Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Swimming-Pool Library

by Alan Hollinghurst

i'll start off with a blanket statement: many novels of the Gay Fiction subgenre will fall within two categories.

1. Coming of Age Tales in which the protagonist struggles to come out, often against his unsympathetic surroundings. often tender; occasionally mawkish.

2. a category that i like to call Gay World Novels in which, oh, everyone is pretty much gay. fine. dream on, gays, dream on. if you can't live it...dream it!

to me, the self-relegation of most gay novels between these two categories can be annoying, but i suppose understandable. gays have to come out of the closet and so this intense experience is perfectly paired with the classic coming-of-age tale's structure. and gays are also often rejected by straight society, so why not rejoice in the telling of tales that in turn reject that straight world, that rolls its eyes at it, that have narratives that seem to posit that straights are the actual minority? Swimming-Pool falls squarely within that second category.

The Swimming-Pool Librarythe novel is about a repulsive and useless parasite, a shallow and superficial upper-class twit obsessed solely with sex, entirely without any qualities whatsoever except, i suppose, his aristocratic lineage and his apparently smashing good looks and large endowment. unfortunately, the protagonist somehow thinks that he's not a complete waste of space. even more unfortunately, the author seems to think that he's not so bad, that his thoughts and interests and obsessions and general behavior are not completely infantile and boring. well, i beg to differ, hollinghurst!

this is a book of so many wasted opportunities that it becomes truly disgusting. the writer knows how to write: his style is elegant and subtle and full of long, brave sentences and carefully drawn mysteries and surprisingly ambiguous characterization. and he throws it all away by writing about a world THAT CARES ABOUT NOTHING EXCEPT FOR SEX. give me a fucking break, hollinghurst! is this how you see gay people? do they think of nothing but checking people out, eyeing the package of every single dude that crosses their path, rating each body, ignoring all women, living for moments that are only about the interwining of bodies, the randomly chosen hook-up, the spilling of various fluids? do they not have other thoughts, have they no other interests, no other inner or outer life? do their interior monologues consist of nothing but the drooling study of the beauty of the male form? are they incapable of even the slightest depth? do all gays live to celebrate the flesh, and for nothing else whatsoever? when our narrator greets his long-lost lover by ripping his pants down and burying his face in his ass, is this supposed to be palpably romantic rather than absurd and farcical?

the novel wastes a golden opportunity in the story of the elderly and very gay Lord Nantwich, whose diaries the protagonist is working his way through as he considers writing a bio of the lord's life. learning about this elderly gent's story could have been fascinating - a tale of england's colonial past, adventures in africa, a recounting of london during some very interesting times, all seen through the lense of an upper class gay outsider. but 'tis not to be. like the narrator of the present, Lord Nantwich is magically surrounded by gay acquaintances and probably-gay-or-maybe-bisexual african natives. almost every single person that either character meets, past or present, is gay or probably-gay-or-bisexual. and even worse, and much like the narrator of the present, Lord Nantwich is also disinterested in recounting anything whatsoever that isn't about getting off and ogling all the gay chaps around him. such a potentially vivid life and all he is primarily interested in is getting some action? both characters are resoundingly pathetic - and yet hollinghurst appears to think there is something brave about Lord Nantwich and something charming about our feckless, pointless narrator. at one point, the protagonist idly thumbs through his best friend's diary. naturally, his best friend is also obsessed with sex. i guess that's how gays are, right? they simply have no other interests.

there was one thing that consistently amused me, in a good way: the effete and fatuous queen of a lead character is also a rough, tough top. i like that! it is always interesting when expectations and stereotypes are subverted. sadly, those instances are the only examples of any kind of subversiveness.

a part of the novel that struck me as particularly foul was the sexualization of kids. yes, kids can be sexual, i know this of course. but almost an entire chapter devoted to salivating over a junior boxing championship? a short sequence where the narrator describes a family man lovingly patting his child while also lovingly caressing his own hard-on - described as some kind of deep connection...seriously, hollinghurst?

the title is laughable. the narrator's constant presence at the local english equivalent of the ymca swimming pool is metaphorically (?) tied to his dreamy past hooking up with guys in the school swimming pool, both of which are thematically (?) linked up with Lord Nantwich's rather more hedonistic private pool. that is some serious over-reaching there, hollinghurst.

the novel has a deeply creepy obsession with race. specifically, blacks. Lord Nantwich is obsessed by them, both africans and african-american soldiers he meets. this is presented with some slight critical distance, but you know what? "slight critical distance" is not enough when the attitude being presented is so barkingly colonial and condescending that it becomes downright repulsive. our charmless hero also starts out with a black boyfriend and much is made of that character's stereotypical, lower-class 'blackness' and, naturally, his dangerous life in the projects. that's how blacks are, right? they are either innocent, wide-eyed africans or sexy, violent thugs. and of course the best friend also has his own love of black men - well, their dicks, that is. reading all about an insufferable, body-worshipping twit of a protagonist and an elderly upper-class jackass who lives to objectify eventually made me want to commit some bodily harm on both of them. when the narrator eventually gets his ass kicked, i couldn't help but think well finally he is getting a dose of some sort of reality that has nothing to do with worship of the male body or getting fucked.

my gosh, i just hated this novel.

a little self-disclosure here. i'm a bi guy. i was out to a select group in high school. i was out to the world in college. i helped start the second iteration of Act-Up San Diego. when i was younger and better looking, i whored myself out a bit (now there's a fun fact). i used to volunteer for gay men dying of hiv. now i work for an agency whose clientele is well over half gay. i've gone to jail protesting for the right of gay marriage and the rights of gay teachers to teach children. i think my queer credibility is pretty much impeccable. and i say all this, not just to provide personal context, but mainly because i do not want this review to give the impression that there is any kind of lurking, bottled-up self-hate or any negative attitude towards gay sexuality involved in my rejection of this appalling novel. although i am not a big part of the gay community, i celebrate it and of course am a proud member.

but there is nothing to celebrate about this novel. it was a revolting, depressing, infuriating experience for me. apparently The Swimming-Pool Library is considered to be some kind of modern gay classic. that does a profound disservice to the genuinely complex and challenging works and the truly sensitive and moving narratives that exist in this often wonderful subgenre.

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