Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Mea culpa, sort of

Back in October, I ranted about the press that was given to Alan Hollinghurst's novel, The Line of Beauty. I was upset that it was ghettoized as a "gay novel" in all the discussions of its winning a Booker Prize. I acknowledged that I had not read the book but hypothesized that there was much more to the book than the issue of homosexuality.

I was right, in that it is a book with brilliant insights into class in British society, and the workings of the Tory party, and the phenomenon of the Thatcher administration, and it even offers some smart takes on Richard Strauss. It is deftly written and compelling, and full of ironic moments concerning its protagonist's ability (or lack thereof) to read others' reactions to him and their motivations.

But it just may be a gay novel, in that the issue of what it means to be gay, and specifically what it means to be gay in a particular moment in history, place in the world, and class position. The main character, Nick, wrestles to make sense of his identity throughout the novel, and he struggles to understand the implications of being gay, especially given his class aspirations. He is a self-acknowledged "aesthete," with an ability to recognize both physical and linguistic beauty. He is crazy for Henry James, and indeed the novel has some of what is best in James's novels, which is the ability to present characters so that the reader can see their most despicable qualities and yet be absolutely taken in by them. Hollinghurst is able, as James was, to present the nuances of social class and its fallout such that even a bumbling yank like yours truly can understand it--yet nothing ever beats the reader over the head. Even the sex scenes, which are rich in detail, are never overdone, even if you're not used to reading about sex between men.

In other words, I can see why reviewers might have called this book a gay novel, and while I stand by my assertions that there is so very much more to it than that, I acknowledge that I was too quick to condemn them.

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