In the latest installment of our Recommended Reads series, Dr. Rai Peterson recommends fiction by Irving, Cunningham, Burroughs, Prime-Stevenson, and Woolf. Dr. Peterson is also interested in starting a reading group on campus. Check out the post below for more details.
I teach queer literature classes, and unlike the other literature classes I am assigned to cover, queer lit has no geographical or chronological restrictions placed upon its syllabus. We can read almost anything we want, and while queer readings of ostensibly straight texts can be fun and enlightening, there is so much great literature both by and about LGBTQ writers and characters, that choosing among those can be difficult (in a good way). Also, new ideas for the course cross my desk weekly, and I am always asking friends and students what they are reading. Below is a sampling of the better books recommended by friends (and if I don’t count Amazon as my friend, it should number me among its BFFs, based on my ordering history).
Jeff, who was visiting us from New York for Thanksgiving, suggested that I read Irving’s latest book. For those of you who have read Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany (or almost any other Irving book), this novel is redundantly familiar. The main character, Bill Abbott, is an adolescent boy whose mother is reticent about the father he never knew. He is a student at the local all-boy’s boarding school, where his beloved stepfather is a favorite faculty member. This story also has a domineering grandmother, a tough female cousin, a kind but competitive aunt, a manly uncle, a wise old wrestling coach, and assorted community theatre weirdoes. In other words, a dismissive reviewer would call In One Person the queerer Owen Meany. The only thing missing is the requisite Irving bear.
Irving’s followers, however, would argue that he is peeling an onion, revealing the similar cells in a series of novels that grow increasingly tender and closer to the heart. Bill, the protagonist, like Irving himself and countless of his protagonists before Bill, was born in 1942. In earlier novels, Irving has already sympathetically presented homespun artificial insemination, incest, a contemporary virgin birth, and asexuality, so it comes as no surprise that In One Person is a wildly funny and sincerely poignant look at bi-sexuals, transgender persons, and cross-dressers. If you can stand one more thinly veiled Irving autobiography, this book is worthy of your attention.
By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham
I really can’t mention Irving’s latest book without strongly recommending Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall. Both of these writers are on the cusp of being canonized in American literature (I hope), and both invent characters with a wide range of genders. Cunningham’s book was recommended to me by our mutual advisor, Amazon.com.
Cunningham, more subtly than Irving, refutes the binary model of gender. His expertly drawn protagonist, Peter Harris, demonstrates that romantic attraction is much stronger than sexual orientation. (Just you try splitting that hair without a microscope.) Although some other characters in the book might dismiss Peter as a “metrosexual,” Peter could not sort himself out so neatly, especially not after the events in the book have unfolded. Cunningham delicately posits the notion that there is no difference between gay and straight mortals, life and death being far more absorbing. There is a thin gradation between gay and straight in all of Cunningham’s books, and an even more liminal boundary between youth and age. If you only read one book on this list, make it By Nightfall (and then because it’s short, grab another).
Magical Thinking by Augusten Burroughs
As she turned in her ENG 494 final, Shelby gave me an assignment. She laid her copy of Augusten Burroughs’ third memoir down with her test paper and asked me to read it. How could I refuse? It is the only example of the prolific Burroughs’ work I have read. The book is a series of vignettes ranging from the creepy (trying to literally drown a rat in his bathtub) to the snarkily smart (gay couples trading in their trendy Shar Pei puppies when babies suddenly become more fashionable).
The shorthand is: Augusten Burroughs is the twenty-teens answer to the twenty-oughts’ David Sedaris. Gay, trendy, wickedly smart, and just plain wicked, Burroughs’ book is a fun read. It isn’t deep. You could easily read it in a week by switching it out for HuffPo in your daily routine. It isn’t better than a novel, but it’s worth perusing.
Imre by Edward Prime-Stevenson
Graduate student Claire drew up her own reading list for a directed study in queer literature this term, and the first book on it was Imre by Edward Prime-Stevenson. First published privately in 1906, the book’s first person narrator, Oswald is an “invert” who meets a dashing army officer during a stay in Hungary. The novella is divided into three chapters: the friendship, Oswald’s coming out, and the aftermath of that.
The book provides engaging documentation of the image of gay men and their excessive caution as closeted homosexuals. Prime-Stevenson, and presumably Oswald, was born at about the same time as Oscar Wilde. Like Radclyffe Hall later did in The Well of Loneliness, Prime-Stevenson incorporated the work of leading sexologists of the day into his story, including Oswald’s meeting with a psychoanalyst. Imre also seems to be a clear antecedent, both in terms of its subject matter and its delayed printing, to Christopher Isherwood’s Christopher and His Kind. So, Imre is best known now by the books it might have encouraged, but it is worth being read itself.
I last read Orlando on a delayed flight from London in 1999 with the sweet sorrow of waving goodbye to teashops and the Thames upon my fingertips (making it easier, actually, to turn the pages back to reveal London’s history). I’m thinking it is time to dip into Woolf’s love letter to Vita Sackville West again. If you’re interested in reading it with me, let me know, and we’ll come up with a schedule. Actually, a queer reading group on campus could have even broader parameters than the class! Let me know if you’d be interested in joining. I’ve got Wednesday evenings free at 8:00 p.m.