Men attracted to other men have long contributed to the cultural canon of Western society—even if they have not always either acted upon that desire or written about it. But the formation of organized LGBT communities in the liberalized post-Stonewall era led to an outpouring of cultural dispatches directly concerned with the lives of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. And as the subset of that community with the most comparative political and cultural capital, gay men articulated their experiences and identities through the medium of fiction at a rapid rate—sometimes through the new vehicle of gay-specific publishing houses, such as Regina’s Stubblejumper Press of the 1970s or the Gay Presses of New York in the 1980s.
Common themes emerged and shifted over time. The earliest stories were rooted in an anguished experience of difference: John Rechy’s 1963 landmark City of Night enumerated a young man’s sexual awakening with a prescient perspective that predated the 1969 Stonewall riots, often considered the beginning of the modern gay movement. These stories gave way to the longstanding convention of the liberating coming-out narrative and reflections upon the sexual freedom to be found in urban centres, with novelists such as New York’s Larry Mitchell and Felice Picano capturing the heady sexual politics of the newly outspoken, pre-AIDS gay communities. Then came elegiac tales of loss and mourning in the face of the initial onslaught of HIV/AIDS, when such authors as Canada’s Peter McGehee bore first-hand witness to the impact of the virus among gay men. Writers with long careers have touched on all of these themes.
But material circumstances for LGBT people have changed significantly in recent years, in terms of social acceptance, marriage equality and the proliferation of Pride celebrations. Admittedly, violence, bullying and other ills persist—and the LGBT experience is not the same in countries such as Russia or Uganda as it is in Canada. Still, times have undoubtedly changed.
How do these cultural shifts affect gay men creating literature in 21st-century Canada? There may have been a time when writing about people “being gay” felt like an important political act and a cultural necessity—but for many authors today this is not enough, especially when their personal identities encompass multiple communities. Three writers with new books out in the past year—Vancouver’s Michael V. Smith, Montreal’s Peter Dubé and Toronto’s Greg Kearney—address some of those same situations, topics and themes that have had traditional resonance for LGBT readers, for instance, but in a manner that also engages others and sometimes has little overtly to do with sexual orientation.
These new works are a part of a trend, alongside the fiction of other LGBT authors such as Farzana Doctor and Zoe Whittall: writing in which queerness may be front and centre but no longer the sole preoccupation. In Progress, Smith has written a very traditional novel with sweeping themes of family and history, integrating some very modern and complex plot elements that concern gay-specific sexual compulsion and drug use. Dubé’s novella Subtle Bodies: A Fantasia on Voice, History and René Crevel provides a meditative look at a historical figure that is primarily focused on the relationships between art and politics, and reality and madness—but includes a healthy dose of explicit, public same-sex sexuality. And the subject matter and unique plots of Kearney’s short-fiction collection Pretty are so perversely imaginative and absurd that his work is “queer” on multiple levels.
Progress is the second novel by Michael Smith, a professor of creative writing at the University of British Columbia whose debut, Cumberland, was critically lauded in 2002, and who received the Dayne Ogilvie Award from the Writers Trust of Canada. Like Cumberland, Progress is set in a small unnamed town not far from Ottawa (Smith himself hails from nearby Cornwall). In tone and structure, Progress bears some resemblance to novelist Nathan Whitlock’s A Week of This, which is set in a small city based on the author’s Ottawa Valley hometown of Pembroke. In one chapter per day, Smith takes us through a fateful week in which a brother and sister, Helen and Robert Massey, are reunited after 15 years of separation.
Robert fled the family home as a teen after an altercation with his violent and alcoholic father. He returns only to discover the house in which he and Helen grew up is slated to be physically relocated, along with those of their neighbours, because of the construction of a nearby dam. Helen is emotionally unprepared for Robert’s return, having just seen a horrible accident while visiting the grave of her fiancé Garrett, who died violently overseas many years earlier.
There is a connection between Robert’s initial departure and Garrett’s death, which Robert and his best friend Colin have arrived in town to finally explain. Through the author’s use of rich, sensuous detail and elegantly regulated pacing, the reader gradually comes to understand the secret, shedding light on all that has gone deeply wrong in the lives of both siblings in the intervening years: while different, their reactions to the tragedy of Garrett’s death have alienated both from their surroundings and peers.
A troubled existence—yet a strange and richly imaginative one—is also at the heart of Peter Dubé’s Subtle Bodies, based on the life of a historical figure, French surrealist intellectual René Crevel. Dubé is author of a previous novel and a short-story collection, but this new work bears its closest relationship to another Dubé project, a 2008 anthology he edited called Madder Love: Queer Men and the Precincts of Surrealism. Published by Lethe Press, a publishing house with a focus on speculative fiction, Subtle Bodies was recently nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award, which celebrates literature of psychological suspense, horror and “the dark fantastic.”
In real life, Crevel was an active member of the Parisienne Surrealist movement and dearly enamoured of its charismatic leader, André Breton. Crevel partook in many passionate café conversations with his peers about the need to liberate the worlds of art and politics from the tyranny of the rational and the mundane. But some of the more macabre aspects of Surrealist practice, such as “séances” that sometimes concluded with attendees snapping back into consciousness with hand-made nooses in their clutches, tapped into Crevel’s dark and troubled side.
Dubé has reimagined Crevel’s last evening, when he took his own life by turning on the gas on his kitchen stove, as a conversation between Crevel and his paracusia, the voices in his head whom he called his “interlocutors.” This was an end to a life of significant torment for Crevel, who was tubercular, used morphine and had lived through the suicide of his own father. But by Dubé’s account, it was also a life full of sharp insights as well as the pursuit of intellectual and sensual passions, in the company of both men and women. His frustrated relationship with the influential Breton, who clearly loved Crevel as a friend but was both aware of and disgusted by his homosexual practices, was a key factor in Crevel’s choice to commit suicide.
In Pretty’s short stories, Greg Kearney mines some complicated territory as well—his characters include an elderly male heart attack survivor who is tempted to try crack cocaine, a religious woman conflicted about raising a family of adopted children with Down syndrome and people facing sobriety, colon cancer or HIV.
But Kearney, a playwright and author of a collection entitled Mommy Daddy Baby, leavens his more hard-to-swallow ingredients with a generous pinch of deeply absurdist humour, and the recipe results in one of the funniest books by any author—gay or not—to be published in recent memory. If the judges have any sense of daring, Pretty is an outstanding contender for next year’s Stephen Leacock Medal.
Kearney’s genius is the intelligent juxtaposition of entirely unexpected elements in ways that move the reader to laughter or discomfort, often simultaneously, while making stark and canny observations about modern urban culture. In “She Was a Little Teapot,” a grown woman’s tearful rendition of a nursery rhyme in front of her upper-class in-laws in a hysterical manner—hysterical as in unhinged, not as in comic—speaks volumes about a life of neglect and disrespect. And in “Cloris for a Day,” a story about the tensions inherent in a decades-long gay relationship, it is provocative and telling that the story’s most perceptive and articulate character is the four-year-old girl that the couple are babysitting.
Whereas Kearney’s work is perhaps more overtly striking for its content than form, Dubé and Smith are intensely concerned with structure. Dubé’s Subtle Bodies is divided into three sections of exactly 30 pages each. The titles of each section—“Bodies of Speech,” “Bodies of Desire” and “Bodies of Power”—are significant, organizing Crevel’s soliloquy as it ranges from intellectual to carnal longing toward questions of existence itself. His first-person discourse becomes notably more fragmented and hallucinatory as the narrative progresses and the site of his demise fills with invisible but poisonous gas.
Smith’s novel Progress is divided into two sections—“Before” and “After”—which relate to the initial revelation by Robert Massey to his sister, Helen, about his own relationship to her dead fiancé Garrett, which transpires pretty much dead-centre in the book. But there’s a lot more, it turns out, to the secret shared between Robert and Helen. Most of it is not exposed until the novel’s final pages, in a series of slow and deliberate revelations worthy of a seasoned mystery writer. Ultimately, there is an inherent tension between the dramatic events of this book—which opens with Helen Massey witnessing a shocking accidental death and which is preoccupied with the violent upheaval of an entire town to make way for a new dam—and the author’s controlled narrative style and intentional withholding of key details until very late in the telling. Whether the approach works or seems frustrating is ultimately a question of the reader’s taste.
The tone and pacing of Progress are as measured as a metronome; Pretty lies at the opposite end of the spectrum, getting much of its vitality from of the mania and unpredictability of its protagonists. Meanwhile, the first-person voice of Subtle Bodies is overtly fanciful and poetic. This sits comfortably within Dubé’s overall oeuvre, which has a general pull toward lyricism, and is also suitable to the time, place and characters he enlivens in the book. If there are occasional moments when the narrative veers toward the florid or maudlin, it seems forgivable, since this is after all an account of a distraught and heartbroken man articulating his final thoughts under the influence of opium and cocaine.
By its nature as a collection and because of its author’s predilection for extreme eclecticism, Pretty is the most wide-ranging of these books when it comes to subject matter, with storylines that range from the vindictive chicanery of drugstore clerks, to an aging married couple’s ménage à trois with their cleaning woman, to the blogging exploits of an ex-librarian battling a prescription-pill addiction. But his key authorial preoccupations come down to sex, drugs and mortality, a thematic triangle considered by all three writers.
In Progress, a relapse into drug addiction and sexual compulsiveness characterizes one of the reunited siblings’ responses to a major conflict with the other. While not all the activities Smith graphically describes are necessarily dangerous or problematic for all people, he captures precisely the despairing loss of control experienced by those who become caught in obsessive behaviour. Conversely, in Subtle Bodies, Dubé’s instantiation of René Crevel describes both drug consumption and expressive sexuality—particularly group sex in public—as sublimely transformative acts. The author devotes seven straight pages to a description of multiple-participant sexual congress in a twilit and otherwise abandoned park—executed in a way that is metaphorically rich and philosophically provocative. In this section in particular, Subtle Bodies is reminiscent of the work of John Rechy, who in books such as Rushes described communal male sexual acts in a highly structural manner that deliberately evoked the ritualistic aspects of religious ceremony.
Despite such seeming excesses or occasional extremity, what is striking about these gay-authored books is not how they stand out from the mainstream but rather the universality of their thematic considerations. Subtle Bodies considers questions of the relationship between art and the workaday world, between the body and the body politic, which have challenged writers for centuries. Progress is a fairly traditional novel regarding the relationship between an urban gay man and his small-town sister that explores the meanings of home and family in ways that would ultimately resonate for most contemporary readers. And anyone who is open to being surprised—and occasionally shocked—would be able to appreciate the strange beauty of Pretty.
If anything, it would appear that the stance of gay Canadian writers today is to be as open about articulating explicitly gay aspects of existence as they are about approaching all other facets of human experience. And CanLit is becoming that much more complex and rewarding as a result.
Shawn Syms has written about sexuality, culture and politics for more than 25 years for more than 50 publications. He has been a queer activist for just as long. Shawn is editor of Friend. Follow. Text. #StoriesFromLivingOnline (Enfield and Wizenty, 2013).