Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Book Review: City Boy, Edmund White (2009)

When I look back at my younger self, at those days at university as an undergraduate and, subsequently, at times after that when I grappled with the challenges of different jobs, I feel a deep sense of affection and regard, and Edmund White's early novels played counterpoint to those days to a degree that made it only natural for me to pick up this memoir when I saw it sitting on a sale table in Brisbane at a bookshop.

Back in the day it was about experimentation for me, about learning who I was and what I could do. There's nothing remarkable about this of course. We all do it. But for me gay culture was something that I had a particular curiosity about and this curiosity led me into a few situations that are possibly outside the norm: episodes of gay sex. White was part of that process there's no doubt.

This book performed multiple tasks for me, one of which was describing a life, but it also told me about what kind of person White is, how he shapes the world, how he formulates narratives to give shape to the past - the place we study endlessly for clues about the future (that grey curtain that flaps menacingly and desultorily in the background of our forward vision).

Writing from a place of settled maturity enables White to focus with a certain wry knowingness on places, times and events past, including the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969 that marked a turning point in the struggle within the gay community for recognition and social acceptance. White was active in that community in that place at that time, and he passes on that knowledge to us with a nuanced, balanced and sober attitude. There is no grandstanding or self-promotion here.

This easy, companionable delivery is everywhere in the book and this, I think, constitutes one of its charms. White also chronicles his relationships and his jobs. In the latter case there is food for thought since, as a man who wanted to be a writer from a young age, it is clear that White worked hard throughout his early years to find work suited to his talents and aspirations. And that is not always easy. As for the relationships, there is also a lot here to think about as White describes the important people in his life, their special characteristics and their shortcomings. The story has the facility of a lunchtime conversation: amusing anecdotes are fused into the narrative along with the names of the famous and the memorable people the writer came across during a long life. Some people might minimise the importance of the later parts of the book as gossip but White is often able to generalise from particulars which saves the book from the class of mere pillow talk and scandal-mongering, though no doubt he settles some specific points that some people may have wondered about.

To generalise in a related way it became clear to me that, for White, people around him form solid points of reference by way of which he is able to create a sense of reality that can carry him forward from day to day. This reliance on specific people - you may call them "familiars" - is something that certainly struck me as interesting, especially when I contrast it with the way I, for my part, construct my own reality (and the way that I constructed reality back in the days I read White's novels). This habit might be labelled with a word something like "collective" or "amassing", as if the accretion of known individuals somehow serves to enable the young man to stabilise the world within manageable boundaries. It seems that friends, for White, had a value possibly like that of totems, religious points of reference that gave meaning to the world. In an alternative culture you can see how this would be a logical behaviour, and in fact we see it also in society more broadly today as the comfortable certitudes of the past are chipped away by new and complex realities, and the shelves in the bookshops dedicated to biographies become volminously replete as we try to work out who we are and how we can move beyond today into the uncertain future that awaits us all.

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