recently read

Lest you think I have been spending all my summer doing clerical tasks and watching TV shows, a few overdue notes about some novels:

For years, now, I have been resisting various people's recommendations to read the first three novels by Sarah Waters (I even own a copy of one that a former student sent me, convinced I would love it). Because I regularly teach and write about Victorian literature, I tend to avoid historical novels set in the 19th century, for several reasons. My fun reading needs to be fun -- and therefore pretty well distinct from my work life. And historical novels are too distracting if I know anything about the period. I can't just relax into the characters, I'm too busy questioning the setting. But I picked up her latest,The Night Watch, which is set during WWII, a period that I know in a much more casual sort of way. It's a novel in the guise of three novellas, ordered in reverse chronology from 1947 to 1941, which focus on a small group of characters (a butch ambulance driver, a secretary, a writer) whose lives repeatedly intersect. Questions of privacy and secrets run throughout the book, deftly connecting wartime security issues, the press of bodies in bomb shelters, adulterous affairs, and homosexual relationships. The war changed everything, we have been told so many times -- the reverse structure of this novel supports that generalization by making it specific, focused, walking the reader through the actions and choices that made the characters who they have become. It mostly didn't feel gimmicky, although I was a bit disoriented after I'd put the book aside for a few days and then returned. And bits of it were sensitive and well written. Enough so that it might almost make me reconsider whether I should look at her earlier novels.

It was partly accidental that I wound up reading two second novels by young gay novelists within the same week: Karl Soehnlein's You Can Say You Knew Me When and Bart Yates's The Brothers Bishop. When I'd looked up to see if Soehnlein had written anything lately, Amazon also brought up Yates's second. I put the hold requests in to the library, and then somehow they both arrived at the same time. I mention this only because a few years ago, when I read Yates's first book, Leave Myself Behind, I kept thinking about Soehnlein's first, The World of Normal Boys. Both were coming-of-age novels focusing on gay teenage protagonists. Because of the genre, the similarities were striking. And there are some similarities in their second novels, too, broadly speaking. Both focus on relatively unlikeable or unsympathetic narrators, men who are incapable of sustaining romantic relationships, and few platonic ones. Both characters are shaped by their dead fathers, fathers whose rejection still governs their adult lives. And both novels include problematic relationships between adult men and teenage boys.

There are differences, of course, too, and if I hadn't read them one after the other, maybe I wouldn't see the patterns so clearly. Soehnlein's hero discovers some old letters in the attic after his father's death that suggest his father not only spent a year in San Francisco in the 40s, but had gay friends and possibly a gay relationship. Jamie returns to his home in dot-com era SF compelled to research the city's early history and unearth the truth about his father's past. The interweaving of the historical plot and the mess Jamie is making of his own life and relationships is well handled, although Jamie's hysterical unravelling started to wear a bit on me by novel's end. Overall, the novel takes up some key questions about the relationship of Beat writers to SF and to contemporary gay culture, and moves beyond the simple self-discovery paradigm.

Yates's book is much darker, even, than Soehnlein's, as his hero Nathan and his brother Tommy survived a physically and emotionally abusive childhood -- Tommy by becoming the outgoing flirt and Nathan the introvert suffering from suppressed rage. Both are gay, and their complicated bond with each other is the centerpiece of the book. When Tommy brings two friends to stay in Nathan's cottage, he disrupts Nathan's carefully managed personal and professional life. Add a confused teenage student to the mix, and you get a volatile, violent, and yet sometimes surprisingly beautiful book.

Although I recommend them both, I think I liked this book more than Soehnlein's, and the same was true of their first novels -- although in both cases I read Soehnein's before I read Yates's. When they come out with their third books I'll try to read them in reverse order, and not so close upon each other.