The City and the Pillar
From page 1, the author’s distance and neutrality is very clear. And while this tactic of equidistance and lack of moral judgement might be effective when it comes to promoting equal rights or whatever, it’s more of a disservice if you want readers to actually care what happens to the people in the book. Because, personally, I didn’t really. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t a easy, enjoyable read – perfect for the tram rides to and from work. (Somehow, at home, i always get caught up in something else – like the 10+ TV shows I’ve taken up, or the ever-effective procrastination tools facebook and youtube 😛 ).
But I digress.
There’s Jim Willard, a rather typical highschool kid – a jock, as they’d put it in The Breakfast Club – living with his middle class parents and two siblings in smalltown, Virgina; then there’s Bob, Jim’s close friend with a similar background and one day, the last day before Bob’s departure to become a sailor, they have sex. It’s all very straightforward and a few months latter, a sort of smitten Jim, will run away from home to join the navy and try to reconnect with Bob. And, as destiny would have it, his road will be different; still, the only thing to keep him going, will the thought of Bob, an idealized image of a physical and spiritual twin. On the road to self discovery and, more importantly, to self acceptance, Jim will travel the seas (and will abandon this career when one of his shipmates discovers he’s gay), will live in Hollywood (as the lover of a famous – and closeted, after all, it’s still the 40s – actor), will travel to Mexico in the company of another lover, a mediocre, tortured writer who cannot let himself, or those around him, be happy and content. After this last relationship breaks, Jim joins the army (post Pearl Harbour), but is never sent on a mission aboard. Instead, after a stay in the hospital, he sooner or later resumes relations with everyone in his life – family, the actor, the writer, the woman he somehow loved and finally – Bob. And, as expected, his fantasies about a life with Bob will come to an abrupt stop when he learns that Bob’s life had an entirely different course, culminating in marriage and kids.
All of Jim’s trials are presented matter-of-factly, a lot like a list of experiences. His name, his background, his athletic figure and his preoccupations are all meant to deconstruct the myth of the gay man as womanish, weak, cross dressing and eccentric, and he comes across as a perfectly regular guy capable of leading a perfectly average life. No great tragedy, no fall, no punishment from the gods for being different. Jim’s mistake, his misfortune, doesn’t come from being gay (I like how Mr. Vidal puts it: sex is just sex, it simply exists, with no “good” or “bad” attached to it), but from living in the past instead of moving forward.
In the end, this is a more historically relevant novel, because otherwise, it’s really not that great. But at the time it was published (which was 1948) it caused a serious stir and a wave of outrage: as far as I can see, it was the first modern gay novel of some significance and mainstream newspapers (like the New York Times – in fact, NYT dedicated a total of 10 lines to it) refused to advertise it, or the author’s subsequent novel. In the less puritanical Europe, the responses were rather more positive.
I liked reading it – and I liked the revised edition ending better. It seemed to come more naturally; for Jim to murder Bob would have been a bit out of character; to possess what he had so long desired, be it by force, is somewhat more understandably human.
And now – to digress yet again – I should really go finish packing because in a couple of hours I’ll be flying to Berlin for the next week. I’m pretty excited about the change of scenery and pace and I really really hope it won’t rain the entire time. Forecast’s not too optimistic – so I’ll bring along the dependably funny Terry Pratchett 😉