Category Archives: Michael Cunningham

Aaron’s Top 5 GLBTQ Books

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

foldingstar1. 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.

tumblr_lvbazpomJT1r1akito1_500Cunningham’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.

mrs-dallowayThe 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.]

dracula-cover2. 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?

131813. 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.

3748275. 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.

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Filed under Alan Hollinghurst, Bram Stoker, James Baldwin, Michael Cunningham, Paul Monette, Top 5, Virginia Woolf, Yukio Mishima

32nd Discussion: Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall (19 Apr)

Moderator: Timmy
Attendees: Raj, Timmy, Victor, Alex, Alexius, Glenn, Amit, Aaron, Har, JM (Coetzee?), Ernest

Although there are some hot scenes (shower scene and straight sex) and although we all agree that the stream of consciousness/monologue is complex, many of us found the novel depressing in its mediations on death, and some of us found it boring.

Themes

1. Autobiography/Art: Aaron argued that the novel is Cunningham’s veiled autobiography on his relationship to art and life, which is why the characters are stock characters and the plot is predictable, and the predictability is what Victor called “a lazy way of writing.” The importance is not in the characters or plot but in objects of art and beauty. For instance, the names of the characters are mostly biblical or famous literary names: Peter, Matthew, Daniel, Rebecca (from Daphne du Maurier); Beatrice (from Dante). Or how the scenes in the novel are straight out from paintings. Or in the chapter “Art History,” Peter mediates that every art show “might have moved a fraction of a centimeter forward. Aesthetics? Art History?…What about the unending effort to find a balance between sentiment and irony, between beauty and rigor, and in so doing open a crack in the subtance of the world through which mortal truth might shine?” (69). This sentence–especially the emphasis on literary terms “sentiment and irony”–is obviously mirroring Cunningham’s thoughts on his craft. Furthermore, Uta says, “Taking on an artist you don’t love who sells a lot of work helps pay for the artists you do love who don’t sell a lot of work” is pointedly talking about the publishing world (before there are literary agents). What the novel is is a mediation of Cunningham in positioning himself in relation to other writers (hence, the extensive intertextural references to other great works of literature like Madame Bovary, Dante, Jane Eyre, etc). But most of the members disagreed with Aaron, thinking the thesis is too far a leap.

2. Sexuality:

a. “Is it possible to be gay for a person?” TImmy asked. Ernest quoted movingly a line straight from Jodi Picoult’s Sing You Home to answer the question.

b. Incest: Alexius brought up that Peter is in love with his brother, Matthew, and Matthew and Mizzy are always naked (theme of corporeality/bodies). Aaron thought the nudity is to emphasize their ethereal nature, a nature untainted by societal norms. Alex claimed with bodies that beautiful, he’d want to walk around naked every opportunity he has too.  Alexius thought the book–in particularly the relationship between the men–emphasizes on Greek love.  Tying part (a) and (b) together, Alex stated that Peter is not in love in men per se but in love with beauty and Peter treats them as art objects. Seen in this way, Raj claimed that the ugly urn symbolizes Peter–an object of ordinary art–while Mizzy is the beautiful urn that substitutes the ugly urn at Carol’s country house.

c. Homophobia: Timmy asked if this novel is homophobic since the gay characters either are manipulative or die of HIV/AIDS. Most of the members said no because the gay characters are portrayed in a sympathetic manner.

3. Sex

a. Alex brought up an interesting point that we didn’t go into: why does the straight sex scene turn us (gay people) on?

b. Alexius asked why there is no sex between Mizzy and Peter. Raj wondered if sex is what is on Peter’s mind while Aaron claimed that if we follow the argument that Mizzy is a piece of art and beauty, one should never touch beauty because one would defile it. Building on, JM said that the purpose of the interior monologue is that art exists in the mind and if it is expressed, art loses that beauty.

Raj likened that: if Peter has sex with Mizzy, it would be like how a torn painting reveals its worthless second-rate painting underneath. Ernest asked why the metaphor sounds like the tearing of hymen. Alexius said, “But there is interactive art. They can interact with each other.”

The unfulfilled desire, Alex argued, is befitting and ties in with the theme of death.

4. Marriage: Mundane existence.

5. Love: Victor explained that Peter reaches for the forbidden fruit.

Characters

1. Peter: Glenn saw Peter as someone who needs to be appreciated for whom he is. JM said that the book is about a mid-life crisis, an urgency to be special; if not, Peter will be like the shark, suspended in mid-life. And being with Mizzy, Alex added, is that something special.

Raj suspected Peter is hallucinating the entire encounter with Mizzy in his head.

2. Mizzy: “A hot scumbag,” according to Alex. While Timmy hated Mizzy for his complete waste of his intelligence and potential, Mizzy is Raj’s favorite character as, according to Raj, Mizzy is manipulative. Aaron, however, cautioned that we are seeing Mizzy from Peter’s point-of-view and Mizzy may not be manipulative. In fact, JM found Mizzy innocent and pitiful because he cannot and doesn’t want to assimilate into society and is thus an outcast.

Alexius couldn’t fathom why Mizzy would fall in love with Peter because, to Alexius, a younger man loves an older man for his security and knowledge. Alexius also disliked that the others continue calling Mizzy Mizzy and not Ethan, because it would reinforce Mizzy’s own mindset.

3. Rebecca: Aaron defended Rebecca when claims were made of her being bland, saying that her personality is inaccessible to us because we are seeing her from Peter’s point of view. She does show sparks of complexity, such as the witnessing of the threesome and seeking revenge for her sister, and calling Peter “Charlie” during sex.  “Why Charlie?” JM asked. Alex replied, “Calling someone else’s name during sex is insulting and may be a turn on. Sex is a mixture of insult, pain and fantasy.” Of course, Alex knows best.

4. Uta: Favorite character of Har, Aaron and Timmy because, as Timmy succinctly puts it, Uta is like Uma Thurman in The Producers, funny, down-to-earth, busty and blonde.

5. Beatrice: “Why does Beatrice hate her dad?” Timmy asked. Har and JM pointed out that she cannot fulfill the potential of the Dantean name. (A parallel could be made of Cunningham’s works in relations to other great works.) Peter cannot get over his superficiality and there is an “unspoken disdain” (Alex’s words).  That’s why Mizzy is a substitution for Rebecca’s and Peter’s parental affections. Raj, Timmy and JM believed that Beatrice is lesbian while Alex and Aaron didn’t. Perhaps the ambiguity is to highlight how un-important sexuality is in a liberal society: we don’t need to know and shouldn’t need to know her sexuality.

Style

1. Monologue: While many of us found the style boring, Har liked the long meditative paragraphs, especially the description of a party, which Alex pointed out, is modeled after Mrs Dalloway. Furthermore, defending the ennui, JM argued that the stream-of-consciousness is to mirror the boredom in Peter’s life.

2. Setting: Raj claimed that the novel ruins New York for him, depicting the city as melancholic, while Aaron thought the descriptions are spot on.

3. Last Chapter: JM liked the way the last chapter ties things up.  Alex liked the endless possibilities of the ending.

4. Motif:

a. The significance of the rare human touch, we discussed, is a signal for human connection.

b. Shark:  Alex noted that Peter has a hubris when he associates himself with the shark. JM said that the shark could be an indication of the fearlessness when facing life and death. Aaron thought the shark represents the terrible beauty that is in the epigraph of the book while Alexis said that the shark could represent Matthew, suspended in his prime.

c. Animals: Prevalent mentioning of animals including death of a horse, which Har brought up, a foreshadowing technique, demonstrating Cunningham’s craft.

5. Doppelganger: Why does everyone melt into everyone else? For instance, Uta has been compared to Rebecca; Mizzy to Rebecca and Matthew; Peter to Bette. JM suggests that perhaps the novel isn’t about the characters, that it’s a story for everyone.

The book club concluded with a sad note, as sad as the book. We usually appreciate the book better after the discussion but not in this case. Har and Amit were the exceptions who liked the novel. Aaron and Alex were neutral. The rest hated it as it is, in Glenn’s, Alexius’s, Timmy’s words, “boring, pretentious, pussified” and in Amit’s words, “fatalistic as the novel sets the characters up to fail.” Ernest won’t be reading the book, fo’ so’.

PS: Thanks, Raj, for hosting us and providing drinks and curry puffs.

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Filed under Class, Family, Gay, HIV/AIDS, Love, Michael Cunningham, USA