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Critical Review by Morris Dickstein
SOURCE: "Intimations of Mortality," in The New York Times Book Review, July 23, 1995, p. 6.
In the following review, Dickstein discusses White's Skinned Alive and asserts that, "In writing about AIDS yet keeping it at bay, he has turned a mortal threat into a surprising source of literary strength."
Among gay writers of his generation. Edmund White has emerged as the most versatile man of letters. A cosmopolitan writer with a deep sense of tradition, he has bridged the gap between gay subcultures and a broader literary audience. Besides five elegant novels, he has written a sex manual, a travel book about gay America, an award-winning biography of Jean Genet, a fine collection of literary essays and now a volume of mostly autobiographical stories that contains some of his best work.
Born in 1940, raised in the Midwest by parents originally form Texas, Mr. White spent two decades in New York before decamping to Paris in the early 1980's and his stories deal vividly with all three worlds—a young man growing up in Middle America, making his way uncertainly as an artist and homosexual in New York, and struggling with the depredations of aging and the AIDS virus as an expatriate in Europe. Yet over the years his style, his very conception of fiction, has changed even more strikingly than the settings he writes about.
Before the 1970's, when direct professions of homosexuality were taboo, writers from Oscar Wilde to Cocteau and Genet made their mark with works that were often theatrical, oblique, florid and artificial. The strategies of concealment many gay people used in their lives were turned into richly layered artistic strategies by gifted writers, choreographers, directors and set designers. For the writers, wit and paradox became more important than sincerity, since sincerity meant self-acceptance (which could be difficult) and self-exposure (which could be dangerous); style, baroque fantasy and sensuous detail were disguises that suited them far better than verisimilitude or realism. Oscar Wilde built a whole Nietzschean esthetic on "lying," and only devolved into plain speaking (in De Profundis) when his whole life had gone to pieces.
Edmund White's early books were no exception. After years of working for Time Inc. while trying his luck as a playwright, he brought out two lushly conceived Nabokovian novels that were as elaborate as they were emotionally distant. At a time when the confessional mode was in vogue and the plain style of Raymond Carver was on the horizon, Mr. White stepped forth as a mandarin esthete, winning applause from literary elders as different as Christopher Isherwood, Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag and Nabokov himself, who was little given to promiscuous enthusiasm.
But great changes were in the air. A gay liberation movement had emerged from the Stonewall uprising of 1969, and Mr. White set out to report on it in vigorous, personal prose for Christopher Street, a gay magazine, and in States of Desire: Travels in Gay America. Thanks to the freer atmosphere, he argued in that book, the old stratagems of indirection and concealment were less necessary, though he still wondered whether "art at its best should be evasive and quirky." Soon writers like Armistead Maupin and David Leavitt would be dealing with gay relationships in a surprisingly matter-of-fact way, as Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams had begun to do in the late 1940's.
Mr. White's descent into journalistic writing and his crosscountry encounters with gay liberation enlarged his sense of American life and dramatically altered his fiction. His next novel felt like finely honed personal history. Crisp and fresh in its language, unguarded in its autobiographical simplicity, A Boy's Own Story was a touching evocation of the childhood of a misfit. But its more raunchy sequel, The Beautiful Room is Empty—his entry into the "City of Night" / "Our Lady of Flowers" sweepstakes—put introspection aside for the shock value of cruising public toilets and masochistic self-abasement. Though beautifully written, it was frighteningly hollow.
Darkened by illness, the stories in Skinned Alive give up pornographic detail for emotional honesty. Nearly all belong to what Mr. White himself (in his Genet biography) calls "auto-fiction": edited memories that consciously blur the line between invention and recollection, novel and memoir, story and inventory. The stories have the slightly shapeless quality of real life and the haphazard way we tend to remember it. Where Mr. White's earlier novels were highly patterned and oblique, these loosely structured stories unfold casually; their drift conveys his sense of gay sexual relationships as impermanent. "I had never been happy in love," says a character who is clearly a stand-in for the author; fidelity is "as barbaric as female circumcision." Now the frantic hedonism of the 1970's is a distant rumor. Mr. White himself is H.I.V. positive, and many of the stories take on the elegiac tone of someone looking back over a life that's slipping through his fingers, reliving old pleasures and disappointments, conjuring up the people who really mattered to him.
The first piece, "Pyrography," could be an outtake from A Boy's Own Story. It's a glimpse of the 1950's that sketches the emotional complications of a camping trip taken by a shy gay teen-ager with two straight buddies. In "Reprise," an older boy whom the narrator had a crush on at the age of 14—which led his divorced parents to send him to a shrink to "cure" him—reappears 40 years later and goes to bed with him, just once. In "Watermarked," the reprise takes place only in recollection. "I've written various versions of my youth but I've always left my first real lover," the story begins. "He's been stamped onto every page of my adult life as a watermark, though sometimes faintly."
Some longer AIDS stories avoid this breezy tone, but they are rarely somber. In one sense nearly all these pieces are AIDS stories, because it's the feeling of mortality that drives the writer to pull together his fugitive memories. But Mr. White sidesteps the tragic note for a more bemused and rueful tone—a French tone, ironic, never at a loss, always worldly and knowing. "Watermarked" ends with a long letter to the old friend and lover, in which AIDS is merely the background music that will usher the two men from the stage. ("You and I are both positive and our prospects aren't exactly brilliant.") Call it denial. Or call it Mr. White's essayistic bent for intellectual comedy, his refusal to let the disease dominate his imagination.
But in the best stories, like "Running on Empty," "Skinned Alive," "An Oracle" and "Palace Days," the author sometimes gives way to a sadness that reverberates more deeply than in anything else he has written. These are not AIDS stories but stories about people with AIDS, not so much wrestling with awful symptoms as coping with what remains of their lives. Writing some months ago in The New Yorker, Arlene Croce questioned whether the horrors of the disease, by eliciting a predictable pathos or rage, were not somehow inimical to art. The answer is simply that, like the grotesque inhumanities of the Holocaust, they make real art more elusive, a more terrible challenge. Mr. White wins this desperate wager by keeping AIDS darkly present yet peripheral to the Proustian endgame of living in the moment while reclaiming the past.
Skinned Alive is the right phrase for the painful, terminal exposure and hard-won candor of these stories. A sick man returns to visit his family in Texas, fearful of slipping back into their orbit if his illness worsens. Two men, no longer lovers but still living together, find they have each other when illness strikes all around them. A man goes to Greece to get over the death of his partner and falls desperately in love with a young Greek from whom he is buying sex, and who knows far better than he does that this feeling is a delusion. Abandoned by his French lover, a writer gives us a wickedly witty story about him, the story we're reading, complete with anatomical detail and cutting comparisons of French and American manners, in and out of bed. Though AIDS puts heavy pressure on these stories, each is essentially about people getting by, still playing the mating game or recalling the carefree way it was once played.
The sense of an ending gives the best of these stories an almost unearthly beauty. Though I was put off by the characters' "ideological horror of marriage as a model" and their "unreflecting appetite for pleasure," I was all the more moved by the sustaining quality of friendship in their lives. Mr. White's subject has always taken the permutations of desire and the impermanence of love, when AIDS exaggerates but friendship allays. Spending the last of many vacations with a dying friend, "Mark heard the radio and the typewriter, these faint life signals Joshua was emitting," Mr. White writes in "Palace Days": "He wanted to know how to enjoy these days without clasping them so tightly he'd stifle the pleasure. But he didn't want to drug himself on the moment either and miss out on what was happening to him. He was losing his best friend, the witness to his life. The skill for enjoying a familiar pleasure about to disappear was hard to acquire…. Knowing how to appreciate the rhythms of these last casual moments—to cherish them while letting them stay casual—demanded a new way of navigating time."
In passages like this, Edmund White the elegist, the essayist, the autobiographer and the novelist come together. These are fragments of memory, not tales with traditional beginnings and ends, but their anecdotal shape provides a much-needed narrative frame, and the constant presence of death gives the writing a heft and seriousness often missing before. This epidemic has heightened the immediacy of his work without washing out its human texture. In writing about AIDS yet keeping it at bay, he has turned a mortal threat into a surprising source of literary strength.
This section contains 1,649 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)