Oh L’Amour

Peter and I thoroughly enjoyed the HBO Max show It’s a Sin this weekend. Set in London in the 1980s, it follows a group of young gay men as they come out of the closet and are beset by AIDS. Not every character in the show is gay. Parents play key roles, and much of the action is seen through the eyes of a young woman, apparently straight, who is a friend and roommate. I think my favorite character in the show was Colin, a phlegmatic, responsible, incontrovertibly gay but decidedly unflashy young man from Wales, who works as an intern at a Savile Row haberdashery and seems too cautious to act on his sexual impulses. Most of the characters are types rather than individuals, in the way of TV shows, but Colin was a type I hadn’t seen on screen before, so I never knew what he was going to do next, which I liked. The show hits a few wrong notes (which I’ll get to), but I laughed and cried and at times found it almost overwhelmingly evocative.

The soundtrack has a lot to do with how evocative. Soft Cell, Yazoo, Erasure, Wham, Kate Bush, the Eurythmics, and of course PSB: in my recollection, these were in fact the songs that we were listening to. “Music was so much more fun then,” I muttered to Peter, early in the first episode, as the middle-aged are wont to do. Artificial, calculated, trivial, effeminate, decadent songs. More pleasurable than songs should have been, and pleasurable to a part of me that I felt I probably wasn’t supposed to be indulging. Since a few of the show’s actors speak with strong British accents and a certain amount of British slang, to us impenetrable, Peter and I watched with the subtitles on, which meant that when the closed-captioner mislabeled a cover of the song “I Feel Love,” Peter muttered, “That’s not Donna Summer. It’s Bronski Beat.” And when the closed-captioner characterized the intro to a Pet Shop Boys song as “melodramatic music,” I harrumphed. (I mean, yes. But . . .) Peter effortlessly remembers the release dates of almost all these songs and reports that the songs keep pace with the imagined moment of the TV show’s story with an almost military rigor.

That imagined moment doesn’t exactly match the timing of my own debut into gay life. The show begins in 1981 and ends in 1991; I came out in 1989. Some amateur, armchair sociology: apps have probably changed everything now, but in the old days, gay bars were the stage for the public drama of our lives, and my sense back then was that as a general rule, one got to tread that stage from roughly age 20 to 35, making a gay man’s generation a rather short fifteen years. I overlapped a little with the generation portrayed in the show, and I knew many people who were in that generation, but I wasn’t quite in it myself. And in terms of the history of AIDS, the half-generation separating us was crucial. Before I came out, I knew that AIDS was a lethal sexually transmitted disease caused by HIV, and I knew that I could lower my risk significantly by using condoms or modifying what I did in bed. When the characters in the show started having sex with one another, on the other hand, not even scientists knew any of that. My gay generation lived in the shadow of AIDS, and it shaped nearly everything about our romantic and sexual lives, but we did not bear as heavy a burden of illness and death as the men who preceded us.

Which doesn’t mean we bore no burden, nor does it mean we weren’t completely petrified. When the central gay character in the show, a charming, fey, bumblingly but also ruthlessly narcissistic aspiring actor named Ritchie Tozer (played by Olly Alexander, who in real life is a pop star who has collaborated with the Pet Shop Boys), neurotically examines himself for spots and sores, I identified, uncomfortably. Also, sitting in a clinic waiting for one’s name (or pseudonym) to be called, terrified to hear the results of one’s HIV test: twenty-five years later it’s still a little too real and maybe also too soon? Not all the memories that the show brought back were grim. I also recognized the way some of the characters went to bed with each other as a way of becoming friends, a lighthearted aspect of gay life that the HBO show Looking largely overlooked in its focus on the drama of Finding the Right Man. I hope that in the age of apps, hook-ups still sometimes undergo that kind of evolution. It would be regrettable if the freemasonry of pleasure were to give way to an assortative rationalization of it (he says from the safe, ignorant harbor of middle-aged monogamy).

To add a little amateur history to the amateur sociology: The hinge for my gay generation came in 1996, when researchers proved that treating HIV with three different antiretroviral drugs at the same time boxed the virus into a metaphorical corner that it couldn’t mutate itself out of. In a wealthy country like America—or, rather, in zip codes in a wealthy country like America where people could afford healthcare—everything about AIDS changed once this treatment became available. Life expectancies dramatically lengthened, and the reigning social understandings of the disease were transformed. From the virus’s perspective, unfortunately, the new treatment figured only as a speed bump, if that. The rate of HIV infection in the U.S. population has only declined moderately since triple-drug treatment debuted. Given current rates of infection, one out of six gay or bisexual men in America will still contract HIV during his lifetime. Meanwhile, AIDS remains the leading cause of death in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa and death rates from the disease also remain high in Russia, Thailand, and parts of the Caribbean and South America.)

The show ends, as I said, in 1991, so that, medically speaking, it depicts a world where the cavalry never arrives. (It’s thus a big weepie, be forewarned.) It’s maybe irrecoverable now how potent the fear of death combined with the centuries-old stigma around homosexuality then was. A few instances of ostracization are dramatized in the show, but what maybe can’t be put on screen is the subsonic rumble of silence, the rarely voiced distaste of the larger society. (It wasn’t until June 15, 1987, for example, that the New York Times allowed the use of the word gay as a value-neutral synonym for homosexual. In the mid 1990s, a boyfriend of mine kept on his wall a front page of the New York Times that he had had framed because it used the word three different times, which impressed him as a milestone.) Many times, in the past twelve months, I have had the morbid thought how much nicer it is to go through a plague that straight people are dying in larger numbers from, too. It’s a relief not to have to worry about upsetting them if one fails to hide or downplay sufficiently one’s fear or grief. It has been liberating to listen to them loudly and confusedly arguing about what matters more—the meanings and pleasures available through human contact, or the safety that can be afforded by isolation. There’s an enjoyable perversity in noticing that people who prioritized safety over contact during the AIDS epidemic were tagged as conservative, while those who prioritize safety during COVID-19 are thought of as liberal. In It’s a Sin, a distraught mother exclaims that society would react very differently if there were a disease killing as many straight men as AIDS was killing gay ones. The claim isn’t speculation any more; as of this past year, it’s proven historical fact.

I seem to have got distracted from the criticism that I was going to make, but maybe in the end it’s more an observation. The generation who hit the gay bars in 1981 was to a startling extent wiped out. If you were to try to sell a nostalgic TV show just to them, you’d have almost no audience. The scriptwriters of It’s a Sin have understandably made a few adjustments. One is putting at the center of the story not a gay man but a young woman named Jill, who ends up being more dedicated to AIDS activism than most of her gay male friends. That in itself isn’t a distortion of the historical evidence. There were many such women in real life, many of them lesbian (Jill’s sexuality is left undefined). (Full disclosure: though I had friends in the activist movement, and felt sympathetic with it, I never took part myself.) Another modification is a shift in political sensibility. In one scene, when a somewhat dotty neighbor volunteers that she thinks AIDS victims are angels in disguise, one of the gay characters is so outraged that he throws a traffic barrier through her shop window. That felt like an off note. The movement’s displays of anger were almost always directed toward authorities and institutions—government, churches, pharmaceutical companies—and they were strategic, planned carefully in advance. To meet misguided sympathy with violence seems more a Twitter kind of mood—a retrojection. Similarly, in another late scene, a character berates a dead gay man’s mother, blaming on her all the shame and stigma that gay men dying of AIDS have been made to carry. I’m afraid I cringed. It sounded to me like something a teenager might wish he could say—or something a TV producer might imagine a teenager wishes to say—but not like the sort of thing that one grieving adult would say to another, no matter how misbegotten the other person’s understanding of sexuality might be. It’s a common move nowadays on social media to write people off, but one of the brilliant tactics of the AIDS activist movement was to engage with opponents, win their respect, and sometimes turn them into allies. (Cf. Larry Kramer and Anthony Fauci.)

Spinning wheels

[An issue of my newsletter, Leaflet]

n+1 has published a longish short story of mine, “The Remainder,” in their latest issue—a retelling of Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Snow Country, but gay, and at the end of the world. For the record, I wrote it about a year and a half ago, when I had no idea that respiratory pandemics would become a part of the background of my own daily life so soon. (I am a very poor self-promoter and should have flogged this in an issue of this newsletter months ago.)

Another story of mine, “Massachusetts,” is coming out in the spring 2021 (i.e., the next) issue of The Yale Review.

For the past three years, our dog has had a progressive, incurable disease called canine degenerative myelopathy. Slowly but steadily, the neural connection between his brain and his extremities is breaking down. He’s still very much himself, but his back legs have gone from uncoordinated to wobbly to collapsing to . . . wheels. The wheels came about last week after a stranger noticed that Peter was supporting Toby’s back legs in a harness and came up to say that a dog of hers had had the same illness and that she still had his doggy wheelchair in her basement, if we were interested. As it happens, she’s the owner of Slope Cellars, a wine store in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and when we picked up the wheels, I realized that I had bought the wine for our wedding picnic and for the launch of Necessary Errors from her. As soon as we put the wheels on, Toby started racing around our living room, and we’re super grateful.

Related: I have found Stuart McGill’s book Back Mechanic very helpful in alleviating back pain.

A few friends have books coming out soon: Peter Mendelsund’s new novel The Delivery(FSG) is launching on Tuesday, February 9, at McNally Jackson. Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind (Hogarth) is launching on Monday, March 22, also at McNally Jackson. On the horizon: Liz Brown’s Twilight Man: Love and Ruin in the Shadows of Hollywood and the Clark Empire (Penguin, May 18), Christopher Cox’s The Deadline Effect: How to Work Like It’s the Last Minute—Before the Last Minute (Avid Reader, July 6), Hermione Hoby’s Virtue (Riverhead, July 20). Also, my essay on Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters will be collected in an anthology, B-Side Books: Essays on Forgotten Favorites (Columbia University Press, June 21).

“It is with poetry as with chess and billiards—there is a certain degree of attainment, which labor and practice will reach, and beyond which no vigils and vows will go. —So the motto for my stanzas shall be ‘Non licat cuivis adire Corinthum’ [Not everyone can go to Corinth].” —John Quincy Adams, diary, 31 March 1829

“When men were no longer found, their place was supplied by machines.” —Gibbon, Decline and Fall

“At that time I naively imagined that there was no reason why one should not attempt to write anything that one felt inclined to write.” —Iris Murdoch, Under the Net

“He had not the slightest suspicion that in winning an argument one might end up fooling oneself as well as the opponent.” —Soseki, Grass on the Wayside

Late and getting later

[An issue of my newsletter, Leaflet]

Come phone-bank with me on Halloween, at 3pm California time / 6pm New York time! The phone-banking will be under the auspices of Auk the Vote, a Democratic-leaning birders’ get-out-the-vote campaign organized by my friend (and fellow birder) David Robinson, but no birding experience is required. The calls are to Western states where the aim is to flip Senate seats. If, like me, you’ve never phone-banked before, there are training sessions you can take. Alternatively, if DIY is your learning style, there are FAQs, scripts, and how-to videos. I’ll be giving away some paperbacks of Overthrowto participants. Please sign up! Hope to see you there!

In a brilliant short essay about the mood of this election year, Elaine Blair taps a creepy Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale for the idea that sometimes an awful moment turns out to be, in retrospect, relatively speaking much better than what follows. “Remember worrying about the prospect of climate destruction?” she asks. Which reminds me of a climate scientist whom the New York Times quoted in September: “Don’t think of it as the warmest month of August in California in the last century. Think of it as one of the coolest months of August in California in the next century.”

Scarlatti’s sonata Kk. 213, “The Lover,” shares six notes with the theme song to the HBO show Succession, but they happen to be the most important six notes in both pieces of music. (In the Scarlatti, the notes are audible at 1’40”.)

“Bathed in the Lake from the boat. It was brilliantly fine. R—— dipped her paddles in occasionally just to keep the boat from grounding. Then I clambered over the bows and stood up to dry myself in the sun like one of Mr. Tuke’s young men.” —W. N. P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man

One wants to feel that one’s country is a force for good, and that when it hurts people unjustly, it’s an exceptional case. But as I was reading this devastating story by Laura Secor about an Iranian materials scientist (New Yorker), against whom the FBI ginned up fake charges in order to try to pressure him to become a spy, and who fought the fake charges in an American court and won—only to be tossed into ICE moments after his name was cleared, and to nearly die of COVID during his inexplicable seven-month further detention, I realized that I’m not at all sure America is a force for good right now. If I believed that a forceful, deeply reported journalistic account like Secor’s would prompt the government to mend its ways, that would be one thing. But I don’t have any confidence that it will, and arbitrary, indefinite detention of the innocent in sadistic, squalid concentration camps is just not something a good country does.

James Pogue went to Kenosha, Wisconsin, a few months before Jacob Blake was shot there, and found the remnants of the working-class, union-fortified culture that the Democratic Party once championed (Harper’s).

For years, John Jeremiah Sullivan has collected early photos of Black life and music, and now he has donated a group of them to MoMA, and written a lovely essay about them (MoMA): “One has tried to imagine this scene so many times without ever really expecting to see it. Then someone hands you a telescope and says, ‘Here.’” (My guess, fwiw, is that the two women in the second picture are dancing. Note the feet of the woman on the right—heels together, toes out, up on the balls of her feet—and the hands of the woman on the left, which look to me to be in the position that hands fall into after you’ve just snapped your fingers.)

“It’s not that she doesn’t know him well, it’s that anyone who has followed him with a mild interest already knows him too well to be surprised by revelations of kind or of degree”: Anne Diebel on Trump family dynamics (NYRB).

“We disagree about who had the idea for the next stage, but deep down we both know it was one of us”: Rafil Kroll-Zaidi on couplehood and storage units (Harper’s).

“The idea of Ferrante’s books overflowing or exploding with anger belies the calm of her narrators as they describe earlier selves overtaken by rage”: Elaine Blair on Elena Ferrante (NYRB).

“Inextricable from the malfeasance that has made the United States uniquely vulnerable to Covid-19 is a widespread failure to imagine one’s own mortality—and a tendency to project it onto others, whose deaths are deemed unfortunate inevitabilities”: Julian Lucas on Hervé Guibert (New Yorker).

“Unlike most recent Democrat and Republican nominees for president he isn’t a meritocrat (Dukakis, the Clintons, Obama) or an aristocrat (the Bushes, Gore, Kerry), or the son of a powerful father (McCain, Romney, Trump)”: Christian Lorentzen on Joe Biden (LRB).

“Anxiety about the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests have done more for gun sales than the 9/11 attacks, and even more than the election of Barack Obama and the Sandy Hook shootings, when Americans thought that guns were about to become illegal and that they needed to stock up”: Deborah Friedell on the NRA (LRB).

Meanwhile, it’s fall migration season, and very close to the end thereof, and on my blog, I’ve gone a little overboard with the nature photographs, such as, for instance, of cedar waxwings, blackpoll warblers, morning fog, golden-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, black-throated blue warblers, pine siskins, and chipmunks.

Leaflet #2: Missions

What was Melville’s mission statement? Issue #2 of my newsletter.


Missions

A few days ago a friend sent me a link to “Sea Scrivener,” a 1944 comic-book biography of Herman Melville:

A little Billy Budd seems to have gotten mixed into the life (which starts on page 63, on the website linked to). While in grad school, I made a pilgrimage to Melville’s grave in Woodlawn cemetery in the Bronx, where a blank scroll decorates his headstone. My recollection is that on my way to the grave, I walked past an obelisk commemorating a family named Budd. Had it been put there before or after Melville? The New York Times reports that “plots are still available in the vicinity of Herman Melville, with prices starting at $20,000.” I’ve been getting a fair amount of junk mail from cemeteries lately, which causes one to wonder what the algorithms know about one. If any were to advertise such a propinquity, the solicitation would be a little more tempting.

At a recent dinner party, a friend who works in branding explained the importance of mission statements. Nike, for example, aims “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world,” whereas its rivals just hope to make running shoes. The ad executive who came up with Nike’s tagline “Just do it,” by the way, was inspired by the end of murderer Gary Gilmore’s life. As Norman Mailer recounts, in The Executioner’s Song:

Then the Warden said, “Do you have anything you’d like to say?” and Gary looked up at the ceiling and hesitated, then said, “Let’s do it.”

At first, wondering whether writers have, or should have, mission statements struck me as just intellectual recreation, and maybe a little bit philistine in an amiable way. But as it happens, I worry constantly that my career is a magpie’s nest—I’ve written about antebellum legal flotsam, pirates, gay history, voting ethics, plus a couple of novels, and some commentary on sci-fi movies—and what if, all along, without my knowing it, I’ve been coherent? What a consolation that would be. All I need to do is discover the secret unity beneath my motley. The night after the dinner party, therefore, I couldn’t sleep for trying to deduce the missions of writers, retrospectively. Plato: to write down a conversation with someone who loves wisdom for its own sake. Melville: to penetrate the mystery of being incarnated as a man in a capitalist world. Orwell: to try to tell the truth about people even in the face of their dislike of hearing it. Margaret Fuller: to further the progress of liberty through intellectual service, while a woman in the 19th century. Emerson: to dramatize the way spirit escapes from and is betrayed by the forms that aim to represent it.

I couldn’t figure out my own. Something to do with the connection and conflict between life and art, between attachment and detachment? Which doesn’t explain why last year I wrote an essay about finance capitalism. Maybe the common element is my interest in stories that depose the individual they purport to serve? It would be pleasant to have some reason to think that it wasn’t just out of distractibility that I was a critic and journalist before I got around to becoming a novelist, and to know whether my fiction has to be about gay people or just happens to be about them.

“Journalism is the art of coming too late as early as possible.” —Stig Dagerman, quoted in Johannes Lichtman’s new novel Such Good Work. I like Lichtman’s gentle sense of humor. He’s very good at, for example, suggesting how bad Germans are at explaining card games: “When you put down a queen and then he puts down a queen, then two are down, so it’s until the next turn, unless it is broken.” Such Good Work is about a recent MFA grad who tries to distract himself from relapsing into opiate addiction by moving to Sweden, where he further distracts himself by volunteering to teach refugee children. It turns into a meditation on distraction and ambition, and whether feeling good undermines attempts at doing good, and ends up suggesting, without getting too heavy-handed, that there may not be a higher purpose than helping other people and oneself pass the time not unhappily.

By a stroke of luck, Peter and I were recently able to see The Fabulous Nicholas Brothers, a one-night-only presentation at BAM by Film Forum programming director Bruce Goldstein of dance numbers by, home movies of, and interviews with Fayard and Harold Nicholas, debonair black dancers in American movies of the 1930s and 1940s. (An earlier version of Goldstein’s presentation seems to be available here. We were clued in about the Nicholas Brothers because, a couple of months ago, while Peter was reading Zadie Smith, he was so struck by her praise of their dance number in the 1943 movie Stormy Weather that we watched it online.) By the end of Goldstein’s presentation, during a video he and a collaborator had shot of the brothers reprising, in their seventies, a dance number that they had first recorded for Vitaphone in their teens, I was in tears—at their elegance, at their good nature, at the longevity of hard work and talent. In Goldstein’s telling, they took every opportunity that was consonant with dignity, with a cheerfulness that seems to have been a force of nature. If there were frustrations and disagreements, they seem not to have dwelt on them, and if there were romantic troubles or personality clashes, they did as well as they could and moved on. Nothing became a tragedy; no setback was allowed to become as meaningful as the work. There’s something beautiful about that, and about their gameness—their willingness always to do their best. Were they lucky? Yes, probably, Goldstein’s documentary work suggests: in having been loved since childhood, in having been gifted, in having boundless enthusiasm. But because they were black they weren’t as famous or as successful as they should have been, and they seem neither to have pretended not to see this nor to have let it eat away at their love for their art. A model.

This is issue #2 of Leaflet, a newsletter by Caleb Crain. My next novel comes out in August, and you can buy an early copy now from your local bookstore, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.