Monday, March 1, 2010

When the Lights Go Out

Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel A Single Man is nothing less than a modern masterpiece and, I have no doubt, will turn out to be one of my favorite books of 2010.

The novel follows George as he struggles through a single day in 1960’s Los Angeles following the death of his lover. George wakes up, goes to the university where he teaches literature, goes to the gym, has dinner with a friend, gets drunk at a dive bar, swims in the ocean, and arrives at the end. George is “three quarters human,” a machine trying to keep himself alive until it is time not to be.

Like an actor, he is absent from humanity. When he looks at his neighbors, at the suburban families, he thinks "They are afraid of what they know is somewhere in the darkness around them, of what may at any moment emerge into the undeniable light of their flash-lamps, nevermore to be ignored, explained away. The fiend that won't fit into their statistics, the Gordon that refuses their plastic surgery, the vampire drinking blood with tactless uncultured slurps, the bad smelling beast that doesn't use their deodorants, the unspeakable that insists, despite all their shushing, on speaking its name."

You can hear his ferocious resentment, his shunting himself to a corner, his self-marginalization (not that it isn't actual), his enforcement of two camps, of "them" and "us."

George looks at his body and at his actions as though he is watching a puppet, a character. He is “outside”; he is removed from the masses by his homosexuality, he is removed by his British-ness. He is removed from ordinary life by his stunned bereavement.

The novel is pessimistic and existential, but never cynical. This character observes his mortality, his bodily destructibility, in the face of the overwhelming unknown, one’s smallness against the large ocean wave. The smoggy, doomed nature of the city, the whole "tiny doomed world," which George knows will expire, reinforces the nature of all things to die, to cease existing.

George’s self-propulsion, his cold dissection, his machine-ly masquerade as a human, caused me re-think the mechanizations of the body, the innards and the outers, the brain, the “skeleton crew” that keep it going; the body’s ability to betray and to comfort. Isherwood has little sympathy for any of characters, and exposes their trivial vanities with alarming insight.

Love is important, companionship is necessary, but it is not irreplaceable. The novel’s pathos provides – even up to the very last line – no opportunity for sentimentality. Isherwood does not mistake moments of catharsis and moments of transcendence for redemptions, large or small.

Still, it is not unmoving to read of George’s running into the "stunning baptism of the surf" and he and Kenny (a student) skinny dipping:

"On the dark hillsides you can see lamps in the windows of dry homes, where the dry are going dryly to their dry beds. But George and Kenny are refugees from dryness; they escaped across the border into the water-world..."

I am dying to see Tom Ford’s adaptation of the novel with Colin Firth as George, but I understand that things are presented differently in a film. There are certain things which can only be verbalized; abstract thought, for instance. George’s inner monologue cannot be shared without a voice over, which feels false in a way that reading it isn’t. Certain motivations, certain events are changed. All the same, it’s on my to-do list. I’m hoping that Firth will win an Oscar next Sunday night.

Without wanting to strip the novel of its potency or specificity, I want to say that this isn’t just a gay story but a deeply human story. I felt it in my chest. I stood, leaning against a bookshelf in the store, reading while everyone else had left for the night. I couldn’t put it down; every sentence thundered like a train coming to the end of its tracks. (And that sounds un-Isherwood-y sentimental, but I suppose I can’t help myself.) Read it.


Ian Wolcott said...

I look forward to the movie too, but now I'll have to pick up the book. Thanks.

Shelf of One's Own said...

You should, Ian. You (dare I say) must.