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'Caracole.' (novel by Edmund White)

"MESSY LIVES, that's the name of the book I'm going to write." Thus says one of the characters (as stylish as ever, but almost hysterical with boredom) in Caracole. The projected title might well have served for the novel itself. It might equally serve as the name of The Collected Works of Edmund White, as and when such a name be needed. Those works are now beginning to look truly collected, if not cool or calm, a small shelf of guidebooks, in several different genres, to contemporary life.

Caracole is a book that comes to the reader surrounded by others. It is graced with epigraphs by Stendhal and George Eliot. James was certainly looking over White's shoulder while he sat at his desk on the Grand Canal and wrote in his most virtuoso American-in-Europe manner, a style as glittering and as critical of the arts of high society as a multiple portrait by John Singer Sargent. Possibly the Joyce of A Portrait of the Artist was also in attendance, since here too a young man stumbles through the childhood difficulties of grammar on the first page and is offered a new, adult life on the last. The Wilde of Dorian Gray was definitely there, since this hero also, as he picks his way home at dawn, watches flowers and vegetables being brought into the market, miraculous proof that the country still exists somewhere beyond the sins of the city.

Also remembered and recalled in this highly cultured text is another and less literary one: the adolescent diary which so many of us gay men kept in the first two years after we moved to the city; that diary (now possibly lost, and certainly an embarrassment) in which the names of men, the details of infatuations, books read, and fashions imitated were all listed with equal and equally sincere enthusiasm. This anonymous narrative is one that shares a crucial ambition with Caracole; its author does profoundly believe that by writing things down, you can make sense of them.

Caracole is also particularly shadowed by two of White's own previous books, both of them landmarks in the history of gay writing and publishing. The Joy of Gay Sex was the book you used to find casually staring from the bookshelf or waiting by the bed to announce that its owner was well and truly out; and A Boy's Own Story was the first mainstream gay novel that you could be sure of finding in station bookshops. Gay writing for gays, and gay writing for straights. Caracole, true to its title, dances and capers between those two positions.

The word caracole has several meanings. depending on which European language we're speaking. (Let's assume. in the world of this novel at least, that anybody who is anybody speaks several.) But in any language it means something intricate, beautiful, and elaborate. In Caracole it seems that this beauty is the product of a very American Europe. one that has landscape, that isn't picturesque, no class between the cruelly impoverished workers and a dazzling (if cruelly impoverished) aristocracy; this fiction is hardly overcrowded with people who lead the genuinely messy lives, the poor, confused, and violent lives of a real contemporary European capital. We can rest assured, however, that White knew exactly what he was doing when he populated his city exclusively with the rich, beautiful, well-educated or, at the very least, young. The creation of this world of privilege privileges the reader; by making it clear that the whole proceedings have something of the air of a fancy dress ball or a foreign holiday, the author offers us the pleasure of casting ourselves in any role we please.

This is a novel that provides the deepest pleasure of the form: that of imagining other lives. We are invited to imagine ourselves both as the charming, permanently hard, inarticulate adolescent and as the sophisticated older woman who surprises herself by falling in love with him--a combination of roles that may be witnessed nightly in any gay bar. The text is nothing if not generous with its offers of identification; fifteen- and forty-five-year-old bodies are detailed by the same vivid (autobiographical) eye. In sex scenes that combine delicacy with indelicacy to great erotic effect, we are invited to experience both the helpless energy of the boy standing over the bed and the more cultivated sensations of the older, wiser body that he's fucking ("I can't take it all"). White relishes the role of guide, educator, and connoisseur.

His seduction of the reader starts with words. As the young hero stumbles through the rural world of his childhood, in which words as well as facts are largely incomprehensible to him, the reader too will find the pages as obscure as they are delightful; one page alone features caroming, frogged, lye, Fleurettes, and slather. Later, the very words that one might assume to be full of obvious meaning appear only in inverted comma: "`marriage'--whatever that might mean." The reader can't quite be sure if this eclectic hunt for verbal precision is in the cause of accuracy or pleasure, of form or of content. Like any form of cruising (and White's text, quite deliberately, makes the choice of words seem as delightful and fraught a process as the choosing of partners), browsing through the dictionary can be a search for either beauty or honesty. The most basic experience of the book is that its words--confusing, erudite, sensuous, elegant, unexpected, difficult--can create and re-create the most extraordinary sense of adventure, eroticized uncertainty. The text repeatedly plunges in sweeping after-dinner pronouncements on its great themes--love, power, riches, sex--but the reader is often uncertain whether what is being offered is a truth or an irony or perhaps just a brilliantly phrased platitude. At the very moment when an opera rises to its ecstatic climax and one of the characters is moved to make a simple. authentic. and physical declaration of love. another will lean forward and whisper. "Shockingly silly music, isn't it?" Even the pacing of the novel works to seduce the reader, unsettle him or her with a cocktail of pleasure and danger. At times (usually the long hours before dawn), the characters consider their lives with such slow, reflective seriousness that the reader is uncertain whether to feel stone-cold sober or the helpless inebriation of a drunkard reappraising the minutiae of life with stoned concentration. At other times (midnight approaches), the party takes off. The novel climaxes in a delirious, overdressed whirl of mistaken identities at a teal masque: a girl dressed as a boy, the blue silk of a ball gown hiding a wet penis, duchesses disguised as duchesses, a gun in the wrong hand, a quick fuck in the corner converted on the stroke of midnight into the consummation of true love; this is a book that is in no doubt that the taking of pleasure is never easy.

But is it modern? I mean. does anyone read books anymore, never mind beautiful books about the beautiful lives of beautiful people? And more to the point: Is it gay? A disturbed London journalist recently crossed the room to ask me "I've heard Edmund claim that his next novel will be all about heterosexuals. It isn't true, is it?" Well, it was true. But there's more to it than that.

The city in which the novel is largely set has been created out of pure wish-fulfillment; it exists in several places and in several eras at once. It is recognizably Venice (the city of Visconti's Senso rather than Mann's Death in Venice) but also contemporary Paris and certainly also Manhattan, that other offshore island of dreams. (Against a backdrop of palazzi, people in elaborate gowns will insist on saying things like "I'm sure glad" or "Pull it out. Play with yourself.") It has every delight that the discerning faggot could ask for: culture, cafes, crumbling palaces, white-painted loft apartments,in the more dubious but affordable parts of town, an extensive and pointless carnival, gorgeously overdressed men and women, fresh seafood, handsome waiters. The only thing it doesn't have is a gay ghetto. The characters may sing snatches of the latest dance hit in front of the mirror, but there is no gay disco for them to go to. Amid all the novel's permutations on and redefinitions of the word love, no one ever touches anyone of his or her own sex. Even in a contemporary straight author's fictional world surely there would be some telltale sign of gay life, a gay character at least, if not a culture.

At this point we may begin to identify the madness in White's elaborate method--for madness it surely is. With the enormously successful A Boy's Own Story White changed the history of gay writing and its place in the culture. He produced (accidentally; the text should not be confused with the marketing) something that all critics and all bookshops and all consumers could label as The American Gay Novel, a book that could be made to summarize and, with luck, terminate the more challenging and embarrassing aspects of the gay publishing boom. The sales of A Boy's Own Story announced that gay writing had come of age, had become like other writing; it could now be definable, marketable. Now, for his encore, White has produced what none of his readers--neither those who wanted to claim him as really straight nor those who would have him remain really gay (both parties consider themselves to have exclusive rights to the notion of real literature)--could have expected: a fantasy about rich, terminally sophisticated, European heterosexuals.... For this affront the book has been slaughtered by critics, straight and gay. How dare he write about us? How dare he write about them?

Well how? What is he actually doing? His heterosexual characters bear little relation to the creatures that normally populate the novel--a form created to deal with amorous and domestic difficulties with marriage. The laws of family life seem here to exist only in the most oblique forms: they survive as picturesque rituals among immigrant workers, in the plots of the less frequently revived operas, as roles assumed and then exhausted by a sextet of principals who play father, mother, uncle, mistress, brother, sister, lover, whore, daughter, and son to each other in every possible combination. Every detail of family life is there; only the family is absent. One gets the feeling that if White were ever to escalate the rhythms of his plot to those of farce, then the rules of adultery and propriety would have been rendered obsolete, though doubtless they would be honored and indeed cherished for their thrilling severity. Onstage, the make-believe terrors of confusion would still reign; backstage, everyone would be free to couple with everyone else in whatever costume they chose.

Into this world enter two children, their names--Gabriel and Angelica--indicating a divine (which is to say, obscurely presocial) origin. Gabriel, our hero, travels from childhood to manhood in the course of the novel, undergoing every rite of passage that heterosexual masculinity can devise. A masturbatory childhood spent under the hostile eyes of a silent father drifts into an experimental and passionate adolescence of scrapes and escapes. This is followed by the inevitable journey to the big city, an environment that enables him systematically to trade his youth for a working knowledge of the ways of the world. Gabriel's first wish is to be handsome, to see his face transfigured, the man set free of the acned boy. His next wish is to be married to his true love, though neither the word marriage nor the word love means anything to him, and he "loves" whatever is to hand. Leaving his first love swiftly behind him, he is taken up by an older man who teaches him how to live--how to have a house of his own, how to appear confident with total strangers, how to serve real coffee. He continues to masturbate. He learns by imitation (never becoming quite sure how anything works and certainly not why it works) the chameleon arts of The Party, The Seduction, True Love, The All Night Session, The New Affair. Finally, without even noticing how it happened, he becomes on the very last page of the book a real man--active, talked about, loved, powerful, reassured of his own authenticity and importance.

Now, remembering all the time that this is supposed to be a novel about heterosexuals, that this is a novel without homosexuals, that this is a novel by Edmund White, reread that precis of a sexual and social career. Sound at all familiar? Is it not the typical plotline of a homosexual entry into big-city life and manhood--which in this novel, as in many gay lives, are synonymous.

We can be sure that White isn't writing a cryptic homosexual story; historically that genre no longer exists and certainly isn't about to be revived by the author of The Joy of Gay Sex, who has nothing to hide. So why does the story, entirely heterosexual, feel so gay? Perhaps it is the details. Would any straight writer remember to include a dab of white lubricant in his lovingly detailed buggery scene? Would any straight writer begin a sentence on the difficulties his male characters are having in communicating their feelings with the phrase, "If two men are not lovers . . ."? Would anyone but a queen of White's grace and skill characterize one of his heroines by reference to "her lack of culture, her infamous politics, her obvious intelligence, her outre but effective white fox coat"?

My feeling that White was using his "heterosexual" novel to write about my/our experiences of the world was only clarified when I finished the book for the first time and turned the last page and read the notes on the dust jacket. Here I was told that White "has been best known for his books about the gay experience, especially the nonfiction States of Desire: Travels in Gay America and the novels A Boy's Own Story and Nocturnes for the King of Naples" (I can't help noticing that the best-selling Joy of Gay Sex has somehow been overlooked here) "but with Caracole he devotes himself to the examination of the larger world."

There you have it. There is the large, adult World of Life and its Arts, important, secure, and profitable; and then there is a minor department of Life called "the gay world." By this advertisement of White's text, we are supposed to be eager to sigh with relief now that one of "our" authors has grown out of his smaller world into the larger World. The news from White, however, in this gorgeous, glorious text is that there is only one world. That is why his city has no gay suburb through which we can pass. He is proposing that a gay text is not the same thing as a text "about" gayness--a text that requires that gayness be a subject, an issue, a problem to be treated and fictionally resolved, a malady to be chronicled, a case history to be detailed. What we have instead is a geography of the whole city, drawn from a gay perspective. White is simply making the assumption that a gay version of the world might be a true one; oblique, but precisely because of that it is informed, revealing, powerful.

Looking back along the shelf of White's works, we see that this is no new departure. Was A Boy's Own Story really about a single gay man? It was certainly structured around the experiences of a single gay child, but what it created was not a sentimental portrait of an individual but an impassioned picture of the workings of a whole culture. The novel is about the adult reader's attempt to disentangle memory, sympathy, bitterness, and regret as he deciphers exactly where and how this child, this boy who carries all our hopes for an adult gayness within him, came to enter the curious, dark state of American manhood. Whose fault was it? Was it just because the fifties were like that? Was it to do with being gay, with having to betray and then submit to a sexual system you felt excluded from? Was it the vice of all men--or was he just a brat?

States of Desire is another version of the same story, with the hero several years older, using his travels as a gay journalist to scrutinize, enjoy (sometimes uneasily), judge and be judged by the variety of American gay culture. Like every travel book, it is an autobiography. The confessional "I" hops from city to city to New York, just as inevitably as Gabriel in Caracole journeys toward his urban destiny. For White there can be no larger subject than the transformation of the child into the adult, the entrance of a young man into a sophisticated world that puzzles him because he is young. Even The Joy of Gay Sex tells this story; it advises you, step-by-step, how to enter into an adult world, how to become the man you want to be.

The books are all about a young gay man entering the world; that is, a young man who occupies a very special place in the world, for whom nothing initially makes necessary sense, for whom the roles of man or woman, child or prince, guest or owner, father or son are all equally bewildering and insufficient. Caracole, in a step of logic as beautiful as it is daring, takes this specifically gay sense of dislocation to its logical formal conclusion. White's exclusion of all material homosexuality from the narrative makes it essentially homosexual; the lack of shared meaning between the hero and his world is, for the homosexual, absolute, not a question of degree. White's choice of protagonists is far from decorative; it is incisive, revealing. For a gay artist, the world cannot be honestly scrutinized by means of realism. In this instance, White dares us to consider that its cracks, its flaws, and its mechanisms might best be scrutinized through the construction of a fantasy populated entirely by those unreal creatures, heterosexuals. Only a gay man can see how fantastic their world (the World) really is. Only he can so fully submit to his fascination with its mechanisms while insisting that they are neither natural nor just.

If a gay man can see heterosexuals as delightful fictions, he must also acknowledge their real and terrible power. The fantasy of Caracole, for the reader at least, ends with a rude awakening. As in the earlier Forgetting Elena, where on the final page the hero discovers that he is in fact the Prince of the very island he has been exploring in the guise of an ill-informed tourist, as in A Boy's Own Story, where the boy learns that betrayal can be easy, that gaining power can be a pleasure, so in Caracole the story ends on a note of shocking realization. Somehow, without either the hero or the reader noticing it, the hero has become a man, an integral part of that very culture that he thought he was viewing from the outside, as a child or anthropologist. In the very last sentence someone whispers into his ear what he must do and who he d become." Note the past tense; there is no going back. He is now a man like all the others.

That a "gay hero." who traditionally celebrates the ending of his narrative by striking out into his own gay world, should end his novel by entering the world of male power at its most conservative is a twist in White's plot that I find deeply shocking. Having enjoyed and endured the rites of passage, the exciting initiation into what feels like a subversive life, we suddenly turn and see ourselves in the mirror over the bar. We have become one of the very men who, as boys, we adored and feared, the men who run the world and who know how it works. At this point the erotic glamour of our journey into the city fades abruptly. What was witty seems heartless, what was handsome merely brutal, what was mysterious merely old-fashioned, what was precious merely conservative.

As he leaves this bitter taste in our mouths, White is touching on a very specific male gay guilt. It is the guilt of realizing that you are, perhaps, not necessarily a very different man from your father. All of White's heroes are leaving their fathers, entering the world of manhood, but when they get there, they find that the company feels not so much like the radical fraternity dreamed of by Wilde, Genet, Whitman, or Carpenter as like the next generation of fathers, of men.

White doesn't offer any absolution from this guilt, any compensation for his strangely unhappy and self-critical endings. We can never quite identify (and so hope to avoid ourselves) a single moment at which the hero, who is of course ourselves, makes the wrong choice, a single moment at which the liberating potential of young desire was corrupted. His text may be a pleasure--but it is a serious and an unnerving one. I can't help feeling, apropos those critics who have identified this text as somehow reactionary or retrogressive, that there is something very modern indeed about this insistence that in the midst of our ridiculous, hedonistic lives there are, continually, points of moral and emotional choice, good and bad decisions to be made.

Note: This review of Caracole was first published in the Body Politic in Toronto in 1986. It was written partly as a defense of the novel in the wake of criticism in which gay reviewers, developing a new twist on the traditional view that homosexual artists couldn't write about the heterosexual world, pronounced that they shouldn't. This reaction to White's work was the logical conclusion of a cultural theory that saw all historical gay artistry merely as a crippled and crippling prologue to modern, postliberation, "real" gay culture, dealing explicitly with "real" gay subject matter--the kind of work that White himself was seen as having pioneered in The Joy of Gay Sex, States of Desire, and A Boy's Own Story. In this context Caracole was taken to be a betrayal. With hindsight it can now be reread and seen as a landmark, reclaiming a whole prehistory of high camp narratives in which a gay voice rewrites straight lives and in so doing undoes the world. It was not old-fashioned but drastically forward looking in its anticipation of what gay writing might choose to do. Incidentally, its depiction of an imaginary world of European high culture at its most exquisite will also now have to be reread in the light of White's painstaking and equally ambiguous chronicling of that world in Genet.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Bartlett, Neil
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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