Contemporary gay life is characterized by a curious paradox: visibility and acceptance have made life better for many—especially but not only for white gay men—but at the cost of community and identity. Gay visibility, with its attendant politics of respectability, has occurred at the expense of the gay bar, the bathhouse, the piano bar, and cruising areas. Gay men no longer have to search for each other; gay life today is marked instead by isolation and loneliness in a world of available others. Thanks to Grindr, we now know that there are other gays in the world, but we don’t know anything about them.
In any case, it’s not clear that we want to: perhaps it is enough that their images form an aesthetically pleasing grid on our phones; perhaps it is enough that a few will come over. We now possess a world of self-representation—true, fictional, and that in-between land of dating apps—and yet continue to lead a life apart.
Nowhere is this feeling clearer than in gay world literary fiction, which has become increasingly available in English over the past few years. Previous generations of queer people speculated about other queers in the world without knowing for sure if anyone was out there. Early gay and lesbian literature was inhabited by figures that the scholar Christopher Nealon provocatively called “foundlings,” who had to invent their shared history from scratch; post-Stonewall gay authors had to demand community visibility to counter widespread death.
By contrast, the “gay community” today is a banally knowable object rather than the product of a passionately forged experience of self-making. In place of the urgent longings of 20th-century queer literature, one encounters a peculiar form of worldly, muted yearning. So-called gay world literature emerges from a global community that isn’t a community at all.
From Sofia to Shanghai, authors of gay fiction describe a collection of scattered and isolated individuals, needy but incurious. The emergence of gay world literature, seen clearest in these recent publications, confirms only that the “world gay culture” we proudly claim as axiomatic has been heralded in spite of our lack of commitment to it. (It is for this reason that “we” remains an irresistible, yet ultimately unsatisfactory, first-person plural pronoun in this context.)
Three works of European gay fiction recently translated into English are Sjón’s Mánasteinn: Drengurinn sem aldrei var til (2013; Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was); Pajtim Statovci’s Kissani Jugoslavia (2014; My Cat Yugoslavia); and Édouard Louis’s En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (2014; The End of Eddy). These books feature gay protagonists, but the characters are curiously faded, or unable to recognize themselves in a world with others.
If the blurbs and initial reviews are any indication, the patron saint of this new fiction (at least in English) is Garth Greenwell, whose novel What Belongs to You was longlisted for the National Book Award in 2016. At first glance, the book appears to be an account of an unnamed protagonist, alone in Sofia, Bulgaria, and obsessed with a sex worker, Mitko. On second glance, however, not only do we know little about the protagonist—he is a young American poet running from his red-state heritage, teaching English at a college—but he in turn knows next to nothing about Mitko (nor of his own family, who ostensibly occupy the middle section of the book). Loneliness, neediness, and incuriosity align in his world-weary queerness. Such is the “world” of contemporary gay world literature: being gay now is a cosmopolitan affiliation without attachment; it is neediness without commitment to community. Gay literature is neither sexless nor lacking in eroticism, but gay desire for others is diluted by sheer lack of urgency, historical or political.
the “gay community” today is a banally knowable object rather than the product of a passionately forged experience of self-making.
This lack of queer affinity might come from protagonists or be directed at them, or both. Detachment needn’t be human, either: there are two cats in My Cat Yugoslavia, one who talks and sings karaoke and one who is a stray. Bekim, a queer Muslim in Finland, falls in love with the singing cat, who is homophobic and xenophobic. Nevertheless, Bekim asks the cat to move into his apartment, which it does; the two share the space—along with Bekim’s boa constrictor—and their emotionally abusive need for each other.
Interwoven into this story line is one from 30 years prior, in which a young Muslim woman in Yugoslavia is married off to a man who beats her on their wedding night. As Yugoslavia is broken apart by civil war, the woman and her husband immigrate to Finland, where they attempt to raise a family (including a son, Bekim) under conditions of xenophobic isolation, poverty, and diasporic longing.
Statovci’s My Cat Yugoslavia is wracked with feelings of estrangement and exile while reveling in opacity. Some cats talk and sing Cher at karaoke; some cats are cats. We are never told which is the titular cat, or if the title refers to a cat at all. Sometimes “love” is a metonym for belonging; sometimes “love” is an anonymous hookup. Sometimes Bekim’s and his mother’s stories parallel each other; most of the time they clash. Her narrative moves much more rapidly than his—hers covers 30 years whereas his takes place over about a year and a half—and because of this it often gets the broad brushstrokes of a generic Sad Muslim Immigrant Story. Bekim’s story line is considerably more interesting not only because it features a talking cat but also because it attends to the particular details of an individual life.
This lack of clarity is the book’s strength. It also makes Bekim feel more unknowable than his unnamed mother; even if the story she offers verges on cliché, she is at least giving us a story. Bekim, on the other hand, provides an accumulation of detail without the coherence of a subjectivity. The two stories might have suggested a shared genealogy of loneliness, but by the end of the book Bekim’s mother has achieved independence in her isolation while Bekim’s isolation has become permanent, even as his Finnish lover hugs him.
Moonstone, the titular protagonist of Sjón’s thin novel, lives a life apart: he is an orphan under the absentee watch of the Catholic Church and an old woman. Left alone, he spends his days performing sex work around Reykjavík and watching silent films in town. It is winter 1918, and although Iceland is far enough away from the continent to avoid entering the war, it is connected enough to receive the Spanish flu, which famously tore through the city that year. He is a part of society and yet apart from it: Moonstone meanders aimlessly and obliviously between the theoretical contagion of collective moviegoing and the possible contagion of anonymous sex—even as the audiences shrink and the death rate soars.
The Gay ’70s
Moonstone is “the boy who never was” not simply because he seems to disappear into the air (in multiple ways), but because he lives life at its absolute minimum. “The boy” becomes “Moonstone” (“Mún-stón”) when a man he is having sex with murmurs his name—Máni Steinn—in English. Moonstone is a cipher for the world around him—he disappears into it even as he comes to occupy the center of a potential international sex scandal.
Moonstone has desires, but even those are barely realized: he longs for a woman named Sóla G., whose red scarf he keeps tied around his neck. Moonstone fades into and out of the celluloid he voraciously consumes: his desire for Sóla G. begins when she stands in front of the projection of silent-film star Musidora and the two women become one. He has little regard for the distinction between filmic fiction and real-life catastrophe—they both envelop him, though neither captures him. Moonstone possesses no interiority to enrapture. Sjón’s text is so spare that it feels like film on the verge of flickering out or melting from overexposure.
Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy hews closest to the expectations of a coming-of-age/coming-out story, a genre indebted to an earlier generation of gay writers (most notably Larry Kramer, Edmund White, and Alan Hollinghurst). This generation of writers was committed to queer visibility, a necessity in the face of the 1980s HIV epidemic. The End of Eddy promises a fully developed gay protagonist. In place of a clear coming-out narrative, the story disperses a bile-fueled, no-holds-barred takedown of Louis’s childhood village across a series of short vignettes.
Born Eddy Bellegueule in Hallencourt, France, Louis charts the escape from village life he makes by finally accepting what his family and his neighbors had always beaten him for: being gay. The shock of the book comes from its finely tuned bitterness toward the trappings of working-class masculinity and of provincial working-class life more broadly. Men lead lives that are nasty, brutish, and short; women bear up and wait for widowhood.
Eddy’s only hope is escape—from his gendered body and from his village—which he eventually achieves through academic success. Along the way, we are offered detailed accounts of the brutality of heterosexuality and heterosexual men in particular. The focus of Louis’s bile may be masculinity, but he is merciless. Regarding his mother, Louis writes, “I came to understand that many different modes of discourse intersected in my mother and spoke through her … and that these two modes of discourse existed only in relation to each other.” The End of Eddy can express empathy with others only by reciting rudimentary summaries of French theory.
Eddy Bellegueule’s transformation into Édouard Louis is achieved through the realization that there are others like him in the world, but neither Eddy nor Édouard expresses any interest in them. After all, the world of bourgeois masculinity is no less horrifying, albeit perhaps less forthrightly violent, than its proletarian counterpart. Even the transformation from Eddy to Édouard is less a metamorphosis than a bloodthirsty killing-off—something signaled much more directly by the original French title (which might be better rendered in English, Greenwell suggests in a New Yorker review of the book, as “Finishing Off Eddy Bellegeuele”). In place of belonging and community, we are left with the lonely bitterness of having come out in the age of gay pride.
Thanks to Grindr, we now know that there are other gays in the world, but we don’t know anything about them.
In his 1945 novel The Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Andrić writes that “in order to see a picture of the town and understand it and its relation to the bridge clearly, it must be said that there was another bridge in the town and another river.” In one important sense, Andrić is being literal: the other river, besides the Drina, in Višegrad, Bosnia and Herzegovina, is the Rzav, which has its own bridge. But Andrić never offers us any information about this other bridge. It must be said that it is there, but its existence remains opaque. This line from Andrić’s novel is the epigraph for My Cat Yugoslavia, but it is also a fitting description of the world that gay literature has brought into view: it is enough to know that there are other gays in this world; it is not worth knowing them.
These recent books suggest that there is more to gay literature than just gay sex, despite John Updike’s tedious complaint to the contrary about Hollinghurst’s work in 1999. (Hollinghurst can write about gay sex much better than Updike could write about straight sex.) But gay visibility and gay acceptance have diluted the urgency of community in gay life. If, despite new forms of visibility, loneliness marks contemporary queer existence, it is because visibility is about being seen but not seeing. Instead, isolation is a way of life: Bekim’s talking cat refuses to engage with Bekim despite the fact that they live together; only one character calls Moonstone by his name (the narrator refers to him only as “the boy”); Louis’s account of Hallencourt is so unsparing that there is hardly room for others at all.
The world of gay world literature is populated by others who exist but about whom little more can be known. These authors gesture toward a shared identity but foreclose the possibility that that it might mean anything. If queer invisibility is lethal, queer visibility is a matter of merely existing. Through their tragedy and their banality, these novels remind us of the need to reimagine and reinvent queer community for our time.