The End of Sexual Identity
Fiction's new terrain
September 1, 2008
Sep 1, 2008
32 Min read time
We’ve come to the end of sexual identity. Not, that is, in the real world, where sexual identities of all sorts still roam, both free and fettered, privileged and disenfranchised; love is still exciting; sex still matters. Real people still come out, or don’t, and consequences still attach to those choices. In art, however, the sturdy house of the novel of sexual identity, with its secret passageways and walk-in/walk-out closets and tempting garden paths and labyrinths, lies in ruins. We don’t really care who enters or leaves it; we pretty much know what goes on inside; we are not trying to peep through the windows.
One can no longer write, or hide with any degree of conviction, a novel such as E.M. Forster’s Maurice, with its tortured Cambridge student and its luscious gamekeeper. After Jeanette Winterson’s first coming-out novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, she went on to describe many others in the basket. Will there be anything, really, in Susan Sontag’s forthcoming journals that will shock us? But if we are no longer compelled by the dramas of who may be in the house, we seem to remain attached to what is left of the charmed structure itself, to its glamour, its mystery, and its strangeness.
And yet, post-gay, like post-colonial, does not mean that the old architecture has been swept away. When I visited the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis a few years ago, I was struck by the fact that the eighteenth century stone foundations, walls, and ingenios of the old sugar plantations had simply been left where they stood, neither dismantled nor rebuilt as tourist attractions. The wind ranged through the half-open spaces. The ruins, worn down to biomorphic shapes and covered with vegetation, had become part of the island’s modern topography.
In contemporary novels, I have noticed a similar devolution of the tumbled walls of the novel of sexual identity. We seem to find ourselves, as writers, standing amidst the last century’s discarded tropes of sexual identity. Recently, writers of all sexual permutations have been recycling this narrative architecture; reworking its stones and walls and windows; borrowing and transforming the old, four-square structures of identity into Gehry-like fantasias, curves, and spires. Detached, to whatever degree, from their original purpose, these tropes are experiencing a surprisingly transformative disapora, passing from one writer to another, from one era to another, and changing as they go. In the culture generally, it may be that identity sorting only becomes more rigid and balkanized by the day. Witness the micro-categories of identity and ultra-specific consumer targeting via Facebook searches (Anglo-Irish Jewish gay men’s science fiction with a dash of cyberpunk, anyone?) and shelves marked “gay men’s fiction.” But we are, in fact, polyglot, polymorphous, and, narratively speaking, polygamous. Love’s mansion has many rooms, and the occupants tend to shift around quite a bit, particularly in the middle of the night. This is sometimes inconvenient in life, but it is, or should be, a bonanza for art. As is nearly always the case when one culture comes into contact with another, no matter what the official policies and restrictions are, intermarriage and intermingling take place; categories dissolve; we enter one another’s fantasies and get under one another’s skin. The imagination reveals itself once again to be protean, ungovernable, a constant seeker.
We do not seek coldly or politely. In regard to sexual identity, fiction writers today not only display some sort of civic obligation to “imagine” the other, but also reveal a profound curiosity, a hunger, to try on the other’s tropes, to exchange them, to press ourselves against them and be transformed. We want to know how other people do it—make narrative, that is. We want to do it the way they do and see what happens. Chain bookstores might prefer to herd shoppers into categories under fluorescent lights, but writers and readers have a way of wandering around in the dusk, curious, appetitive, mutable. From that wandering, new forms and new ways of seeing emerge. We look through the eyes of the other not via identity—this is what it’s like to be you—but via a way of making narrative—this is what it’s like to tell a story, to frame the world, the way you do—and suddenly we are able to apprehend the world anew.
What follows is a very rough map of this new terrain. It is characterized by the tropes of the closet, passing, transformation, and double lives and discontinuous selves. This is by no means a complete list; I hope it is the beginning of a conversation. (And, in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I know some of the authors discussed here; one or two are friends.)
* * *
The closet. Two of the best-received novels in recent years that are almost uncannily pertinent to my thesis are Colm Tóibín’s The Master, which addresses itself to the late-middle age of Henry James, and Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt, which tells the story of a Vietnamese cook in the employ of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Beautifully written, ferociously interior, lyrical, and grave, these two novels use a similar strategy to illuminate the delicate souls of their complicated, semi-visible main characters. Tóibín charts his tender Henry against the sophisticated sensibility of the contemporary reader: he assumes we know that James’s primary desire was for men; that we know that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such men were, discreetly, available; that we know who Oscar Wilde was and what happened to him; that we, like nearly every other character in the novel, regard James’s throttled longing with benevolence and a certain degree of wonder: we want to know not how the master managed to find sex, but how he managed apparently so completely to avoid it. While Wilde was wilding away with Bosie and half the street trade of London, James, from all accounts, seemed to maintain an almost virginal existence. Throughout the novel, naked and semi-naked men float tantalizingly close to James, but he can’t reach for them. He imagines them, he obsessively listens to their breathing, he pursues them and even lies next to them. But he cannot bring himself to touch them. Tóibín, strategically, puts Wilde, and Wilde’s trial, squarely in the first hundred pages of the book. James knew perfectly well who Wilde was; author and reader know, too. By pinning Wilde there so firmly, Tóibín is using the tension between the two men—both, in their ways, heroes—to delineate the highly particular, porous, and even peculiar dimensions of James’s rigid self-enclosure. Unlike his subject, Tóibín is more than capable of saying the word. What appears to fascinate him as a writer is the gap between all the many, many words James could say and the few key phrases he could not articulate; the gap between art and life; between the idea and the act; between a past that cannot be overcome and a present that can never be fully inhabited by the endlessly haunted author.
In that slender difference between two similar characters, one closeted and one uncloseted, both authors find the traction they need in order to explore extremely complicated, multi-faceted territory.
The closet, here, is an expression of that gap. It is made of death, guilt, devotion to art, and more guilt. The sexual closeting is the source, the negative wellspring, of a much larger failure to connect. In terms of the former, Tóibín wisely never lays the blame on any one factor—he assumes that we can see all of that, too: the cultural forces; the mighty, fucked-up currents of the James family; the potential price (Wilde, again). Instead of attempting to bust James out of that closet, Tóibín bravely stands quietly within it in the skin of his main character, studying it, revealing that what it may have given James—both its benefit and its nearly unbearable cost—was liminality. James, unnamable to himself, is a man perpetually in-between, a creature of tremendous sensitivity trapped in a world that nearly always verges on crushing him with its rules, its expectations, its ravenous appetites. The man whose gift for representing the treachery and power of intimate relations was so immense could not, himself, bear to enter the game. One feels, reading The Master, that Tóibín’s James had to sublimate or die—not from shame, or not only from shame, but from the potential force of connection. As if he is showing us a photographic negative, Tóibín confirms the weight and range of those connections by not completing them, not saying them, not allowing them to appear in positive form. He uses the closet to sound the tremendous depth of James’s desire, and to make that depth visible.
Truong’s closet, by contrast, is what her main character calls “the invisibility of servitude.” As self-aware as James, but in a very different position, being poor and Vietnamese in France in the late 1920s, Binh is not only Toklas and Stein’s cook, but is himself gay and not all that liminal about it either, which costs him at least one job. Like Tóibín, Truong is writing from a post-identity vantage point—we know who Toklas and Stein were and what they did; they’re Famous Gay Art People 101. They are not Truong’s subject; they are the ground, the given. Like Tóibín, what Truong wants to render visible is the blurry figure that cannot quite be made out in the background of that picture—the face of Binh, perplexed. He is liminal not by virtue of profound sexual and emotional restraint, but by virtue of race, culture, class, and colonialism. The language and narrative structure of the closet—Binh is always going in and out of secret, hidden, or enclosed spaces—permeates Truong’s novel, but almost never in relation to sexuality or romance. Instead, she uses the idiom of the closet to delineate the colonized dilemma of her main character. “I hide my body,” Binh says, “in the back rooms of every house that I have ever been in.” Those back rooms are the servants’ quarters. Half-exiled, marooned in a foreign language, hopelessly “exotic” to potential employers who either refuse to hire him or are all too eager to “collect” him, outcast, lonely, to some degree owned, Binh is much more severely closeted than Stein and Toklas, whom nearly everyone in Paris seems to know, admire, and serve, and who are, at the end of the day, more or less free. “I am over there,” he says of a photograph of him with his famous employers, “the one with my back turned to the camera. I am not bowing at Gertrude Stein’s feet. I am sewing the button back onto her right shoe.”
As with Wilde and James, Binh, Stein, and Toklas are secret-sharers; the public face—notorious sexual identity—both reveals and conceals a private one for which we do not quite have a name. These faces hover close to one another, attracted, congruent, but not exactly the same. In that slender difference between two similar characters, one closeted and one uncloseted, both authors find the traction they need in order to explore extremely complicated, multi-faceted territory. For Truong, the language of the closet reveals something of the highly intimate nature of what it is to be a colonial subject, how close to the bone, how hungry, how filled with nearly impossible yearnings to be known and the impossibility of being known, not only in the Biblical sense, but also in the broadest sense of the word. It’s like that, she seems to be suggesting; it’s like a desire that’s with you all the time that you can’t say out loud. It’s like sex. It goes that deep, it’s that basic. From his employers, Binh borrows not only a language, but also a set of metaphors, a narrative structure of back rooms, secret passageways, and private doorways that allows us to understand his predicament not directly, but, better and more profoundly, indirectly. We know what colonialism is, but by borrowing the tropes of the closet and contrasting Binh’s “closetedness” to his employers’ freedom in every regard, Truong drives home how personal, how tender, and how primal Binh’s predicament is. We understand him via analogy. Suspended between Stein and Toklas’s famous paired figures, his slender form, a walking simile of like and unlike, can finally be seen.
* * *
Passing. Post-liberation, we assume that no one will have to pass or wish to pass, that codes and veils will not be necessary, that the sun will shine on everyone alike. This assumption, in turn, rests on two others: that everyone has a single identity, like a badge, and that there is no inherent pleasure or value in the play of passing, that there is nothing to be said for roaming around loose in the world, badgeless. Whether or not one attempts this in life, in art the narrative of passing is nearly irresistible, providing as it does so many opportunities for irony, surprise, seduction, and melancholy.
Greer constructs a kind of double-sided tragedy: not only the ordinary tragedy of the inevitable losses of age, but also the more complex tragedy of a man who is always in the wrong body at the time for his desire.
In his second novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Andrew Sean Greer moved from being a fine writer to a uniquely moving one when he employed a passing narrative in an entirely different context. Tivoli is the story of Max, who, like Fitzgerald’s Benjamin Button, ages in reverse. If he is gifted, he is also cursed, a prisoner of his singular constitution; he is only in temporal synch with the love of his life, Alice, for a few blissful years. The rest of his life is a slow motion meditation on the art of losing as he moves irrevocably in the opposite direction from everyone he loves.
By setting the tenderness of love firmly across the sharp edge of time—in this case, time moving backwards rather than forwards—Greer constructs a kind of double-sided tragedy: not only the ordinary tragedy of the inevitable losses of age, but also the more complex tragedy of a man who is always in the wrong body at the time for his desire. The elderly man who is really a child cannot confess his love to Alice when she is a young girl; the young boy who is really an elderly man cannot take the now elderly Alice in his arms in the fully embodied, adult way he most longs to. Max’s son thinks that his father is a playmate of his own age; Max’s best friend Hughie, who is passionately in love with him, at one point suggests that they run away together—the middle-aged man Hughie, and Max, who appears to be a child. The novel is a tragedy of missed connections, but it is also about the tragedy of passing. Max is constantly forced to pass as someone he is not, to dress and act and speak as if he were another kind of person than the peculiar person he is. “Be what they think you are,” his mother warns him, and Max does, to a fault. The price of this passing, however, is high. In the end, his disguise has been so successful that he loses everyone as he literally shrinks to invisibility.
Greer keeps the doubleness in view at all times: look at the novel one way and you see a universal story about aging and love; look at it from a slightly different angle and you see the way that passing erodes the heart. The idea of aging in reverse, of course, is not the innovative quality here. There is Fitzgerald’s Button; as Greer himself has pointed out, Merlin did the same thing; the popular novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, also played with the idea of lovers wrenchingly separated by the uncontrollable time-traveling of the man of the pair. Charles Baxter moved an entire narrative backward in time in First Light. Harold Pinter has deployed the backward narrative as well, and so on.
The innovation, instead, lies in the architecture of that doubleness and the way it has turned the tropes of gayness inside out. Time, Greer suggests, closets all of us in the end; we are all eventually looking out of bodies that do not match the social expectations of what it is seemly for those bodies to desire. What is the Oedipal triangle if not a variety of being forced to hide one’s longing? That baby only looks like a baby to the adults; inside is a fevered mass of wayward lust, aggression, and rage. When Greer’s Max looks like he is five, he is actually an old man, full of history and need, cleverly disguised as a child in a sandbox. He has been closeted by his own body. Greer clearly found his voice once he found a formal innovation that would produce, comment upon, and aestheticize an emotional double bind. He found his voice in an angle, a vantage point: the angle of passing. Greer inverts the logic of liberation and liberatory slogans—it is not that gay people are just like ordinary people, it is that ordinary people, closeted by time and mortality, are just like gay people. It is that strange, that incongruous, to be alive.
Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, which won the Booker Prize in 2004, also gains tremendous energy and drama from the curves and angles of passing, but here the passing is transferred onto class. Again, as in Tóibín and Truong, there is a perfectly nice, sturdy structure of sexual identity on the novel’s property—the twenty-year-old main character, Nick Guest, is gay, it is London in 1983, and in due course he takes male lovers, falls in love, has a circle of friends of various sexual stripes, and so on. The AIDS crisis arrives, takes its toll. Guest, in other words, is a modern subject, with modern options, ambivalences, and loss. He is quite honest about his sexual identity.
His duplicity, and the central drama of the novel, revolves around his profound, shameful, and ultimately self-defeating desire to pass as a member of the upper class. Helplessly attached as mascot and favorite almost-son of the upper-class Fedden family (dad, Gerald, is a conservative Member of Parliament in Thatcher’s England), Guest, like Binh, lives in a back room—he has been given an attic room in the Feddens’ enormous Notting Hill house. From his uneasy perch here, he studies the Feddens, emulates them, pretends he is one of them from time to time, regards the mansion “as if it was really his own, or would be one day.” His hero, ironically, is Henry James, and James is frequently invoked throughout the novel.
Guest tells himself that what he loves is “beauty,” the beauty exemplified by the double curve known as an ogee curve, what William Hogarth called “the line of beauty,” or, as Hollinghurst puts it, “the snakelike flicker of an instinct, of two compulsions held in one unfolding movement.” But what Guest really means by “beauty” might be something more like “money” as he twists and turns his way through a class where he does not belong, now as a kind of son, now as a best friend, now as a lover to a millionaire. He is the right man to have at all the parties and country houses, the perfect guest; he never strikes a false note. He believes himself to be a member of the family and believes, too, that they see him, there, in their grand house, as he frantically attempts to see himself: privileged, smart, beautiful, heir to the future.
When it all goes bad, as it must in a novel such as this one, Hollinghurst piercingly reverses the passing cards—instead of class, sexual identity is played. A scandal involving the Feddens and money erupts, but both the tabloids and Gerald Fedden focus on Guest’s sexuality as the major point of scandal. Fedden, confronting Guest toward the end of the book, says, “It’s the sort of thing you read about, it’s an old homo trick. You can’t have a real family, so you attach yourself to someone else’s. . . .you must have been very envious . . . you’ve wreaked some pretty awful revenge. . . . all we asked for was loyalty.” Where Tóibín takes up the hyperaestheticizing, melancholy side of James, Hollinghurst claims James’s ruthlessness about the price of passing for, or into, a class into which you were not born. They will ultimately, Hollinghurst suggests, find you out, and they will exile you forever.
As in those novels in which the closeted hero or heroine, once discovered, must hang him or herself, here passing also exacts its punishment, though within his exile Hollinghurst’s hero also finds a new, uncertain freedom: “a love of the world that was shockingly unconditional.” Beauty, he sees, is not confined to the grand house that has just banished him, but is abundant as well in “the fact of a street corner.” Unlike his predecessors, with their homo tricks and tragic homo fates, Guest does not die a literal death, but he does die a figurative, even an aesthetic one. Barred from passing, he finds beauty exploding everywhere, and Hollinghurst’s novel constitutes an open invitation for us all to do the same, to come out, as it were, from the false fronts and closets of class and into the profligate beauty of the street.
* * *
Transformation. We believed in transformation through desire, and it happened. On the other side of the looking glass, we walked differently, talked differently, went different places, wore different clothes; the rules were different. Change or die, someone I know once told herself: the assumption being that there is a price either way. All sex and love are potentially transformative—I am not the same is a common emotion upon falling in love, experiencing profound desire—but illegal sex and love, as long as they are illegal, ask us, require us even, to leave what we know, often the selves that we know, behind. There are underworlds, demimondes; there is a darkness on the edge of town. If you go there—like Orpheus, like Persephone, like Dante—it may change you from what you were into something else.
Aciman, a Proustian, knows that being like another person, like a city, like the people in that city, is as close as any of us ever gets—we hunger to be similes.
This trope certainly did not originate with the drama of sexual identity, but in the latter half of the twentieth century it re-emerged powerfully and visibly in that arena. On television, in the movies, in books—people could “come out”; there was a “gay culture”; and that culture, like Oz, had certain transformative properties, activated by desire. Leathermen, drag queens, drag kings, transgender heroes and heroines, etc.: it was magic, the other side of the looking-glass. I doubt very much that this image is a “true” representation of being gay or anything else, but it was nonetheless pervasive, seductive, and tremendously evocative. The idea that intimacy has transformative powers lights the imagination. Zeus, sufficiently motivated, could become a swan; Leda was into it.
Several recent novels have taken up this narrative structure of transformation through desire, two of the most prominent being Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. Both these authors, it is worth mentioning, are themselves straight and their work prior to these breakthrough books was straight as well in the sense of being, more or less, congruent to their avowed public identities: Eugenides’ first novel The Virgin Suicides was told from the point of view of teenage boys lusting after the troubled virgin girls of the title; Aciman had previously published only nonfiction work concerning exile, polyglot identity (Aciman was born into a secular Jewish family of Turkish nationality that settled in Egypt and later Italy), and Proust.
As with Truong and Greer, this powerful trope can be reconfigured as the way into a story that is not, in the end, a story of sexual identity. In Aciman’s case the overwhelming, unexpected lust of seventeen-year-old Elio, son of an Italian scholar, for Oliver, a confident American post-doc who is living with them for one long, hot summer, does not change Elio’s sexual identity per se; the change is deeper, less definable than that. Indeed, it might be said that Call Me By Your Name is most concerned with the sense of loss of identity, of displacement that occurs in, say, moving rapidly across cultural and ethnic identities and, however briefly, in the sort of intense, highly charged, boundary-crossing erotic encounter that Elio and Oliver experience. My body is your body they say to one another; call me by your name at the moment just before orgasm.
Sons of different countries, at home in one another’s bodies and identities for a butterfly’s-life span of time, Elio and Oliver form between them a tiny, transitory erotic city with its own language and customs that, like Atlantis, sinks away into memory and can only be regained in the reconstruction of art. Led by desire, they are transformed into one another, and into a place, a state of mind, that dissolves nearly as quickly as it is built. In Rome for one last evening with his beloved Oliver, Elio says of the sophisticated company in which he finds himself: “Everyone was available, lived availably—like the city—and assumed everyone else wished to be so as well. I longed to be like them.” Aciman, a Proustian, knows that being like another person, like a city, like the people in that city, is as close as any of us ever gets—we hunger to be similes. In the heat of that desire, we sometimes believe that the transformation has actually occurred.
Middlesex takes up the trope more directly. It is the coming-of-age story of Calliope Stephanides, a Greek-American hermaphrodite growing up in suburban Michigan. Calliope/Cal begins her tale with the words “I was born twice” and goes on to recount her adventures, misadventures, and victories as she comes to term with her unique nature. Like Tiresias, Cal/Calliope gives us the report from both sides of the aisle; Eugenides specifically references the Greeks, in both epic and mythic modes, as his hero/ine sings us not only through her own life, but also through the lives of the generations that produced him/her.
S/he is Woolf’s incandescent, androgynous mind of the artist, capable of illuminating the world through being, herself, so abundantly illuminated—turned on by everyone, everything, past and present, old country and new, outwardly a girl while harboring “two testicles squatting illegally in their inguinal canals” and illegal thoughts to match. At thirteen, s/he is five feet ten inches tall and growing facial hair; her “crocus,” as s/he calls it, is not like the other girls’—it is “too elaborate,” in “a state of becoming.” In a moment of adolescent sex, s/he realizes that s/he “wasn’t a girl but something in between”; moreover, Cal/Calliope has the uncanny ability, at moments of great erotic feeling, to enter, psychically, the bodies of others. While the process of transformation on the level of gender identity drives the plot of this tale—Calliope, like one of Philip Pullman’s daemons, eventually settles on a male identity as Cal—it is the potential for psychic transformation and transubstantiation that seems to appeal to Eugenides, the ability to cross back and forth over all the lines of gender, ethnicity, and even time as his intersexed narrator ranges through history, and in and out of people’s bodies both literally and figuratively.
As in Aciman, as in Ovid, in Eugenides’s book, transformation is a dream—and a dream-state—in which boundaries are permeable, negotiable, and mutable. What happens in that in-between, rather than the final form, fish or fowl, is the story. I understand the power of this dream to the artist; I fell in love with Ovid’s Metamorphoses a few years ago and it strongly influenced the novel I have just finished writing, The Sky Below. In this book, my ambivalent hero is more or less gay with a tincture of bisexual, but the transformation he undergoes and the ensuing descent to an underworld have nothing to do with his sexual identity. The trope of transformation, that narrative structure, hovers around his story, but it is driven by death instead of sex. He is changed by a physical force within him that he does not understand and cannot control; it is like desire, like desire’s negative. I cannot explain this, why it is that I am haunting my own work with the trope of transformation I might have once used in the service of a narrative of sexual identity, but that mirror, that angel, is somehow necessary. I, too, hunger for, and via, simile.
* * *
Double (and triple, and more) lives and discontinuous selves. Once transformed, you immediately become aware of how plastic identity actually is; by choosing a certain wayward path, a left-handed path, often a path that is mysterious and compelling and strange even to you, you immediately see all the other paths you did not take, the other selves, the other lives that you might have lived and that hover around your name, like spirits in a spirit photograph. I could have been that other woman, that other man; I thought I was that other one, in fact, until, suddenly, I wasn’t. We like to think that we shed these other selves definitively, bursting into our new singular selves, our impermeable new identities, like superheroes encased in iron, but instead these other selves have a way of persisting; we are haunted by all the people we might have been, in some ways still are. Transformation is never total. Identity shimmers.
Carol Anshaw’s 1992 novel Aquamarine took up this theme by means of a simple, elegant device. Her main character, a woman named Jesse Austin, was once an Olympic swimmer who lost her gold medal to another woman, a rival with whom she was also in love. This is the novel’s generative event—the split second that changed Jesse’s life forever. From this moment, Anshaw spins out three different lives for Jesse: in one, she is married to a man in her hometown; in another, she is an academic living in New York with her girlfriend; in yet a third version of Jesse, she is divorced, with two kids, running a swimming academy. In all three possible lives, she has a retarded brother who is to some degree her responsibility, and in different lives she makes different decisions about how to care for him, with different consequences.
Anshaw does not privilege one version of Jesse over any other; she simply lays out the three versions, like a fortune-teller laying down three cards. No life is particularly better or worse than any other—no one is going out a window, or laying her head down on the railroad tracks, or suffering in noble, throttled silence; nor are any of these lives more or less passionate than any other. Instead, they are just lives, ordinary and difficult and prismatic. By putting these lives on a neutral level with one another, Anshaw both desensationalizes the gay version and destabilizes the straight versions: there is nothing essential, her narrative structure speculates, about who we are. All of us, no matter our headline identities, could be, sometimes are, many things, multiple selves, even contradictory ones. In the alternate version of the universe called a novel, these selves play freely, simultaneously, and with the sort of equal weight not possible in real life, where—though there are those who try—it is nearly impossible to live out all your possible selves with equal vigor and at the same time.
That heightened consciousness of the fragility of identity, both as a site of possibility and of loss, makes these novels messages in a bottle from our own multiple moment.
This trope of multiple selves or lives, even within the same life, is also what drives Lorrie Moore’s 1986 novel Anagrams, not to mention “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “Borges and I”; doubling and doubles have a long, rich, uncanny history in literature. But in recent years, the speculative aspect of this trope, the open hinge of the what-if, the empty suit of identity, has been taken up by such writers as Michael Cunningham, Jeanette Winterson, Deborah Eisenberg, and, rather spectacularly, in Todd Haynes’ kaleidoscopic, poly-everything Dylan biopic I’m Not There. In Cunningham’s The Hours, for instance, the book Mrs. Dalloway is simultaneously the Virginia Woolf masterpiece itself; the bedside reading of a Mrs. Brown in 1949; the just barely visible dream, not even a paragraph yet, of Woolf as a character in 1923; the nickname of a contemporary woman throwing a party a la the fictional Mrs. Dalloway; and the outside name, the public face of the novel Woolf originally titled The Hours. Instead of Anshaw’s split-second gap, here the book is that endlessly open future, the heartbreakingly random moment between one life and another, one fate and another, one self and another. The difference is only time, the completely uncontrollable circumstance of when you happened to be born and into what body. In the book, all these time periods exist simultaneously, pivoting around a single name that is also a character, a nascent work of art, an object made of paper and ink, and what one character calls another who is beloved to him.
Cunningham made use of this same trope of multiplicity in his next novel, Specimen Days, though here it is condensed into characters—the same man, woman, and boy rotate through three time periods in New York: the industrial revolution, the early twenty-first century, and 150 years in the future. The poetry of Walt Whitman haunts the three characters throughout. The central trio is both the same and just a bit different in each era; they join, part, reunite, meet their fates, always linked to one another in some way, always somehow resonating to Whitman, with a logic that is more unconscious than linear or narrative. The novel is like a recurring dream that changes just a little bit every night.
It’s difficult not to imagine that Jeanette Winterson may have been influenced by Specimen Days as she composed her most recent novel, The Stone Gods. In this speculative fiction, the intrepid robo-sapien Spike pursues her true love, Billie Crusoe, through three possible scenarios: a futuristic present on a nearly uninhabitable Earth, a futuristic future on a better planet, and an episode on Easter Island in 1774. “This is one story,” says Billie to Spike in one of their incarnations. “There will be another.” It is a romantic idea, at heart, whether it is the family romance of Cunningham’s novel (the man, the woman, the child) or the lover’s romance of Winterson’s (I would love you even if you were a robot or a sailor, at the end of history or the beginning), but its expansiveness also contains a poignant meditation on contingency: history has its way with us. At another time, we might have died, not met, been the wrong age, on the wrong street, on a nearly dead planet. One of us might be, as Spike is in one of the variations here, just a head, tenderly carted around by the other.
That heightened consciousness of the fragility of identity, both as a site of possibility and of loss, makes these novels messages in a bottle from our own multiple moment—how many screen names, for example, do you have? How many selves, orbiting on the Internet, pursuing their own pleasures and pains both with and without you? How much control does anyone have over any of them, or, for that matter, over the fickle medium of time itself in its many dimensions? As Deborah Eisenberg’s transcendently cranky, elderly, gay Otto speculates in her story “Some Other, Better Otto”:
If time was the multiplicity Sharon and William seemed to believe it was, maybe it contained multiple Sharons. . . . To think that there could be an infinitude of selves… an infinitude of Ottos, lugging around that personality, those circumstances, that appearance. . . . Perhaps if one could concentrate hard enough, they could all be collected, all those errant, enslaved selves . . . the suffocating Otto-costumes dissolving, a true freedom at last. Oh, how tired he was!
Of course Otto is tired; all those potential selves can never be collected, unified, united under a single name. Every name, in fact, is simply a starting point for multiple possibilities. That is the good news, these writers suggest, and the bad news. In Haynes’s recent film I’m Not There, Bob Dylan is literally split into many different people—a black child, a slender woman, a pouty young screen idol, a middle-aged Billy the Kid, among others—all of them simultaneously constructing and deconstructing the being we call “Bob Dylan,” a seductive and protean creature if ever there was one. One of the most moving moments in the movie is the look of utter despair on Cate Blanchett’s face (she plays Dylan in the Don’t Look Back years) as she watches a journalist triumphantly announce on television that he knows who the “real” Bob Dylan is—Robert Zimmerman, a Jewish guy from Minnesota. I’m not really anyone, says her expression. That name was only one of the me’s out there. It is, her face seems to say, both Dylan’s genius and his existential dilemma: he cannot collect all his errant selves. His liberation was when he ceased to try, trading folk’s aesthetic of woody authenticity and the single, pure voice for the exploding, fractured artificiality of the electric guitar.
Like electricity, ideas travel. Sparks fly unpredictably, ignite previously solid structures, and we are changed. Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of these tropological exchanges in modern fiction is the abundant evidence they offer to the effect that categories, whether of marketing or of identity, are so obviously permeable. We look at one another, we read one another, and something happens, on both sides. We connect. We long to be like, to be similes. We can’t help it, and, in fact, it may be that there is no other way to get there, to whatever that place is toward which art relentlessly drives. It is an odd sort of falling in love, writer to writer, book to book, metaphor to metaphor. It happens both with and without us, but the profundity of its effects is undeniable.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
September 01, 2008
32 Min read time