Sunday, January 28, 2018

Call Me By Your Name

No I don't think this is the sublime masterpiece everybody is calling it but I did like it quite a bit. I've read the novel (years ago) and its combination of yearning and exquisitely painful beauty and loss (specifically queer loss) always stuck with me.

Brandon Taylor, (@brandonlgtaylor on twitter, go follow him) writing for them., talks about the intrinsic connection between gay men and sadness:
There was always something so pure about the sadness of queer men, as if in the face of reduced conditions, they at least had their sadness, which seemed also to represent a clarity of understanding, emerging as it did from bigotry, from illness, from grief. It’s no wonder to me that so much of queer art is sad — we’ve always been composing in a key of loss, the key of longing, which inherently describes a situation of lack or removal.
(here) Call Me By Your Name, one of the novels mentioned in his essay, is one of the prime examples of this type of queer sadness. Set in 1983, the novel and the film are shy about the very much looming AIDS crisis (here) and a bit blase about the closet. One could naively argue that Call Me By Your Name is less about queer love and more about first love, but that would ignore the text's context, its position in the discourse of queer literature, in which loss and sadness are the primary feeling tones.

Male queerness is more often than not rooted in the absence, in the lack: for much of Western history, gay men were ostracized, scorned, vilified, and criminalized. Any act of love was radical. In many ways, gay love is still radical today, but the risk isn't quite as high. Thus, the hesitant touch, the furtive glance, the expression of love were often in the dark, always rooted in the melancholy for that which gay men could not have—open socially-approved love. Gay love operated on the assumption of loss and thus loss was always there in a relationship from the very beginning. Not just the lack of the stable relationship, but the lack of safety, lack of continuity, lack of monogamy. The absence beats at the heart of gay love, which provides depictions of this love an extra dimension of sadness, an exquisite pain of melancholy so alluring and delicious as to be unavoidable.

The best parts of Call Me By Your Name are the partings, when Elio and Oliver are separated, either by circumstances (the end of Oliver's time with the Perlman family) or by their inability/unwillingness to voice their mutual desire. Their time together is as inane and quotidian as any other first love, which is to say that it's unbearably happy for the couple and unintelligible for outside observers. Yet, the parting is what propels the film; it is there from the very moment Elio and Oliver meet; the parting looms over them, shadows their every step, the parting that is intrinsic to queer love. The loss that is queer love.

Which is why the end of their relationship is the best part of the film. It's what we've been waiting for. It's what we expect. Gay viewers of this film will know this pain from the very first moment and it's a comforting embrace to be faced with it again. It's a sadness that's been aestheticized for the queer gaze. We ache for the aching, we yearn for those that yearn but through the most beautiful lens possible, that of idyllic summers in Northern Italy, surrounded by beautiful people and beautiful locations and beautiful food. The beauty of the location is tied up with this queer sadness. This sad beauty allows gay audiences to sublimate their own melancholy into a palatable form. We yearn for the beautiful sadness and Call Me By Your Name gives up the goods excellently.

Monday, January 22, 2018

January Reads

The Dread Wyrm by Miles Cameron
A Plague of Swords by Miles Cameron

There's a moment in Tarantino's Django Unchained that pivots the narrative irrevocably and it comes with 40 minutes of running time left. I'm speaking of the moment Christoph Waltz shoots Leonard DiCaprio in the chest, resulting in an orgy of cathartic violence, with Django trying his damnedest to stay alive while hordes of racist white men shoot at him. When seeing the film for the first time, I gasped and wondered where else could the narrative go with so much running time left? The Dread Wyrm features a sequence at the halfway point performing the same sort of irrevocable shift. I held my breath and wheezed and gasped and sighed during this bit, leading my partner to make fun of me while they worked and I pored over this bit. Where The Fell Sword introduced a million plotlines and cut between them with short sharp scenes, The Dread Wyrm capitalizes on these introductions with, for lack of a better word, punchlines ("resolution" doesn't quite work as this third book of five still opens plotlines). The tournament held in Harndon organized by the Queen (introduced skillfully in the previous volume) is the central point, around which the various plots revolve, and I expected this event to unfold with bits of court drama, whispers in corridors, spies and lies, but Cameron doesn't really bother with any of that. Instead, he burns everything to the ground, narratively speaking. The whole sequence is an incredible moment of narrative coagulation, if I might coin a phrase. All the moving parts clang together in an orgy of violence which never feels unnecessary or superlative. The rest of the novel runs down these new avenues of plot, and ends in a second harrowing excess of violence. This series, while offering little novel in the way of fantasy, is running at peak efficiency. I'm starting the fourth volume immediately.


Miles Cameron has succeeded in one very specific area where literally no author has ever done: I like this series so much that I have read three entries in a row. Never before have I ever gone straight through a series. My usual MO has me taking breaks between entries. Even my beloved Gene Wolfe didn't excite my interest enough to warrant three back-to-back volumes. This can only be a testament to Cameron's magisterial skills in plotting.

Some might call the fourth (of five) novel a bit of a disappointment, or even the worst of the series. It abandons the format of the previous three books (long chapters with scenes introduced by headers indicating location and POV character) and—very curiously—the spelling of "boglin" for "bogglin" with two g's. Not much can be said to happen in comparison with The Dread Wyrm, which fulfilled the promise of the incredibly complicated second novel, The Fell Sword. Rather, A Plague of Swords is better viewed not as a discrete entry in a series but rather as a 465 page prologue to the finale. I'm guessing that's how this started out: Cameron originally planned this series to be one or two books shorter but found the story got away from him. Thus, an artificial beginning, middle, and end surround this prologue. Characters are moved across the map, some fortunes change, a handful of established characters are killed (either almost off-screen or entirely off-screen). Mostly, this volume does setup. I find it changes how one appraises an object when one considers the context more broadly.

I'm also tagging this as "LGBT" because there is one explicitly gay character, one implicitly lesbian, and one intersex character who, thanks to magic, can change gender. Other people of the cast regard this latter character not as divergent or bizarre, but as implying, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy," if you catch my meaning. Really, one of the major thematic interests of this series has been to expand, in world-shaking ways, the provincial views of its major cast.

Anyway, this was great, even if fantasy of this ilk isn't normally my cup of tea.

I'm posting these two reviews before the end of the month because I'm currently almost halfway through The Water Margin, or in the edition I'm reading, Outlaws of the Marsh. I read the first volume (of four) back in April or something and I was inspired to continue it, resolving to read longer, meatier books than reaching an arbitrary number of books to complete in a year. So I won't finish The Water Margin in 9 days (it's 2,000 pages long); hence, the early publication date.