Joseph Skizzen, the main character of William Gass’s masterful new novel, constantly reconsiders and rewrites the above sentence, sometimes with slight modifications; other times, the sentence balloons to more than a page, but its despairing tone never changes. Gass would certainly sympathize with Joseph’s compulsion for revision. “Something gets on paper,” says Gass about his methods, “and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised.” Due in part to his obsessive rewriting process, Middle C took the author nearly 20 years to finish, and The Tunnel — a tome that has baffled critics and sustained a cult readership since its publication in 1995 — took Gass nearly three decades to complete.
Middle C begins in Austria, where Joseph’s father decides on a whim (“presto-chango”) to persuade the family to forgo their Catholic upbringing and assume Jewish origins instead. This way, the poverty-stricken family can access the underground organization that smuggles Jews to England and escape the trajectory of fascism that was beginning to take hold in Austria, one that Joseph’s father anticipates. In London, Yankel Fixel, Joseph’s father, once again sheds his name (and identity) for one more properly English: Raymond Scofield. It is as Raymond that the father suddenly stumbles into a great fortune that irrevocably changes him once more. He deserts the family without notice, leaving his wife and two kids to board a New World-bound ship to search in vain for him in America. Only much later on in life, still trying to make sense of his absence, does Joseph, in his rather bookish way, forgive his father: “…you wouldn’t arrest the actor who played Hamlet for the death of Polonius.”
But despite the appearances of its beginning, Middle C is not just another story of the immigrant struggle in America. The main struggle, as the central sentence of the novel alludes to, is the question of whether or not the human race, given its bloody history, deserves to go on, to survive.
Joseph’s a clipper: he cuts newspaper articles about the world’s atrocities and posts them on the walls of his attic, a collection he refers to as the “Inhumanity Museum,” a museum that will “remind its visitors of the vileness of mankind — not its nobility and triumphs.” He undertakes this task as if it were his life’s work. Professor Skizzen resembles more the thoughtful, melancholy professor-protagonists that inhabit Saul Bellow’s work than he does the rambling Professor Kohler of The Tunnel. While much of the book takes place inside the world of Skizzen’s mind, a dark, roving mind preoccupied with the future of humanity, the sections that depict his childhood (as Joey) are so precisely told with vivid details that they read less like reminiscence, and more like scenes unfolding before our eyes. Gass, who was briefly a student of Wittgenstein’s at Cornell, is a playful writer. And Wittgenstein’s theory that language creates its own reality is very much apparent in Middle C, not just in its absurd, enigmatic beginning, or its many language games — several words at the end of sentences intentionally rhyme — but with its questioning of identity and reality, notions that Gass constantly upends. For who cares if Skizzen (German for “Sketches”) fibs about his age, lies about his family’s past, and even concocts an imaginary career for himself as a music professor? He is, after all, an invention.
After leaving London, the Skizzens resettle in “The Heart of It All” — the middle C of the country, if you will — in fictional Woodbine, Ohio, a “tiny two-bus town” where Joseph and his older sister, Deborah, are raised by their husbandless mother. Joseph quickly loses himself in a love for the piano and eventually learns to play with some level of distinction, though not without great effort: “His approach to playing was like that of someone trying to plug always fresh and seemingly countless leaks — his fingers were full of desperation…” The cast of grotesque characters that Joseph meets in Woodbine easily rivals those from Winesburg, Ohio (the comparisons are inevitable). There’s Mr. Kazan, proprietor of the High Note, the music store where Joseph works, “who brought his beard around every morning at ten when the store opened, if he remembered the key.” Madame Mieux, the bosomy community college French teacher who employs a fake French accent even when she speaks English and fails to seduce Joseph after she invites him over to her home decorated in piles and piles of pillows. The head librarian, known as the Major, not only gives Joseph employment, but also a place to live in the garage of her home, where the rooms overflow with puddles from house plants. Then there’s Hazel Hazlet, a black woman with a mullet who talks to her teddy bear and sells Joseph a beat-up car for under $50 (she also possesses an angelic singing voice). And those are just a few of the odd characters in a much larger cast, each of whom bursts with an eccentricity all his or her own, as if they’re trying to upstage one another in quirkiness.
For an author who’s nearly 90 years old, Gass writes remarkably well about what it’s like to be young. The reflective lyricism of the passages on youth throughout the book recall Rilke’s great coming-of-age novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, a work Gass admits a fondness for in interviews. From Middle C:
When you’re young, time is a puzzle, like interlocking nails. You wonder what you ought to be doing or what the future holds or how things that don’t seem to have worked out will work out; and in such a mood, even when you are focused on the future because you are yet to get laid, to bloom, to beget, to find your way, to win a tournament, you nevertheless don’t detail far-off somedays in your head; you don’t feel your future as you feel a thigh…because the present is too intense, too sunny, brief as a sneeze, too higgledy-piggledy, too complete, too total, a drag already, whereas there is simply so much future, the future is flat as the sea three miles from your eye while the beach you are sitting on is aboil with sunshine and nakedness.
But unlike Rilke’s provincial Malte, Joseph never leaves his small town for the big city. For one thing, he doesn’t even have proper citizenship, an annoyance that surfaces just as he’s about to accept employment at a small library in Urichtown, or Whichstown — as the residents pronounce it, partly because it’s said to be haunted by witches. Despite the risk, Joseph makes a fake ID so he doesn’t have to confront his past, and gets the job. Gass plays with the notion that each person has many “selves” in a lifetime, not just the one filed on bureaucratic records.
Throughout the novel we see Joseph continue down a path of fabrication that his father had begun. He lies on his CV about advanced degrees acquired overseas in Vienna so that he can obtain a musicology professorship at nearby Whittlebauer College, where he calculatingly selects Schoenberg, the father of atonal music, as his area of emphasis. Although Joseph doesn’t even really care to listen to him, he’s such an “intimidating composer” nobody will question it.
The book ends on a note of astonishing suspense when Joseph’s fate is quite literally sealed in an envelope. The president of Whittlebauer College discovers that an imposter is among them, a professor “with an educational history that has proved false.” What unfolds proves that readers would do well to heed the book’s epigraph: “Remember me! remember me! / but ah! forget my fate.” For as loveable and harmless a creature as Professor Joseph Skizzen may be, especially in a world so cruel, his behavior during the faculty’s Ethics Committee meeting in the final pages leaves us terrified and shows us that he too is only human. We’re left, like the apocalyptic sentence he’s forever rewriting in the book, to reexamine all that we thought we knew about him, about our place in the world, and the philosophy of the so-called “self.”
Merle Miller’s On Being Different: What It Means to Be a Homosexual is remarkable in part for where and when it first appeared, in the pages of The New York Times Magazine in January 1971. There have been many additions to the coming-out genre in the years since, in fiction and non-fiction. Everyone knows the conventions. The lonely child is burdened by primal needs. He nurses his secret in a world that despises him and slowly, after years of heartbreak, overcomes fear of societal or familial rejection and admits to the world the man he truly is. His family and his society at that point either accept or reject him. Quite often, they already knew his secret; his behavior had many “tells.” But by relieving himself of his secret he discovers at least a modicum of peace. This is the stuff of People magazine, high-brow literary fiction, long-form journalism, celebrity memoirs, Marvel Comics, alternative comics, young-adult literature, Oprah and Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project. Miller’s piece came first and by publishing it The Times made it respectable. A few months later Miller expanded it into a book.
Miller had endured many insults by the time he told his story and a quiet anger permeates his prose as he asserts his dignity and refuses any further humiliation. It’s been 41 years since the piece was first published and the gods of publishing have returned to confer upon it now not respectability but prestige in the form of a Penguin Classics reissue. It’s a handsome edition, but I wish it included the essay that caused Miller to tell his story in the first place. I’ll get back to Miller in a bit, but first a word on Joseph Epstein’s “Homo/Hetero: The Struggle for Sexual Identity”.
In 1970 Harper’s, a publication few if any considered an incubator of right-wing cruelty, published Epstein’s study of homosexuality. It’s a long piece, taking up 11 pages in the magazine, but few people today remember more than a couple choice lines. Veterans of the nascent gay-rights movement still quote them through hisses. “If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth,” Epstein wrote. “I would do so because I think that it brings infinitely more pain than pleasure to those who are forced to live with it, because I think there is no resolution for this pain in our lifetime…” The cruelest cut came at the end of the piece when Epstein, a father of four sons, imagined the greatest horror of all.
[N]othing they could ever do would make me sadder than if any of them were to become homosexual. For then I would know them condemned to a state of permanent niggerdom among men, their lives, whatever adjustment they might make to their condition, to be lived out as part of the pain of the earth.
It’s obvious from reading this line or at least it seemed obvious to some reading this line in 1970 that Epstein preferred his children to become rapists or murderers. He was expressing an illiberal rage incongruous with his Jewish name. A sit-in at the Harper’s offices followed.
But the protesters weren’t entirely accurate in their characterization of Epstein’s essay. It’s always easier if bigots wear swastikas and white robes, and by that metric Epstein disappoints. I for one wish every genocidal hate monger posed as many questions to himself as Epstein did in his essay. Unfortunately, he was a good man. And the essay was a portrait of an intelligent human being whose prejudices made him less intelligent.
Epstein read all the popular materials on homosexuality then available to members of his intellectual class. He quoted Gide, Freud, Dr. David Reuben, M.D. — the anti-gay author of Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex…But Were Afraid to Ask — as well as some early studies of homosexuality in the animal kingdom. On the nature vs. nurture debate he was an agnostic. “[O]ne can’t say with the same old confidence that homosexuality is unnatural, however deeply one might feel that it is.” He had enough sense to feel uncomfortable about comedians who would never think of telling black or Jew jokes, but who had no problem making fun of the faggots, well-aware of the “assured approval from their audiences.” He also condemned anti-sodomy laws.
But the piece took strange directions. Epstein pointed to several homosexuals he had met throughout his life, the pederast in Chicago, the lecherous mayor of a small Southern town, and a Lebanese army buddy who moonlighted as a drag queen. They were all miserable, or if not miserable, at least troubled and strange. He admired those who repressed their homosexual desires. “Men who are defiant about their homosexuality, or claim to have found happiness in it, will, I expect, require neither my admiration nor sympathy.” The essay’s meandering logic and its eerie condescension outlined the kind of conversation a husband and wife might have had at their Upper West Side apartment in 1970, after taking in the latest Edward Albee or Stephen Sondheim production. “My god the way those homosexuals understand some of our weird lives!” “It’s because they’re homosexuals. Everything we do looks weird to them.The talented freaks.”
Merle Miller was one of the many gay men who read Epstein’s casual bigotry as a declaration of war. Miller was a novelist and journalist whose work was fun, light and funny, if a little square. His life was interesting. He had done work for the ACLU in the ’50s during the McCarthy years. Later he tried to develop an aborted TV series that was to feature Jackie Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, and spent hundreds of hours interviewing Harry Truman for another aborted TV series. In between, he had written a few bestsellers. He had many friends in Manhattan and after reading Epstein’s piece, he complained about it to one of them, the editor of Harper’s. A few days later he had lunch with Victor Navasky, who was then a staff member at The Times Magazine. This is the account of that lunch from the book version of his memoir:
[Navasky] said he thought it was brilliant. He said, “At a time when everybody is saying we have to understand and accept homosexuals, Epstein is saying…”
I said, “Epstein is saying genocide for queers.” And then for the first time, in broad daylight, before what I guess you would call a mixed audience, in a French restaurant on West 46th Street, I found myself saying, “Look, goddamn it, I’m homosexual, and most of my best friends are Jewish homosexuals, and some of my best friends are black homosexuals, and I am sick and tired of reading and hearing such goddamn demeaning, degrading bullshit about me and my friends.”
There it was, out at last, and if it seems like nothing very much, I can only say that it took a long time to say it, to be able to say it, and none of the journey was easy.
Epstein was not calling for a roundup to the camps. He simply wished, in his good honest heart, with his pompous style, that they be freed from the affliction of homosexuality. But it may have been a good thing that Miller misread Epstein, for it filled him with righteous fury and provoked him to come out for the first time to his straight friends, there in that restaurant, at the age of 51.
Miller would claim that he reluctantly agreed a few days later to Navasky’s request to write about what they had discussed over lunch. Who knows how reluctant he really was. There’s nothing that agitates a writer more than to listen to someone speak poorly on a subject the writer himself knows well. Miller had spent years listening to people with no knowledge speak about a particular at the very core of his being. At some point he had to answer back.
In 1971, a good few thousand years into human history, a literate man would have had access to several books about homosexuality. Gore Vidal had published in 1948 The City and the Pillar, a novel about a man doomed by a youthful love. In the mid-50s James Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room about white gay people, and then in 1962, Another Country, an interracial melodrama. More patient readers had the novels of Jean Genet, that aged outlaw who was then hanging out with the Black Panthers. On the stage, the love that dare not speak its name howled it in Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, which had by that time been adapted to the screen by William Friedkin. This is to say nothing of the older books everyone knew about, Gide’s Corydon, Wilde’s De Profundis, Melville’s Billy Budd, Proust and Shakespeare. Every freshman at Columbia University spent their first week of school reading The Iliad, which featured the love story of Achilles and Patroclus. Camp had seeped into the wider culture, but these books treated the subject of homosexuality as text not subtext. If you chose to condescend to gay people, you did so in the shadow of a canon.
The ’50s and ’60s can look at one angle like a sexual dark age in which certain highly-sexed monks guarded the great secret of a more liberal civilization in libraries for a future time that would be better able to handle these fantastic truths. But these books were widely read and all easily misunderstood. Shakespeare, Melville, and the Greeks were all located far enough in the past for their homosexuality to be considered part of a distant culture’s strange customs. Vidal and Baldwin were iconoclasts. And their genius, whether in the form of Vidal’s exoticized Waspiness or Baldwin’s blues-intoned blackness, was filtered through an outsider’s bent. Their novels were not about happiness. They were paeans to self-loathing. Vidal’s tragic narrator: “[I]t would be a difficult matter to live in a world of men and women without participating in their ancient and necessary duet.” Baldwin’s hero in Giovanni’s Room is suspicious of the effeminate men who surround him. “I always found it difficult to believe that they ever went to bed with anybody for a man who wanted a woman would certainly have rather had a real one and a man who wanted a man would certainly not want one of them.” The enraged queens in Crowley’s play speak even crueler aphorisms.
And this is where Miller, with all his unbearable whiteness, found a place. He was a middle-aged Midwesterner who wrote with irony when he had to but was just as capable of writing without it. “I dislike being despised, unless I have done something despicable, realizing that the simple fact of being homosexual is all by itself despicable to many people, maybe, as Mr. Epstein says, to everybody who is straight.” Vidal would never demean himself on or off the page by saying he wanted to be liked. Baldwin always demanded to be loved or at least, with a Whitmanesque lilt, to live inside you and for you to live inside him. Miller was comfortable with camp language and employed it in his 1972 novel What Happened, but here Miller described the basic need most humans, straight and gay, actually have, in a plain prose unencumbered by genius, the kind of voice you could hear over lunch at a restaurant on West 46th Street.
The story Miller tells in On Being Different is self-consciously un-extraordinary. There is no Achilles and Patroclus. There is no melodrama and for that reason gay men easily found and still find in his story parallels with their own lives. Miller draws a portrait of himself as the one man on earth least capable of living the life of an outlaw. He was an effeminate boy, a budding pianist, growing up in Marshalltown, Iowa in the 1920s and ’30s. From the age of four to the age of 17 someone called him a sissy everyday to his face, five days a week. “It’s not true, that saying about sticks and stones; it’s words that break your bones,” he writes. He had three close friends, all misfits in this small homogenous culture, a Jewish boy, a polio victim, and a middle-aged woman with a clubfoot. He headed to the local train depot for his earliest sexual encounters, picking up boys from freight trains lost in Depression-era America. “They were all lonely and afraid. None of them ever made fun of me. I was never beaten up. They recognized, I guess, that we were fellow aliens with no place to register.” Just as young gay men in later years would read his essay for comfort, Miller would turn to the library for solace, finding a mirror in an effeminate schoolteacher at the center of one of the stories in Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Reading the story didn’t do him much good. Literature didn’t liberate or ennoble him. Later, as the editor of the University of Iowa’s student newspaper The Daily Iowan he found himself turning his years of pain outward, humiliating the theater queers at his school. It’s an old story and all too human.
He didn’t go in for fag-bashing as an adult, but he spent his career ignoring the plight of people very much like himself. At the ACLU he would do nothing in response to the gay-baiting that characterized the McCarthy years. “The only group of outcasts I never spoke up for publicly, never donated money to or signed an ad or petition for were the homosexuals. I always used my radio announcer’s voice when I said ‘No.’” Activists can be annoying and obnoxious and the old writings from the Mattachine Society can sound shrill, naïve, and filled with a cloying self-regard. Those are also the people most willing to fight the necessary wars.
If Miller’s book is an argument for dignity and acceptance, it is also an argument against politeness. It is an argument against letting stray homophobic remarks from your liberal friends just go in the interest of keeping the evening pleasant. It is an argument against letting someone change the topic of conversation when they tell you they feel uncomfortable about gay marriage. It’s an argument for demanding the part of the territory to which you are entitled. And that last part is an odd thing for a man with Miller’s background to be arguing. “I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, into a society in which they were supposed to be safe,” James Baldwin would say in his later years. “The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to the sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society.” There’s a wounded rage in Miller’s piece, a fury at having to negotiate this territory in the first place.
The gay rights movement, despite what its depiction in The Advocate or the TV series Queer as Folk would suggest, was never a white movement. The greatest heroes of Stonewall were black and Latino drag queens. And then there’s Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s gay mentor. But part of the power of Miller’s piece came from the fact of entrenched prejudices beyond homophobia. The portrait Miller draws of himself is of a white man unable to find a proper place in a white world. As an Iowa boy in Manhattan, he could be something that Baldwin and Vidal and even the later Jewish gay activists Larry Kramer and Harvey Milk could not be. If not for that one thing Miller could have fit into society and perhaps enjoyed a less traumatic childhood. If not for that one thing he would have enjoyed the comfortable place of his straight high school classmates. His cultural background allowed him to obtain a pose that an ethnic marker would have made inauthentic. His Midwestern whiteness could make him always tantalizingly almost normal.
There’s something else the book is arguing for. The gay man is miserable, in part, because of homophobia. The homophobe uses his misery not as proof of the evil of homophobia but as proof of the evil of homosexuality. How does one fight this line of attack? Miller was married to a woman for 10 years and they remained friends after their divorce. And though he doesn’t detail his adult male-male relationships, he does tell the story of a couple who had been together for 25 years who find a place for themselves in a dark time. “They still hold hands, though not in public, and they are kind to each other, which is rare enough anywhere these days.” This is something you do not read in Vidal or Baldwin or the rest of the canon Epstein had read. Miller’s book is a genuine argument for the possibility of such happy lives.
This is the part of the essay in which I am supposed to note the amazing march of history, the ways in which the world we now inhabit differs from the world in which Merle Miller first wrote his piece. We just re-elected a president who supported same-sex marriage, a position which seemed to help his campaign. A Midwesterner, a woman from Wisconsin, will become the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate. Three states, including the state in which I grew up and the state where I now live, passed referendums legalizing same-sex marriage. When the first returns came in on the marriage question here in Seattle on election night I was at a party hosted by The Stranger downtown. Dan Savage and his husband Terry were dancing on stage.
Gay men have an acute sense of history. Charles Kaiser, who wrote the afterword to this edition of On Being Different, was born about 30 years after Miller and remained in the closet throughout the ’70s while working as a reporter for The New York Times. Savage, who wrote the foreword, was born about 45 years after Miller and came out as a teenager. Today, there is this new breed of young men and women who never knew the closet and never second-guessed their bodies’ desires. I was born in 1980 and, given the changes I have seen in my own lifetime, I believe that if I had been born a short five years later I would have known a less difficult adolescence and become a less anxious man.
It does get better, as Dan Savage says, if not perfect. There are still the stories of gay kids killing themselves. I am surprised when I meet gay men my age who are not out to any of their straight friends. I am even more surprised by the gay people my age who are not even out to themselves. It’s even more surprising than that when I find that these souls enjoyed childhoods as I enjoyed mine in liberal communities, like the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. Such stories upset the historical narrative we are telling ourselves. The march of progress is never neat. For the moment at least the closet is still a part of American life and for that reason alone On Being Different is still an important book.
But I foresee a time not all that far in the future in which the closet will no longer exist as we know it. Sure, people will still feel embarrassed about some of their sexual desires. Society will still hold onto certain gender roles, but the acceptance of gay people may allow society to tweak their stereotypes. What will no longer exist in the world I envision is the man who spends years lying to people about who he is, who marries a woman, and allows himself to grow cold, gray and isolated as the years pass. What will no longer exist is that weird English graduate student who doesn’t understand why everyone thinks Henry James or Walt Whitman is gay. Comic foils like David Cross’s Tobias in Arrested Development will have no corollaries in reality. Gay kids will go on their first dates when they’re 12 or 13 and they will go out with kids of the same gender and everyone will be happier for that fact.
I don’t know what place On Being Different, this classic of the coming-out genre, will have in a world in which people no longer need to come out. Miller’s internal struggles may look as bizarre to future generations as the intrigues and marriage plots of 19th-century novels look to us today. Merle Miller’s book could just as easily survive. We humans have a long history of making people we don’t like feel that they are not fully human. Even if homophobia were to die, human nature would remain. In another 100 years On Being Different may simply serve as the record of one man’s attempt in middle age to declare that his particulars made him no better or worse than you.