Know how when you read old-timey novels from the 1960s and 70s in which white authors suddenly tried to do black characters? And the results were jive? We've entered a similar period now, when straight authors are going gay for straight editors and straight readers, none of whom knows our actual history (as with Jo Becker) or the emotional layers of their queer characters. The current disappointing example is last week's fiction in The New Yorker, Madame Lazarus, narrated by an elderly gay man in Paris whose much younger boyfriend gets him a dog to compensate for his many absences during distant business trips. Here are his thoughts on their relationship:
"James is young, far younger than I. When you are the older man, you can be equal, for a time. He has youth and beauty, but you have money and experience. You know many people, and you can take him to Portofino, to Biarritz, to Capri. It is an old story."
Here, as in the entire story, there's nothing unique to the experience of being gay. It might all have been written about an older man and his trophy wife then switched to a gay couple in the final draft. Unfortunately, the flat, trite statements extend everywhere. He says, "I am older now than I thought possible. I did not believe I would ever be this ancient person." And the story evinces zero sense of Paris or the French. The piece's one shocker is that it's written by the reliable Maile Meloy, whose Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It really is worth reading.
A more promising gay male character from a straight author can be found in The Signature of All Things [and Kindle], out today in paperback. One crucial man is a 19th-century globetrotting gentle white Bostonian who discovers sex with a young South Pacific warrior, but back in the states his gay ways bring a world of hurt. Like many readers, I could overlook the book's baggy style and constant repetitions in order to spend several decades with an appealing lady botanist who travels from her native Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam. With echoes of Andrea Barrett and A.S. Byatt, Elizabeth Gilbert fashions her own enjoyable trip.