Pandemic Literature, Part 1

Like many people, I’ve become obsessed of late with learning about how previous generations survived pandemics and other events that threatened to change the world. I’ve compiled a reading list on the subject, because for me, novels are the best way to understand a culture and a way of life.

I recently watched a 1998 PBS special on the Spanish flu. One of the people they interviewed talked about losing his mother when he was 10 years old. The man was remarkably articulate, with a gentle voice, his language full of imagery and wisdom. I knew instantly that he was a writer, and probably a very good one.

The man was William Maxwell, who I subsequently learned had spent 40 years as fiction editor of the New Yorker and published several books, including an autobiographical novel, They Came Like Swallows, about losing his mother in the epidemic. I bought it immediately.

Maxwell writes beautifully and insightfully. The book is divided in three sections, from the perspectives of two brothers and their father. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more convincing and engaging narrative from a child’s point of view. Ordinarily, such things come across as too cute or inarticulate, but Maxwell manages it with subtlety and grace. His structure is one of increasing understanding—from the young boy devoted to his mother; to his older brother, who watches the crisis happen; to the father, struggling to deal with his grief.

It’s a portrait of a particular time and place—a small town in the Midwest in 1918—but at its core, it’s a story of family. Bunny, the sensitive child, is pampered by his mother and afraid of his father’s gruffness. Robert, who lost part of a leg in an accident, now finds himself feeling responsible for his mother’s death. And James, the father, realizes how much his life was determined by his wife, how clueless he is about how to go on.

There’s an elegiac tone throughout—not just for the mother’s death (which feels inevitable from the start, before anyone gets sick), but for a way of life, the innocence of youth. The prose itself carries the emotion along, the beauty of language going hand in hand with the tragic content, such that I felt an urge to weep on nearly every page.

How wonderful, in this age of the underambitious and the overrated, to discover another master from not that long ago.

 

A Virtual Reading

One of the highlights of my literary calendar is the annual Saints & Sinners Festival in New Orleans. I’ve been attending the festival for years now, enjoying the company of fellow writers, editors, and readers, and exploring the charms of the French Quarter. Sadly, the festival had to be canceled this year because of that pesky coronavirus. It was such a disappointment to miss out on the wonderful panels (I was scheduled to moderate one this year with the evocative title “Books, Bed, and Beyond”) and to hear from both established and emerging authors.

A highlight of the festival is the reading series, affording a chance to hear authors read from their own works. Thanks to the creative thinking of the leaders of the festival and the folks at Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Bookshop in New Orleans, we were able to record readings and upload them to the Internet.

You can check out all the readings at Tubby & Coo’s youtube channel. I’m posting here my own contribution, an excerpt from my novel Channeling Morgan. Please enjoy!

Great Minds Think Alike

That E.M. Forster sure gets around. When I first heard of him, in college, he seemed a minor figure in the Bloomsbury set, a writer with only a peripheral attachment to the Modernist movement—hardly the innovator that his contemporaries Woolf and Joyce were.

But Forster’s sidekick status has changed profoundly. First there were all those Merchant/Ivory films to put him on the map of popular culture—A Room with a View, Maurice, Howards End. Merchant/Ivory offered a corrective to the first major film of a Forster novel, David Lean’s overblown adaptation of A Passage to India. Lean’s flair for the epic proved a disastrous choice for a story that, despite its exotic locale, remains as subtle and human as any of Forster’s other works.

From adaptation, Forster has moved into the next stage of literary evolution: the reimagining. Matthew Lopez’s seven-hour, two-part play The Inheritance, winner of the Olivier award and about to close its too-short Broadway run, grafts the plot of Howards End onto a story of contemporary gay men in New York, with Forster himself appearing as a muse for the main characters.

As I watched the play recently, I was riveted. It also felt very familiar. Not just because I know Howards End so well, but because I’d been there before—in Lopez’s shoes. In late 2017—before I’d even heard about The Inheritance—my novel Channeling Morgan was published, coincidentally a reimagining of another Forster novel, A Room with a View, through the story of contemporary gay men.

Zeitgeists are surprising things. On opposite sides of the country and unbeknownst to each other, Lopez and I were working simultaneously on pieces inspired by the same writer. It shouldn’t be too surprising. Forster’s work is infused with a humanity and level of psychological insight that pulls the characters out of their period settings and allows even the most modern reader to relate to them as people.

What I call the “reimagining” genre has been around for a long time. Just think of West Side Story’s take on Romeo and Juliet, or how Jane Smiley transformed King Lear into A Thousand Acres. On a less literary level, we have works like the films Clueless, which retells Austen’s Emma in high school; and Cruel Intentions, which does the same for Les Liaisons dangereuses.

The insertion of the original author as a character in the story puts a special spin on the genre. One of the most successful examples is Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, in which the story of Virginia Woolf writing Mrs. Dalloway is interwoven with the stories of a fictional character reading the book decades later while yet another fictional character decades after that lives through a day very similar to Clarissa’s.

The Inheritance centers on a group of young gay men in New York in the late 2010s as they navigate their way through romance, break-ups, and drug addiction, all while trying to find their place in the world. The majority of the characters came of age well after the worst of the AIDS pandemic and, while their world is much more accepting of homosexuality, they still struggle with demons internal and political.

Lopez has said that his inspiration for The Inheritance was thinking about how Howards End, arguably Forster’s greatest novel, would have turned out if he’d been free to write it as a gay story. My inspiration for Channeling Morgan was similar. As grateful as I am for Maurice, Forster’s one overtly gay novel (posthumously published, nearly 60 years after it was written), I was also struck by the homosexual undertones in his other books. Most of Forster’s novels center on a heroine—Lucy Honeychurch, Margaret Schlegel, Adela Quested—who is presented with far more empathy than any straight male novelist I’ve ever read has managed to conjure up for a female character.

It seemed clear to me that these women were all stand-ins for the author, so in my retelling of A Room with a View, I decided to turn the tables. The protagonist of Forster’s book, Lucy, has a brother named Freddy who doesn’t do much of anything but read books and swim in the woods. What if, I thought, Freddy got to take the lead in a new version of the story? What if he got to fall in love with the romantic hero instead? Thus, Channeling Morgan was born.

Morgan, of course, was Forster’s middle name—and the name by which he was known among friends. It’s the name Lopez assigns to the Forster character in his play. In my novel, Derick (short for Frederick) is a ghostwriter working on a memoir for a closeted actor named Clive Morgan. So at one level, Derick is channeling his own Morgan, while I, as the author, am channeling another.

Forster, appearing as a ghost to Derick, serves as his mentor–a role he also plays for the characters in The Inheritance, whose title resonates far beyond the bequeathed house at the center of the story (and of Howards End). The true legacy is history itself: every generation lays the groundwork for the next. In Lopez’s vision, that legacy manifests in storytelling (with Forster teaching the characters how to tell their own stories) and in the lives of the men who came before, largely the ones lost to AIDS. The spirit of that legacy lends itself to a riveting moment at the end of part 1, one of the most moving and brilliant set pieces I’ve ever witnessed on stage.

Lopez borrows his overall structure from Howards End, but the play also references, to a lesser degree, other works in the gay canon—Maurice, Angels in America, Longtime Companion, even a touch of The Boys in the Band. At a dramatic moment in part 2, a revelation about two of the characters is made and I heard an audible gasp in the audience. My first reaction was to shake my head: That was right out of Howards End. Haven’t you read the book? But in fact, those gasps were testament to how vivid Lopez’s story is and how universal is Forster’s.

Stories, whether fictional or experienced, inspire and influence the lives we lead. We are all the heirs to the generations that came before—their thoughts and feelings, their accomplishments and their suffering. That idea is perhaps especially true when it comes to gay culture. Few LGBT people are raised with an understanding of where we fit in the world. Our biological parents seldom have the information we need. We must find it in books and other cultural artifacts. We must find it in our literary forebears and the people we meet who have already trod in the world we are just entering. We need them to show us the way. And we need to be prepared to pay that knowledge forward.

 

When Life Hands You a Super Bowl, Make Meatloaf

I’ve tried to understand sports. I haven’t tried very hard, but I’ve tried. I watched the final World Series game the last time the Giants won (largely because my husband bribed me with hot dogs and beer), and last season I went to a Twins game (again, largely for the food) and was actually able to appreciate it—for a few innings, at least.

Football, however, has always eluded me. The rules strike me as arcane, and I get a little dizzy watching the stop-and-start of plays that seldom last more than five seconds. So while my husband commandeered the living room for the Super Bowl last night (or at least the commercials), I opted for alternative programming downstairs.

I needed something long (since I knew enough about football to expect the game to be endless), and I decided to go for something as far away as possible from overpadded men tackling each other and inviting concussions. And there, in my DVD collection, I found the perfect thing: Chantal Akerman’s highly regarded 1975 film, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

The title is a mouthful, which seems appropriate for a 201-minute film in which very, very little happens. It’s widely regarded as one of the best films of all time, but I’d had trouble finding the right moment to watch it. I’m a huge Terrence Malick fan, so I certainly don’t need a lot of action to appreciate a movie. But still, I had trepidation about watching a film that I’d heard included a four-minute segment of a woman making meatloaf.

The meatloaf wasn’t he half of it. In fact, it’s only about 2% of the movie. In other segments, the protagonist makes veal cutlets, cleans the tub, fixes endless pots of coffee, shops for groceries, goes all over town looking for buttons for a coat, and slurps soup alongside her reticent teenage son.

And then, of course, she turns tricks.

But within minutes, I was riveted. Hypnotized, you might even say. Once you get used to the rhythm of the film, it’s fascinating.

This was the anti-Super Bowl: A woman-centered story about domestic chores and disappointments. No balls, no superheroes, no car crashes. It’s real life, the cinematic equivalent of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle—the feminist version.

One thing I learned from studying formal poetry is that when the expected rhyme doesn’t appear, or a dactyl shows up where an iamb should be, something important is happening. So once you’ve seen Jeanne go through the rituals of her day, you become hyperaware of her routine. And when things start to slip, you know it.

It starts on day 2, when she overcooks the potatoes. For a woman with OCD, that’s a big deal. From that point on, she spirals slowly down.

It’s a quiet film—no score, very little dialogue. Mostly, you hear Jeanne’s footsteps as she moves from room to room, dishes clattering in the sink, pot lids coming off and on. So when she dropped a shoe brush, I jumped in my seat. It might as well have been the shark leaping out of the water in Jaws.

Plot is not the driving force behind this film, but still I won’t spoil it for you by discussing the ending. Suffice it to say that finally, something very dramatic happens—but it happens without altering the tone of the film, and it ends up feeling inevitable, confirming the purpose of all the quotidian stuff that has come before.

It’s a difficult film to watch, and probably will appeal only to a small clutch of cinephiles, but Jeanne Dielman deserves its reputation. It’s unique, beautifully filmed, and yes, pretty close to a masterpiece.

This morning, as I fixed breakfast, fed the cats, and got the laundry started, I couldn’t help imagining myself in a cluttered apartment in Brussels, running out of potatoes.

Now, onto next week and the Gay Super Bowl. But I’m under no illusions: Jeanne Dielman was completely overlooked at the 1975 Oscars. The show may be devoted to cinema, but when it comes to rewarding films as good as this one, the Academy might as well be wearing helmets and running on Astroturf.

On Losing Toni Morrison

I discovered Toni Morrison in 1987, the year Beloved was published. But rather than jumping straight into that volume, freshly minted as a masterwork by critics, I decided to approach her work chronologically. So I read all of her extant novels in order—The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby—each time marveling at the language and the profound way she captured the inner lives of her characters and their very specific worlds. By the time I reached Beloved, I was already in love.

But still, I wasn’t quite prepared. From the unforgettable, mysterious opening line—“124 was spiteful”—I knew I was embarking upon a unique reading experience. Beloved is that rare book that seems written by an unseen hand, as if Morrison were channeling a force as profound as the ghostly character of Beloved herself. If her subsequent books were a bit disappointing, it was only by comparison. Masterpieces like that one have no sequels.

When we talk about the Great American Novel, I think we’re talking about a story that epitomizes an aspect of the American experience—books like The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, Absalom, Absalom! Books like Beloved. These are novels that talk daringly about fundamental truths of the American character, books that make the reader engage with our understanding of what it means to be an American. Hawthorne made us confront our sense of morality—whether it was to be found in religion or more simply, in every human heart. Fitzgerald asked whether the American dream was just a romantic illusion. Faulkner questioned the idea of power, whether any person’s success is worth what he has to do to other people to achieve it.

Like Faulkner, Morrison examined the original sin of America. Slavery is the immediate backdrop for Beloved, and its aftereffects haunt even Morrison’s novels that take place in the 20th century.

But no novel is great simply because of its content. Many people have written about slavery, as well as other classic themes of literature. A great writer brings those themes to life through powerful language. Morrison’s work is so moving and resonant because of the writing itself, the way the words move on the page. She created a language of her own, just as much as James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. Her neologisms still live in my memory (the “crawling-already baby” of Beloved); the poetry of her sentences and the astuteness of her insights can leave me breathless. Her work is meant to be read aloud, like the words of an oral poet, or the proclamations of an oracle.

I learned of Toni Morrison’s death on the New York Times web page, her majestic profile painfully displayed under an article about domestic terror in El Paso, 22 innocent people murdered by a white supremacist. The juxtaposition was chilling, and telling. So many of Morrison’s characters are the victims of hatred, and the stench of racism permeates her work, in novels spanning from the antebellum period to the present day. Her work celebrates the power of resistance and is grounded in the life and words and music of the African American community, in particular—as American as jazz.

I was shocked by her death, shocked again to learn that she was 88 years old. It hadn’t really occurred to me that she had reached that age. I suppose I thought of Toni Morrison as somehow immortal. She was a giant—for me, the greatest novelist of her time, and mine.

So I’ll take back the shock. She is immortal, as immortal as the ghost of 124, albeit without the spite.

And the books are still on the shelf, speaking to us all.

 

Pride and the Middle-Aged Homosexual

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It’s Pride today in San Francisco, and for the first time in years I wish I were a part of it.

Friends are posting photos on Facebook—rainbows, drag queens, men in short-shorts—and I have a sudden longing to be there, in the middle of the throng in the city I called home just 15 months ago. But I also know that, if I were still living in San Francisco, I would probably stay away from the parade. And my curmudgeonly hackles would go up when the post-parade revelers spilled into the Castro, making too much noise and leaving too much mess behind.

As I learned last year, Pride in Minneapolis is a much quieter affair—a shorter parade, a festival in Loring Park that is reasonably easy to walk through—but I wasn’t moved to go there either this time around. Instead I stayed home in my quiet neighborhood, in my even quieter back garden, where the only in-your-face creatures are my cats. That’s one of the reasons I moved here, after all: to have a simpler, quieter life, without all the drama on offer in a metropolis like San Francisco.

Truth be told, of course, I miss the drama. Perhaps not as much as the gorgeous view from Corona Heights or the overflowing cocktails at the Twin Peaks Tavern, but enough to provoke a nostalgic pang.

When I look deeper at this feeling, though, it’s not so much that I want to be in San Francisco today. I think what I want is to be in San Francisco in 1999—or, for that matter, Boston in 1989. Not that those places were different then, but that I was. When I think about Pride, I think about my first one—sitting with friends on Boston Common after the parade. A stranger joined us, a man wearing a clerical collar and a string of pearls who referred to himself as a “Lesbyterian minister.”

I think of the tourist family who walked past our blanket on the grass and asked, in thick Asian accents, what was going on.

“It’s Gay Pride,” we told them.

The parents looked stunned. “Are you gay?” the man asked.

And one of my friends raised an arm and gestured at the thousands of people sitting and walking through the park. “They’re ALL gay!”

I’ll admit that I was as surprised that day as that innocent couple. For the first time in my life, I saw just how big my community was. That moment gave the lie to every time someone on television or in my personal life had ever shaken their head with feigned concern and told me I was doomed to spend my life alone. I was alone no longer. I was with my family, and my family was legion.

I went to the parade religiously every year after that, whether in Boston or New York or San Francisco—until 10 or so years ago, when it came to seem more trouble than it was worth. The crowd along Market Street was so thick, it was hard to find a good vantage point—unless you arrived early enough to grab a spot on the curb (which meant rising far earlier than my aging body wanted to on a Sunday morning). So my attendance became spotty, and most years, we would simply get together with friends for brunch or to walk around the Castro in our brightest colors, wearing T-shirts whose logos became less and less scandalous over time.

I never stopped loving Pride, but as I grew older, I came to feel more comfortable expressing that love from a distance. I had my community now—my friends, my husband, my home in the Castro. For 30+ years, I have lived a completely uncloseted life—25 of those years in the gayest place on earth, a predominantly gay neighborhood in a city where gayness is an asset and homophobia is a source of shame.

The celebration of Pride is essential, as important now as it ever was, because the struggle continues. On the surface, it looks like we’ve won. We can get married, we can serve in the military, in many places we are protected from discrimination. And one of the top contenders for president of the United States is one of us. But we are also under siege. And now that I no longer live in the gayest place on earth, I can see that more clearly. Minneapolis is a very liberal town, but it’s not quite the bubble I knew for a quarter-century. In Minnesota, I actually think before grabbing my husband’s hand on the street—an act that was second nature to me in the Bay Area.

So we need Pride because the world has not changed enough, because the race is still being run.

What makes my heart surge at the images of Pride parades, however—no matter where they are in the world—is the knowledge that every single one of them is someone’s first Pride. There are young people in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and all around the world who need the same experience that I had all those years ago on Boston Common. They need to see their tribe come together and realize just how large it is. And they need to feel the joy of being with their people, the joy of being who they area and loving whom they love.

I don’t miss Pride per se, but I do miss the novelty of it. Coming out wasn’t easy, and the first few years after it had their challenges, as I learned to find my place in a new world. But when I think back to that period, it’s not the struggle that I remember so much: it’s the sense of liberation. Freedom, of course, isn’t free. But it is, undoubtedly, priceless.

Happy Pride to all, whether it’s your first or your fiftieth!

 

Ironing with Mom

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My mother ironed everything. Socks, underwear, sheets, even towels succumbed to her persnickety need for neatness. She was the epitome of the old grammatical joke: Being a mother, my ironing board is always open.

Such are the dangers of dangling modifiers and an obsession with housework.

For years, every Sunday evening I unfolded my own ironing board and laid out a stack of shirts for the week. When the iron was primed and hot, the first shirtsleeve spread on the board, I would dial my mother’s number. I spent the next hour ironing as I talked to her. Listened would be a more accurate way to put it—listened to the minutiae of her week, amusing anecdotes about the grandchildren, her complaints about ailments and doctors’ visits, the compliments she received from strangers and friends alike about how young she looked, the inevitable recounting of how a complete stranger asked if she was from Boston (it must have happened once a month). “How did she know I’m from Bahstahn?” she would ask innocently.

How, indeed.

The cord snaked across my ironing board with each movement, as if the iron and not the phone were the real source of the connection.

My mother taught me to iron—to start with the sleeves, then move on to the back of the shirt before finishing with the front, so that the most important part is the last gone over and therefore the safest from inadvertent wrinkles. She taught me to drape the shirt over the square part of the board and ignore the useless pointed end.

Ironing not only gave me something to do while we talked. It also felt like something we shared. Aside from family business and a few favorite movies, my mother and I didn’t have all that much in common. We didn’t need to have much in common, other than love and time.

The last time I combined ironing with our conversation was an evening last spring. The next morning, she awoke with severe stomach pain and was brought to the hospital. I raced to see her on the next flight. She was 97 years old, so I knew that any incident could be the last. And this one was.

I got there in time to have a good chat, though she was heavily medicated and didn’t say very much. She fell asleep an hour or so later, and never woke up. At 6:00 the following afternoon, she left us.

The next day, after she’d gone, I woke into a new world. It was like waking up to find that the sky was yellow, that up was down and left was right. This, I thought, is not how it’s supposed to be. This is not the universe in which I have always lived.

On the day my mother died, I hardly left her side. It wasn’t Terms of Endearment or Brideshead Revisited or any of the other deathbed images Hollywood had engraved upon my memory. She slept soundly throughout the day, as her organs began to fail one by one. It wasn’t ugly, it wasn’t beautiful. It was life.

Until it was death.

I held her hand through it all, my own hand at the end of the sleeve of a wrinkled shirt I had pulled out of a hastily packed suitcase. I remember feeling oddly self-conscious about the shirt. And for the rest of the week, as I continued to live out of that suitcase, it seemed wrong—vain—to bother ironing any of its contents. I spent the week in wrinkled shirts, shirts I didn’t even launder between wearings.

We inherit unexpected things, some genetically, others that worm their way into our personalities by less predictable means. I have my father’s hairline, my mother’s smile, his codependent streak, her fear of change. The cleanliness, the obsession with those hard creases as she ironed, was perhaps a way of exerting control in a world that otherwise seemed beyond her grasp. It was, I suppose, a way of fending off the inevitable. If she could keep her home in order, that alone was testament to her health, her usefulness. It was her edge against time.

So what is it, then, for me?

What I learned on my own, on those Sunday nights with the phone’s headset against my ear, was the meditative quality of ironing. There’s a Zen to the repetitive back-and-forth of the iron against the fabric, the intermittent hiss of steam. Or maybe these qualities came out for me because I had ritualized the activity, because the regularity of all this is as close as I come these days to church.

I no longer go to an office every day, so T-shirts have become my stock in trade and there’s less ironing to do. But a month or so after she died, I had an event to attend for which I needed something a little dressier. I screeched open the ironing board for the first time in weeks and set it up by the window. It felt like the first trip to the gym after time away, muscles just remembering movements that used to be routine. But it was the silence that struck me most: no headset in my ear, no one telling me about her day while I smoothed the wrinkles out of an errant sleeve.

I finished the shirt quickly and put it on, still warm, and went off to whatever event it was, I can no longer remember. But I didn’t put the ironing board away. It stood open in a corner of the bedroom for days. It felt like a shrine of some sort. I was disinclined to disturb it, yet afraid to pick up the iron again, as if that act were testament to a conclusion I didn’t feel fully inclined to embrace: that life goes on.

I’ve heard people say they can’t go on after a loved one’s death. I’ve heard people say they don’t want to go on. Irrational and myopic as it may be, such feelings are a testament to the bonds we make as humans.

It’s been just over a year since my mother’s death. So I guess I’ve survived. But not by forgetting. I’ve survived by remembering.

And this weekly chore—her favorite chore—is part of that. Even if I don’t need the shirts, I need the ritual. Maybe the answer is, every Sunday evening, to lay out a shirt and press it flat. And listen closely. Listen closely, even if now all I hear is a puff of steam.