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[738-6] Novella: “Love in a Fallen City” – Eileen Chang

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This is the last post on the Eileen Chang series. Foreign readers are probably most familiar with Love in a Fallen City (傾城之戀), which has achieved popularity almost instantly after its first release. Over the decades the story has been adopted and made into theater plays, movies, and television series. It’s more accessible to English readers since it is one of the first of Chang’s works to be translated.

Hong Kong’s defeat had brought Liusu victory. But in this unreasonable world, who can distinguish cause from effect? Who knows which is which? Did a great city fall so that she could be vindicated? Countless thousands of people dead, countless thousands of people suffering, after that an earth­shaking revolution … Liusu didn’t feel there was anything sub­tle about her place in history. She stood up, smiling, and kicked the pan of mosquito-repellant incense under the table.

At age 28, Bai Liusu has already been divorced her abusive husband for almost 8 years. Having moved back home and lived off her brothers, she is shocked to find they have resented her all along. In the wee hour of the night comes the obituary news of this ex-husband, whose family expects Liusu to be on bereavement. Her family has blamed her and this disgraceful divorce for the decline of their wealth. So it’s against this backdrop of shifting conflict between traditional family structures and customs and the modern world that Chang posits Liusu, who has to carve out a precarious space for herself, albeit often at the expense of others. In this case, it’s her sister Baoluo. Liusu becomes acquainted and eventually falls in love with the man the matchmaker selects for her sister.

Fan Liuyuan and Bai Liusu are from different worlds. He studied abroad in England and she was raised in family still rooted in customs from imperial times. Despite their mutual affection for each other, they have to jump hoops imposed by class and gender difference. He is phobic of marriage and she is urgent to break free of her family. From Shanghai to Hong Kong their relationship seems to drag insouciantly. The story is fraught with sexual tension, moral ambiguity, and pangs of conscience. Love in a Fallen City illuminates on a woman’s struggle: to find a man, fall in love, get him to marry her, thus ensuring a comfortable future and no loss of social status. Liusu’s victory is a monumental one: not only does she overcome personal qualms, she also honestly coonects with another person—through a war in a besieged city.

[734] A Lesson Before Dying – Earnest J. Gaines

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” How do people come up with a date and a time to take the life from another man? Who made them God? . . . Twelve white men say a black man must die, and another white man sets the date and time without consulting one black person. Justice? ” (Ch.20, p.157)

A Lesson Before Dying is about two black men, one a teacher, the other a death row inmate, who struggle to live, and to die, with dignity. A primary school teacher, Grant Wiggins, narrates the story of Jefferson, who has been found guilty of robbery and murder in the first degree. When a white liquor-store owner is killed during a robbery attempt, along with his two black assailants, the innocent bystander Jefferson gets death, despite the defense plea that “I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” Hog. The world lingers like a foul odor and weighs as heavily as the sentence on Jefferson and the woman who raised him, his “nannan” (godmother) Miss Emma. She needs an image of Jefferson going to his death like a man, with dignity and respect, and she turns to the young teacher at the plantation school for help.

The jury, twelve white men good and true, still sentenced him to death. Now his godmother wants me to visit him and make him know—prove to these white men—that he’s not a hog, that he’s a man. I’m supposed to make him a man. Who am I? God? (Ch.20, p.158)

Grant has his own problems: stuck teaching in a plantation school on the white man’s terms; visiting Jefferson in jail would just mean more kowtowing. Then his struggle overcoming racial divide is equally troublesome. His crossing the color line to love a divorced Creole woman, Vivian Baptiste. She becomes yet another reason why Grant, an atheist, must save Jefferson’s dignity if not save him from execution.

The book steers clear of being sentimental despite the very sensitive subject matter. Grant Wiggins narrates in a very muted voice. Despite Jefferson’s initial bitter resignation to his execution, which lends credence to the lesson of how Jim Crow would break down educated men like Grant and prisoners like Jefferson to “the nigger you were born to be,” Grant manages to reach out to Jefferson. In trying to save him from disgrace, justice and Jefferson’s innocence suddenly seem secondary. In reaching out to Jefferson Grant has come to embrace a new depth, irrelevant of religion, that even the reverend cannot accomplish. The most touching, and also the most significant message is that Grant accepts Jefferson’s plight as his own and begins to fight for Jefferson’s salvation. He accepts his duty to the society he inhabits. The entire novel lambastes a society steeped in injustice. Jefferson’s death not only liberates him, it also defies the society that wrongfully accused him and convicted him not just or murder, but of being black-skinned. For a book published relatively in the present, in 1993, Gaines really retains and recreates that suffocating, racially-tense atmosphere of the post-World War Two South.

256 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

256 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Out-and-Proud Reads

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Known as the “deer park” of Southern California, Palm Springs is historically the desert playground for Hollywood stars. Now it’s an artsy and gourmet town catered to the hip and chic crowd, including the gays. What do you do in Palm Springs if you’re into bar hopping and partying? You read! Grab a few books, sit on the chaise by the pool, and read up!

At my premium gay men resort library, I stumbled upon an issue of Out magazine in which Philip Hensher, British author and Booker Prize finalist, reveals his 10 must-read gay novels.

It’s safe to say that having read 7 in this list the gay card will not be taken away from me. Three of them—The Swimming Pool Library, Maurice, and Giovanni’s Room are among some of the most important, and most memorable, books that have shaped my adulthood and that I have re-read over the years. Maurice is Forster’s best although the subject matter was ahead of its time. The book was a pioneer in the way it portrays how people try to make sense of their desire with no precedent. Giovanni’s Room is the love story of an American in Paris and an Italian bartender. The Swimming Pool Library is the most dense book on the list. It also afford the stereotypically oversexed gay life.

The ones I haven’t read are The Bell, The Kills, and Christopher and His Kind. I’m very surprised to find out that Murdoch was somebody who was very interested in the gay male experience. The Kills is the only one I haven’t heard of. It’s a post-Iraq War epic story, and its size speaks for its epicness.

[676] Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters

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” The truth was this: that whatever successes I might achieve as a girl, they would be nothing compared to the triumphs I should enjoy clad, however girlishly, as a boy. ” (Part I, Ch.5, p.123)

Sarah Waters’s debut novel is one that plays safe by following a conventional plot that begins in 1888. Tipping the Velvet focuses solely on homosexuality in fin de siècle England. In the nutshell, it’s an exuberant, lusty novel about a lesbian adventuress, at the mercy of fate, drifting through the underworld of Victorian London.

In the 1890s, the unassuming daughter of an oyster farmer in Whitstable, Nancy Astley attends the music hall performances, where she first falls in love with Kitty Butler, a comedy male impersonator at the show. That sarah has carefully selected her heroine’s background is both smart and strategic, for Waters never flinches in depicting Nancy’s serial encounters with sensitive body parts with allusions and innuendos pertaining to oysters.

After all, there are moments in our lives that change us, that discontent us with our pasts and offer us new futures. That night at the Canterbury Palace, when Kitty had cast her rose at me, and sent my admiration for her tumbling over into love—that had been one such moment. (Part II, Ch.10, p.250)

But of course, apropos of such conventional plot, Nancy wears her heart on her sleeves too easily. From performing duo to lovers, she is smitten. But Kitty cannot afford to lose her career—he chooses to protect her reputation by escaping into marriage to a man, and the abandoned Nancy, victim of gross betrayal by her only true love, finds work posing as a male street prostitute (or “a renter”) and undergoing undreamed-of sexual permutations and indignities as the kept mistress/boy toy of lustful rich widow Diana Lethaby.

To think of all the people you have known—and yet you have no friends. (Part III, Ch.18, p.430)

Waters’s debut is indeed entertaining, full of conflicting feelings—between the desperate pleasures to which Nancy’s drawn and her equally strong desire to become a regular girl. It brings out the universal theme in LGBT literature that one desires to be loved for what and who he/she is. One minor critique is waters’s hastening attempt to fit Nancy into all the different subsections of the homosexual population, for the Nancy reader gets to know in each section of the novel seems like a different person. But that said, I still find the circumstances by which Nancy finally finds true love are unpredictable and moving. Her search for identity and love is a raucous and passionate odyssey.

472 pp. Riverhead Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[662] Ivan and Misha – Michael Alenyikov

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” The differences were as profound as the approach to God defined by Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. And just as irreconcilable. In Misha’s world one was loyal to the death for family, even if they drove you crazy, even if they were crazy. ” (It Takes All Kinds, p.85)

Ivan and Misha is a set of interrelated stories about two fraternal twins, both gay, but one of whom is not completely sure of his sexuality, and their father, Lyov. Born and raised in former USSR, in Kiev (now Ukraine), they followed their father to America after the fall of Berlin Wall. Lyov, who became Louie after he arrived in New York, received one year of medical training and was sent out into the horror of Second World War to amputate limbs from soldiers without anesthetics. He promised his sons a better life, a new apartment, a new mother—after his wife took her life just before the boys turned six.

We stared at each other. Neither of us gave ground. Time passed. I don’t recall if I’d ever stared so long into another man’s eyes—and yes, I could see what I’d been missing for too long: that he was no longer a boy. And I had no choice: accept him or lose him, really quite an easy decision. (Barrel of Laughs, p.57)

The five tales explore different facets of love and meanings of family. Each narrated by father, two sons, and lovers, respectively, the stories establish context and time frames for the other stories. Misha emerges as a compassionate and accommodating person who struggles to create a sense of family with his quixotic boyfriend, Smith, his wildly unpredictable, bipolar brother, Ivan, and his father Lyov, who has recently suffered a minor stroke. When Ivan, the bipolar brother who is a cab driver, is shot by a fare, it’s revealed that Misha is HIV positive—he cannot give blood to his brother. Lyov, protective of his sons, wants to spare his boys the painful truth that their mother committed suicide when they were very young. The same self-serving lies are told to Misha by Smith, who strives to rid of his memory and tie to his family. The most unforgivable lie is told to Misha by his former lover Kevin, whose story transports reader back to the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the hospital room of his dying lover, Vinnie.

Ivan and Misha subtly explores how the past, with its horrors, exerts an influence on life in the present. It also explores how one’s future shall be altered when death divides us from people we love. In the father Alenyikov has created a memorable character of cultural depth. It’s almost condescending of him to change his name to Louie and takes up friendship with Leo, someone who is unmatched to his background and who would not understand the depth of Lyov’s thoughts and culture. Also in Lyov one sees the power of love, which transcends all values. He comes to embrace his son’s sexuality with an open mind, out of love; and he never questions what or how or why—just accepts who he is. The prose is beautiful and lyrical, with a mix of dialogue and stream-of-consciousness. Ivan and Misha is not an read read. It begs to be re-read because the overlapping moment of significance at the confluence of these lives is not readily revealed.

198 pp. Northwestern University Press. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[652] Jack Holmes and His Friend – Edmund White

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” Jack didn’t think he was a nonconformist; he simply loved Will. If he could have magically turned himself into a girl whom Will would want to marry, he’d have done it without hesitation. He’d have converted to Catholicism, become a woman, borne Will’s many children, shopped for dresses at Peck and Peck, learned to cook Rice-A-Roni— ” (Part I, 6, p.111)

As the novel’s title suggests, it’s Jack who is initially brought into sharper focus. Raised in an eccentric Midwestern family, Jack has been a bright student and chooses to study Chinese art history in college. We learn nothing about his parents although much dire history is hinted at. Moving to New York after graduating, it is at the high-end, conservative, but also snooty Northern Review that he experiences the coup de foudre that will determine the course of his life (and the book), plunging him deeply in love with the metrosexual Will Wright, a reserved, oddly handsome, and snobbish aspiring novelist who unfortunately lacks the talent.

In the early sixties, when I’d met him, I’d thought of his queerness as a deformity, a scandal, something akin to a heroin addiction or pedophilia or membership in the Communist Party. I’d liked Jack in spite of this, but since I’d known it could get him fired, I’d been determined to keep it a secret. (Part II, 4, p.268)

Will’s unassailable heterosexuality becomes the catalyzt for Jack’s emerging homosexuality—or more like libertine hedonism. Jack sleeps with other men but only sees these lovers as stand-ins, unsatisfactory substitutes for the real object of his desires. Will eventually falls in love with Jack’s close friend Alexandra, a New York heiress and beauty. It’s almost ten years later when the two friends run into each other by chance—and hither begins Will’s narrative. He is bored with the wife, his marriage falters—yet another crisis that heralds his closeness to Jack, who, acting as a bizarre kind of Pandarus, sets him up with the plump, sexually voracious Pia.

As Will indulges in the sexually and socially transgressive delights of his extramarital affair, Jack again finds himself falling in love with his friend again. But this time he’s more mature to handle it. It’s a deep relationship that has matured over the years, ripe with trust. It’s the primary friendship for them both during this period of their lives. This book, despite all the bodily indulgence and surgical details of physicality, is about friendship. White neither sentimentalizes nor overemphasizes Jack and Will’s friendship; it’s complex and filled with tension and unspoken conflict as any close relationship, but because two men speak so un-self-consciously about their bodies, their sexuality, and their preferences, they transcend it all—even in 1960s New York. The female characters fall short: debutante Alex and slutty Pia, are just cardboard cutouts with no more than convenient characteristics. The ending is also hasty and abrupt. The peculiar and persistent nature of male bonding is the the book’s great strength. But it’s obsession with physical aspects of sexuality renders it shallower than Edmund’s earlier works.

392 pp. Bloomsbury. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[621] Man About Town – Mark Merlis

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” Until that instant, he truly had not comprehended that his predicament was a shameful one. Why? No one ever called a gay man cuckold: infidelity was the norm, it was no reflection on you if your lover occasionally partook of strange meat. ” (Ch.3, p.78)

I like who and what Man About Town is about: Joel Lingeman, a middle-aged civil servant specializing in health care issues who has just been abandoned by his longtime partner for 15 years, searches for a bathing suit model about whose image in a magazine Joel fantasized as a youth.

Most of the novel is meditation on self-pity, and the sublime realization that everything Joel had taken for granted is now gone. He is back in the dating scene, or, more like the cruising ground of a bar. He reflects that “he had simply been unavailable for many years, and now he was available, like an out-of-print book that has been reissued.” (Ch.3, p.81) The unexpected hole in life prompts his search for some 1964-edition of an Esquire-like magazine that contains a swimsuit as that obsessed him throughout his youth.

There had to be a reason, some pathology. It couldn’t be that happy and well-adjusted straight people were just plain bewildered by Joel Lingeman,bewildered and disgusted. To admit that would be to say that he was still bewildered and disgusted by himself. (Ch.5, p.177)

While Joel ruminates and reminisces about his mistakes and tries dating again, the book also veers off to explore the political life in the bureaucracy surrounding the Congress. The most interesting subplot involves the progress of a homophobic amendment to a Medicare bill. Then there is the “young kid” for whom his lover leaves him. These two promising stereotypes resolve anticlimactically and then just disappear. The pursuit of the swimsuit midel, which seems the least feasible, moves on but ultimately doesn’t get anywhere.

Man About Town shines in its ideas but not the story. It’s an intelligent musing on age, monogamy, race, and being gay. It’s obviously a book with a bag of ideas relevant to being a gay man in changing times. It raises such contemporary issues on both a political and personal level. The book seems to hinge on a parody of the heroic quest, one of an older gay man who is entranced and puzzled by the ways of youth, and preeminently one’s own youth and how quickly t evaporates. He’s settled for a conservative life but tickled by his long-dormant desires. The book falls apart nearing the end and the resolution painfully falls short of my expectation.

360 pp. Harper Collins. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]