Bitter Eden by Tatamkhulu Afrika

Whom we love is as much a statement about those whom we reject. In the glut of romantic fiction out there, a lot of books gloss over the rejection inherent in the romantic love because really why do we want to feel sad for the poor sod when there’s a ooey gooey love to gush over. We gloss it over. We find ways to minimize it. Or we turn the rejected character into an asshole, someone who deserved it, a crazy idiot, or worse, an other.

This brings me back to the book I was reading Bitter Eden by Tatamkhulu Afrika. The story is much about pure love as it is about the cruel rejection that made the love possible. Warning, there are spoilers. Actually it’s the whole plot summary. Either way you’re warned.

The narrator Tom is a masculine, single, POW, and by default straight. He first bonds with the married Douglas, who is effeminate and mothering. No one in the prison camp really likes the fragile Douglas. Even the self-identified gay prisoners don’t like him. Tom eventually comes to accept Douglas because underneath his fussy mothering ways, Douglas is loyal and honorable.

After a year of being Douglas’ ‘mate'(all platonic), Tom is more open to his queer side. He’s part of a theatre group run by a gay pow. He regularly submits himself to have his portrait drawn by another gay prisoner who ‘studies his face but draws his genitals.’ Then he runs into another british pow, married Danny, who’s a man’s man and is for all intents and purposes straight. Danny is simply more fun. The bond between Tom and Danny is natural, quick, and goes deeper because they both share wounds of childhood traumas. And oh, Danny can’t stand Douglas in the slightest.

Tom rejects Douglas for Danny. Make no mistake, the rejection is cruel and pure aggression. And you know if Tom hadn’t learnt to accept Douglas, he would not have had the capacity to love Danny. The latter half of book is sweet as much as it is bitter, Tom and Danny blossom albeit in their sly not-overtly sexual way while Douglas goes insane.

Throughout the latter half of the book, Tom grapples with his responsibility in Douglas’ demise. Yes every man is responsible for his own heart, but was the rejection necessary for true love to flower? I kept hoping the men would look beyond myopic delineations of his and mine and use the spark of love to forge something more universal. You know like a brotherhood of sorts, but that wish is a fantasy really. When the death, hunger, torture, stare at you daily, the urge to possess something for yourself only is all that there is.

The rejection speaks to the struggle between the feminine vs the masculine that permeates the whole book, and how being masculine means the rejection of femininity. When Tom decides to play Lady Macbeth, the experience almost breaks their relationship as the pair go to absurd lengths to re-affirm their masculinity. The irony is while Tom is more willing to explore the queerer side of himself and Danny much less so, it’s Danny who wants to continue the relationship after the war ends. But Tom is too afraid. He gets married and doesn’t speak to or hear from Danny again until after his death.

A sad book yes, but a real and touching book. Douglas’ tragic end rings through to the last pages when Tom in his older years is trying to find some resolution to his complicity. Not only did he let Douglas down, he let Danny down big time.
It’s sad how it takes extreme circumstances to discover hidden dimensions of yourself, but as soon as the pressure goes away and the situation returns to the mundane, your expanded horizons shrink back and everything resets to a bland and stifling normal. In the end Tom wishes to go back to the Bitter Eden of the pow camp. The possibility of creating a new Eden in the midst of his homely, freer, normal is not one he seriously grapples with, and that’s just sad.

Too Old for Old Tricks–Part One

Happy Easter

It was Easter Sunday. Whatever of life and death, sacrifice and the resurrection were subsumed by the festering jubilation in the grocery store. Buy one get one free rabbit-sized bonbons, seventy percent off honey-glazed ham. Perhaps one could prevision death and its runny afterbirth from the scarlet poinsettias gracing the gardening aisle.

The cold and the diarrheic glimmer of beer bottles billowed from the open-faced fridge before Yinka tightening his arms folded on his chest. His bangles felt icy against the scars on his wrists. Something itched, rather wriggled underneath the squamous scars. Ratcheting the cool metal over his wrists, Yinka regretted the short sleeves of his tshirt and the white hairs over his arms and the infinite choices for beer.

And oh yes, beer. Brown bottle, green bottle. Gold foil cap, slovenly monk with apricot cheeks. Yinka reached for the choice of the past seven years: the case of all-American swill refreshing crisp lager. Bruce preferred it and he preferred to prefer Bruce’s tastes. But he thought, Easter seemed an occasion for something different, something of spring, leastways a resurrection for better beer. And what perhaps of the all-Japanese swill or the all-Chinese swill—How now beer from the middle kingdom of el-cheapos?

And it was decided a case of the house favorite. Then he perambulated the aisles, like a whale that had lost sight of the sea and its obviating vastness, no more content, no less disinclined to feel disappointed in himself for defaulting to the familiar.

Perhaps a different brand of mustard? Bruce bought the mustard. Or the organic, natural, non-fluoride, non-sweetened toothpaste? But the regular one with ingredients of unpronounceables looked less frightening. The soft head brush toothbrush should be better than the medium head toothbrush? Bruce preferred the medium head, but wasn’t the soft head better?

The dental conundrums were no more clearer than the conundrum in his back pocket: a handwritten letter addressed to Bruce Cohn. The letter had arrived three days earlier but Yinka held onto it instead of placing it on Bruce’s study desk like he always did.

And in examining the letter again, feeling the ink strokes mark the white envelope, he decided its precise curlicues and the compact loftiness were of a feminine hand. This ‘Chris Winston’ on the sender’s address must be female, which ruffled him.

Why should Bruce, work-twenty-seven-hours-a-day Bruce, received handwritten letters in this age where sharing and caring were worth less than a byte? Unsurprising given Bruce’s lucky happenstances; still, Yinka held fast, in tremulous wondering, to his own letter addressed to Yinka Peter Olubayo. He would like a letter too. It was just as well Bruce would dismiss his want with a pathetic shrug; and therefore Bruce should not mind if the letter came from a bronzed ephebe lounging on a far-off Greek Island—warm sands and warm bodies. But Bruce would not mind; rather Bruce did not care to mind.

Unnerved, he stuffed the letter back into his pocket and slipped to deliberating between soft head toothbrushes and medium head toothbrushes. Analyses were still as muddy when the loudspeaker bleated the last chance for six inch round lemon chiffon cakes at seven ninety nine. Randomly he tilted his gaze over towards the row cakes on display and was immediately and quietly seized by the fact of the day being Bruce’s birthday. He dumped a pair of medium toothbrushes in his cart and trundled to the bakery section.

The assistant looked young, rudely and flippantly handsome as he played with his tongue in his mouth, rounding cheek to cheek in a careless rhythm. The boy reminded him of rich acorns and fluffy moss. Yinka wanted to reach over the glass display and pop those cheeks. Maybe jump over the display—no, bum knee, bum kidneys—and lay the boy’s face over where his cholesterol-clogged heart was. And he would whisper restfully about hog-tying bucks or practicing the loops of a hangman’s noose—no, none of that—Morse code for SOS or SOB.

Rubbing his wrists mindlessly, he mulled the delicate yellow lemon cake inside a glass shelf.

“Sir, you get an inscription on the cake,” the boy said as if celebration was wanting.

How good of you to call me sir. Yinka suppressed the flutter working up his face. Unearned familiarity was always discomfiting, formality comforting, even subtly arousing from the boy now eying him impatiently. Yinka, looking down, contemplated the crisp frosting flowers on the cake. An inscription might read, “Happy Birthday Bruce, love Yinka,”or rather, “Happy Birthday Emu, many more steaks to you, love Crocky?”

The choices felt dry, wasteful. Bruce’s father was a reformed Jew, his mother a reformed Jehovah’s witness. Birthdays, Easter, the cake being this sop to the crisis of spring, Bruce would not understand it or the pleasures of a handwritten letter.

The blare of the loudspeaker again announced the cheapest unbelievable Easter eggs, and Yinka’s senses whittled away in the disorder murmuring away to eggland. The cake sans inscriptions sounded better, or perhaps just the unfrosted cake, even better to leave off the cake and take home the empty box.

Yinka saw the boy’s fingers uncurl over the glass counter like it was surrendering to the Easter din around. A line of a shadow trailed up the short fingers and its hairs up to the arm and his folded sleeve, and to the face, evidently suffering a gaze on him. He must be new here. Yinka decided not to smile or soften; the boy braved to keep up his stare. His face could be more gentle, could be more innocently boyish. And pink grilled around the temples. The eyes, blue as the twilight, as those myriad eyes that flickered and watched him in his dreams like ghosts roused rudely from stupor.

Yinka hoped the boy was docile as his stance presupposed. He was too tired to fight or boast illustrious feats, much less conquer or claim.

His wrists troubled him again, causing him to fidget with the tight clasps of the bangles. There were inscriptions embossed over the dull metal; inscriptions held no meaning, drove no need in him. And yet casting them aside never occurred to him as possibility.

“Cool bangles,” the attendant interjected.

“You like them?” He regretted his too eager reply and quickly blurted, “Titanium. Made of titanium”

“Titanium? Get out of here.” The boy’s smile was the glitter of clear water. “Now, where does anyone get titanium?”

Yinka saw now the squareness of his hairline, and the mole underneath the brow. The boy could be … Francis, truly? The name had the ring of the faint clink of pebble ricocheting down a well. No face fastened to the name, or smell, or touch. But the name had the surety in his mind, and Yinka concluded it had to be this Francis who gifted him the bangles. But that could not be. Or was it Wilson, his physics Ph.D advisor, who was reprimanded professionally for gross sexual misconduct.

“Must have been someone important,” Yinka said noncommittally.

The boy looked more serious. “You want the cake?”

“Since you insist, I shall.”

“Hehe, doing my best to make more money for the Man,” the boy said. “You want an inscription?”

Yinka chuckled. “Sure. ‘Happy birthday Emu, love Crocky.’”

“Man…” The boy guffawed. “Your name’s really Crocky?”

Yinka looked back at the discolored incisor jutting out of the laughing mouth like misshapen stump. And the puns followed with more laughter and feelings warmed expansively.

“Crocky?” The boy repeated to himself, feeling the size and girth of the word. Then he removed the cake from the shelf and placed it on the counter. He raised sharp eyes to him. “Pink, all right for the inscription … Crocky?”

“Green … if you don’t mind.” Yinka’s voice rose a little. “And you don’t get to call me that.”

“Emu sure can.”

“He stuck around in spite of my balding head. You’d have to give me some of those napoleons for free before I might let you …”

“He —I should get this done.” Cake unsteady in both hands, the boy turned away to the table in the shadowy recesses beyond the light display.

Yinka was amused with how fast his eyes narrowed and his cheeks lost their high mien. But it was all right for dreams to last a moment. A flame that flickered for an instant was no less a flame, after all.

The wrists bothered him impolitely now. They felt as if a hot wire were boring down his wrist and piping up his forearm. Yinka examined the clasps of his bangles, the darker-colored scars underneath, the reticule of thickening veins. Something was clawing from beyond the grave of his youth where names were whispers and faces were chimeras ghosting the deep. Whatever was coming, he did not feel ready.

The boy returned without expression on his face and with the cake yellow, blue and green in a clear container.

“Enjoy,” he said, deadpan.

A tub of ice cream and dishwashing soap, completed the groceries. At the checkout counter, conversation plodded about the involuble weather, paper or plastic, cash or credit, if forty is the new twenty-five.

The cashier’s cheeks were thin and her eyes darkly deep. But there had to be something delightful in her because she smiled and chatted and smiled and chatted a lot. Even though she smelled of earthy mushrooms in the forest damp, Yinka could not help but think of her smiles like lipstick on a skull.

“Forty, wow, I have got five more years till then,” she chimed then defaulted to a careless laugh. “Age is all in the mind. My three-year-old son runs me around all day. I feel old and young at the same time. You get what I mean?”

Yinka nodded, fixed his gaze at the automatic doors, open, close, toddler in a tutu, open, close, man gnashing teeth, in search of coffee. And then the burble on anxieties he was the wrong sex to understand. And of course the son.

“Did I tell you, he put a frog in his mouth the other day.” She clutched her breast. “It scared the bejesus out of me. The last time it was a cricket.”

Yinka thought of the crying, the puling, the mewling of the wobbly things. Those wobbly things were supposed to his lottery ticket to meaning, to immortality. Beautiful things want to beget beautiful things. Good things want to beget good things in the transcriptions of DNA and RNA.

Her words floated on him, floated through him, floated away from him. He was rotating his wrists now to wish away the renascent discomfort.

“You have any?” she asked.

Yinka blinked. “Children? Happily … no.” He pasted a smile then took hold of the handles of the grocery bags. “Here’s to remaining thirty-five forever.”

“Thanks.” Her smile wilting on her lips, she dumped the pair of toothbrushes into the bag. “Wish Bruce happy birthday for me.”

“I shall.” Yinka sighed, moved to lift the bags away, but his wrists hiccupped in pain and the bags dropped with a light bang.

The cashier’s eyes narrowed. “You, Okay there? You need a carry-out?”

“ Thanks, no.” I’m forty-five, not ninety. He gritted his teeth as he jerked the bags off the counter in a show of his lusty strength. The pain was definite, like gears turning in the bones of his wrist. Useless hands. Useless body. Futility was on his mind as he glided from the store to pavement to his car. Inside the car, he refrained from starting the ignition, instead wriggling his fingers and clenching and loosening his fists, trying to feel the strings of pain each action effected. Its prickling sounds lulling him, the wind assaulted dust and pollen upon the windshield and flurried the dry leaves onto oil slicks. He looked at the sky maddeningly bright, maddeningly blue, and waited. For what? For how long? The pain called to pain, his worries called to Bruce.

Gently and precisely, he got his cellphone from his pocket. After a glance at its artic blue screen, he tossed the phone aside and wriggled the letter from his back pocket. It felt warm and damp. There was the graceful name again, ‘Chris Winston’.

Bruce always had truculently asserted his right to identify as bisexual. Yinka dismissed his view as droll; after all seven years of monogamy should decide it one way or another. Yes, but they had had seven year now of what exactly?

His pusillanimous thoughts so appalled him that he flung the letter into the grocery bags on the passenger seat and stuck the keys into the ignition.

“Damn it!” Gently again, he cradled his right hand to himself, but burls of discomfort grew wilder in his forearms and his hand flamed. He could see the red roots curled over his digits, stretched and spiraled over his biceps and clawed its pin tendrils up his wattle. In that great revelation of pain, he lifted his eyes to the eastern horizon. His mind, instantly, expanded, warped, sheared—a great tree darkening half the sky, its leaves of magnesium-blue flame, its fruits hanging like massive lanterns during a Chinese New Year. Today was Easter; rather it was spring, and therefore the season of its pollen celestial tide.

The pollen streamed from the east, covered all over rooftops and electric pole, passed through windows, open hands, open mouths—diamond dust, metaphysical dust enthralled his eyes and prickled his skin. But his hands, the inky roots were bulging and pulsating underneath his taut skin, and neural darts harpooning bursting myriad corpuscles in his brain. Light and its variegated hues bled down his vision, and his arms felt like postulating appendages, the air thick and dry in his nose. And lost in a shattering darkness inside his skull, he slumped onto the steering wheel. Then he remembered.

Francis was not Francis. Wilson was not Wilson. The bangle was simple iron, as old as himself.

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False endings

One of my favorite authors is Alan Hollinghurst, who won the booker prize for The Line of Beauty. His prose is what captivates me the most, lush and lyrical and beautiful.

I was working my way through booker prize winners when I first came across The Line of Beauty. I didn’t know what the plot was about when I opened it. I thought the first couple pages were boring. Just when I was going to put the book down, the MC puts out a gay personal ad in the paper. And bam I was hooked. Yeah … I’m shallow like that.

But the subject of this blog post is false epiphanies, which brings up his debut fiction released back in the 80’s, The Swimming Pool Library. I just finished it a few days ago. The prose is exquisite as always.

Well it is literary, there isn’t much of a story. It just follows a rich guy in 80’s london before the AIDS scare. He spends his days having random sex with strangers in parks, porno theatres, bathrooms etc. He keeps paramours with boys younger and poorer than him. When he isn’t fucking, he goes to a exclusive swimming pool frequented by gay men and fantasizes about the next piece of ass. The one meaningful functional relationship in his life is the one he has with his best friend. He’s lazy, conceited, shallow and extremely self-unaware. But he isn’t malicious or wicked or a hard ass. He just doesn’t care to lead a more meaningful life.

In between his fucking adventures, he is reading up on the diaries of a gay lord, for whom he’s considering writing a biography. The diaries dates back to the 1920’s when the lord worked in the Sudan. The old lord is another old dunderhead who is also just as sex-obsessed over his boy servants as the MC. While you can excuse the MC because he’s young and desirable, the lord however is old and pitiable and just pathetic. You can already string the consequences. If the MC doesn’t change his ways, he’ll end up like the old lord.

A few things happen in the book that cause him consternation, the most significant of which is his best friend being caught in some trouble. And in the last couple pages, the MC thinks about changing for the better. He actually thinks about it, dreams about leading a more meaningful life. Then he tries to secure the help the friend needs. The ploy fails, not because of his fault though. But the setback is enough for him to go stomping back to the swimming pool and drooling over a nice piece of ass. And the book ends.

Now will MC follow up on the ploy? Who knows. But I have faith he will or the friend will really be screwed. But will the MC change his freewheeling ways? Probably not. Basically, Hollinghurst employs a false epiphany technique. Bring the MC feel change, but when the MC actually tries to act it, it fails for some reason or another. Chekhov is a matter of this technique in his short stories. A false epiphany is extremely realistic. Think about the times in your life, you wanted to do something, but you didn’t follow through.

And you know, Hollinghurst’s MC changing and discovering the power of love and sacrifice would have been trite and silly. It wouldn’t have made much real sense. But then again, the story doesn’t leave me satisfied, depressed really.

Sex is a distraction in fiction

Obviously this doesn’t apply if you’re writing erotica.

Sure feeling hot and sticky and shit is nice. But I find a lot of it boring  because author’s tend to substitute sexual feeling for inner tension.  And it ends up just feeling cold and sterile.  I might as well just watch porn–easier for me get off.

I was reading Giovanni’s room the other day.  Obviously given the time period when it was written, James Baldwin couldn’t knock himself out with shooting dicks and big load of cum, he had to hide and at the same time express the truth of the occurrence  The  result is he had to get to the emotional heart of the matter. Get to right to  the emotional tension and show characters in their bare and vulnerable moment.

So look at the consummation of the relationship between David and Giovanni.

He locked the door behind us, and then for a moment , in the gloom, we simply stared at each other–with dismay, with relief, and breathing hard.  I was trembling. I thought if I do not open the door at once and get out of here, I am lost. But I know I could not open the door, I knew it was too late; soon it was too late to do anything but moan. He pulled me against him, putting himself into my arms as though he were giving me himself to carry, and slowly pulled me down with him to that bed.  With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes.

Nary a word about hard dicks and big blunt cocks, just pure emotions of the moment. I was touched.  No I wasn’t hot and heavy, but touched where good fiction is supposed to touch you.

Now of course if this was supposed to a fuck and dump session, the language and the line of attack will be lot different. But you still need to get to the emotional heart of the matter.  Usually that means finding the character tension even in a fuck and dump session, and making  that the forefront over all the bathroom gymnastics.

Some thoughts for the day.

Alan Hollinghurst, The Spell

I am half way through the book.  And I am getting rather attached to the Alex character.  He  is a lot like Nick in the line of Beauty.  Loyal, sweet, well-meaning, but utterly and dangerously naive.  You are happy in he’s fallen in love.  But it’s all wrong.  The partner, Danny is wrong for him.  Too young, nothing in common.  You see clearly it is that is just lust that so completely disguised as love.  You want it to work for Alex. But it really can’t.  You know it would end horribly and it would hurt like shit when the damn thing ends.  But it is coming.

I suppose this really speaks to knowing yourself and not getting yourself enraptured that you miss reality.  Danny is so wrong for Nick.  He is young, like to takes drugs, likes to party.  Alex is in his mid thirties, a stuffy office worker, likes opera, likes fine things.  Not one for the stereotypical gay life of raves and nightclubs and orgies.  You are happy that Alex is at last living life per se but really the glamourous life isn’t all that is cracked up to be.

Anyway, yeah, if you like literary fiction, get The Spell.  I prefer this to his booker award winner. it has more characterization and more plot.

New novel, Dust for Gold

I marathoned a 55,000 word manuscript Dust for Gold in two weeks.  The editing needed is atrocious but by churning it out, I was able to see characters arcs, I wanted, the themes and the ending. Believe me, it is a lot better to blech out rather than plan till thy kingdom come.

What is the premise?  A Nigerian-american couple are struggling with faith, their children’s expectations and a marriage.  The wife think the marriage is ok, but worries a lot that her children are backslidding.  The husband thinks the children are generally ok but believes his marriage is what is suffering.

Add in the a potent Nigerian Evangelical Christianity that borders on supertitious.  And add in a Andrew who refuses to let Husband to wallow in his judgemental attitudes on his gay lifestyle.  And it becomes clear that coasting on to a tepid marriage with the wife isn’t for him anymore. And the husband must navigate to what he wants.

The tone of the book is part elegiac, farcical and hyperbolic.  I’m stuggling at the moment to make the wife likable.  She is fiercely religious, and independent which can turn a lot of people. The husband is a passive, incredibly so but he has so much feeling that its almost painful.

As for writing style, I try to keep voices unique to each viewpoint.  Certainly taxes on my imagination.   The wife has overblown tone, that is sprinkled liberally with KJV bible verses.  the husband is more poetic, a distant tone.  he observes his surroundings obesessively. Andrew is supposed to have a spastic, snappy tone to him.

I hope that in writing this,  I can come back to my previous novel with better eyes.