Thursday, August 04, 2011

Back to some familiar faces in the Penny Press!

Predictably, the short story "Reverting to a Wild State" in the 1 August issue of The New Yorker has the gay literary world all a-twitter (we can't use that word anymore, can we? Not without sending dozens of people scurrying for their feeds). The story is by Justin Torres, and it's about a cute young gay man who begins to cheat on his nice, normal boyfriend with an older man who likes to pay him to clean house in his skimpies ("The man passed comment on all the usual parts of my body, but the unusual as well - my calves, the notch at the top of my spine. To comment is not necessarily to compliment, we were both aware"). The narrative is rather pretentiously fragmented into four numbered parts counting down backwards (we start at 3 and end up at 0), but readers can ignore such details and concentrate on the important stuff. There are four important things about this story, and the first two are the ones getting it so much attention this week: it's gay-themed, and it's published in The New Yorker. Those two things don't coincide very often (New Yorker readers of any standing will remember the first story to break that particular barrier), and this occasion is made all the more noteworthy due to the third important thing: the story is well-written - it captures with agility the mercurial flashes of breaking up, of the weird little things you remember when a relationship is ending, and the weird reactions those memories produce:
Nigel was always finding discarded plants and taking them home to regenerate. Everywhere in our apartment were plants, thriving. This, too, infuriated me - and when Nigel instructed me not to come home that night, when he told me to come by the next day, while he was at work, and remove all my shit and never come home again, I thought of those plants, of a space in the world without them.

"It's over," Nigel said. "You're free."

[caption id="attachment_3352" align="alignleft" width="249" caption="illustration by autumn whitehurst"][/caption]

It's the fourth important thing about the story that bugs me, however: it's bigoted. The main character is in a long-term relationship with a loving partner, and then - out of the blue - he reverts to a wild state, apparently the wild state from which all cute gay boi's come, a wild state that's always with them, calling them to abandon their lovers and start polishing some rich guy's woodwork for pocket money. The main character doesn't leave poor earnest Nigel because he's in love with someone else or even attracted to someone else - he leaves a stable, caring relationship for a cash-and-carry arrangement in which he's mainly a sex object, and the title of Torres' story leads us to think he does this because it's his nature, like a salmon. There's a segment of the American population that believes all gay men are by nature shallow, sex-obsessed bed-hoppers, and that segment of the population has used this characterization to deny gay men civil rights and equal legal treatment (in addition to denying them jobs, physical safety, and sometimes the right to go on breathing). I'd bet my last basset hound Torres doesn't consider himself a part of that segment of the population - he went to the University of Iowa, after all, and trained dogs, and worked in a bookstore. So why this story? Something he himself experienced but lacked the patience to transmute? Or is it that a significant chunk of The New Yorker's subscribers come from that aforementioned segment of the population, and what little gay fiction they ever force themselves to read must be of this 'I can't help myself' blackface variety? Neither answer is good enough, and I find myself wondering about a third.

Leaving a magazine wondering something unsavory is of course part of the risk you run when you read as many magazines as I do. But there's one that almost always leaves me feeling the clean, uplifting kind of wonder - National Geographic, of course. Specifically, the current issue, the one with the polar bear on the cover - only NO! That's not a polar bear - it's a white black bear, a "spirit bear" from the deep rain forests of British Columbia! In an article by Bruce Barcott, I learned there may be as many as a thousand of these remarkable animals roaming the forests and feeding on fish, and that nobody quite knows why they've developed their distinctive coloring, and that their existence was largely kept a secret by the local tribes, who venerate the animal and don't want outsiders hunting it (a laudable intent utterly undone by this issue - if even 1 percent of the world's insane trophy-hunters read this article and realize there's a whole new kind of bear they've never killed, the spirit bear will be extinct before the next issue of National Geographic hits the stands). I myself have trekked all over those very same rain forests of British Columbia (with beagles in tow), and although I was perfectly well aware of all the other animals lurking about, I had no clue I was sharing those mossy glens with a creature I'd never even heard about. Leave it to National Geographic to show me something that wonderful.

I've likewise been staring ardently at the moon for a very, very long time, loving the light it sheds in the night, taking a comfort I can't explain from its placid stability - and yet before this issue of National Geographic, I would never have guessed that the moon had a liquid outer core just bubbling there at some 2,600 degrees F. The accompanying article mentions the possibility that in the distant past, the moon might have been actively molten, although speculation is that it's core is stagnant today and has been for millions of years. But still - the idea that the moon, this planetoid that for my entire life I've considered beautiful in large part for a tomb-like beauty dependent on the lack of a beating heart, actually has a fire burning under all that grey rock ... the idea is jarring, although not necessarily in a bad way. Thanks to this issue, the world around me will be different in my mind because it contains a big, fierce animal I never knew existed, and the moon itself will be different because I now know it harbors a fire to match its rock.

National Geographic makes me burble like this, as some of you will know.