On Call Me By Your Name (Or, The Book of Closet-Cases)

19Feb08

In which The Gay Recluse reads an acclaimed book of contemporary fiction and is more than disappointed.

When we first received our copy of Call Me By Your Name (FSG, 2007) by Andre Aciman, we were a bit startled (but pleased, to be sure) that a book about a love affair between a 17-year-old boy and a 27-year-old man had received such rave reviews: was there anyone who didn’t love this story, which was “hot” and “sensuous,” yet “literary” and — omg! — “Proustian”? On the cover we noted a rather homoerotic photograph of a young man, with his forehead lying on his crossed arms in a position of torpid anguish. (In short: pretty fucking gay awesome, right?) Given what we know about the ongoing suffocation of the gay voice in American literature, we wondered: how did Aciman pull it off?

The answer, it turns out, is simple: he’s not gay! Married with kids, “[h]e lives with his family in Manhattan.” (The quote is from the “about the author” blurb on the inside cover, which was literally the first thing we read, as if to dispel any fears we might have that he is really gay and not just pretending.) We know we’ve been overusing this expression lately, but if you can bear with us this one last time: wtf?

We’re not here to tell you that Aciman can’t write, because obviously he can, and at times he does so with passion and beauty. More than once he captures a spirit of genuine anguish that can arise from hidden and unrequited love; and at times we were moved by the plight of a 17-year-old who is intellectually gifted but unable to express the one thing he truly wants.

Yet ultimately we are left wanting to slide this book into the fire. The first problem we noted was an exasperating (but oddly unconscious) sense of privilege that clings to these pages; besides his annoying man-crush, the narrator’s life is ridiculously perfect: he lives in a mansion on the Italian coast; he takes daily swims in the pool and the ocean; there are servants to prepare the food, some of which is cultivated in the fields around the estate. He has a hot girlfriend he can fuck whenever he feels like it. Meanwhile, both of his parents adore him; they are intellectuals with intellectual friends; there is never the least bit of resentment expressed toward either parent; in fact the only displeasure expressed toward anyone is a slight ridicule for a pair of queens from the United States who can’t speak perfect Italian; meanwhile, books and classical music abound, and the town itself features a book store that is packed for a poetry reading.

All told, it makes us wonder: if it’s such a fucking utopia, why is this kid so tormented about a little gay sex? The answer of course, is that the torment is implied, which — ok — is often the case in society (particularly in homophobic quarters), but does not really serve our purposes here; ultimately, the narrator’s lack of insight or resolution into this most critical of issues — namely, exactly what holds him back and why — makes his love-making (when it finally happens) with the older guy seem less revelatory than simply indulgent, another treat for a privileged brat. Thus, while the author has impressed critics with his ability to describe anal sex or a blow-job — without presumably having ever indulged in M2M sex (OMG, what powers of imagination!) — he fails to convey the concurrent psychological conflict that makes these acts so despicable, forbidden and — ultimately — interesting.

This flaw, of course, is exacerbated by the fact that the narrator is writing 20 years after the fact and his attitude about the affair hasn’t changed one iota! (Proustian? We think not.) In fact, we are left in the dark about the narrator, who may or may not be “out,” but in any case is still pining after his closet-case lover who [SPOILER ALERT] after fucking the narrator for a few weeks on a summer idyll returns to the States to marry some faceless woman with whom he has two children, all of whom are kept in the dark about his past, which we are led to believe is kept under lock and key with no apparent repercussions.

All of which is to say that, for those readers who like their fiction to reflect some deeper truth about the human condition, this book ultimately disappoints and must ultimately be regarded as only slightly more serious than your average after-school special. Although the prose is rich, deeper insights about the human condition are kept to a strict minimum, and we are left to wonder how anyone could be so immature. Then we remember who wrote it, and it all makes sense.

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