Monday, November 11, 2013

Two Books Connected Only by a Reverence to Oscar Wilde

Ethan Marxhausen is being far too modest about his short story that's published in this year's Waterstone Review. From what I've heard, it's bloody good. Ethan has a diverse set of influences. He introduced me to Nicholson Baker, and he told me that he can't get Fifty Shades of Grey out of his head. Ethan was reading J-14 magazine the other week (J-14 is the new Tiger Beat), and he showed me an article in which the former star of a Nickelodeon tween show said he doesn't think being gay is a big deal anymore. I looked at the magazine after Ethan was done with it, and this slightly famous nineteen-year-old did say that being gay hasn't earned him any flack since he came out on YouTube several months ago. Hats off to you, child actor whose name I don't remember!

Times have changed, thank God.

Thank God.

My Uncle Paul was gay back when it was a big deal. He died of AIDS in August 1995. His first cousin and god daughter, Margaret, married her wife in the first legal gay marriage in the State of Minnesota this August last. Uncle Paul was my Grandma Jane's oldest child, born in 1945. Grandma Jane and her sisters, Aunt Ruth, and Aunt Mary, then had seventeen heterosexual children between them, and, in 1964, Aunt Mary had Margaret. That nineteen years meant everything to those cousins' futures. Uncle Paul was already well into his twenties when he read about Stonewall in the papers; Margaret read about it in the queer history books. And, we can't get complacent, but things are even better for kids coming up nowadays.

Thank God.

Two Boys Kissing is the most impressive book of the year and you should read it. I don't care how much you cry, and you will cry, this book needs to be read, by you, right now. Bonus points for David Levithan's lisp on the audiobook. I cried driving to and from places for a week while I was listening. Two Boys Kissing is an ensemble cast story about gay teens narrated by a Greek Chorus of gay men who died of AIDS. Harry and Craig get the most page-time. They are attempting to break the Guinness world record for longest kiss. Neil and Peter are fifteen-year-old boyfriends, and the Greek Chorus marvels at them, "To be fifteen and walking to his boyfriend's house." There's amazement. Because to be fifteen. And gay. In their time, you never could. It came later. To be gay, you had to find that bookstore, that coffee shop, that bar, that city. You could be gay there. You could hide there. The Greek Chorus wishes they could have been gay and safe in their childhood homes like Neil and Peter. I found My Son Eric in my grandma's books years ago and read it. It's written by a woman my grandma's age, a mother's story about how it was when she found out her adult son was the homosexual. Peter's parents love Neil, and Peter's mom drives them all over the place, because they can be fifteen and gay, but they can't drive yet.

Ryan and Avery just met. Avery is trans. The Economist put the trans issue well recently in an article about the LA County school system's new policy of referring to all gender-questioning children by their identified, not born, genders. They said that the percentage of trans people in the population is one half of one percent, so in the LA County school system, this policy will affect 30,000 children. In large population, even small minorities are huge in numbers and deserve our respect and recognition. Ryan and Avery are hanging out at the abandoned mini-golf course and run into Ryan's terrible classmate. They walk out unscathed physically, but it's hard and humiliating.

In a flashback passage, Tariq gets his ribs kicked in for being queer. He's Harry and Craig's friend, the one that inspired their record-breaking kiss, and he's the one running the webcams and the Twitter feed while Harry and Craig are kissing.

Cooper is gay and not doing so well. He's all over Grindr but no IRL friends. Two Boys Kissing takes place over a weekend. Cooper's dad sees Cooper's open laptop on Saturday morning. Cooper runs. He's alone, IMing with strangers in a fast food restaurant, driving aimlessly, crying. On Saturday night, he makes a date with a strange guy. The Greek Chorus mourns the old gay meeting places, the bookstores and coffee shops and bars, and the callow internet that has replaced them. (That night, Cooper is disappointed to find out that he's on a date with a man who thinks he's cute and wants to get to know him better before things get too involved physically. Cooper has too many problems to deal with that.)

Harry and Craig are all over the internet by now, kissing. For ten hours. Twenty. A teacher named Tom takes the overnight shift. Harry and Craig are kissing on school property and they need a teacher and Guinness Book verifier on hand at all times. Tom's gay and out and HIV-positive and married and teaches high school. He survived the plague, his symptoms showed up a bit later, and he lived, and he sat by so many beds and went to so many funerals. He needs to stay up all night to watch Harry and Craig, along with a gathering crowd of supporters. They can't unlock lips, can't be touched by other people, can drink through straws, can't take bathroom breaks, can't wear diapers, can't sit down for thirty three hours and eight minutes.

David Levithan keeps invoking gay authors. "Two Boys Kissing" paraphrases a Whitman poem. He several times mentions Oscar Wilde. And who hosted a party for Oscar Wilde in her home in Washington D.C. one night in 1882? Frances Hodgson Burnett. You may have noticed that I've read more FHB novels than necessary in the last months, and that is because I've been working up to a reading of her biography, Frances Hodgson Burnett: Beyond the Secret Garden, by Ann Thwaite. I needed background. I've never read a biography of someone I wasn't already involved with before this (excepting Sam Walton's. Why did I read that?), and I needed to know her work before I got up to Lass o'Lowrie's and was shamed by my own ignorance. The copy of Beyond the Secret Garden I have is a beautiful British trade paperback, and it deserves an appropriate amount of background to be read properly.

From reading Little Princess and Secret Garden, you'd think FHB was a daughter of the Raj, but she was born in Manchester. Young Frances was, of course, a born storyteller, intelligent, precocious, with a way about her, and a love of play. Ann Thwaite has some good anecdotes and plenty of details about Manchester, the mills, the desperate poverty, and the middle-class one high step removed from the poor, until the American Civil War stopped the South from sending slave-grown cotton to supply the British textile industry. Frances' mother immigrated the family to Tennessee, and FHB spent her teen years in genteel poverty. At eighteen, she sent her first stories to the magazines as "my object is renumeration." She quickly became one of the top authors in Godey's Lady Book and her family went from poor to an uneasy middle class. She eventually married the man who'd been courting her for seven years; she shouldn't have. They went to Paris so he could study medicine, and she supported the family by her writing while raising their sons, Lionel and Vivian. The family struggled, but her novels were picking up steam. A few years later, when they were back in the States, Frances was in her early thirties and hailed as one of the best literary authors in America, along with Henry James and some people we've never heard of. FHB and James became friends later, and at one point lived in country houses only ten miles apart, but Ms. Thwaite believes the friendship was rather one-sided; James was better at sending excuses than invitations. In D.C., FHB wrote a Washington novel (who knew?) and plenty of other things. With a marriage swirling the drain, FHB visited, and then moved, back to England.

About halfway through Beyond the Secret Garden, I realized that I was reading a sort of biographical Old Yeller and Frances Hodgson Burnett wasn't going to live past the end of the book. Having written fifty-odd novels and a dozen plays and lived into her seventies, FHB provides enough biographical material that Ms. Thwaite can barely list the books, the places, the plays, the editors, the publishers, the successes, the company, the holidays in Italy. No book in BtSG gets more attention than Little Lord Fauntleroy, and that runs four pages, including Frances' insistences to the public that she understood: childhood is not as saccharine as it might appear in her novels. Ms. Thwaite prints a great letter about Lionel and Vivian hanging out windows and lighting fires and knocking over lamps when they weren't laying their heads on her knee and calling her "darling." Fauntleroy was a twist in FHB's career. Ann Thwaite uses the word "albatross." Before Fauntleroy, FHB was an accomplished adult novelist. After Fauntleroy, she struggled to reproduce the success, while separating her other books from Fauntleroy's reputation as cloying..

After the death of her son Lionel from galloping consumption, FHB was rarely happy, worked hard, loved her garden with more passion than anything but her children, and struggled to maintain her life and household on an author's wages. A Secret Garden and The Little Princess came late in her career, and garnered less praise than one would think considering they're now her best known works. Eventually she moved back to America and died in 1924. Beyond the Secret Garden is a great, but too short at 382 pages, for the amount of work that FHB created. Her best and worst adult novels (Making of a Marchioness and A Fair Barbarian; Lady of Quality) get little space. I am inspired to read more of her novels now, namely Through One Administration and T. Tembarom. One almost wants to get a Kindle to read one's Victorian novels more easily. But, other things in life... I'm at least two books behind in my blogging. We've got feckless hippies and modern fiction coming up. Stay tuned.

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