on the book table

Our city's public library consists of a main building downtown, and a number of smaller branches scattered throughout different neighborhoods. Although I really like the downtown location, and it's not far from where I live, sometimes the convenience of my local branch, which is only a few blocks from my house, wins out. You can return items to any branch, where they stay in that location's collection until checked out or requested for delivery to another location. So browsing the shelves at my local branch is always interesting, a kind of snapshot of what my neighbors have been reading lately.

It was through one of these browsing afternoons that I picked up David Leavitt's 2000 novel, Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing. I was 40 pages from the end when I had to leave town--not enough to make it worth lugging the hardback book with me on the plane. So one of the first things I did when I returned was to finish this novel, which I enjoyed tremendously. At one level, it's an extended playful meditation on the relationship of "real" life to fiction -- the protagonist is a young writer who publishes an acclaimed short story in "the magazine" (aka the New Yorker) and enters into the 1980s New York literary scene. As did, of course, Leavitt himself. Yes, much of the novel clearly draws upon Leavitt's own experiences and acquaintances (and reviewers were quick to "identify" who certain persons were) -- and yet the text warns us against too easily mapping fictional characters onto real persons, suggesting in its depictions of Martin and his writing teacher, Stanley Flint, that the writer's craft transforms the raw materials of experience into something else, something more coherent and more beautiful.

But the book was compelling to me on other levels as well. David Leavitt (like Martin Bauman, his fictional persona in this novel) is 7 years older than me. And Martin, who narrates the novel in a reflective look through his own past, is 38 -- my age this year. So not only is the inevitable re-interpretation of one's own past something I recognize in myself, but the cultural details Leavitt so carefully records in this novel (late-80s literary culture etc) are also deeply familiar to me. I wasn't partying with the Brat Pack literati, but I read about them in magazines and read their works. I know enough about the world he's referring to to recognize it. But you don't have to know the personalities to enjoy this novel, since the psychological material in it is very rich, and Leavitt is a fantastic prose stylist:

Lately I've come to believe that the process of growing older is essentially one of ruthless and continual editing, so that the novel of one's experience -- at nineteen a huge and undisciplined mess, heavily annotated, the pages out of sequence -- will by forty have resolved itself into a fairly conventional tale of provincial life, and by sixty be reduced to one of those incisive, "minimalist" works in which irony and wordplay displace "plot" (a word I put in quotation marks because Flint loathed it). Thus at thirty-eight I travel in a comparatively restricted circle. At nineteen, on the other hand, I had dozens of friends, and more than that, I looked upon every one of them as a potential intimate. (10)

There is no quicker shortcut to intimacy than the discovery of common ground, of which Liza and I had acres; what we didn't realize -- what we wouldn't realize until we were older -- was that it is upon the method by which that ground is cultivated, not the soil iself, that intimacy in the long run depends. (205)

I vividly remember when Leavitt's first collection of stories, Family Dancing, was published in 1984 -- the cultural impact of that book was huge. Finally, a book about gay people that mainstream literary types were reading. My own parents, who faithfully subscribed to the New Yorker throughout the 1970s and 80s to feel some connection to what they thought of as their own cultural interests, which were not reflected in the small Midwestern town in which we lived -- my own parents read Leavitt's story in that magazine, and even read the collection when it was published. For me, as a still-closeted teen, that was significant.

I read Leavitt's second book, the novel the Lost Language of Cranes (1986) -- but I sort of lost track of his work during the 90s, when I was in graduate school and busy reading other things. I was vaguely aware of the dust-up around his novel When England Sleeps, which drew upon the published memoir of Stephen Spender, who then sued Leavitt for slander. Leavitt was forced to withdraw his novel, and it was later reissued with some changes and an angry preface. So obviously the issues about fact and fiction, and what freedom the artist does or does not have, are important ones for Leavitt. But overall, too, his reputation has suffered, I think, at the hands of reviewers who have criticized him for repeating the same themes or concerns. His early success at a very young age seems too easily to fall into the pattern of inevitable decline that you see not only in literary reviewing, but also in those VH1 bio segments etc.

The political and cultural climate has changed significantly since the mid-80s, too -- all of the reasons why Leavitt's stories were so ground-breaking then are precisely why they might seem tame or dated (or constrained by their middle-class-ness) now. The autobiographical aspects of this novel, particularly in the sections where Martin/Leavitt comments on his own choices and mistakes as a writer, allows him the flexibility of self-criticism, particularly in relation to the AIDS crisis. But the novel is not just a meta-fictional and autobiographical commentary --it's also its own thing, its own creative structure.

Throughout the book, Martin and the other characters struggle to make sense of their lives and their relationships. Commitment -- to a person, to an ideal, to a profession -- is deeply problematic for these Gen-Xers in ways that I understand and see articulated in my peers' lives as well. Success itself becomes fodder for self-doubt, even as Martin and his peers live lives undreamed of by the generation previous to them. The novel's subtitle "A Sure Thing" refers immediately to a comment made by Martin's writing teacher that Martin was most likely to grab at the sure thing. Is this the bitter quibble of an aging teacher jealous of the student's success? The critique of the artist resisting art's assimilation into a devouring mass culture? Or just an assessment of Martin's psychological drives? The novel doesn't rest on easy answers, and neither should we, in our own narrative journeys of self-reflection.