Aaron is one-third of the founding members of the book club. He believes that the answer to the meaning of life is to uncover the meaning. He tries to find it in books from serious fiction to frivolous reads.
Aaron’s Top Five GLBTQ Books
1. Alan Hollinghurst/ Michael Cunningham/ Virginia Woolf
This is a bit of a cheat of Top 5 but, to me, they are all related in one way or another. Hollinghurst and Cunningham are one of the earliest “serious” openly gay writers, writing about gay themes and gay lives, and winning awards.
I was about 18 (in 1998) when I found out about Hollinghurst. His novel, The Folding Star, was nominated for Booker Prize four years ago (in 1994). This was shocking to me, as a teenager who was coming to terms to my sexuality. All my life, I have been told that being gay is sick, perverse and inferior but this writer actually was nominated for a major award?
I simply had to lay my hands on the book. And not surprisingly, I had a difficult time tracking it down after calling tens of bookshops. When I found the hardcover, probably the only copy in Singapore, it was costly to a student but I bought it. (No Amazon, no booksdepository then.)
Among all Hollinghurst’s books—The Swimming Pool Library has a large following, while Line of Beauty is said to be his magnum opus—Folding Star remains my favorite. It is a re-telling of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice—about an old man lusting for a teenage boy—but there is so much beauty in the novel. Heartbreaking beauty, beauty that pains the reader with every line I read. I can’t remember clearly what it was but I may or may not have reached the conclusion that although moral is relative, beauty is dangerous. Beauty tricks us but does nothing and is, in the end, vacuous.
Cunningham’s The Hours suffers the same fate as The Folding Star in that the novels couldn’t be found in Singapore until they won awards or made into movie. You could hardly find The Hours when it won two major awards (Pulitzer and PEN) in 1999. But when it was made into an Oscar-winning movie in 2002, the novel flooded Singapore bookshops. Like the difficulty I had in finding Folding Star, I come to realize that it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight; as long as you’re good enough, your books will be on the market. Unless you’re so kickass in your job, you’re just another neuter worker-bee in the hive. Nobody cares about your sexuality. You can be anything you want to be.
The Hours is three short stories: an imaginative fiction of Virginia Woolf’s life; a rewriting of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway; and a 1950 American housewife. I remember I finished reading it during a CSO duty. The officer—this sexy Malay boy, tall and sleek, with a taut body, like a panther—was sleeping in the next bed. I finished the novel, set it aside, and cried my eyes out. Very drama.
The essence of The Hours is the same as Mrs Dalloway, that is, nothing wins time. We are puny, we keep waiting for the hours to pass and then we die.
If I were really forced to pick one and kick the rest out of the top 5, I choose The Folding Star as the one. In general, I thought Cunningham isn’t as imaginative or complex as Hollinghurst and Woolf can be dated.
[See book club discussion on Cunningham’s By Nightfall and Woolf’s Orlando.]
2. Bram Stoker’s Dracula
When I first read this nineteenth-century novel, it caused such a strange sensation in me. I spent the entire night reading it, and then I had nightmares and fever for a few days after it. Like Javin, I find that men sucking men, and men staking men can be very sexciting. The homoeroticism and the misogyny are appalling but attractive. I couldn’t really make sense of the attraction until Talia Schaffer, an academic, traces the history of the writing of the novel. Apparently, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde were wooing the same woman, and there were some homoerotic tension going on between the two. When Wilde’s sodomy case came out, Stoker destroyed almost all the correspondence between them, and Dracula could be read as an expurgation and projection of Stoker’s homoeroticism. Interesting, right?
3. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room
I wanted to call my non-existent bookshop in the future “Giovanni’s Room” after the novel until I knew of a famous bookshop in San Francisco with the same name. I couldn’t stand the cacophony of Baldwin’s other novels but Giovanni’s Room is perfect and beautiful and artful. David, whose girlfriend leaves for Spain, has an affair with Giovanni who is executed at the end. There is a bohemian indecisiveness that resonates with me—a desire to be free VS the call to be responsible.
4. Yukio Mishima’s Temple of Golden Pavilion
Mishimi is more known for Confessions of a Mask, with a gay protagonist. But I thought it was facile and puerile. Temple of Golden Pavilion, however, is a complex, philosophical book about life, death, love, beauty and ugliness. The story is about an arson in 1500 that shocked Japan. An ugly acolyte with a stammer and clubfoot, who sleep with women by manipulating their attraction to the grotesque, has a cynical (boy?)friend. Stammering and clubfoot are often symbols of homosexuality in literature. This book mind-fucked me.
5. Paul Monette’s West of Yesterday, East of Summer: New and Selected Poems
This is one of the most influential books of my formative years. Paul Monette is better known for his gay autobiographies on HIV such as Borrowed Time, Becoming a Man, and Last Watch of the Night. But his poems move me deeply. Whenever I want a good cry, I’d re-read his poems, eulogies written for his lovers who died of AIDS-related diseases. His incoherent rambling makes sense to me because in the face of grief, who could speak?
“Pain is not a flower pain is a root
and its work is underground where the moldering
proceeds the bones of all our joy winded.”
Even after 15 years of reading the poem, I can still recite it by heart.