Wednesday, July 02, 2008

chasing his laughing partner through the house at dawn

Though he occasionally apologizes for it, sheepishly confessing to a paucity of wisdom, Edmund White, even when writing nonfiction, often makes use of the tools of fiction. In the passage below he employs a narrator’s omniscience to peel back the fa├žade:

“Today I saw two men walking along Eighth Avenue in New York, holding hands absentmindedly. They were both in their forties, one badly scarred from an ancient case of acne, both a bit Neanderthalish from their hours at the gym. Their eyes scanned their path like minesweepers. The one on the right had the overly male, deeply unpopular look of a double-X chromosome – I’m sure he had anger management ‘issues.’ The other one seemed happy to have a lover-friend all in one person. He didn’t seem proud or possessive but just relieved. He was no beauty. And yet I could never imagine them flirting with each other or the double-X chasing his laughing partner through the house at dawn. Maybe flirtation would have made them snicker with evil embarrassment like Beavis and Butt-head. Maybe they were too unevolved from their primitive masculinity to live with women.”

It sounds like he knows them. He doesn’t. White doesn’t get the genetics right, for one thing (does he mean double-Y? the extra masculine man? an XXY is not known for looking “overly male” but rather for feminine characteristics, like breast development). The idea that one could have “a lover-friend all in one person” seems foreign to White. Really? White casts his speculations in a maybe or two, but he speaks with authorial authority – the sort of authority I readily grant a fictional narrator but one of which I am deeply suspicious in writing presented as non-imaginary.

Early on in my gay reading life I took a dislike to Edmund White because he has the habit of pronouncement. He tells us what gay men are like, what gay men do. As my feelings often ran counter to the White-ian ur gay, I stopped reading him. These days his testimony doesn’t bother me so much, partly because there are plenty of other gay perspectives available, partly because I don’t need him to tell me anything, and partly because his prose style is finely crafted and interesting whatever the substance of the remarks.

source: My Lives: an autobiography, by Edmund White


Art Durkee said...

That's the best summation of Edmund White I've ever read. You've nailed exactly why I have never liked his writing very much, or been enthusiastic about reading much of it.

Thanks for the insight.

Glenn Ingersoll said...