by Jean Roberta
Sometimes I binge-read a thick novel or a series because I promised someone to beta-read their manuscript, or to review their published work, or I am scheduled to meet a relatively famous author, and I’m aghast to realize I haven’t read any of his/her work.
Despite having two heavy classes to teach (both first-semester English classes with large cohorts of non-English-speaking students and locally-raised students who don’t seem fluent in any language), I’ve read some big books lately.
The first was The Book of Lies (1999) by Felice Picano, whom I was invited to join in a panel discussion (with Sally Bellerose) at Saints & Sinners, the annual LGBTQ literature con in New Orleans. After I discreetly asked another gay-male writer how to pronounce Mr. Picano’s first name, the song “Feliz Navidad” kept running through my head. He has a lengthy writeup on Wikipedia, as well as several other places, so I rushed to my local university library to see if I could find his work there. I borrowed two of his hardcover novels, The Book of Lies and Onyx, and made good use of my time before the panel by reading The Book of Lies on the plane and in the hotel.
It’s a labyrinth of a book, part intellectual mystery, part satirical poke at academia, part roman a clef (undoubtedly caricaturing real writers whom I don’t know well enough to recognize, which might be just as well). A fairly naïve Ph.D. student named Ross, who aims to make a name for himself in Gay Studies, is allowed to spend a summer in a fabulous house in Los Angeles that belongs to a successful member of a legendary group of writers called the Purple Circle (based on the real-life Lavender Quill crowd). The house itself was built in the 1920s for a kind of quasi-courtesan, and prostitution in various forms (“selling out” for fame, money, sex, or survival) is a theme of the book.
Later, when Felice himself explained that he originally planned a career in art history, I could see the connection between his keen eye for visual detail and his writing style. The Book of Lies calls out for illustrations as the narrative follows Ross all over the U.S. on his quest to interview the surviving members of the Purple Circle, which was decimated by AIDs in the 1980s. The excessive qualities of the house in L.A., with its hidden panels, gardens and outdoor pool, contrasts nicely with the bone-white light and the slush of a winter day in New York in the early 1970s, as described in the letters of the Purple Circle. And then there is the woodsy life of the New England survivor who has almost become a hermit.
Ross thinks he has discovered an unknown, unpublished member of the Purple Circle, and he obsessively tries to track him down. As it turns out, the older gay-male writers who gently flirt with Ross are playing an elaborate joke on him, while the author plays mind-games with the reader by dropping conflicting hints about Ross’ sexuality. By the last scene, Ross is punished beyond his deserts (IMO) when he is abruptly kicked out of his teaching position, the Ph.D. program, and the house in L.A. He loses access to the Purple Circle, who are all men he genuinely respected. (I can’t help being reminded of Truman Capote, who apparently lost all his society friends after he wrote about them in his books.)
A quick look at the reviews of this novel shows that readers either love it or hate it. I love the lush writing style as well as the literary plot premise, but I was jarred by the downfall of the apparent hero. Ross’ story turns out to be tragic, but the way Fate (in the form of several other people) throws him off a cliff doesn’t seem to fit the general mood up to that point.
And while I’m being critical, I would like to say a few words about something I think of as Christopher Rice Syndrome, although other gay-male writers indulge in it too. In The Book of Lies, one talented member of the Purple Circle, cut down in his prime by AIDS, has left behind a “widow,” a heterosexual woman who developed a crush on him in university, became his non-sexual groupie, and eventually inherited custody of all his papers. Ross must make her acquaintance while researching the dead writer, and he notes that she has no fashion sense. (She is a stocky middle-aged woman who is described looking like a toddler in faded overalls.) She has never married nor had any children. Her life has revolved around a man who was never that interested in her.
Please. I realize that there must a few real-life examples of such devoted handmaidens in the world, but why do they appear so frequently in otherwise-plausible plots by gay men? This novel, like others I’ve read, fails the Bechdel Test, invented by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel. To pass the test, a work (novel, story, play or film) has to include at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than men.
I’ve known women who might fairly be described as Fag Hags (including my late mother, who had a very close, formative friendship with a gay man when both were teenagers in 1930s New York), but who also have other friendships and satisfying sexual relationships with men or women. Just to clarify, if (for the sake of argument) someone like Felice Picano had a strange whim on his deathbed to leave all his papers to me, I would gladly accept them. But I would still have a life.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my reading adventures.