Monday, 12 October 2015

The Beautiful Room is Empty by Edmund White

When I went to get this book out of the library, I noticed that one of the subject headings was Stonewall. The timing seemed apt, as the Stonewall movie had just come out, with all the criticism of both white-washing and making the main character cisgendered. Neat, I thought! Maybe this book (fictional) will be a corrective to that.

And then I started reading it, and that was fine. It's about a young white man's journey to recognizing and accepting his gayness. There's a lot of self-loathing, which is hard to take at times, but the book was interesting. But I got further and further in, and started to wonder...where's Stonewall? I mean, that was one of the subject headings on the campus library catalogue!

I get further in. We start to get to the part where I'm running out of pages, and we have our first mention of Stonewall, the place! But just a mention. Then, a few pages later, once more. Still....nothing about the big events.

In the end, it took up about three pages. The last three pages of the book, the main character observing and participating in the reaction to the Stonewall riot and the arrests. I was bemused. This is not the fault of the book or the author. It's the fault of the library catalogue.

So what about what was actually in the book? It's hard to read sometimes, but not because it's bad. The main character negotiates a gay identity, the politics of how he represents himself, where he can find sex with other men, his long-term belief that his sexual attraction to men dooms him to a life of furtive anonymous relationships rather than anything substantial. It just feels...achy. Like you want to reassure him that it's all okay.

The prose is mostly not exceptional, but every once in a while, there was a sentence that is just so perfectly phrased and placed that it made my jaw drop open. It's almost more remarkable because most of the book, the prose is mostly unobtrusive. Those flashes of brilliance, though.... They're exceptional.

It is not a plot heavy book. The main character is at college, struggling with his identity, engages in a lot of casual bathroom sex, moves to New York with a lover/friend, has his first genuine love affair, tries to figure out where he fits in in a world that tells him there is is something drastically, fundamentally wrong with him.

It's about the characters, really. The main character specifically. It's a vivid look, to the point of discomfort, at growing into an identity in the years before there was any strong backlash to pervasive homophobia. Which is I guess why Stonewall is mentioned in the subject headings. Seriously, though. Three pages.

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