Saturday, September 12, 2015

The GAY Men in Alan's Swimming Pool

Ah.  Let me throw you a bone here, considering I found myself off the mark after reading the dust jacket of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library.  I really want to re-premise the synopsis with my not-quite-damn-near instantaneous look at the opening stages of the book.  Though this “look” gives nothing nowhere near as complex and multi-layered as the actual material.  So don’t let my speed-running summary of the book throw you off.  But hear me now as I suggest you pick the book up whenever possible.
Anyway, a gay twenty-something British aristocrat is ready to pull a routine cruise mission inside a public lavatory.  This lavatory is popular (and populated) with men filled with a thirsty compulsion for spontaneous sexual fulfillment.  And so our young aristocrat comes in on the fold with a practiced stroll.  You see, this type of environment isn’t unique to him.  However, it's a little dispiriting seeing the array of middle-aged white men available and present.  The aristocrat longs for a different, more youthful flavor.  Lucky for him he spots an Arabian boy, and proceeds to have him to himself.
Until an eighty-something elderly Lord stumbles into the lavatory with the same mission: quick sex where possible.  Unfortunate for the Lord, his expedition results in a heart attack or stroke of sorts.  Troubled by his duty to seek sex with the Arab, the aristocratic runs to assist the elderly Lord.  And he does so successfully before the two part ways.  
Later, the two encounter one other at a local swimming hole/fitness center familiar with gay men.  A friendship forms, leading the Lord to ask the young aristocrat to scribe his biography.  The Lord fears for his remaining years, and is desperate to tell his story.  He pushes and pushes for the aristocrat to take on the assignment, until the aristocrat gives in and accepts the task.  Yet, there are deeper unforeseen intentions behind the Lord’s request.  Decades of quiet, vengeful purpose hides underneath.  Suddenly caught in a trap, the aristocrat soon arrives at two choices: honor the Lord’s request to completion or choose the respect of his family instead?

Ah.  Putting the premise into my own words helps.  But I can agree to the dust jacket’s statement of the book taking readers to “dimly lit underground bars, swimming baths, and cinemas.”  That, and so much more, it did under Hollinghurst’s beauty way with prose, character, and illustrative settings.  Fearing the book would smother me in stereotypical and dusty stories frequented in gay/LGBT literature, I arrived to its conclusion surprised it did so with me savoring each motion in its journey.  And while I could sit here and delve deeper into that "savoring", I'm choosing to focus on the men who populate the book.  As that's where most of my attention and captivity found itself.  So these are my thoughts on their roles and what moved me about them.  Otherwise, I could be here all day posting about this hyper immersing read.

WARNING: There may be spoilers, so read at your own risk!

Pooling Characters

As for the characters, there’s a core of four.  Though I could squeeze in a bit more, because there's plenty to work with.

Let’s start with The Swimming Pool Library’s star, and first person narrator, William “Will” Beckwith.  Will comes across as a product of his pedigree, blended with stereotypes surrounding his sexuality.  He’s the “young aristocrat” introduced in my summary; coming from a reputable and wealthy family.  This provides him the means to quit his job writing articles to indulge in his promiscuity.  He frequents night clubs, porn shows, and a popular London locale called The Corinthian Club.    When he’s not busy cruising for sex, he’s nurturing a friendship with a doctor named James.  A friendship in which he holds back some unpopular discernment.  Will also provides his version of TLC for his latest–and dangerously troubled–boy-toy.  And by "version" I mean moments where Will's frustration with said boy-toy results in brutally mean sex on the floor.  Sex used to almost placate the boy-toy, and relieve Will of his guilt for keeping him around when he wants to let him go.  All that aside, you can find a relaxed Will riding transits with a book in his lap.  He’s always reading something.  There’s also a velvety side to Will, where he has an undying love for his nephew (who made for some of the best scenes).  Essentially, Will has plenty of time on his hands for both drama and quickies. 

As vapid and campy some may take him, I found Will strong as a character.  Mostly by the dynamics given to him.  I perceived him as concise and honest, including during peeks of his insecurities and uglier habits.  He was aware of himself and his surroundings as a gay man living in London.  From his circle of friends, his cruising locations, his observation of the totems and tropes of  “the (gay) scene”; his voice took control and carried the narrative authentically, produced by his background and environment.  There wasn’t a moment I was dull with Will.  Why?  Because he slipped in his realizations, criticisms, judgements, and anxieties enough to keep me holding on to his potential for change.  To keep me guessing Hollinghurst's direction and the resulting shape of Will.  

An immediate example of my questioning Will's direction comes in how he never came out to his family–except for his sister and brother-in-law.  Or take his desire for finding a sustainable relationship, but unable to cover the thrill of sex with strangers to be productive in his quest.  He was unpredictable in a sense, though highly predicable up until the last page.

To save spoilers, the all too predictable, compulsive, and troubled Will has the rug swept from under him by the end of the book.  This, in turn, made me kind of despise Will, following his weak response to the event.  Therefore, I never quite got the feeling he was dedicated to giving his life the shape he continually mused about.  He, to me, settled.  By the end of the book, he allowed a random sexual encounter (almost on par with rape) to happen without a fuss toward the manipulation involved.  I found the scene reiterated the final useless and vapidness Will seemed unable to escape.  This shut my concern for Will down, which led me to coast toward the book's end in a state of someone who has given up.  

Nevertheless, I also felt the conclusion to his character pays to the theme Hollinghurst gives the book.  So while Will wasn’t quite there to awaken, the reader (or those who could connect with Will) just may.

Now Will’s best buddy, James, was his active opposite.  Where Will was impulsive, James was reserved.  Where Will practiced poor judgement, James gave him counsel over the consequences.  Where James remained steady in his medical practice, Will gave his up.  Now.  Flip it.  Where Will was getting along with the men, James was too apprehensive to follow his desires.  Where Will took bold gambles, James was too petrified to move.  Where Will felt like the world was his oyster to explore, James felt he didn’t deserve happiness.

Will sometimes took James for granted.  He even stood James up to be with one of his lovers.  Slept with one of James’s subtlety expressed love interests.  And once, Will took an unauthorized stroll through James’s diary.  He took the examination of his character well, as he found some of the truest regard James had for him.  (Much of that regard I expressed and found in Will myself.)

Nevertheless, at one point in the book it was James I worried about the most.  While both men were educated and cultured, James seemed more the scholarly gay character.  He’s hyper intelligent, pragmatic, and reasonable.  But I got the feeling he wasn’t all that complacent nor comfortable with his sexuality.  Or, to be specific, he didn't seem comfortable with displaying stereotypical conventions being gay seems to harbor.  At least to the affect of being with a man.  And the one time James does step out of his comfort zone, it leads to a disaster.  

The divide between James and Will reminds me of this on-going subject of how some of the most vacuous (there're a lot of ugly, roaming titles to define this) of gay men are often given a behavioral pass, because they are deemed unable to "know any better."  Whereas those who project intelligence and reasonability find their behavior held to a higher, more accountable standard.  I see that with James and Will.  And should you read the book, you'll probably notice it too via a strikingly clear exchange of events.

Now comes Will’s live-in lover, Author.  Author’s just scrapping legal age, and that’s hardly a determent for Will.  Why?  Because Author has the benefit of being black, appealing to Will’s preferred flavor.  Nevertheless, Author arrives poorly educated, and with a mountain of trouble on his backside.  Criminal trouble, I should say.  You can only wonder how a man like Will found himself entangled with Author.  But of course it’s because of sex, and Will’s obvious exoticizing of the black male. 

Coming from an economically deprived environment, Author finds refugee in Will’s place.  Now I haven’t quite put my finger on the mechanics behind their relationship, but it’s clear Author has feelings for Will.  Well, beyond Will serving as his savior and harbor.  On the other hand, Will seems to waggle with his feelings for Author.  As their story unfolds, Will becomes more and more determined to keep Author in his life.  Some may say he caught feelings.  Some may say it's because of his fetish for black men.  Nonetheless, when Author goes missing, Will does the most courageous of things by slipping his siddiness into Author’s derelict neighborhood.  This event doesn’t go well for Will, but netted him a couple of points outside of his superficial stature.
Author is a quiet character.  While the root of him seemed to go in this direction, I'm glad Hollinghurst didn’t peg him only with the smarmy sex-toy card.  On the flip-side, I didn’t think Hollinghurst did enough for him.  Author needed a little more retribution to me.  Especially as a black character surrounded by a host of wealthy white men with status.  He was immature and made a fatal mistake that led him down a dark path.  An unfairly driven and typical course.  Though no character in the book completely escapes his archetype.

Now on to Will’s direct counterpart, Lord Charles Nantwich.  Now, where should I started with this 83-year-old piece of "royalty"?  My initial thoughts were amusement.  He seemed the definition of an aged queen.  He reads, shades, and speak-and-spell anybody in his presence (if you’re not familiar with those slang terms, research the gay ballroom scene).  Of course Nantwich delivered his cues with a raised nose and grandeur in his voice.  I have tabs all over the book from his dialogue–finding myself tickled by him.  Yet, as the course of the books continued, and many areas of his character come further into the light, I found most of my feelings for Nantwich cloudy.  The truth is he was a conspirator.  A slick, almost enigmatic one.  But certainly one for both Will and the reader.  Nantwich came pumped with intelligence behind his elderly cloak, and he chess-pieced everyone without flinching.  Just like an experienced, shady queen.  Even so, I found a lot of grace to the character of Nantwich, grace that can only be given and explored through the direct reveal of his history.

But first... 
The thing for me was I couldn’t accept whether Lord Nantwich operated as a sort of analogous to Will.  If that makes sense.  Or did he work as a cautionary tale for Will and Will’s counterproductive behavior?  At times, I would stretch to say Lord Nantwich worked as a reflection of Will’s possible future.  

I think the reason I kept flip-flopping came from Will's direct responses to Nantwich's character and behavior, both in person and via Nantwich's diary.  Whether Will noticed the occasional similarities in their histories and current likeness, he hardly seemed in full acknowledgement of the echoes.  See, Will found himself engrossed and moved by Lord Nantwich’s history/prestige, almost from the perspective of an audience.  However, he was repelled by the sexual exhibitionist-seeking nature of Nantwich.  The hypocrisy is clear, but the question is whether or not Will got and internalized all of what made Nantwich.  Or does he remain viewing Nantwich from a surface perspective?  Anyway, no matter how much I spin it, the truth is Lord Nantwich operated as all of my speculations.  So regardless of the outcome, Lord Nantwich served to raise consciousness in Will.  And consciousness toward something specific regarding Will's life and choices.
The friendship between Nantwich and Will is up to the reader to decide by the end of the book.  There’s plenty of material to define your own choice.  However, one piece of material that comes as a story all its own is Nantwich’s personal story.  Luckily, we get his history in moments where Will’s first-person narrative slips into a frame narrative featuring Nantwich’s diary entries.  It’s in these pages that we discover where Nantwich came from; his upbringing on up until the days of his current age.  We witness his innermost thoughts as a privileged child, which allowed him some magnificent boarding schools on into university.  And it's the boarding school where his sexuality began to blossom and exploration began.  The truth is his blossoming and exploration comes as rape, something he claims as the norm in the dorms.  And something none of the other children spoke about, but accepted.
As he grows, he begins his journey traveling the world with his mates.  Having already gathered a taste for black men (something he and Will share), he falls for a schoolmate back home.  His diaries chronicles pieces of the relationship as well.


Like I said, there are many other characters to speak about.  However, I'm keeping it core.  And leaving aside Hollinghurst's theme of shaking a gay man out of his careless nature.  Which was kind of evident given the introduction of Will.  Anyway, that's why I rather leave that aside and just plug in on my initial thoughts and hopes for the characters.  It was much more fun to "go in" on them instead of the book as a whole.  I felt like they were what made The Swimming Pool Library.  Without them, anyone could slice the book down to your standard gay coming-of-age (and coming out) story.  But of course, I have to once again call on the way I loved Hollinghurst's writing.  And with my copy of his latest book in-hand, I can't wait to revisit it underneath new characters and circumstances. 

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