Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Single Man, or How had I not discussed this earlier?

Okay so I have no clue what Tom Ford will do with Christopher Isherwood's beautiful book A Single Man, but I'll be damned if he didn't bring in a great team of thesps to help him (Colin Firth, Julianne Moore and Matthew Goode) - oh and glasses (see his glasses in the pic? That shows he's a 'thinking-man' director!)

Isherwood (who you might know from being the guy on whose stories (The Berlin Stories) the musical/film Cabaret is based on, only y'know, less gay)'s book is a meditation on gay life. I pulled up a meditation I had written about Isherwood's novella. Indulge me in my academic narcissism:

Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man accounts for the last day in the life of George: the single man from the title. But we all know that. And what happens that day, while important to the ‘plot’ of the novel, is the least important and (in my mind) less relevant aspect of the story when framed in light of a gay experiment in narrative. The exploration of George as a character that is at once a unified individual and at times a diluted and fragmented subject is one of the most striking aspects of Isherwood’s narrative. The seemingly internalised third person narrator shows us George as a subject that sleeps, drives, teaches and so on, but also at times, gives us the feeling that the character whom we are intimately getting to know can’t be dissociated from a performer: his subjectivity becomes then a creation and can only exist with an audience.
George presents himself always framed in a stage-space, always in need of being interpellated by an (imaginary) audience: “George slips his parking card into the slot (thereby offering a piece of circumstancial evidence that he is George)” (Isherwood 43). From the moment he gets up and the narrator conflates being and time in the axiomatic “I am now”, George is being hailed into being by the reader in the act of reading his present tense narration. It is when “he gets out of his car, [when] he feels a surge of energy, of eagerness for the play to begin…He is all actor now – an actor on his way up from the dressing room, hastening through the backstage world of props and lamps and stagehands to make his entrance” (44, emphasis added). While we can take this instance as the initial point where his performative nature begins and take it as an isolated event in the narrative, we should pay attention to the ways in which, for example, George talks of his ‘chauffeur’ and his ‘head talking’ personas as independent from the body/actor subjectivity he feels he has: “George realizes this with the same discomfiture he felt on the freeway, when the chauffeur-figure got them clear downtown…But here in broad daylight, during campus hours, when George should be on-stage every second, in full control of his performance!” (54).
But, even when George is not dissociated from his stage persona, his life seems to work as if he was always an actor: he has the part of a ‘single man’ that the title bestows on him; the role of professor that he enjoys playing; the narrative endows him with child-like qualities in response to Kenny’s “nanny-like” behaviour (163), and more poignantly, the last scenes with Kenny portray how Isherwood’s narrative constructs George as always performing a role. The last pages of the book work to (re)create George as role-playing a masochist educator following (if anything) the homosocial order of Classical Greece: Kenny enjoys calling George “sir”, Kenny’s attire “turn[s] itself into a Greek garment, the chlamys worn by a young disciple – the favourite, surely – of some philosopher.” (169); and lastly their relationship as framed in the platonic/symbolic dialogue places them with restricted roles to play: the masochist educator/teacher and sadist disciple/student. 
When this framework collapses and his fellow actor/audience leaves, it is the reader who is left alone with George and Isherwood’s narrator. And George, as if addressing us, takes it upon himself to change his role: “And I’m about to get much crazier, he announces. Just watch me, all of you!” (180) and “Daytime George may…question the maker of these decisions; but he will not be allowed to remember its answers in the morning” (181). Sadly for George the narrative and the irrepressible force of the past (overflowing with the finality of the preterit) engulfs him and forces him to portray the ultimate role: ‘the cousin of the garbage bag’.


In other words: read up children cause it's a short, brilliant piece of queer writing.

[Photo of Ford with (obviously scantily clad) extras via Towleroad]

5 comments:

Dame James Henry said...

As soon as I finish The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I think I'll pick up this book thanks to your little essay. This looks like it could be a fascinating movie and I'm really intrigued as to how Tom Ford will do as a director.

Shanna said...

I really love this book. I finished it in one day; I just couldn't put it down. I can't wait for the movie; I hope they do the book justice.

mB said...

I love this book (and James: isn't Kavalier and Clay amazing?) - and I'll be glad to see it on screen.

Dame James Henry said...

Yes, Kavalier and Clay is fantastic so far. It's taking me forever to read because I have so much going on right now(and because it's about 500 pages!) but I'm intensely fascinated by it. Who knew that I would even slightly care about a book that deals with comic books and superheroes?

Jason said...

I love you, Manuel, but couldn't quite make it through the whole post. You know how me Academia get along...

ANYWHOODLE, thought you would be interested to know that I, whose love of all things Michael Bay knows no bounds, sat through a documentary about Isherwood and his young lover! It was nice to see two gays in love and stick together through the years, but it also reinforced my campaign for Olay. EVERYONE NEEDS TO MOISTURIZE!