Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What We're Reading: New Gay Fiction

The Paternity Test by Michael Lowenthal

What makes a novel “gay fiction” is hard to say, but it seems that a book that explores a uniquely “gay” circumstance and seems to have something in particular to say to a gay audience probably qualifies a work for inclusion in the genre. But The Paternity Test will be of interest not only to gay people but to anyone who wants to learn more about the social phenomena of new gay parent families. Lesbian parent families have been a cultural fact for a long time, but the desire of gay men for children, with an increasing number of them becoming parents through surrogacy or adoption, is a relatively recent social development. This is one of the first novels to deal with that subject in depth.

The Paternity Test is a novel of rather high seriousness and, it turns out, somber ironies. It is not leavened by much humor, and seems to studiously avoid what might be the expected treatment of this subject as a kind of situational comedy, the guise that topics that are uncomfortable and unfamiliar to us seem so often to receive in their first introduction to mainstream culture. Lowenthal raises questions here about why gay men decide that they want to be parents. Frequently those reasons turn out to be as unconscious and inchoate as those of many parents, and often as dubious. In the case of Pat Faunce and his longtime partner Stu Nadler, Pat seems driven mostly by that clichéd notion of heterosexual childbearing, the idea of having a baby as a way to save a marriage. In this case, Pat has become uncomfortable with the open and promiscuous nature of his relationship with Stu, and sees a child as a way of getting Stu to commit more exclusively to him. He envisions a changed context to their relationship that he hopes will come from creating a gay simulacrum of the traditional family. Lowenthal skillfully balances portraits of other families and would be families off against his gay couple, using those subplots to show us how some of the problems of relationships and parenting are universal, but he also contrasts aspects of those more “normative” relationships to help us understand what is unique to Pat and Stu’s circumstances as a gay couple and what is particular to their own relationship with each other.

What Lowenthal has to say in this novel may be disturbing to a lot of gay men, but his story suggests that what so many gay men find one of the distinctive and defining things about being gay, sexual freedom and the rejection of traditional sexual mores (either as a gay cultural or biological imperative; it is a question the novel poses) is not very compatible with parenthood. Both the nature of gay fatherhood, which involves the process and ordeal of surrogacy (described in all its awkward and ethically uncharted dimensions), and gay parenthood itself, seem to require what we define as more traditional family and relational values of exclusive commitment and concepts of morality. Pat’s notion that the decision to have a child can change established sexual “habits” is proven, much to his own surprise (and the reader’s) romantic, and naïve. The denouement of the story is clever and makes further comment on these themes. Lowenthal’s novel deals with a complex subject that in many ways we are just beginning to explore. You may disagree with its didactic take, but it is thoughtful and provocative, and it enjoins a self-examination and honesty that may be an essential prerequisite for any gay couple considering fathering or adopting a child.

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