Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What We're Reading: Award Winning Books

Remembrance of Things I Forgot, by Bob Smith.

This novel was a recent Stonewall Award honor book of the American Library Association. The Stonewall Book Awards are given annually to recognize books of “exceptional merit relating to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender experience.” The problem is that this is neither a very “gay” novel, in the sense that explores the experience of what it means to be gay in contemporary America, nor is it exceptional literature. In jacket blurbs it has been praised by some fairly distinguished gay authors--Edmund White and Christopher Bram--and that is unfortunate. It highlights a significant problem with the idea of trying to create and encourage distinctive genres of fiction written for and of presumptive interest to specific social groups, whether it be gays, lesbians, racial minorities, Christian fiction, or any group that is looking to find its own face reflected in the cultural representations that are dominant in the writing and art of their time. What too often happens is that in the encouragement of such a goal, critical standards are relaxed and mediocre work is often over-praised.

As for Remembrance of Things I Forgot, the irony of the title almost apologizes in advance for the meagerness of the ambition here--too much light fare and soon-to-be-dated topical improvisation. This is not Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. The novel is set in 2006. The protagonist, comic book dealer John Sherkston, is about to break up with his physicist lover, mainly because his lover, to his horror, has turned into a Bush-Cheney Republican. On the day he plans to confront his lover, Taylor, it turns out that Taylor has just successfully completed work on a time machine. At the secret lab where John has gone to meet Taylor and view the project, Dick Cheney appears, throwing John into the “Time Machine” and sending him back to the year 1986. We discover eventually that Cheney has his own nefarious reasons for doing this. John encounters his younger self, to whom he eventually discloses his identity. They meet up with the younger Taylor and embark on a cross-country trip that has as its primary focus an attempt to change Sherkston’s personal history and alter certain tragic family events that have occurred in his life since 1986. On their road trip the group also devises a plot to prevent George W. Bush from becoming president, visiting the man during his relative obscurity in Midland, before he became governor of Texas. But Cheney (with armed militia) reappears on the scene, and they are compelled to abandon their plan. Instead, a compromising homosexual orgy with Bush is staged by Cheney. In the future he uses the tape he has made of the encounter to blackmail Bush into giving him the vice presidential spot on his ticket. John is eventually returned to 2006, where he finds out he has been able to successfully alter Taylor’s fated Republicanism and also to prevent certain tragedies from occurring in his family life. It all sounds like a hoot. It isn’t.

The outlandishness of the premise and the impossible and logically inconsistent inventions of the plot we would forgive for the sake of satiric purpose (it's part of our contract as readers of this genre), but the problem is that the satire here is not especially telling and, more importantly, this novel is neither wholly serious nor wholly satiric. It is hard to grant this same license when it comes to the more serious parts of the story line, where we are asked to engage our emotions rather than simply our imaginations. Smith has chosen for some reason to yoke together a serious story about revisiting your past self with a no-holds-barred, vitriolic thrashing of the Bush administration. The satiric element involves characters that are cartoonish and one-dimensional, the serious family story contains characters that we want to feel for and that have some depth. The two strains of the story, like oil and water, don’t combine. Neither has much to do with the other. No successful integration is ever made, and it is difficult to understand what is supposed to be the meaning of either plot line for us, much less anything they might combine to say. What understanding does the author hope we will take away from this novel? What’s the point? In the end, the human interest story is maudlin fantasy; the satire gives us no political insight. The core concept here, of going back in time and meeting your younger self, could have been a very powerful one. In fact, the best dialogue and most insight in the novel occur at the points of interaction between the older and younger John. It is a shame that Smith thought this would not be compelling itself, or doubted his ability to make it so. His wit and sense of irony is most effective and telling in this material, not in the scenes of comic shtick. It may be that in writing satire, there is an extreme of bitterness (displayed here) that makes writing the best satire difficult. In writing satire, having some emotive distance and employing some subtly may not be just a matter of perspective and taste but a matter of art.

1 comment:

Bob Smith said...

Remembrance Of Things I Forgot:

One of Amazon's Top Ten Gay and Lesbian Books of 2011

Shortlisted for the United Kingdom's prestigious award for LGBT books, The Green Carnation Prize

Nominated for the Publishing Triangle's Award for Best Novel.

Won an Honor Award for LGBT books presented by the American Library Association.

And this is a racist and homophobic review. Would you make the claim that straight white male authors relax their standards to prop each other up?