fighting the Nazis, he certainly didn’t like them. He feels “green around the gills” when he learns about the torture and death of an acquaintance at the hands of the Nazis, and he goes out of his way to befriend a Jewish family (the Landauers) in the wake of an anti-Jewish demonstration by some “Nazi roughs” who “smashed the windows of all the Jewish shops.” Most of the Nazi sympathizers in the book are presented as unthinking idiots or hooligans, if not monsters.

A more interesting question to ask about Isherwood, I think, is whether we can take his statement about being a camera at face value, or whether, like so much else in the book, it should be understood to be a lie or at least a stretching of the truth to serve his own purposes. The most enduring of Isherwood’s subjects is of course Sally Bowles, the inspiration for the character played with such unwavering and at times unnerving effervescence by Liza Minnelli in the film version of Cabaret. Sally, who is British in the book, is a 19-year-old singer who makes no bones about her willingness to sleep with anyone if it will help her career. She is also a relentless liar; Isherwood describes an outing where Sally “told some really startling lies, which she obviously for the moment half-believed, about how she’d appeared at the Palladium and the London Coliseum.”

Isherwood idolizes Sally and becomes briefly infatuated with her, although in the book, unlike the stage and film adaptations, there is never any romantic interest for obvious if never-quite-made-explicit reasons. She tells him that he “understands women…better than any man she’s ever met” (which as we’ll discuss in a moment is a clue to what I think is really going on with Isherwood) — and he helps her to get an abortion. He only once loses patience with her when she convinces him to write an article on her behalf and declares it unworthy, “not snappy enough” for her needs, but he forgives her a few days later after she is swindled by a young con he introduced her to. “People who never get taken in are so dreary,” Sally concludes in the last conversation she has with Isherwood before disappearing from his life forever.

The other liar we meet is Arthur Norris, the effete dandy who is the subject of “The Last of Mr. Norris,” or the first half of The Berlin Stories. Like Isherwood, Norris is a British ex-pat who (unlike Isherwood) we eventually learn is involved in all sorts of nefarious activities, including the buying and selling of secrets between the French government and the German communists. He blows whatever money he makes on anything from expensive wigs to silk underwear to gourmet dinners to three-times weekly visits from a sadistic prostitute/role-playing-schoolmistress who spanks him. With equal parts compassion and curiosity, Isherwood is slowly drawn into Arthur’s world in ways that have the potential to be quite dangerous (Arthur generally operating well beyond the line of legality and thus drawing the attention of the authorities).

The point being, to understand Isherwood is to understand his infatuation with liars, which — returning to the camera metaphor — I think makes it reasonable to ask whether he himself was lying, or at least half-lying in a way he could find almost believable.

The question then becomes exactly what is he lying about and why do we as readers long to be taken in?

Throughout The Berlin Stories, Isherwood employs a kind of code in which he alludes to non-heterosexuals (like himself, not unimportantly) without ever explicitly stating what’s going on. Arthur Norris, for example, is “more like a lady than a gentleman,” remarks the landlady of their apartment, while boys are referred to as “delicate,” or — by a right-wing/Nazi-sympathizer doctor whom Isherwood strongly dislikes — as “degenerates” who “always revert” and who should be “put into labor camps.” This conversation, incidentally, occurs in the middle of a story in which Isherwood and two younger men — one clearly very much in love with the other, but in ways that leave the physical side of the affair to the imagination — spend a summer together in a house at the beach. There are similar references throughout the book to what readers can understand to be “gay bars” — or at least bars frequented by gays — and “gay cruising areas” such as public urinals and deserted park tunnels.

The only characters Isherwood takes no pain to shield from the homosexual spotlight are those who are either Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. Arthur tries to “set up” Isherwood with a rich baron/Nazi whom we meet early on at a party, where he is on a couch in “the embrace of a powerful youth in a boxer’s sweater.” The baron next invites Arthur and the narrator (Isherwood) to his summer house, which “was full of handsome young men with superbly developed brown bodies which they smeared in oil and baked for hours in the sun.” Ridiculously, the baron is also infatuated with vaguely pornographic books about young men on desert islands. Eventually the baron becomes obsessed with a Nazi youth with a complete lack of interest in “finding a girl,” but who is comfortable complaining about Europeans “with no national pride, mix[ing] with a lot of Jews who were ruining their countries.”

Isherwood, by the way, was hardly the only one to note the prevalence of not-really-closeted homosexuals in the ranks of the Nazis, particularly among the ranks of the Brownshirts under the leadership of Ernst Röhm, whom Hitler dispatched in the infamous purge, “The Night of the Long Knives.” On this subject, and as a possibly even more disturbing counterpart to Cabaret, it’s worth watching Luchino Visconti’s 1969 film The Damned, which shows the summer-camp orgies of the Brownshirts followed by the execution of Röhm and his like-minded subordinates.

What’s remarkable about homosexuality in The Berlin Stories is the pervasive but diffuse quality it takes on in Isherwood’s world. It’s this feature of the book where his statement about being a “camera” becomes most disingenuous but interesting, in the same manner of his most compelling characters. Near the end of the novel, Isherwood becomes friends with Bernhard Landauer, said by his cousin to be “a strange man,” and who is described by Isherwood as “over-civilized, prim…soft.” (Or in short, gay.) Like Isherwood, Bernhard presents a troublingly passive nature with respect to the political problems in his country — as a rich Jewish business owner, he regularly receives death threats — but at the same time, he is a character with whom Isherwood (ironically enough) expresses a revealing frustration. “Bernhard told stories very well,” Isherwood writes, “But…why does he treat me like a child? He is sympathetic and charming [but] he is not going to tell me what he is really thinking or feeling, and he despises me because I do not know. He will never tell me anything about himself, or about the things which are most important to him. And because I am not as he is, because I am the opposite of this, and would gladly share my thoughts and sensations with forty million people if they cared to read them, I half admire Bernhard but also half dislike him.”

It is this paragraph, I think, that perfectly describes our relationship as readers to Isherwood’s narrator. Like Bernhard, he is good at telling stories, he is sympathetic and charming, but there is a limit to how far he can go, and it’s clearly stretching the truth to say he would “gladly share his thoughts and sensations with forty million people,” when he has spent an entire book doing the opposite, or at least working more with innuendo and code than openly expressing himself. This point, I should add, is not at all meant to be a criticism of Isherwood, but rather a measure of his genius in writing about subjects that were (and to some extent still are) considered illicit or worse — for example homosexuality was still illegal in England in the 1930s — while giving readers the keys to understanding what he was doing, and what he meant to accomplish.

Far from being “passive,” Isherwood actually walks a very fine or you might say “delicate” line between divulging just enough to get his point across — namely, that gays were worthy of being written about — while leaving out anything that could have landed him in hot water. Not everyone appreciated Isherwood’s balancing act; in the Time magazine review of the book from 1935, the reviewer states that with regard to Isherwood’s story about Arthur Norris, “This portrait of an old rapscallion is satire too cold to be amusing; it is written with the analytic distaste of one who watches without pity the dwindling of a pathologically older generation.”

What the reviewer failed to understand is that Isherwood’s coldness — his aloof ambivalence — was mostly an act, which is something we are finally in a better position to appreciate 75 or so years after the fact.

“I could show you memories to rival Berlin in the thirties,” is a lyric from a Jonathan Richman song — “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste” — later covered by Galaxie 500. It’s a line I thought about quite a bit as I reread The Berlin Stories, because Richman, like Isherwood, transforms a reference to political turmoil into what is better understood not as ambivalence, but as psychological insight and trauma.

Isherwood may have been a camera in certain ways, and was definitely an outsider in many others — a non-German, a non-Communist, a non-Jew, a non-heterosexual — but he manages to convey a psychic pain that continues to reverberate through the work of many writers who (whether we like to think about it or not) are still immersed in battles for political and social acceptance. He writes with a masterful bitterness, or what you might call a passive aggression, one that manages to feel disconnected from (yet critical of) the world in which he lives, and for this reason very contemporary.

Bonus Link: The Berlin Stories: A Book for Year’s End

Robert Musil and The Man Without Qualities: Imperial Vienna as a Portrait of Now

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Robert Musil wrote The Man Without Qualities in the 1930s, but his modernist elegy to Belle Époque Vienna offers an achingly familiar picture of dissolution and malaise. Perhaps history will prove otherwise, but with our unending wars, economic stagnation, and crumbling infrastructure, it’s difficult not to feel like we in the United States have entered the waning days as the world’s great power, a period not so different from the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it rushed or perhaps stumbled headlong to its destruction in World War I, a period in which – as Musil observes – “[w]e have gained reality and lost dream.”

Musil’s work is a sprawling piece of architecture in which he guides the reader through an endless labyrinth filled with beautiful, often startling rooms and hallways, but which leave us uncertain if he’s following a master plan or adding obsessively like a mad artist. Loosely, the plot follows a quasi-governmental committee assembled under the leadership of a striving aristocratic idealist (the wife of a mid-level diplomat) to celebrate the 75th year in power of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph; the committee becomes a highly publicized (and eventually political) affair as different factions attempt to promote their own visions of a unifying idea – both earnest and not – to celebrate Austria (The Year of Austria, The Year of Peace, The Year of Nietzsche) and later to put this idea into practice, with proposals ranging from parades to – more hilariously – soup kitchens.

The chapters offer perspectives from an ensemble of characters, all tied to one protagonist (Ulrich, or the actual “man without qualities,” as both Musil as narrator and Ulrich’s friends refer to him). Ulrich, an intellectually gifted mathematician, is starting to look back on his youth when we meet him, and is aimless and unmotivated; as Musil observes in one of an endless number of quotes that at first glance concern a character but sting the reader (or at least this reader): “In every profession followed not for money but for love there comes a moment when the advancing years seem to lead to a void.”

At the prodding of his father, Ulrich accepts a job as the secretary to an important count, who then assigns him to work on the committee, the leader of which (the diplomat’s wife) also happens to be Ulrich’s distant cousin. From the start, he’s skeptical of the committee’s ability to accomplish anything, and in this way serves as a foil to his high-minded cousin as they discuss themes related to life in the modern era, ranging from whether great ideas are still possible (and related questions of genius and beauty), to fame and success, to how one should navigate the emotional waters of love and sex and fidelity, all of which are thematic currents that run under the more superficial machinations of the committee.

Subplots involving an insane but sometimes (frighteningly) insightful murderer who may or may not be condemned to death and the countess’s maid and her affair with an African-born servant of a Prussian man who also serves on the committee allow Musil to examine class and servitude and responsibility, or namely how in modern times, thanks to the increasing division of labor, we can order or pay others to do things that would be too odious to be carried out on our own, an idea that has horrifying implications if we consider what the second world war is about to deliver. (Musil died in 1942 after his books were banned by the Nazis and he fled to Switzerland with his Jewish wife.)

There’s a detached, logical, and often satirical quality to the prose that makes it feel as if it belongs as much to a philosophical treatise as a literary drama (I mean this in a good way); it’s unlikely that you’ll be “swept away” by the unfolding story and more likely to find moments of quiet enlightenment in Musil’s discussion of his characters and their society. His observations often seem prophetic, whether he’s discussing the effect of media: “The probability of experiencing something unusual through the newspaper is much greater than that of experiencing it in person; in other words, the more important things take place today in the abstract and the more trivial ones in real life,” or the degrading psychological effects of governmental surveillance: “There is always something ghostly about living constantly in a well-ordered state. You cannot step in the street or drink a glass of water or get on a streetcar without touching the balanced levers of a gigantic apparatus of laws and interrelations, setting them in motion or letting them maintain you in your peaceful existence.”

Which is not to say that Musil isn’t interested in the beauty of language; one of the miracles of The Man Without Qualities is the stunning combination of abstract insight and poetic metaphor, such as when Musil describes a new form of “irrationalism…[that] haunts our era like a night bird lost in the dawn.” Or when he ponders exactly what has been lost in the present as compared to the past: “Something imponderable. An omen. An illusion. As when a magnet releases iron filings and they fall in confusion again. As when a ball of string comes undone. As when a tension slackens. As when an orchestra begins to play out of tune…There is nothing one can hold responsible for this, nor can one say how it all came about. There are no persons or ideas or specific phenomena that one can fight against. There is no lack of talent or goodwill or even of strong personalities. There is just something missing in everything, though you can’t put your finger on it, as if there had been a change in the blood or in the air; a mysterious disease has eaten away the previous period’s seeds of genius, but everything sparkles with novelty, and finally one has no way of knowing whether the world has really grown worse, or oneself merely older. At this point a new era has definitely arrived.”

And while the book is overwhelmingly pessimistic about the trajectory of society, there’s an underlying optimism about possibility of the individual, namely that we can each make sense of the inevitable chaos of our lives to create a retrospective narrative, no matter how random or nonsensical events might have seemed when we encountered (or more often: endured) them. As Musil states: “[W]hen one is overburdened and dreams of simplifying one’s life, the basic law of this life, the law one longs for, is nothing other than that of narrative order, the simple order that enables one to say: ‘First this happened and then that happened.’…Terrible things may have happened to [someone], he may have writhed in pain, but as soon as he can tell what happened in chronological order, he feels as contented as if the sun were warming his belly. This is the trick the novel artificially takes into account: Whether the wanderer is riding on the highway in pouring rain or crunching through the snow and ice at ten below zero, the reader feels a cozy glow, and this would be hard to understand if this eternally dependable narrative device…were not already part and parcel of life itself. Most people relate to themselves as storytellers.”

To read Musil is to understand why Vienna is known as the “City of Dreams”: just as there’s an otherworldly quality to the pink and orange skies that so often frame its baroque monuments to death and lost power, in The Man Without Qualities we find a past that at first glance seems very remote, but as we continue on unveils a future we approach with both craving and dread.

[Image credits: Matthew Gallaway]