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[550] Mapping the Territory – Christopher Bram

territory

” The human race is full of sin, but conservatives have somehow decided that the gravest sin is homosexuality. Since they’re not homosexual themselves, they can feel assured they are among the righteous, even if they sometimes think impure thoughts, cheat in business, cheat on their spouses, neglect their children or skip church on Sunday. ” (A Sort of Friendship: A Few Thoughts about Gay Marriage, p.225)

Mapping Territory is Christopher Bram’s first collection of non-fiction over his thirty-year career. These essays range through such topics as the power of gay fiction, coming out in the 1970s, the AIDS epidemic, gay marriage, and the vicissitude of lower Manhattan. As befit and instinctive of a novelist, into these autobiographical piece, arranged more or less in chronological order, imparted Bram’s love for books and literature and how they help him address his sexuality as well as allow him to read his own desires. As a young reader, I shared Bram’s experience in reading the way into homosexuality—something is that is both eye-opening and relieving. The literature assures Bram, and myself, that being homosexual is not being off the margin. Homosexuality should be connected with the rest of life. This is certainly a revelation to me who comes out two generations after the author did, but still confronting a society in which “culture at large regularly instructs people on how to be heterosexual.” (A Body in Books: A Memoir in a Reading List, p.22)

Sex is intensely subjective anyway, full of built-in guilt and anxiety. No matter what you do or don’t do, it often feels wrong. During my first years in New York, I felt that I’d failed as a gay man if I didn’t have X number of partners over Y span of time . . . Monogamy was considered a blind aping of heterosexuals, despite the fact that the sexual revolution made fidelity less mandatory for them as well. (Faggots Revisited, p.105)

Mapping Territory does not just reach out to real readers—hungry, curious, open-minded readers of fiction in particular and good books in general, although these people, gay and straight, Bram sadly notes, are a minority. Beside a didactic discussion on what contributes gay literature and a critical review of Larry Kramer’s sex-renouncing Faggots, which continues to hit a nerve of the gays and provoke anger, Bram writes about coming out in Virginia, his stoop in West Village, the life of Henry James, the different appeals between books and movie tie-ins, the egotistic straight male fiction, and gay marriage.

That is my chief problem with most straight male fiction: authorial egos are so insistently, domineeringly, present. In too many novels I feel locked in a jail cell with just one other person, either a solitary sufferer or all-knowing puppeteer. Other people, other points of view, barely exist—even other male points of view. (Can Straight Men Still Write? p.176)

It is not until Bram makes this observation of his reading blind spot that I realize the straight male authors have accounted for less than a tenth in my reading. Authors he named emotionally thin and stylistically opaque are ones I have also long abandoned! This collection of essays is so rich in anecdotes, humor, philosophy and literary critique. Amazing how many of his feelings and experiences corroborate to mine, even down to his craving for erotic literature written with seriousness and craft. What Bram’s essays do for me is exactly why gay men and women search out for such literature: to find the much needed mirrors of reality. Woven throughout this endlessly entertaining book is Bram’s elegant use of the English language. The book also gives me fodder for my reading list.

256 pp. Alyson Books. Hardcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Sexual Awakening

” The culture at large regularly instructs people on how to be heterosexual. Movies, television, popular music, and advertising are about almost nothing else. But gay men and women, at least until recently, have had only books to help them find or invent or test their identities. ” –Christopher Bram, Mapping the Territory
bram

When you were a 11-year-old boy who just arrived in America, who were surrounded by an incomprehensible culture, and who was gay, who could to you confide in all your fear and confusion? Despite the advent of civil rights for the gays, I’m surprised at how much Bram and I have in common our experiences of being a young homosexual. In Mapping the Territory, a collection of essays that falls into the autobiographical zone, Bram mentioned the books that made him as a person. Mr. Bram and I are two generations apart, yet we are both at the mercy of books, which offer the most diverse set of tools for an individual to find his self. I could be prejudiced here, but I believe literature provides a looser, broader, more varied medium in which to explore one’s identity than movies and television do—even now as gay and lesbian images make their way into mass media. A book has a delay factor, that is, the time taken to finish from cover to cover is way longer than watching a movie. Back when financial resources were limited, I read my way into homosexuality. I remember stopping by two bookstores on the way home from school, Doubleday on Sutter and Bretano’s in the San Francisco Shopping Center on Market, where I lost myself in a forest of books. I wouldn’t go as far as calling myself a literary construct, but the love of books was already stamped into my being before I realized I was attracted to men. I loved books before I loved bodies—the bodies didn’t appear until junior high. Ina society where all voices are pro-heterosexual, homosexual thoughts are strictly taboo, let alone the lust. I don’t remember the title of the psychology book I stumbled upon in the bookstore, that gave me the first usual piece of information, about most adolescents go through a homosexual phase. Bookstores were heaven for this solitary and private, self-sufficient and bookish kid who wanted to read up for being gay. Books were magic: I found myself entering a dialogue with them. I use them to address my sexuality, a safe place where I can try out different roles. More important, I see through books the kind of life that I would have learned to want through my reading.

[253] Lives of the Circus Animals – Christopher Bram

Why can’t he love me anymore? He did once. I’m sure of it. But gay men are like that. Shallow. They can love for only so long. He couldn’t even feel jealous. It’s too deep an emotion for him.” [299]

Lives of the Circus Animals is a comedy about a group of theater people in New York: actors, writers, and personal assistants who infiltrate each other’s lives with a growling intensity tempered by Bram’s dry wit. The title conveys the fondness and gentle derision with which Bram presents his ensemble cast, of whom interrelationships unfold in very dramatic and eccentric manner.

Acerbic Times second-string critic Kenneth Prager hates his life and, frustrates that the world falls short of his ideals, he takes it out in his reviews. His victim is Caleb Doyle, a gay playwright whose first stage success was immediately followed by the ignominious failure of his second. Torn between failure and nostalgia of his deceased lover, Ben, Caleb considers quitting to write altogether. Somewhat of a fag hag, Caleb’s lovelorn sister Jessie tries hard not to fall for failed actor Frank Earp, who has come to terms with the limits of his theatrical career. The now full-time office manager directs school-children plays and other amateur gags. His latest is an off-off-Broadway show staged in an apartment, in which Toby Volger, Caleb’s ex-boyfriend, is cast. Toby still nurses a breakup with Caleb, whom he thinks is still in love with the dead lover, while he is drawn to Jessie’s boss, Henry Lewse, an aging, prominent British actor who has renounces love altogether.

[Toby to Caleb] And you know why you’re still in love with him? Because you didn’t love him enough when he was alive. [136]

[Frank to Jessie] You’re not ready to love me. You’re not ready to love anymore. Or let yourself be loved. Because you’re too in love with success___ . . . And you know why you need success? Because you don’t like yourself enough. Well, I like you. I love you. And if you had any brains at all, you’d understand that that was success enough. [161]

But then I understood that it was useless to be unhappy. Life is short. I refuse to take myself—or anyone else—so seriously that they will cause me pain. [175]

What begins as a series of disconnected scenes quickly develops into a densely integrated plot which coalesces into a rousing, swiftly paced (events take place over ten days) comedy of manners—and errors. Through success and failure, dreams come true and shattered, the characters are fully in touch with their humanity and vulnerability. In the chase after fame and accomplishment, they master over narcissism at the expense of love, because the egos have got all tangled up in their affection. Whether one is ascending to stardom, that is Henry, or one who is owning up to his failure, that is Caleb, he is at the crossroad of love and affection.

Although this is Bram’s lighter vein, Lives of the Circus Animals is a beautifully constructed novel with characters, scandal, love, and humor from all aspects of the sexual spectrum. The title, adopted from a poem by William Butler Yeats, can’t nail better the truth how untamable animals humans can be. The misadventures of the playwrights, actors, critics, rookies, lover-wannabes end in an extravaganza with a surprising twist. It’s a brilliant and entertaining novel that explores gender and sexual politics.

341 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

[239] Surprising Myself – Christopher Bram

Myself

“It frightened me because Corey was a guy. I wanted to protect it because such a love was so ridiculous and fragile. Love was for marriage, and I couldn’t marry Corey . . . I couldn’t distinguish the excitement of my fear from the excitement of love.” [61]

Joel Scherzenlieb grows up at a time given to homosexual panic. In 1970, at summer camp boys behind his back call him queer, which makes him feel misgiving because it means he’s weak and helpless. His divorced parents, whom he doesn’t trust, are busy criticizing each other, let alone ushering and fortifying their gay son to adulthood. When he reunites with Corey in New York City three years later, he falls in love with the man who comes to his defense at the camp but decides that being with Corey doesn’t make him gay.

“But I’m not queer. That’s why I have to end it . . .
“Were you in love with him?
“Of course not. I’m straight [76]

It’s obvious that the relationship between Joel and Corey is uneven, if not one-way, because one is more mature, secure, and monogamous than the other. Joel seems to be using Corey’s feelings as a chance to test his own fantasies, fear, temptations, and even homosexual panic. Joel is far from being comfortable in his own skin. Is he to blame for his promiscuity behind Corey’s back? Christopher Bram, with an erotic and yet controlled style, delivers an emotional journey of someone who does not know love let alone understanding love in the context of a committed relationship. Coming to terms of his homosexuality, Joel has also given himself to a concussion of libidinous escapades that he thinks can never hurt a partnership that is based on true love and understanding.

Oh yeah? I know how you people live. Yeah, you live like couples and pay lip service to love, but if there’s somebody on the street who catches your eye, you’ll jump into bed without thinking twice about it. I’ve heard all about the gay scene. [281]

So disconcerting and yet so dead-on. Bram’s purpose is not to advocate monogamy but to explore the validity of love. In order for Joel to make sense of love, he has to commit, in his own words, discourtesies, errors of judgment, and sexual nothings—acts that debase Corey’s love and that take Corey’s trust for granted. It’s almost necessary for him to fall so deep, to the point of self-hatred, to recognize requited love that he’s shown. The only way the prodigal son to perceive love is through forgiveness.

I could resist it only by hating him back, but even that turned against me, because I hated myself for hating Corey . . . Corey was too good for me, and I hated myself for hating him even as I hated him for making me hate myself. [369]

Surprising Myself is Bram’s first novel and that it lays the ground work for his later novels. The ideas of no-string-attached sex and emotional fidelity recur in Exiles in America. The novel captures beautifully the altering gamut of emotions, as well as the reversing cause and effect in a relationship that is stranded in misunderstanding. So powerful and raw is the portrayal of one’s guilt and selfishness and their consequence on mutual trust. The only foible is the lingering drama of the sister’s bungled marriage, which is to mirror Joel’s lack of gratitude. I resonate most deeply with the book’s undoing the deception that love is some trite convention between two people. It shows the destruction power of speculation and exploitation.

424 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

[232] Gods and Monsters – Christopher Bram

Gods

He screws up everything Clay’s been taught to feel about the world, and yet Clay does not want to avoid him. It’s like he wants to be confused, which makes Clay feel oddly guilty.” [189]

In this novel Christopher Bram reconstructs the last days of the once-famous James Whale, who directed Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Although surviving a stroke that doesn’t impair his mobility, the director who lives in retirement is suffers olfactory hallucination. More so than death, he is afraid to wake up with his mind in pieces, for it has betrayed him for so long that it cannot regain his trust. He has taken fancy of his gardener, Clay Boone, who has become his sole companion with whom he can talk about his past, which has been haunting him.

So what if the guy is a homo, as long as he keeps his hands to himself? But accepting that, knowing it and accepting it, feels just as wrong to Clay, passive and cowardly. [176]

As Clay becomes more assured that the old man is not pawing on his skin, he finds himself being admitted to Whale’s harrowing past. The old man has a secret agenda for his confident. I understand that Gods and Monsters aspires to morph the horror and atrocities of the First World War into a horror movie. On the surface the novel also explores gay issues in 1950s Hollywood, where stereotype is invincible. But the flow of the novel is as snarled as the director’s mind, which is slowly giving in to senility and delirium. The appearances of Elsa Lanchester, Greta Garbo, Charles Laughton, George Cukor, Princess Margaret and Elizabeth Taylor in this novel unfortunately don’t compensate for the slow and somewhat disjointed story-line. Bram has managed, however, to fashion a love story of Whale and his obsession with his handsome yardman out of the grim material of Whale’s suicide. I would have enjoyed reading it more if Bram would pick up the pace sooner than 70% into the book instead of makng loops.

270 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

[227] Gossip – Christopher Bram

Gossip

“There’s got to be something else. What are other people for? Something besides sex and money and votes. Or we wouldn’t constantly talk about each other. Are we just entertainment? Distractions? Are we just burying our own shit in other people’s shit?” [305]

Christopher Bram delves into the adage “the personal is political” and wages war against the dark, manipulative forces and conspiracies against gays in Gossip. Ralph Eckhart, 34, is the manager of a Greenwich Village bookstore who adopts a mild political view. Young but a bit jaded, he enjoys falling in love yet knows not to trust it. Despite his passion for Bill O’Connor, a young closeted Republican who writes misogynistic propaganda, he knows he should not wear his heart on the sleeves too soon.

Even requited, such love would be foolish, messy and brief. Unless it changed Bill’s politics. That fantasy was back, larger than before, giving value to lust, turning sex with a Republican from a self-betrayal to a good deed, a moral rescue. Bill went against his best interests by seeing me. [92]

They are lovers, even if neither of them is in love, because God political discrepancy and political conservativeness forbid. When Bill writes a tell-all book that spreads gossip about women in Washington, including a footnote about a lesbian affair between a speechwriter, who happens to be Ralph’s friend Nancy, and a married senator, Ralph ends the relationship. He picks friendship over love: it’s no way he can be with someone whose lie has hurt a friend and jeopardizes her career.

You would have to be blind not to realize that I’ve had second, third and fourth thoughts about us ever since we met. It was over our political differences yet I now see that your politics are symptoms of deeper faults: opportunism, thoughtlessness, and self-absorption . . . I have been sleeping with the enemy . . . [146]

But it isn’t anywhere near the end. The end of personal liaison marks the beginning of a power struggle between left- and right-wing politics, fueled by a homophobic culture that has defined the politics. Ralph is charged with homicide after Bill was found dead in his apartment, coincidentally, just days after the author has come out on national TV to win Ralph back. He is arrested on no grounds except that he was once a politically aware gay man who once knew the right-wing victim.

Deeply disturbing and chilling, Gossip is both a knife-sharp satire and revelation of how in a politcally charged environment, nobody can afford to show themselves in a bad light, and in defending and sustaining a cause, anyone, regardless of affiliation and beliefs, can become an institutional liar. Christopher Bram drops the bomb on politicians left and right, exposing all the hypocrisies that unfortunately sustain the political climate of this country. At one point Ralph is asked why he isn’t angrier at the violation of his rights, and that he is emotionally and politically autistic. The truth ironically is that Ralph is the only person who is not morally blinded by the so-called cause pertaining to any political interests. It just shows how assimilating to a general cause can backfire that an individual can lose his own identity and idiosyncrasy. Gossip is convincing but disturbing: a book that I enjoy reading but not sure if I love reading. The ugliness of the content is as unbearable as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

337 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] Well-written and witty, but my ineptitude and indifference in politics will render this book less memorable. This is an important book of our time.

[224] Exiles in America – Christopher Bram

Exiles

“You have to trust yourself and the other person. There are no guarantees here. The world is an unreal place. You want someone with you to make it feel less unreal. You want to keep them there, and you think you can do it with a few magic words, a marriage contract, a wedding. But it doesn’t work that way. Love is always difficult . . . There are a hundred trade-offs. A thousand possible mistakes.” [220]

Zachary Knowles and Daniel Wexler have been together for twenty-one years. Both in their late 40s, they adopt different views to their relationship. Zack is a psychiatrist who has withdrawn into an asexual state, knowing he doesn’t connect to his partner with sex alone. Daniel Wexler is an art teacher at a college whose fears of aging propels his continuation of pursuing flings.

Maybe I don’t miss lust. Maybe life is more peaceful without it. Duller maybe. But peaceful. [83]

I want meaning in my life. I want joy. I want to have something more to show for my time here than twenty-plus years of—friendship. [353]

When a new artist in residence, Abbas Rohani, arrives with his Russian wife, Elena, and their two children, the harmony of Zack and Daniel’s relationship is jeopardized. The Iranian painter has an open marriage with his wife with whom he stipulates a don’t ask-don’t tell pact on his sexual life. He embodies the swarthy, omnisexual, selfish, and uninhibited artist stereotype. Daniel’s initial artistic jealousy of Abbas quickly turns into an attraction that barrels consummation, which violates his pact with Zack that extramarital liaisons are acceptable as long as they are transient and purely sexual. But Daniel Falls in love with someone who lives on the fast track for sex. Abbas proves to be the most conceited, self-entitled, and capricious character. He constantly needs to be the center of attention. He wants everyone to love him—but he finds it difficult to reciprocate the love.

[Daniel] calls it love. He says it’s a love affair and asks me to bear wth him because, like all love affairs, it will have a beginning, middle, and end. [156]

[Abbas] was never in love with me. He tricked me. He told me he was in love only as I would fall in love with him. And now that he’s proved himself, he can move on to his other loves. [189]

Between Zack and Abbas, Daniel realizes he only plays at love, imagining what love would be like. What thrill with Abbas is no more than ego-driven sex. What Abbas denounces dull and safe love is what Zack means by the trade-offs that are conducive to a long-term happy relationship. A gamut of emotions run through these four people as Daniel and Abbas become enmeshed in the escalating American suspicion (xenophobia) of Middle Eastern potential terrorism on the verge of the Iraqi War in 2003. Political instabilities along with the relationship drama infuse new element of uncertainty in their entangled lives. But Cram’s ingenuity lays in the fact through their disparate perspectives in relationship and distrust of intimacy he is able to implement a metaphor for the isolation among people who are sentimentally, sexually, and ethnically exiled. Exiles in America explores how the personal becomes political, and how the private turns public as an affair binds two families together.

Only when you’re in love do you constantly ask yourself if you’re in love or not. You’re in love. You’re hooked. Now what? [185]

This book will stay with me for a long time because it addresses the very issue that occupies my mind, echoed from the previous read: what is a relationship without either love or sex? Which is more important, physical fidelity or emotional fidelity? Does gray area exist for monogamy?

369 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]