Armistead Maupin v. Patricia Highsmith
I went into the huge branch of Waterstones bookstore the other day, that fills what to used to be a department store on Piccadilly. Trotting up the stairs I secluded myself in a tiny section and browsed the gay fiction shelves. I was suddenly wilting before the heterosexual obsessions of the media and the publishing industry. It's understandable, there's a lot of heteros out there, i'm sure they adore reading about each other and finding woes like their own, but from an outsider's perspective those lives do seem somewhat stale and limited.
So I came away with a stack of seven novels. And at last I find I'm enjoying reading again.
I've just finished Armistead Maupin's THE NIGHT LISTENER. It's a good read. I found myself comparing him to Patricia Highsmith. She remains one of my best writing models.
How do they compare? Highsmith brings in that gay sensibility of her own, which is seldom upfront but gives her a nicely tangential view of society. I love how clean her prose is. SHe's managed to write whole books in which nothing at all happens (admittedly not her best books), yet the tautness in the writing style means that you always expect something dramatic.
Maupin has a flabbier style. He makes up for that with some brazen use of sentimentality, freeing the tear ducts. His characters can be fun, his dialogue snappy. And suddenly, in THE NIGHT LISTENER, we have the Highsmith element brought in, the mystery waiting to happen. It's not till halfway through the book, but then it's sustained. One of the characters, a teenage boy who's risen from abject suffering embarks on a snappy phone relationship with Maupin, and then we are led to doubt the very nature of his existence.
Hot stuff. I was suddenly gripped, in the way Highsmith grips me. The world is no longer as it seemed to be, and we were promised some understanding of how this had come about, how it would reveal itself.
This morning I've read a long article in the current NEW YORKER ... I knew Maupin was using the story of the breakdown of his own relationship, part for me of the flabbier style of the book. It wasn't so necessary. Now I learn thatthe whole scenario comes from life. This boy (whose book A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE is published) developed many relationships with the good and the lovely with no-one actually getting to see him, all done through the intermidary of a woman who was his adopted mother, and whose voice is strikingly like his own.
Maupin is upfront within the book. Part of its opening premise is that he elaborates on reality, bringing in fictional elements till he no longer recognizes the difference himself. The coda added to the book is clever too, developing this conceit. It's a shame though that for me the most striking part of the book, the conceit of a boy seeming to exist without necessarily existing, came from an imagination other than his own.
It's a good reminder though. It takes me back to Highsmith, her skill in posing the likelihood of change within her books. In many ways it's the likelihood of being found out. Maybe that's a gay sensibility thing ... Maupin is very out so that same sense of all hell about to break loose is not there in his books. They're cuddlier but less dangerous.
The sense of danger keeps me going as reader more than cuddly does, it keeps me turning the pages. It's what I look to produce in my own work.