Readers of Edmund White's massive 1997 AIDS elegy, "The Farewell Symphony," encountered a startling absence. White took his trademark confessionalism to new levels of plenitude, surveying more than 20 years of gay social history in 400-plus pages of minute, often extraneous detail -- yet said virtually nothing about the individual whose life and death obviously inspired the novel. White's clearly autobiographical narrator was withdrawn, even cagey, when it came to his recently deceased lover, leaving a silence at the heart of the book that became a potent metaphor for life after AIDS.
White deals at last with that dead lover in a beautifully complementary yet far more compact and intimate novel, "The Married Man." Like many of his novels, this one inhabits a confusing zone somewhere between memoir and fiction. White's autobiographical bent is a frequently discussed aspect of his work: Most of his characters are indistinguishable from people he has known, so novels such as "A Boy's Own Story" and "The Beautiful Room Is Empty" double as gay history. But "The Married Man" takes a subtly different approach to the project of autobiographical fiction, signaling its departure most evidently in its use of a third-person narrator rather than White's more common first.
This omniscient storyteller gestures toward the theme that drives so much of White's work: the question of what can and can't be known. White documents the relationship between his protagonist, Austin, and Austin's dying lover, Julien, in painstaking, even stultifying detail. He takes us from Paris to New England to Key West, Fla., to Italy to Morocco, and introduces a cast of characters that, while certainly less operatic than that of "The Farewell Symphony," still had me wishing at times for a program.
In a typical scene not long after the two men have gotten together, Julien relates a numbing history of his family, an extended brood with links to minor French nobility:
[Austin] heard about Julien's father's mother, a widow who lived with her daughter, Julien's aunt, a maiden lady who never said she was going to the toilet but rather, "I'm going somewhere" (Je vais quelque part). She and her mother wore navy blue to Mass every Sunday and would inspect each other for a full ten minutes before leaving the house, checking for lint and collecting it with a sticky roller. Austin heard, again and again, about the two-seater plane, the boat on Belle-Ile, the holiday that one time in Alicante.
Names, places, gestures and jokes crowd into these pages, yet they can't budge a handful of intransigent silences. It's difficult to say what these silences are, exactly -- the unique quality of Austin and Julien's bond, maybe, or the thoughts that occupy Julien during his final days.
Not that such crucial areas are undertreated. But their comparative paucity and the claustrophobic jostle of competing, irrelevant facts force the peevish question of what, after all, is really worth writing about. Must we hear quite so much about the dicor of Austin's rented house in Providence, R.I., which we leave behind after a few pages? Or about Austin and Julien's squabble over their friend Josephine's affair with a married student? Or about their (utterly undistinguished) sightseeing itinerary in Venice? When Austin concludes that he must be "a little bit in love with Julien; how else could he concentrate on all these stories?" the question resonates awkwardly for the reader. But this effect is deliberate -- and there's an excellent reason for it.
This time White denies you the comforting sensation of mastery typical of so many novels, with their closed environments, their clearly fictional characters and their neatly resolved plots -- just as he denies himself the masterly pose of the virtuoso novelist. In "The Married Man," as in life, you're frustrated in the attempt to experience ultimate knowledge, ultimate feeling; mundanity crowds and almost extinguishes any slender moments of revelation.
White's homosexuality gives these narrative tactics a necessarily political edge. Sometimes the writing process is more a matter of clearing away than of building up; as Janet Malcolm observes in "The Silent Woman," "Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it, to fill huge plastic garbage bags with the confused jumble of things that have accreted there." White has no doubt emptied his own bulging garbage bags, but the reader, encountering his tornado of impressions, is hard-pressed to imagine what could be in them. His wealth of experience and insight add interest to the mess, yet its real worth can be understood only in the context of gay history. "The Married Man" is situated, after all, against a background of centuries of forced silence and the recent devastation of AIDS. How can I be expected to prune away at my impressions, the author seems to ask, when so much has already been excised?
It's only natural that his tell-all style -- not to mention his famous promiscuity and his globe-trotting savoir-faire -- would lend a larger-than-life aura to the man himself. The promise of revelations about White is the primary source of interest in "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side," a memoir by Keith Fleming, White's nephew. Fleming came to New York to live with his gay uncle in the late '70s, during a difficult adolescence that had been punctuated by time in a mental institution. Escaping from his parents to White proved to be, he says, "the defining moment of my life."
In the wake of White's deliberate uncertainties, his fiction-that-isn't, this straightforward memoir is almost decadently revelatory. We get a new perspective on White's family (complete with the delicious news that his troublesome mother's real name was Delilah) and at the carnivalesque gay world on the eve of AIDS. Fleming's narrative voice sounds eerily like White's -- which isn't surprising, since he admits he was deeply influenced by him. With its precise, documentary approach, "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side" could almost be one of White's own novels.
Unfortunately, though, Fleming's book is both too similar to and too different from White's work to stand easily on its own. Fleming, too, deals in no-holds-barred revelations, but he can't muster the delicate tensions White is capable of. The fact that he isn't excavating hidden history doesn't help, either; much of his experience as a straight Midwestern teenager is just too typical to compel much interest. Even the descriptions of his harrowing time in the mental institution are unexceptional.
Not that there isn't much to like about Fleming's book; it's just that he never emerges from his uncle's charismatic shadow. Even when he isn't telling stories about White, the presence of the master lurks behind every painstaking character sketch, every moment of introspection.
Of course, "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side" contributes immeasurably to White scholarship by giving readers some of the true story behind the writer's fictional persona. White seems somehow more tangible in this work, where he's observed by an outsider, than in his own first-person novels. It's a fitting irony that an author who talks so much, yet leaves so much unsaid, should come to such vivid life when he isn't talking at all.