Thursday, May 12, 2005

80s hangover

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Just finished Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, and I feel strange, like I gorged myself on dessert (or cocaine, which is maybe the point). The writing is beautiful, though I can't say as much for the characters. Not to be a moralist, but I couldn't like any of them.

Nick Guest--the shallower, faggotty-er Nick Carroway of Hollinghurst's ode to 80's Britain--never grows or changes, except in the intensity of his asskissing and firmness of his commitment to eradicating of all symptoms of his own interiority, reflection, self-criticism, and compassion. The AIDS part of the plotline seems inevitable yet gratuitous. The narrative brilliantly evokes the homophobic shame and hedonistic moral relativism of a protagonist more interested in knowing the right people and being surrounded by nice things than in thinking for himself or doing anything about anything. Yet the twin plot developments of AIDS, on the one hand, and Nick's expulsion from the Garden of Eden he has enjoyed as the lodger of a wealthy political family, on the other, both serve to reinforce one's sense that Nick has gotten what he deserves, and that, in turn, all the apolitical, shallow, coked-up, parasitic, hard-hearted, and exploitative gay men that surround him, of which he is a representative clone, reaped what they sowed. I'm sure we are supposed to cluck cluck at the end of the novel about how these guys should have been more critical and less unctious towards the conservative system that would eventually sell them out without a thought, but really, in the end their wrecked lives seemed more like a fate they brought on themselves.

Is this hateful story really the way, or even a way, to think about the 80s? Is this rehashing of every gay stereotype you ever heard (except for the effeminacy part--Hollinghurst gives us pompous little men instead, perhaps because queens would evoke too much sympathy) really deserving of the Booker Prize, for Christ's sake? Yikes.

His writing is absolutely gorgeous, but the whole thing left a really bad taste in my mouth. I have a headache-y sad feeling, one similar to what you feel the morning after overdoing alcohol and drugs all night. The self-recrimination accompanying this hangover as it is figured in the novel may be a good thing for the vacuous Nick Guest, but I'm not sure it is at all deserved by the novel's larger gay readership, many of whom--unlike Nick--worked hard, took care of their friends and lovers, became politically active, and contracted HIV anyway, too. Despite the ugly logic implied by The Line of Beauty, they didn't "deserve" HIV. Nobody does.

In short, though Hollinghurst sets out to satirize a conservative era, he seems rather to be paying moral tribute to it. Anyone else who has read this novel, I would love to know what you think.

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