Sunday, December 17, 2006

Literary Gaydar

The other day, as I was reading the Style section of the Washington Post, a book review caught my eye, perhaps because of this first paragraph:

Mark Grosfeld, the hero of Robert Marshall's "A Separate Reality," is not like other boys. As a 12-year-old during the election year of 1972, he reads Carlos Castaneda, not J.D. Salinger.
I continued reading because, although I was not 12 years old in 1972 (I was 13), I was acutely aware that year about the presidential campaign. It was the first election year in which I was truly paying attention. So I continued to read.

Then something curious happened, as I began to absorb the review. Each time David Levithan (the reviewer) brought up a tidbit about the character of Mark Grosfeld, I became more assured that the character was gay.

It might also have been the title of the book at hand, A Separate Reality, with its echoes of A Separate Peace, John Knowles' 1960 homophilic novel of coming-of-age during World War II, which I first read when I was about 13 years old. (Though I did not learn until years later how Knowles had toned down the eroticism that had been in the novel's predecessor short story, "Phineas".)

But the evidence of young Mark's homosexual orientation kept piling up, in my estimation, in the paragraphs that followed, for instance:
In fact, he brings "The Catcher in the Rye" with him to summer camp only because he's afraid "the other books might look too weird."

He tries to read it on the plane but is paralyzed by what Holden Caulfield might think of him. This makes sense; instead of the rueful, deeply pained nature of the usual Caulfield-clone narrator, Mark's view of the world is impressionistic and spiritual.
As a youngster, I, too, was reluctant to read The Catcher in the Rye. (I never did finish it, and somehow avoided English classes that required it.) More from the review:
When his mother lumps him in with his father and brother as "you boys," he observes, "The words stung. Boys: a chalk mark across the family, assigning me to Dad and Jason, keeping me from her and Sharon. We worked in the backyard; they did laundry."
Since Mark lives almost entirely in his head, readers must live there, too. Ultimately, the book hinges on our reaction to his voice. When Mark acts somewhere near his age, Marshall has a wonderful way of getting at truths. Take this pitch-perfect scene with his father, which is as good an encapsulation of adolescence as you're likely to read:

"The next day I told Dad I was sorry.

" 'I accept your apology, Mark.'

"But the next night he asked why I was looking like such a martyr.

" 'Because you're being such a fascist.'

"I was sent to my room."
And finally:
It's funny when Mark measures the success of his own epic poem by whether it has grown longer than "The Waste Land." And it's insightful when he observes that "saying what you mean is an immense task -- you're honest and then no one understands." But it would be more believable if he were in high school. (We are told often that Mark is old for his age. Some readers will buy it; some won't.)
Now, to someone who has never been a gay teenager (which would be true for most people reading this, and for most people reading the book review in the Washington Post), none of these disparate items drawn from a 429-page novel would add up to much with regard to being gay (or being straight, for that matter).

But for someone who did live through that period of questioning, uncertainty, awkwardness, and (above all) sense of isolation, these are all pointers in a single direction.

Yet, as I was reading along, I began to think that my assumptions were wrong, since most book critics would mention if a protagonist -- especially a very young one -- were gay.

Then, in the review's penultimate paragraph, my literary gaydar was rewarded. There is no spoiler here, though Levithan seems disappointed by author Robert Marshall's sense of timing:
An awkward scene at the beginning of the book tells us that Mark grows up to be a gay man in New York, a revelation that gives away the ending before the story really begins. Perhaps it would have been better to leave Mark on the cusp of understanding.
The last quotation David Levithan takes from A Separate Reality has a sentence that seems apt in regard to my notes here: "My intuition is becoming more powerful, I thought."

Gaydar -- a form of intuition, to be sure -- generally works best in person, when one can observe another's facial expressions, gestures, posture, and tone of voice (among other aspects of one's personality). Yet it seems it can also be accurate through observations of the printed page, as well.

No comments: