Tag Archives: Books

‘Let them leave language to their lonely betters…’

A master poet whose spiritual yearnings and commitment to homosexual camp don’t quite represent the paradox it looks like, W.H. Auden wrote an awful lot of uneven verse: clotted, obscurantic, often too brittle. Yet few poets are so much fun to read. To spend an afternoon with Collected Poems is like hearing a swishy raconteur hold court. “Their Lonely Betters” isn’t as well known as “In Praise of Limestone,” “Lay your sleeping head, my love,” and “Musée des Beaux Arts,” but its quiet pain has moved me since high school. Continue reading

‘Shirley’ illiterate about writing, illness

A biopic about a writer is the surest way for filmmakers to demonstrate their shallowness. Stymied by the effort of visualizing a sedentary activity completed in solitude, directors from Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend), Fred Zinnemann (Julia), and Andrew Walker (Starting Out in the Evening) have stumbled. Good films like Some Came Running (1958) rely on Shirley MacLaine for pathos and a chipper Dean Martin for distraction. Screenwriters assume writers talk like writers, hence dialogue that sounds like blank verse dumped into a wood chipper. Even David Cronenberg’s droll Naked Lunch needs Mugwumps and pretty Moroccan boys.

Shirley, alas, ends up in the middle of the pack. Working from Sarah Gubbins’ pedestrian, literal adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s biography, Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) mixes handheld cameras, voice-over, a frenzied score — anything to evoke the addled mind of Shirley Jackson, author of The Haunting of Hill House and “The Lottery,” the much anthologized short story. I find this approach condescending not just to writers but to those suffering from mental trauma: the cinematic equivalent of second-rate novelists using pages of dialect intended as a concession to realism but comes off like a pillorying of characters whom their creator dismisses as intellectually feeble.

In 1948, Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) travels to Bennington College accompanying her husband, hired to help professor-critic-horndog Stanley Edgar Hyman with his teaching. Reading “The Lottery” in The New Yorker the week of publication has such a devastating effect on Rose that it inspires panting sex in the train bathroom with Fred (Logan Lerman, who looks a bit and plays the part like Campbell Scott), surely a milestone in the annals of publishing. The atmosphere in the Jackson-Hyman home aspires to be, to quote All About Eve‘s stick-in-the-mud playwright Lloyd Richards, distinctly Macbeth-ish but is closer to dinner theater Albee, thanks to the self-satisfied performance of Michael Stuhlbarg as Hyman and Elizabeth Moss’ bug-eyed work as Jackson. Comatose from a diet of cocktails and cigarettes, Jackson bestirs herself only when can shred Rose and Fred. Soon, in exchange for room and board, the visibly pregnant Rose becomes housekeeper of this hovel.

In an example of this film’s pedantry, that much trampled line between reality and fiction — it exists? — gets stamped out as passages from the novel Jackson wills herself to write and intends as her breakthrough seem to alter the fates of the characters or something. Hints of desire, much like the ones between the two young women in The Haunting of Hill House, flicker. But what Decker intends is unfathomable, neither an illumination nor even much of a camp delight. An exception: Rose, in the midst of an erotic epiphany, digs through the dirt like Nicole Kidman in 2002’s entombed The Hours only she’s not Virginia Woolf,much less Shirley Jackson.


Black existence ‘valued only to the degree our bodies are tied to the labor produced’

As new coronavirus cases top a thousand for the fifth straight day, Florida (the state with the prettiest name!) galvanizes thanks to weekend protests notable for their tranquility and the show of force with which these protesters were met. Take the streets bordering my university, where a hundred police in riot gear threatened to tear gas and arrest a group of approximately thirty protesters. And even in this case the youngish crowed wore masks and kept its distance. Continue reading

Without Elizabeth Moss ‘The Invisible Man’ would be inconspicuous

Because it’s 2020, audience members may ask a vital question about The Invisible Man: why is it always a woman in peril? It isn’t that Elizabeth Moss, playing the endangered protagonist hiding from a husband she thought dead, isn’t terrific, or that Leigh Whannell (Upgrade) hasn’t directed a film that uses silence and subtle framing to often scary effect; but the woman-in-trouble is such a worn trope it almost overcomes one’s good will toward Whannell’s modernization of the H.G. Wells novel. A box office smash before the quarantine, The Invisible Man has the decency to respect Moss’ intelligence, and it plays even buggier at home. But two hours is a long time to spend in the company of people whose purpose is to get spooked. Continue reading


For the first night in almost a decade, HTV will publish no content. That is, this image is the content. I’ve seen and read too many reports from friends, former and current students, and journalist acquaintances hurt and arrested for exercising First Amendment rights against a system that will not allow brown and black Americans to live a banal life while an attorney general orders the tear gassing of DC protesters so that his immoral president can march a few hundred feet and hold a Bible upside down for the sake of a photo op for his mindless rabble of supporters.

I will refresh this link to post worthwhile content.

For example, The Source of Self-Regard, Toni Morrison’s 2019 essential collection of non-fiction, reckons with the conflict of working under white eyes as the exemplar of your race yet struggle with the burden of also creating art as a black woman. In a 1998 lecture titled “The Trouble with Paradise,” Morrison explains the cul-de-sac of racist thought, insofar as it exists:

One of the more malevolent characteristics of racist thought is that it seems never to produce new knowledge. It seems able merely to reformulate and refigure itself in multiple but static assertions. It has no referent in the material world. Like the concept of black blood, or white blood, or blue blood, it is designed to create and employ a self-contained field, to construct artificial borders and to maintain them against all reason and all evidence.

‘No kingdom can maintain itself by force alone’

Just thinking aloud, but maybe James Baldwin — black, queer — understood the nature of power relations:

But for power truly to feel itself menaced, it must somehow sense itself in the presence of another power—or, more accurately, an energy—which it has not known how to define and therefore does not really know how to control. For a very long time, for example, America prospered—or seemed to prosper: this prosperity cost millions of people their lives. Now, not even the people who are the most spectacular recipients of the benefits of this prosperity are able to endure these benefits: they can neither understand them nor do without them, nor can they go beyond them. Above all, they cannot, or dare not, assess or imagine the price paid by their victims, or subjects, for this way of life, and so they cannot afford to know why the victims are revolting. They are forced, then, to the conclusion that the victims—the barbarians—are revolting against all established civilized values—which is both true and not true—and, in order to preserve these values, however stifling and joyless these values have caused their lives to be, the bulk of the people desperately seek out representatives who are prepared to make up in cruelty what both they and the people lack in conviction. This is a formula for a nation’s or a kingdom’s decline, for no kingdom can maintain itself by force alone.

The White House and the cops feel themselves menaced by a power outside itself it cannot control. Tucker Carlson, as clear-eyed an observer for the ways in which white male power senses itself besieged, understands.–No Name in the Street

‘That dying chose the living world for text…’

A couple days ago, Dorian Lynskey took a closer look at the twentieth century’s most quoted poem after Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” — and as apt for misinterpretation. ” Just as dystopian authors get a kick out of dramatising their worst fears, great apocalyptic art has a dreadful vitality, its pulse quickening in proximity to catastrophe,” Lynskey writes. This month’s poem, also by William Butler Yeats, is less well-known, but the cosmic manner in which it regards the death of an airman is appropriate for the close of May. Continue reading

My favorite queer fiction (updated)

I wonder what readers will conclude when they see The Mysteries of Pittsburgh on a list of my favorite queer fiction and not, say, E.M. Forster’s Maurice. Reading a certain book at the right time can excuse an array of aesthetic shortcomings. I rejected David Leavitt’s The Lost Language of Crane (too diffuse; prefer his short stories), James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (too portentous; prefer his essays), and Maurice (too sentimental; prefer when he wrote about aunts, India, and manor houses). Recent entries include Garth Greenwell’s superb What Belongs to You, Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Tree, and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (what a title!).

In no order:

1. Virginia Woolf – Orlando
2. Christopher Isherwood – A Single Man
3. Alan Hollinghurst – The Line of Beauty
4. Gertrude Stein – Melanctha
5. Michael Chabon – The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
6. William Maxwell – The Folded Leaf
7. Henry James – The Bostonians
8. John Cheever – Stories
9. Edmund White – The Married Man
10. Robert Musil – The Confusions of Young Törless
11. Jean Genet – Our Lady of the Flowers
12. Mary Renault – The Persian Boy
13. Willa Cather – The Professor’s House
14. Armistead Maupin – Tales of the City
15. T.E. Lawrence – Seven Pillars of Wisdom
16. Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray
17. Thomas Mann – Tonio Kroger
18. Garth Greenwell – What Belongs to You
19. Sarah Waters – Fingersmith
20. Colm Toibin- The Master
21. Ursula K. Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness
22. Ocean Vuong – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
23. Patricia Highsmith – The Price of Salt
24. Chinelo Okparanta – Under the Udala Tree
25. Rita Mae Brown – Rubyfruit Jungle

Larry Kramer — RIP

In the copy of Faggots I bought in 1999 I bracketed the following passage:

And every faggot couple I know is deep into friendship and deep into fucking with everyone else but each other and any minute any bump appears in their commitment to infinitesimally obstruct their view, out they zip like petulant kids to suck someone else’s lollipop instead of trying to work things out, instead of trying not to hide, and, uh, why do faggots have to fuck so fucking much?

The last question drove the late Larry Kramer to a coherent rage during the decade when HIV destroyed a generation of gay men. Bear in mind: he published Faggots in 1978, at the peak of a endless, glorious bacchanal in which gay men quashed childhood guilt and by dancing and fucking as hard as possible. What a party pooper. Continue reading

‘The mysteries of the commas’: Coronavirus update #21

Throwing a bag of trash in the dumpster yesterday morning, I spotted the condo complex office manager and two of the part-time maintenance workers spreading pool chaise cushions out. “You’re opening?” I asked a worker, trembling. She gave me a “no” as firm as the closing of a mausoleum door. They were hosing down the furniture, she said. For approximately three seconds I had allowed myself to hope: the “partial reopening” of Florida (the state with the prettiest name!) extended to condo pools. Well, ours wasn’t required to close anyway; it was up to our board. Continue reading

I sleep in slime: Coronoavirus update #20

Using “reopen” as verb and metaphor summons an image of a coffin creaking open. To mull over eating at a restaurant or sitting at a bar anywhere would tempt morticians yet that’s where we’re at in Florida (the state with the prettiest name!). Although Governor Ron DeSantis omitted Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach from his gradual “reopening” order, Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Gimenez has released details about what life might be like:

Gyms would be closed when hotels first resume accepting reservations, but pools could be open. Valet parking is discouraged but not banned. Employees are required to wear personal protective equipment and will be issued masks, and the leader of the hotel association that helped draft the plan said face coverings would be mandatory for guests, too.

Menus must be disposable and elevator buttons sanitized at least once an hour. Limits would be set on how many people can enter the lobby at one time.

Trying to keep some hope in dark times that doesn’t consist of reading every Barbara Pym novel I can find or restocking amaros, I noted with approval the putatively exhaustive hygienic methods by which the Sanibel accommodations where friends and I hope to stay in late July is assuaging fears (locals consider late July and early August the slowest time of the year). “Three months from now!” you might say. Well, today marks the seventh week under these conditions; seven weeks from now will take us into the end of June. And here we are. Continue reading

‘Spring’s universal bliss….’

A Jesuit who struggled with barely suppressed homosexual tendencies, Gerard Manly Hopkins didn’t sublimate his lusts so much as organize them into verse units whose rhythms imitate no natural speech I know but reflect his idiosyncratic relations to his god. Students of twentieth century poetry will recognize “The Windhover” and “Pied Beauty” and the long poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland” — devotional poems as highly (over?)wrought as Donne or Milton’s. Continue reading