J. R. Ackerley’s We Think the World of You (1960) isn’t a novel I’d ever say I think the world of, maybe because it has taught me how little the world can amount to. The story opens with a bachelor civil servant called Frank visiting his friend Johnny in jail. “‘I’m so sorry, Johnny,’ I said. ‘It couldn’t be ’elped, Frank,’ he replied.” The class divide between them is as unspeakable as Johnny’s dropped aitches make it unmistakable. Something else unspeakable hangs over this visit, as well. Frank is in a prison of his own with Johnny, “unwilling to assist him, unable to give him up.”
And so, while Johnny serves out his sentence, Frank pays for the upkeep of Johnny’s wife, Megan, and their three children in order to remind Johnny that she isn’t the only one who loves him. “Vile Megan” is Frank’s nemesis in a war for Johnny’s affection, a war intensified because, as his legal spouse, Megan is the only one who has an automatic right to visit Johnny in prison, and the only who can decide to give up a precious visit to someone else. There is, though, one thing Frank can do to help Johnny in prison—take care of his dog, Evie. “I think the world of ’er,” Johnny says, making who thinks what about Evie central to Frank’s quest to gain one more visit.
As a respectable civil servant living in 1950s England, Frank can’t tell anyone why he thinks the world of Johnny. Because he is the novel’s only narrator, he can’t tell us either. And so, in bounds Evie, the most overdetermined dog in the history of canine symbolism. She doesn’t bound very much at first, because she is living with Johnny’s mother, Millie, in her cramped terraced house. But taking Evie for walks soon becomes a way for Frank to maintain the imprisoned Johnny’s affection. More than that, it becomes a way for Johnny’s affection for Frank to be recognized, for Millie to be able to say: “Oh yes, he thinks the world of you, Frank.”
Becoming Evie’s sole walking companion also allows Frank to have what he really wants: something of Johnny’s that Megan can’t have—a visit of his own. Johnny, he laments, “ought to take away from her and give to me, give me something for myself”; the couple “ought to make a sacrifice.” But while Frank takes Evie on walks through a bombed-out East End, something unexpected arises: he comes to identify with her. There she sits, trapped in Millie’s house, beaten by Millie’s husband, languishing “day after day, nothing, nothing; the giving and the never getting; the hoping and the waiting for something that never comes.”
Frank also comes to enjoy Evie’s affection, the kind given across the unequal divide between animal and human. Nothing in this novel, though, is uncomplicated: Evie reveals herself to be “a bully and a nag.” She has one overriding desire, one that Frank himself ought to recognize: “to get me to herself”—all to herself. She demands to be taken to his office in Whitehall, she attacks any colleague who vies for his attention, she attacks him for avoiding her. A love so selfish is impossible to receive: Evie must be betrayed. Frank tries to dispatch her to a dog home in leafy Surrey. Alas, Millie finds out and temporarily severs all contact between Frank and Evie.
That someone like Frank can be the butt of one long and brutal joke is the ultimate victory of the humor of the gay aesthetic over the too-easy empathy demanded by gay identity.
Frank recoils from Evie because he realizes her desires are all-demanding: “Her meat was finished and mine too, for I had given her my week’s ration; how could I shop for more?” Yet he too has an all-demanding desire: to take Johnny from Megan and have him to himself. Frank is trapped in his own version of postwar Britain’s strict regime of rationing. He is given tacit permission to pursue Johnny—a stingy off-cut—but only on the condition that he renounces his desire to have his relationship publicly acknowledged—the prime fillet steak, as it were. This sort of rationing (we also call it the closet) traps Frank inside a vault of his own selfishness. Because he is forced to sacrifice, he can only imagine that he is receiving love when someone is sacrificing something for him.
And so Evie reveals the cruel irony at the heart of the novel: Frank is as unwilling to sacrifice the little comforts of his world for Evie as Johnny is unwilling to sacrifice his world for Frank. Yet Frank cannot see himself as overly demanding like the unappeasable Evie; he can only see himself as the Evie who gives but never gets.
Readers, though, can see everything that Evie means. In a novel where what Frank is cannot be named, she is the only way the other characters can negotiate what he wants. She is the suffering dog Frank identifies with, the selfish animal he recoils from, a part of Johnny he wants taken from Megan, a part of the working-class world he despises. Evie’s ambiguous, shifting, and unplumbable significance is what makes We Think the World of You the only novel about gay desire that I’ve ever truly liked. It is the only novel I’ve read that truly conveys that desire’s oscillations between identification and differentiation, between the fantasy of equality and the attractions of subordination.
Most novels and films about gay love and loss implicitly or explicitly propose that only when gay men are explicitly identified and represented can gay desire in an unequal world be triumphantly expressed. But Frank’s struggles with Evie in his battle for Johnny’s affection taught me something about the potential of a gay aesthetic grounded in the cardinal rule of not speaking its own name. Gay novels that equate gayness with its representation in an identity seem to exhaust the possibilities of a gay aesthetic with that act of singular representation. Paradoxical as it might sound, Evie can say more about gay desire by virtue of Frank saying less.
The novel also taught me that the aesthetic strategies required in a world of compulsory heterosexuality—the requirement to create an Evie as a diversion and a symbolic vessel for love—can tell the truth about the limitations of everyone’s love. Millie says that just because her husband beats Evie, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love her; after all, “he thinks the world of her, he do.” “Just like your Johnny does of me!” Frank replies. What Frank wants from Evie—love on the terms of his world—is what everyone wants from Evie. So he reveals the truth, the grim and selfish truth, in the cliché that sounds throughout the novel. To conceive of our own desires—gay, straight, or otherwise—as the measure of the love others give us is not to be able to accept that love at all.
I almost feel guilty about extracting a meaning so moralizing out of a novel that uses humor to disturb all pieties of moral self-worth. Much of the novel’s wit appears to be at the expense of the working class; Johnny’s family’s “low cunning … appeared to unite them in a silent conspiracy,” and Megan “never seemed to have a grain of sense except where her own advantage was concerned.” In the end, though, with Johnny returned to Megan and Evie finally given to Frank, his unwanted consolation prize, we discover who the joke was on after all, as Frank realizes “that there was something in all this that I had missed.” That someone like Frank can be the butt of one long and brutal joke is the ultimate victory of the humor of the gay aesthetic over the too-easy empathy demanded by gay identity. After all, who wants to build a world where you are forced to suffer another’s pity instead of enjoying your own laughter?
This article was commissioned by John Plotz.