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Critical Review by Brendan Lemon
SOURCE: "An American Scrapbook," in The Nation, Vol. 246, No. 14, April 9, 1988, pp. 503-4.
In the following review, Lemon praises White's The Beautiful Room is Empty, but complains that "the ending's exhilarations [are a diminishment of the power and beauty of what had gone before."]
It was inevitable that the 1960s revival would produce a retrospective novel about gay life in New York City. Less fated, and more welcome, is that the task was assumed by an artist as gifted as Edmund White. The Beautiful Room Is Empty (the title comes from one of Franz Kafka's letters to Milena Jesenská) interweaves public and private events, and even more than its predecessor, A Boy's Own Story, encourages speculation that the author is offering us not just an autobiographical novel but a memoir tout court.
The unnamed narrator lifts facts from White's own dossier: year of birth (1940), Midwestern childhood, University of Michigan education, literary métier, current Parisian domicile and, of course, an appearance at the Stonewall riot, a badge as obligatory for an activist—and as often fudged—as attendance at Woodstock. More telling than this mere matching of facts is the author's fidelity to his master, Vladimir Nabokov, whose uncharacteristic "blurbissimo" advanced White's first novel, the icily brilliant Forgetting Elena, and who, in Speak, Memory, defined the purpose of autobiography as the tracing of thematic designs throughout a life.
Once again the main thread is the narrator's attempt "to love and be loved by men, yet remain heterosexual." It's a struggle perfectly attuned to the adolescent novel, which, since Fielding at least, has focused on the forging of identity, and it proves serviceable again here, in part because, although the book wraps itself in 1960s lore, much of its spirit remains mired in familiar familial repressions of the late 1950s. In A Boy's Own Story, the conflict was enacted inwardly, suffused with yearning, and flooded primarily with guilt; in Beautiful Room, the drama moves outward, oozes bald desire and acquires shame, a more public feature consonant with the new book's acts of furtive erotic expression.
White handles New York City street and subway cruising and collegiate lavatory sex not in the bloodless manner of the film Prick Up Your Ears, nor with the uninhibited glee of the spunky Orton Diaries, but with a mix of analysis and zeal characteristic of the author whose Joy of Gay Sex and States of Desire: Travels in Gay America remain uncanny monuments to the lost art of promiscuity and that art's classic age—the Bad Good Old Days: the 1970s. That his unbridled homoeroticism continues to provoke polite aversion in otherwise hale quarters might amuse White, for in his crisp Condé Nast journalism, and especially in his catty 1985 novel, Caracole, he delights in guying such exemplars of wealth, power and unyielding masculinity. This fascination continues in Beautiful Room. The narrator's fraternity brothers replay a weekend for each other on Monday morning, and "their reports contained no mention of feelings beyond nausea and highly localized lust ('I'm such a beaver man, just put a shaving brush to my lips when I'm asleep and I'll start munching')." Like his more patrician counterpart, Gore Vidal, White extracts gold from such base social ore most effectively when his gaze is trained on the mother lode: America.
For White's narrator, America is a world of stern fathers; the most heinous crimes are Communism, heroin addiction and homosexuality, and "talking about the self and its discontent, isolation, self-hatred, and burning ambition for sex and power" is forbidden. To escape these taboos the narrator befriends a leftist lesbian painter, Maria, the book's most vivid and exacting presence, and an ad exec/drug addict, Lou. In addition, the narrator, a nominal Buddhist who denies soul, will and self, turns to the quintessential American forum for talk: psychotherapy.
Dr. O'Reilly, A Boy's Own Story's cross-addicted analyst, reappears to guide the underclassman narrator, but like a star who, after a string of flops, returns to his career-launching part, his role has become a caricature. He introduces the narrator to Annie Schroeder, a bulimic patient:
"Those stuffy Freudians would split a gut," he said, or rather mumbled, since the pills and alcohol slurred his speech. "But Annie's a good gal, though she's got a psycho for an old man, right out of Dostoevsky, and a mother who wants to be Annie's daughter." He clapped me on the shoulder with too much force. "A fine gal, Annie, but don't think I'm jealous. I'm not the avenging father."
O'Reilly scorns the narrator's reliance on intellect; in defense, the young man's resisting fancy takes flight, pouring forth a stream of interior, Quine-like definitions. "The mind a boat at sea rebuilding itself while under sail. The mind a rotting meat under expensive spices. The mind a pure spirit (the unsuspecting wife) under the sway of a murderous will (Bluebeard)." Readers grateful for the poetic intensity of White's language may also find themselves desirous, occasionally, of a word cop to direct the traffic in metaphors.
Much later, in New York, the shrink-shopping narrator learns to check his intellect at the door. He and his lover, Sean, like couples in tawdry French novels who renounce love to don collar and veil, enroll in "games people play" groups. In his assemblage the narrator encounters a Russian immigrant named Simon, whose repartee shows off White's ear for humor in dialogue even as Simon's relentless refrain ("I wanna hear about de goils") drives the young man to violence, thus ending the self-hating heterosexual quest.
Gays going straight is not the discarded literary theme of a decade ago; AIDS-related repression and attendant auto-homophobia have restored its aptness as a subject. White takes advantage of the shifting cultural wind: Like Maria's favorite opera, Der Rosenkavalier, he enrolls a bygone age—the 1960s—in his pursuit of commentary on more recent events. (He has composed three more overt tales about the AIDS era, collected, with several by Adam Mars-Jones, in The Darker Proof.) In Beautiful Room, White gets at the roots of modern gay self-loathing and its imperative: One must ingratiate oneself to society and its institutions, as well as to co-workers, family, even friends. With his boyfriend Sean, for example, as with the teen-age buddy Kevin in A Boy's Own Story, the narrator disavows what he has felt and experienced:
One night as we were lying in bed, Sean said that that afternoon he had used a public toilet and walked in on an orgy.
"Oh, how awful," I said.
"What are they doing there?" he asked
"What do you mean?"
"Of course I know they're there for sex, but how can they do it? It's really subhuman."
"Totally subhuman," I said.
The incongruence between inner avowal and public expression, of course, is the classic symptom of the Trilling syndrome: insincerity. White cleverly builds upon this quality in the Art of Fiction passages laced into the text. The clearest clue to his affect, however, may be contained at the end of Kafka's title-bestowing missive: "And don't demand any sincerity from me, Milena. No one can demand it from me more than I myself and yet many things elude me, I'm sure, perhaps everything eludes me."
Insincerity dogs almost all of Beautiful Room's characters eventually: William Everett Hunton, the prissy collegiate pal whose counterfeit sexual posing is matched by his fake name ("Some day when we're sisters I'll tell you my real name, but if you snitch on me I'll pull your braids and dip them in the inkwell"); the narrator's sister, who contra natura marries and settles in the suburbs before coming out, which convinces the narrator that "something—genetic or psychological—in our family … had made us both gay"; their mother, who frowns on her son's behavior and announces "I like men," even as she grows more intimate with Maria. Maria, full of socialism, good sense and a University of Chicago-trained intellect, recants her pro-Moscow line and utters anachronistic slogans about the feminization of poverty.
If no character is endowed with what John Updike called "persuasive inertia," the quality that causes figures to linger long in the mind after the book is shut, it doesn't matter. White's sad, stylish prose, his tonic mix of elegy and irony, the page-by-page proof that he is one of our most perceptive prose writers, overwhelms any serious caviling. What's more, the idea that to respond to a novel we must "care" about its characters is hardly worth refuting. (As if we had always to like what we respect or admire or love.) And in a work this close to memoir, especially one which fulfills so beautifully its thematic premise, to ask for a well-wrought plot would amount to impertinence: "My plots are all scrapbooks," the author avers parenthetically.
And yet White's novel/memoir would be more satisfying, I think, had it "wrapped" less abruptly, at Stonewall. The narrator's prise de conscience has been inadequately prepared; the 1960s' second half, to most the more interesting years, are dispensed with in a few pages. And the remark dropped into the middle of the final scene, "I caught myself foolishly imagining that gays might someday constitute a community rather than a diagnosis," while thematically sharp, confers an awkward roman à thèse status on the entire enterprise. Perhaps the author wanted a way out, from community back to diagnosis, when he brings the story to the present. Perhaps community was too enticing a notion to leave out of his 1960s saga.
I may be alone in thinking the ending's exhilarations a diminishment of the power and beauty of what had gone before. Or it may be that under the current ravaged social and economic circumstances, few readers could greet liberation with the sound of more than one hand clapping.
This section contains 1,605 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)