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Critical Review by Clark Blaise
SOURCE: "Don't Give In to the Baggy Grown-Ups," in The New York Times Book Review, March 20, 1988, p. 7.
In the following review, Blaise asserts that White's The Beautiful Room is Empty "is packaged as an autobiographical novel, yet as a novel its flaws reduce its value and interest considerably."
The title of Edmund White's new novel, The Beautiful Room is Empty, derives from one of Kafka's nightmarish images of perfect symmetry. It seems to me part of a grand design, framed by an urgent and tragic necessity. Grand design because this book had its "prequel" in 1982 in A Boy's Own Story (set during the narrator's Midwestern childhood and adolescence), and this current volume breaks off in 1969, with the same narrator shouting "Gay Is Good!" on Christopher Street outside the just-raided Stonewall Inn. By the end of the first book, he had entered the gay life; by the end of the second, he has glimpsed the origins of gay politics and experienced the birth of a gay community. The specter of AIDS, much in the mind of anyone who reads these two books, had not yet surfaced. Neither had the sexual frenzy of the bathhouse 70's. (This book, in fact, opens on a note as innocent and reassuring as "Goodbye, Columbus": "I met Maria during my next-to-last year in prep school.")
As readers it is pleasant for us to think we might be at the inception of a planned series of intensely sexual experiences, a somber counterweight to John Updike's perennially greening Rabbit, or a gay-WASP retelling of Philip Roth's Zuckerman myth. The 70's and 80's in the life of gay America, as tumultuous and tragic a period as any we've experienced, demand their chronicler Edmund White (co-author of one monument to the gay liberation movement of the 70's, the now anachronistically titled Joy of Gay Sex, and the author of States of Desire: Travels in Gay America, plus three earlier novels) has the credentials for it.
This is, admittedly, putting the best possible interpretation on the enterprise. It's just as easy to observe that the form and content of this book are at odds, as they often are in matters of urgency. This book is packaged as an autobiographical novel, yet as a novel its flaws reduce its value and interest considerably. A novel is something considerably more than a personal narrative, wholly or partially imagined.
Material that feels autobiographical has to be dramatically recast. Unprepared, unmotivated conversions or revelations cannot appear as plot devices. In the course of this book and its predecessor, the narrator's favorite teacher is exposed (by letter) as gay; Maria, the apparently straight best female friend he thinks he loves, suddenly announces her lesbianism; the make-out king of his Michigan fraternity is at least bisexual; and, finally, the narrator's sister with her three children and suburban marriage—she's gay. Minor characters are far too often pure stereotypes: the blustery shrink who promises a cure of homosexuality turns out to be an alcoholic, pill-popping loony; the father is the essence of Babbittry; the mother resembles an aging coquette out of Tennessee Williams: "No morphrodites, for that's what they called homosexuals down South. No morphrodites in our bloodlines!"
Does it matter? Of course it matters. All readers want to know where the authority in a book is coming from, "real life" (the autobiography), the political agenda, or the artistic design. This book is a confusion of all three.
Yet Mr. White's success lies in establishing two contradictory truths: gay men are very much like straight men; and gay men and straight men are fundamentally different. He does so by the meticulous reconstruction of the very texture of his sexuality (much of it sordid, most of it unquotable in this review).
Anyone can identify with the narrator-as-wallflower. "It didn't occur to me that this shockingly intense pleasure could be sought after. If you're someone mainly eager to please others, you don't think much about your own pleasure." Much later he reflects, after years of dedicated iron pumping to eliminate a tendency to fat: "I was so glad I'd bothered to acquire a nice body, since it gave me something to offer every night to a different man…. I went to bed with anyone who wanted me." Two of the sturdiest heterosexual stereotypes, Don Juanism and nymphomania, fade before the fervid sexuality of this narrator. Of his years as a "John queen" in a University of Michigan men's room he writes, "I was alone with my sexuality, since none of these men spoke to me, nor did I even know their faces, much less their names." In describing his nightly cruising of the streets of Ann Arbor or Chicago, he writes, "The thrill came when one bagged not another old fruit but a hot young college kid, for although I myself was at least young and in college, I already saw myself as vampire-cold, turned prematurely old as a punishment for vice…. I'd learned to feel nostalgia for my own youth while I was living it."
In other words, much—but not all—of this account of pre-AIDS male sexuality applies to most of the bachelor bulls of American puritanism, whatever their orientation. "Hets" can relate to the obsessive 50's and their rituals of picking up, making out, scoring, leering at centerfolds (size being a matter of anxiety to both camps). Any of us can relate to the soppy feelings of love, certain lines of which could be set to music: "Then he was gone. I put my lips where his had been on the coffee cup. I felt elated, because that was all I'd ever wanted, to be loved, and nobody ever had."
The promiscuity of the life, and the shallowness of each encounter, are rendered without apology, without reflection. But then Mr. White's narrator turns the tables, lest we be too quick to understand him. He acknowledges the deep sense of shame that accompanies his early "deeds in the dark," and perhaps we even approve the guilt he feels over his "malady." Then he launches a zinger:
And yet something wild and free in me didn't want to give in to them, the big baggy grown-ups. No, if I were perfectly honest … I'd have to admit that there was a world run by women and feminized men (not effeminate but feminized men) that I wanted to escape, the world of mild suburban couples, his and her necks equally thick and creased, their white hair similarly cropped. The … slow wink of a drag queen looking back at me over her ratty fox neckpiece just before she turned the corner—these glimpses piqued my craving for freedom, despite my yearning after respectability.
So, according to Mr. White, gay men are "effeminate" and suburban straights are "feminized." Gay men are defined by their sex acts; straights are no less imprisoned by their sex roles. "We" would have the gay men "grow up" and quit acting out their narcissistic infantilism; "they" would have us act as sexually mature adults and quit sublimating our sex drives in child abuse, Super Bowls and mortgage payments.
With all the suspicion and downright fear that engulfs American "manhood" as it confronts one of its ancient fears, it's heartening to think that any reasonably tolerant heterosexual would be more likely to quarrel with the form than with the content of this book.
This section contains 1,220 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)