Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Season in Gaytopia

Many out there in the blogosphere would be astonished to see me writing this review. In some circles, after all, I’m now known mainly as an incorrigible homophobe and “bigot” (see post and comments here). My gay friends, familiar with my writing and thinking, are amused by the shrill labels I get online. Myself I’m less amused, but not surprised. The young American left, with its current LGBTQwerty fetish, with its discovery of “microaggressions” and “safe spaces”, has gone completely off the rails. Everyone who isn’t a nitwit can see what’s happening. And they are disgusted.

But here I’m going to write this review of a very gay novel, a supremely gay novel, because it’s also a damn good novel. And honestly, I’ve nothing against gays. My choice of academic study, back in the 1980s and '90s, was determined by two gay writers: Arthur Rimbaud and Max Jacob. It was also during those years of study that I set out on the road that later led to my conversion to Catholicism. Go figure.

The novel in question, The Mystery Religions of Gladovia, is by Bradley Winterton. An expat in Asia like myself, Winterton has worked over the years as a book and classical music reviewer in Taiwan and elsewhere. He’s reviewed my own books (for example here and here) and for a decade now I’ve been prodding him to take up literary writing. He’s finally done it.

But one shouldn’t think I’m writing this review to return Bradley any favors or claim some credit for the genesis of his book. No, I’m writing it because The Mystery Religions of Gladovia, out just a few months ago, is an impressive piece of work.

It’s the tale of two gay British men and their respective social circles, first in Europe, then later in a fictional South American nation named Gladovia. Matthew, who starts the narrative as a love-smitten teen in an English boys’ school, and “Lily” (an ironic nickname) who starts as a brutal young headmaster at the same school, switch off narrating their respective journeys to Gladovia, a developing nation of citizens with a lust for life and parkfuls of eager and silky-skinned young men. Winterton’s cast of characters comes to include European and other expats, as well as a variety of ethnicities of locals, many of whom follow a pagan mystery religion which makes an appearance early in the novel in the form of a Sybil, and which later comes to play a major role in Matthew and Lily’s awakening.

The book’s opening chapters established a sense in me that Winterton is here strategically compressing historical time. Although according to chronology the narrative begins somewhere in the 1990s, there’s a timelessness in Winterton’s early pages, evoking an English school environment that seems not so much 1990s as simply 20th century. Older readers might be reminded of Another Country and the other handful of boys’ school films to come out of Britain since. And it works. Without sinking into cliche, Winterton balances this background against his main opening theme: the pain of falling in love for the first time as a gay youth.

It is through the love-smitten schoolboy Matthew’s eyes that we get our first glimpse of the school’s brutal headmaster Lily, and learn something about his deftness with the cane. Matthew, showering with the other boys, glimpses the bright welts on the bottom of one of his schoolmates who’d recently been punished by Lily. He begins to suspect the world around him is not what it seems.

There will be many more sexually charged showers, and many more welts too. One reviewer in Asia has called Winterton’s novel a gay Fifty Shades of Gray. Though I consider the comparison an insult to the serious writerly craft of Gladovia, BDSM is indeed one of the novel's main themes.

Becoming an adult, Matthew goes off to life in Holland. We also soon learn in great detail how Lily, deeply closeted in his school community, must take junkets to Europe to satisfy his desire. Winterton’s prose, whether on nature and geography or on the customs of gay men in different locales, is always smooth and fast, light of touch and precise.

In fact it’s this masterful style, along with the writer’s knack for suspense and structure, that is among this novel’s main pleasures. At the risk of turning off some American readers, I should point out that Winterton is a thoroughly British writer, continuing a long tradition of British literary prose. There’s absolutely nothing of Hemingway here. Winterton’s classic style is part of what establishes the feeling of timelessness in this book. What’s compelling about it, to me at least, is that it almost never sinks into stuffiness or the descriptive wordiness of many of the classics. The writer has pulled off a great balancing act in this respect: his writing echoes the classic without the baggage that burdens many classics for 21st century readers.

Some might see a flaw in the fact that Matthew’s and Lily’s narrative voices aren’t distinct enough. I find some distinction, but not as much as might be necessary to give each his own marked presence. Still, it’s only the younger man, Matthew, who is eventually narrating sexual encounters bout for bout. These narrations occasionally edge on the pornographic without quite stepping over the line. Gladovia is an erotic novel, but not what often passes for “erotic fiction”.

Much of the book concerns the rules of the hunt: the nearly daily routine of Gladovian men and the book’s assorted foreigners in the capital city’s gay pickup spot, a spacious wooded park called the Royal Gardens. For the heterosexual reader, like myself, the dynamics of this routine reveal much about a certain sort of gay life. As do the two narrators’ musings on what it is that sets gay men apart from straight society--musings that often dwell on their marginality and oppression, but also on the advantages of being gay.

As for oppression, I neglected to mention that Headmaster Lily only ended up in Gladovia because he was forced to flee England. He’d been caught in a sting operation trying to engage in sex in a public restroom and given a citation to appear in court. Knowing that his career was henceforth ruined, regardless of how the case was judged, Lily contemplates suicide, but then decides to acquire a fake passport, drain his bank account, and flee Britain. It turns out to be the smartest thing he’d ever done.

Indeed Gladovia is something of a gaytopia, and both Lily and Matthew begin to lead the lives of erotic variety and adventure they were, as the book implies, created for. I won’t go into how the Gladovian religion relates to this, but will only say that the pilgrimage and ritual that occupy book’s latter pages are stunningly narrated, while the doctrinal end, the supposed mystery that the hierophant gives the seekers, is not all that impressive. At least not to me. But then I’m Catholic.

How does this book look through the lens of my Catholicism? At various times the characters engage in thoughts on the Church that are embarrassingly shallow. Lily, having seated himself in a Gladovian church during Mass, muses that Western science has basically disproved Christianity: “Science has long ago consigned all this talk of miracles and blood sacrifices to the rubbish heap.” The idea that the universe had a creator or that something of this creator can be known from the Bible? It’s all been disproved by the results of empirical research.

Of course this is nonsense. Science can only be said to have “disproved” Christian revelation if one reads biblical texts as if they’d been written as science treatises. Of course they were not; Winterton knows they were not; he has in fact very positively reviewed one of my own books which included an essay where I lay out the stakes of this widespread modern misconception of what biblical writers were up to.

I wouldn’t carp on this except that, once having dissed Christianity as a religion consigned to the dustbin of history by science, Winterton finishes his book by presenting the supposed power and truth of a different religion, the pagan religion of the Gladovians, which, somehow, amazingly, retains its mythic truth regardless of what science might have to say. In fact Winterton’s characters do not hold the ritualized paganism and nature worship of the Gladovians to the same standard they hold Christianity. The exotic foreign religion is powerful and deep, whereas Western religion is outdated nonsense. It’s a classic double standard, in the well-worn mode of Western romanticization of the foreign other. For after all, any empiricist of the dumb New Atheist sort could easily look at the Gladovian rites and priestly teachings and answer flatly: “All of this is mumming and nonsense. Science shows that all these actions and supposedly profound words are nothing but primitive mumbo jumbo.”

I don’t think pagan religions or Christianity (or any of the world’s religions for that matter) are mumming and nonsense. Rather, religion with its myths and rites is one of the key matrixes from which existential truths may reach us. Myths are not, as many modern people understand the term, stories that are lies. Rather they are stories that give narrative form to our deepest human sense of what we might be here for. This is true whether one believes in miracles or not.

But perhaps my presentation of Winterton’s approach to Christianity vs. paganism is a bit too schematic. He might argue that his characters’ response to religion is not so clearly polarized as I imply. Further that he never intended Lily to be a spokesperson for his own thinking on Christianity and how it relates to the paganism that finally plays such an important role in the book.

I could write more on Winterton’s suspenseful scenes of sexual servitude and mastery, the interesting struggle in some of the characters between love and pure physical pleasure (the hunt), but I will not. I haven’t read much gay writing to which I could compare this book, and as for my experience of BDSM literature, it’s largely limited to Sade’s work and Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs--i.e., I know the writers that gave us our words sadism and masochism, but not much of the later literature.

The SM theme is first brought in via Matthew, whose experience of being caned sets him into near transports. It’s deepened through the introduction of an Italian devotee of the BDSM cult. This latter character gets to narrate a handful of the books pages, his English a bit too heavily peppered with Italian phrases to be quite convincing. The novelist should have edited this tic down a bit. The SM theme culminates in a group scene involving Matthew, Lily, the Italian fellow and one other, the drama enhanced by the fact that Lily, the ex-headmaster, doesn’t know Matthew had once been a student under his tutelage.

What do Lily and Matthew’s lives in Gladovia tell us about the meaning of life itself? This is not an idle question, since ultimate meanings are often explicitly on the characters’ minds. In the view of both these men, the goal of life is the pursuit of beauty, youth and sexual pleasure. My question here would be: Doesn’t a steady diet of erotic adventure make one jaded? I would certainly guess so.

Winterton himself is a highly educated aesthete and bon vivant and is doing his best here to present both the pluses and disappointments of such a life. As a Catholic, I think beauty, youth and pleasure play crucial roles in human experience. But a life given entirely over to their pursuit is not exactly what I’d call a good life. And we are created, in my view, not to pursue fuck after fuck, but to pursue the good life, in other words: virtue. Virtue might include beauty (many great artists have been examples of virtue through their contributions to humanity) but it usually is not just that. In our contemporary world, with its mayhem and war and grinding poverty, with the machinery of capitalism run amok across the planet, virtue should also include engagement: activism, struggle against the dehumanization wrought by the system, acts of selfless love for concrete people in their trials and suffering. I’m afraid sex as presented in this novel risks being merely a form of self-centered consumption, which is bound to happen if sex is understood mainly as fulfillment of an itch. And if self-fulfillment is seen as getting as much sex and as much variety of sex as one can get.

If I decided to write this review, regardless of my thinking on the “consumer” ethics that drives so many of its chapters, it’s because Winterton’s book is so well written. It is not, after all, just a trashy romp through fuck after fuck. Rather, it seems to be an honest presentation of the struggles, moral and otherwise, of pursuing such a life. And yes, there’s no small sacrifice in writing a serious novel.

Near the end of Gladovia Matthew returns to England, heads to the idyllic Lake District made so famous by Wordsworth, and begins to feel lonely when a message arrives that someone is coming to visit him. Matthew isn’t quite sure who sent the message. I had my own ideas about who it would turn out to be, but was wrong. I won’t be a spoiler and reveal who it is. In any case, the book’s ending is a happy one, though a bit too happy I’d say. As in highly improbable.

But because I was wrong on my guess as to Matthew’s mystery visitor, I had to face the fact that one of the key utterances of the Gladovian hierophant would never be revealed in the book’s pages. Thus an additional shade of meaning is added to the mystery in Winterton’s title.

Is this the writer copping out, keeping the fateful words secret because, quite simply, he couldn’t compose them? Perhaps. It would be no small feat to write these words.

It sometimes happens that a novel appears, gets a few scattered notices in the press, then disappears. Were Winterton’s novel to be read by the right readers, get written up in the right places, I think it would be a hit. It could even make the author some money, which is rare for books that aren’t hyped by publishers. Gladovia was a pleasure to read, even for me, and I’m a bigoted homophobe. And a Neanderthal. And not a writer, but just a troll.

But I’ll spare you my thinking on gay politics these recent years and the authoritarian excesses of the LGBT movement. And on how they and I get along.

The Mystery Religions of Gladovia is now only available as an ebook. I think this is unfortunate, that a print version is needed. But perhaps one is in the works, or will be soon.

Eric Mader

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