Sexuality, Counterfactually

Larry Kramer’s The American People, Volume 1: Search for My Heart is not all that interested in the history of sexuality. At first glance this might seem an odd assertion to make about a novel that ...

Larry Kramer’s The American People, Volume 1: Search for My Heart is not all that interested in the history of sexuality. At first glance this might seem an odd assertion to make about a novel that claims, as nearly every review feels obliged to mention, that George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, Herman Melville, Samuel Clemens, et al. were all gay. An article on the novel in The Guardian had as a title: “Larry Kramer: ‘How could you not realise Mark Twain was gay?”; the article’s author cautiously notes that “it is not a view accepted by most Twain scholars.”1

The history of sexuality concerns itself with, among other things, what counts as sex at different places at different times, how sexual partners are found, who engages in what kinds of sex, and so on. It is also concerned with collective representations concerning sexuality: how people represent to themselves collectively and individually what constitutes a sexual act or a sexual identity, how different kinds of meanings become associated with different acts, how people connect acts with identities, if they do, and how durable a connection that is.

The American People seems impatient with the history of sexuality—too many unnecessary subtleties and complexities. It is interested primarily in the history of gay men (and a few lesbians), and in “gay man” as a category that, the novel insists, should include any man who has ever had sex (as if we all knew unambiguously what that means) with another man, or ever wanted to do so. One of the numerous, vociferously foul-mouthed narrators of The American People makes a statement to this effect:

The very use of this word—sexual—is a cuntfucking, cocksucking scholarly land mine. You simply cannot make a simple declarative sentence like the following without being crucified, academically speaking, on all sides:
“Since human nature has changed, or evolved, very little over the centuries, it is quite reasonable to believe that people did then all the things which people do now, to and from and upon and over and under each other.”
I made the above statement originally at the First Annual Conference on Sexual Identity: Whither Nunhood? (It was not only the first one but also the last.) Prides of scholars pounced, demanding I relinquish my habit.

It can certainly be a relief or a liberation or a mischievous delight to imagine some historical figure as gay, whether they were or not, and novels in particular have a longstanding and intricate relationship with counterfactuality. Andrew Miller has recently noted that certain kinds of “counterfactual imaginings were built into the realist novel as part of its very structure.… To the extent that realism proposes to give us stories about how things really were, a space naturally opens up within that mode to tell us how things might have been, but were not.”2

One way of coming to terms with the implicit or explicit censorship of sexual and/or loving same-sex relationships throughout much of recorded, official history across much of the world is to create novels in which probable and improbable relationships of that kind could flourish. Anyone who lived through the worst years of the AIDS epidemic in the United States (or other, similar places) and lost friends and loved ones to that epidemic might have a strong investment in “how things might have been, but were not.” The American People takes place in these borderlands between the counterfactual and the factual. It is to a large extent a story of repeated episodes of brutality and of disease.

Yet even when reading counterfactual fiction, one can, as Catherine Gallagher has pointed out, have the odd but deeply felt experience that something is “not only implausible but also untrue to what might have been.”3 I wonder if there is anyone who could read Kramer’s novel without repeatedly having that experience. Perhaps it will be upon arriving at the novel’s presentation of Josef Neumann, “a dark and handsome young Jewish art dealer, who bought several of Adolf’s watercolors” and also “disappeared” with Hitler “in Vienna, for the five-day period June 21–26, 1909.” As the novel has it, sometime in 1934, “a terrified man comes to America. His name is Joe Newman.” He ends up in an internment camp for German Americans during the war.

Joe reasons quite understandably that the one person Hitler does not want alive is a man who has had sex with him. Names of homosexual friends in Germany who have disappeared reach Joe. … It is not long before he is indeed recognized by a fellow inmate, who informs the camp’s director, an assimilated German American, of his suspicions. “The man was Adolf Hitler’s boyfriend.” Rather quickly Joe Newman is disappeared from the camp.

For others, the sense of untrueness will crystallize when the novel discusses the discovery of what it calls “glause,” which seems to be its version of the disease known as kuru, a prion-induced degenerative neurological disease that reached epidemic proportions among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, who contracted it through their practice of mortuary cannibalism. In the novel, the disease in question has been noted in a number of indigenous peoples around the world, who turn out to perform what some anthropologists have referred to as “ritualized homosexuality” and others as “semen practices.”4 In this novel where “homosexuality has been pretty much the same since the beginning of human history, whether it was called homosexuality or sodomy or buggery, or had no name at all,” such cultural distinctions have no importance, nor, it almost seems, does the distinction between prions and retroviruses. They must both be related to something the novel refers to as “The Underlying Condition.”

Anyone who lived through the worst years of the AIDS epidemic in the United States (or other, similar places) and lost friends and loved ones to that epidemic might have a strong investment in “how things might have been, but were not.”

Most likely, at some point on the way through its 775 pages, it will be the novel’s noxious counterfactual version of epidemiology that will become too much to bear for any reader intent on finishing the book. Scattered throughout The American People are sections printed in bold and assigned to the voice of the Underlying Condition, or UC, a pathogen that seems most of the time to correspond to what we would call HIV. One of Kramer’s narrators insists early in the novel that “The UC started here and please let’s have an end to it.” “The nun thinks I was there from the beginning,” UC comments a bit later. “Guilty as charged.” By “here” and “there” they mean North America. “Some doctor lady in America is going to tell you soon enough that she figures the transfer of me from chimps to humans occurs between 1590 and 1760 … I crossed over much longer ago than she says.” In this alternate universe, people were dying as a result of infection with UC during the American Revolution: “At Yorktown itself I had a mini-epidemic going.” As for 1918, “Not everyone was dying from the flu. They just thought they were.” The odd nun seems to be dying as a result of UC (and improperly sanitized dildos) in the 1930s.

WWII looms large in the novel because, as one of the narrators puts it, “this Second World War was the true jumping-off point for UC.” A character finds himself observing the grotesque experiments of Nazi doctors on living subjects (gay twins in particular) in Germany, and then is transported to a secret camp called Partekla somewhere in Idaho after the war, where similar experiments are being continued, and scientists from Japan’s Unit 731 have joined Nazi and American doctors in their research. All of this has something to do with contaminated blood supplies around the world, hepatitis and other kinds of viral infections, syphilis, hemophilia, the interests of large pharmaceuticals in the development of something that seems remarkably like poppers, the Dridge Ampule, “one of the most important participants in the plague of The Underlying Condition.”

Volume 2 of The American People—because the 775 pages under review here are only the first installment—will, one assumes, offer some justification for this bizarre version of the epidemiology of AIDS and HIV. I will limit myself here to observing that it seems unlikely that any justification could make the counterfactual version Kramer offers seem anything other than obfuscatory and unhelpful in an attempt to understand a world in which at the present moment upward of 70% of the cases of AIDS are found in sub-Saharan Africa, a region that plays little role in Kramer’s otherwise sprawling novel.

Published at nearly the same moment as Kramer’s The American People, and rivaling it in length, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life seems to come from a rather different moment in the history of sexuality. These novels may have both appeared in the same year, but the authors themselves appear to come from different worlds, and their outlooks on sexuality often give the impression of being starkly different. If in Kramer’s novel it sometimes seems nearly impossible for two men ever to have slept in the same bed together at any point in history without at least one of them ending up gay, in Yanagihara’s novel the point is clearly made that the two men whose relationship is at the very heart of the novel do not fit easily into that category. And yet even if A Little Life is itself somehow caught up in the history of sexuality, just as The American People is, its own disinterest in a historical understanding of sexuality seems just as marked, if in different ways.

There are four men at the center of Yanagihara’s novel, college roommates at an unspecified east coast liberal arts college who over the 35- or 40-odd years the novel covers become extremely successful and wealthy as, respectively, a lawyer, a painter, an architect, and an actor. The novel seems to take place in a time outside of time. The characters spend a lot of their lives in New York City or Boston or on Cape Cod, but a reader would be hard-pressed to figure out what precise years we are dealing with. It’s almost as if a single year somewhere around 2005 kept repeating itself over and over again, without anyone ever managing to mention any piece of information that would fix an event precisely in time. As the characters become more and more wealthy, they travel a lot—to London, Paris, Mumbai, Morocco, Bhutan—but we get no sense of anything that might be going on socially, culturally, or historically in any of those locations, which exist in the novel like names on a travel brochure. The characters have private drivers; sometimes they travel in private jets. Nothing as obvious as a war, an election, 9/11, or any kind of historical event, is ever mentioned. HIV is something Nureyev died from some time ago.

Often the characters think rather obvious thoughts to themselves, as if to drive home points we could hardly have missed. Here is Willem, the actor:

Wasn’t it a miracle that someone who was basically unexceptional could live a life in which he made millions pretending to be other people, that in that life that person would fly from city to city, would spend his days having his every need fulfilled, working in artificial contexts in which he was treated like the potentate of a small, corrupt country? Wasn’t it a miracle to be adopted at thirty, to find people who loved you so much that they wanted to call you their own? Wasn’t it a miracle to have survived the unsurvivable? Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely? Wasn’t this house, this beauty, this comfort, this life a miracle?

The novel recounts lives that are miraculous and intersperses their miracles with nightmares. Jude, the incredibly successful attorney adopted at thirty by one of his former professors and his wife, had been abandoned at birth and then somehow managed to survive a childhood of repulsive, repetitive, and brutal sexual abuse and horrific violence that he barely escapes from with his life and that leaves him with a sometimes debilitating spinal cord injury and severely damaged legs. He keeps much of his past secret when he arrives at college at age 16. Despite all he has been through, he turns out to be an amazing intellectual success at college; he is also incredibly handsome, plays the piano brilliantly, and has a remarkable singing voice.

Despite its enormous length, Yanagihara’s novel is in the end quite limited, at least as far as the history of sexuality is concerned.

The trauma of Jude’s past slowly resurfaces throughout the novel. The scene of the most horrific violence, the one in which his legs were damaged, predictably emerges only late in the volume. Indeed there is something about the way the novel teeters between the miraculous and the nightmarish, somehow always managing to ratchet things up a notch as it heads toward gruesomeness and tragedy, that makes you wonder what the purpose of all this is, except to churn your emotions over and over again, to remind you that the rich and famous have miraculous lifestyles that are out of reach for ordinary men and women, that nonetheless there can be cruel twists of fate even in the lives of the most well-protected, that human beings sometimes do things to one another that can only inspire revulsion, and that the people who have had these things done to them sometimes never recover psychologically, no matter how high-functioning and successful they manage to be.5

It takes more than half of the novel for Jude and Willem to end up as a couple. Jude has avoided sex since being rescued from his abusive childhood, and it’s not clear that he knows how to discuss his sexuality, if, indeed, he has one. At one point in the novel, when Willem is dating someone named Robin, he broaches the question of sexuality with Jude:

“You know, when we first started going out, Robin asked me whether you were gay or straight and I had to tell her I didn’t know.” He pauses. “She was shocked. She kept saying, ‘This is your best friend since you guys were teenagers and you don’t know?’ Philippa used to ask me about you as well. And I’d tell her the same thing I told Robin: that you’re a private person and I’ve always tried to respect your privacy.”

Despite his sexual history with women, Willem has always been close to Jude, and the closeness takes on a new cast as the novel progresses: “They had been sitting on the sofa late one Friday night—he just home from the theater, Jude just home from the office—and talking, talking about nothing in particular, when he had almost leaned over and kissed him. But he had stopped himself, and the moment had passed. But since then, he had been revisited by that impulse again: twice, three times, four times.”

And so, just as Willem is becoming a world-famous actor, they become a couple. “I don’t really think of myself as gay, though,” he tells his agent, who observes that in the eyes of the movie-going public, “Once you’ve touched a dick, you’re gay.” Somehow Willem’s career continues to flourish. A director he works with tries to get him “to give a speech at a gala dinner benefiting a gay-rights organization at which he would announce himself as gay.”

Willem had always supported this organization, and he told Max that although he would be pleased to present an award or sponsor a table—as he had every year for the past decade—he wouldn’t come out, because he didn’t believe there was anything to come out of: he wasn’t gay … Max was sixteen years older than he; he had come of age in a time when identity politics were your very identity, and he understood Max’s … arguments; he understood that he had come to represent something he had never asked to represent; he understood that whether he wanted this representation or not was almost incidental. But he still couldn’t do it.

This is as close as the novel gets to entertaining something that we might recognize as the history of sexuality: that representations and meanings, not to mention nomenclature and patterns of behavior, seem to redistribute and reorganize themselves across time and across social space. How and why those redistributions and reorganizations happen, and how those processes intersect and intertwine with other social processes remains outside the field of interest of A Little Life.

As for the ambiguous couple at the heart of the novel, they negotiate the values of sex within their own particular intimate context. Willem understands that sex is difficult for Jude. Jude knows that Willem wants to have sex with him and so eventually forces himself to go along with it. One or two horrific revelations later, Willem finally understands that the only ethical and loving thing to do is to be in an intimate but nonsexual relationship with the man he loves. And so they live together as an asexual same-sex couple, until another tragedy intervenes.


Virtual Roundtable on “Transparent”

By Susan Stryker et al.

One review of A Little Life has claimed that “the great gay novel might be here,” but frankly I don’t see how that could be.6 Despite its enormous length, Yanagihara’s novel is in the end quite limited, at least as far as the history of sexuality is concerned. I take it that any “great gay novel” would have to deal with that history and its intersections with other histories. This is why it ends up being so frustrating that Yanagihara’s characters seem not to be required to move through time and social space the way the rest of us do, or to cope with the ways we are marked, wittingly or unwittingly, by the way the social world and its categories and divisions press in upon us.

Henry James once remarked of Balzac that “nothing appealed to him more than to show how we all are, and how we are placed and built-in for being so. What befalls us is but another name for the way our circumstances press upon us—so that an account of what befalls us is an account of our circumstances.”7 James wasn’t the only reader of Balzac who admired the way the experience of reading his novels could teach his readers something about the experience of being in the world, how being in the world contributes to making us who we are, how we both incorporate and enact the social history of that world. Judith Lyon-Caen has described how readers wrote to Balzac to testify to the ways reading his fiction illuminated the world for them, how they learned to “apprehend the world by means of novels that made the real into something readable and expressible for them.”8

Balzac’s readers were illuminated by his works not because his novels confirmed their sense of who they were (sexually and otherwise), but because he showed them something unexpected about who, what, and why they were. Novels at their best show you how you have been shaped by circumstances that are not yours alone, and how what you do in part arises from and contributes to what the world is and is becoming. Reading Kramer’s and Yanagihara’s novels I did not feel illuminated. I felt exhausted. icon

  1. Michelle Dean, “Larry Kramer: How Could You Not Realise Mark Twain was Gay?” Guardian, April 21, 2015.
  2. Andrew Miller, “Lives Unled in Realist Fiction,” Representations, no. 98 (2007), pp. 120, 122.
  3. Catherine Gallagher, “When Did the Confederate States of America Free the Slaves?” Representations, no. 98 (2007), p. 61.
  4. See Deborah A. Elliston, “Erotic Anthropology: ‘Ritualized Homosexuality’ in Melanesia and Beyond,” American Ethnologist, vol. 22, no. 4 (1995), pp. 848–867.
  5. My point is not that novels should not be dealing with the most horrific things that people do to one another. They do regularly deal with such things, and they should. The testimonial or witnessing functions of novels and other prose forms has been the subject of careful work by a number of critics including, notably, Ross Chambers, to whose work I turned to try to understand what seemed off to me in A Little Life. Texts of witnessing, Chambers suggests, take something in our culture or our history that we normally avoid looking at, and find a way to put it in their pages, arranging those pages in such a way that the text becomes “capable of deflecting readerly attention in the direction of what … is culturally obscene.” For Chambers, witnessing texts “quietly … deliver strange, unwanted and unwonted wake-up messages from sites that are otherwise consigned to the extreme limits of consciousness.” The claim that A Little Life functions in this way could, I suppose, be made, but for me, the way that it is constructed and arranged, the way that Yanagihara narrates violence, caused it to work differently. Its relentless sensationalism might rather make you (or me, at least) want to turn your gaze away, to shut down—or perhaps, in another mood, to consume what it offers too avidly. Or perhaps the problem is that the novel seems to be too invested in its carefully orchestrated display of its own mimetic prowess, pointing proudly to itself rather than to a form of cruelty in the world we might prefer to ignore. I don’t know that critics like Chambers would necessarily agree with me about A Little Life, but it seemed to me to fail as an attempt at witnessing. See Ross Chambers, Untimely Interventions: AIDS Writing, Testimonial, and the Rhetoric of Haunting, pp. 36–37, xiii.
  6. See Gareth Greenwell, “A Little Life: The Great Gay Novel Might Be Here,” Atlantic, May 31, 2015.
  7. Henry James, “The Lesson of Balzac,” in Literary Criticism: French Writers, Other European Writers, The Prefaces to the New York Edition, edited by Leon Edel (The Library of America, 1984), p. 135.
  8. Judith Lyon-Caen, La Lecture et la Vie: Les usages du roman au temps de Balzac, p. 153; my translation.
Featured image: Gay rights protesters at the 1976 Democratic National Convention in New York City. Photograph by Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress'