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13 July 2016 @ 05:38 pm
In a recent non-fic anthology, Queering the Countryside: New Frontiers in Rural Queer Studies (New York Univeristy Press), the editors tackle "metronormativity," a widespread belief that enlightenment and sanity (esp for LGBTQ folks) can only exist in cities. This concept seems very close to Sarah Schulman's definition of "urbanity," radical thought that comes from oppressed/marginalized people in cities, the only places where they can acquire enough critical mass to affect the cultural mainstream.

What hardly anyone seems to define is what (in this day and age) is a city? As compared to what else?

When I teach Wordsworth's "Lines Written Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,"  I point out that London, England, considered one of the world's great cities even then, had a population of about 200,000. This is the size of the town/small city I live in: Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Someone I met in New York once referred to it as "a very small town."

My questions: Do absolute numbers have any influence on contemporariy conceptions of a "city" as distinct from a "town" or a "village?" (Odd that folks from the industrialized West refer to "villages" in the "Third World," but rarely in their own countries.)

Does a town/city of 200,000 deserve to be conceived of differently depending on whether it is a bedroom community outside a larger metropolis, or (as in the case of Regina) one of a small group of large towns in a vast geographical space that draws people from the surrounding countryside?

Why does the realm of "Queer Studies" so rarely tackle these issues, considering that migration from a smaller town to a large city is widely considered a standard rite of passage for the young the queer, the inteligent and creative? (And in fact, this rite of passage is much older than many readers of "coming-out" narratives know. Sensitive young men were fleeing the provinces for the cities in the earliest bildungsromane of the 1700s.)
Current Location: home
Current Mood: calmcalm
Current Music: "We Built This City" by Starship
13 April 2016 @ 12:27 am
I realize I have appeared to be in hibernation, or possibly to have emigrated to another planet. I'm very sorry I haven't acknowlefged a slew of birthdays of folks I have friended here. I hope they were delightful celebrations.

I'm coming to the end of an especially difficult semester, teaching 2 first-semester classes full of students who really weren't ready for a literature-and-composition class when they signed up, and still aren't. I have had to stay away from my office on days off, because when I'm there, I am besieged by students who desperately want to pass the class so they can get degrees, yet if I give them passing grades, I will be passing the problems on to other profs/instructors, and ultimately encouraging derogatory jokes about the university.

I've been letting students rewrite each out-of-class essay once for a potentially higher grade. As far as I can see, this doesn't work well enough as a teaching tool. I have to read the same dismal essay more than once, then deal with the student's sense of betrayal when it doesn't get a higher grade.

I'll post something here in a few weeks, when these 2 classes are over. With luck, there will be more sunlight in my life.
Current Location: home
Current Mood: crankycranky
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16 February 2016 @ 12:48 am

Dr. Athena Chalkdust, the English professor who narrates my story, “Tears from Heaven,” in this year’s Best Lesbian Erotica, was born full-grown in about the year 2000. Her first story, “Splitting the Infinitive,” appeared first in Best Lesbian Erotica 2001, then in Best of the Best Lesbian Erotica 2 in 2005.

She reminisced about her submissive past in “My Debut as a Slut,” in Best Lesbian Erotica 2005, and in “Down Below” in Slave to Love: Sexy Tales of Erotic Restraint (Cleis, 2006), reprinted in Best S/M Erotica 3 (Logical-Lust, 2010).

Dr. Chalkdust subdued a deserving butch admirer in “The Placement of Modifiers,” in Best Lesbian Erotica 2009. In “Tears from Heaven,” first published in She Who Must Be Obeyed (Lethe Press, 2014), she strengthened her bond with her student lover, Didrick Bent.

So far, there are five Dr. Chalkdust stories.

This character, small but mighty, is essentially an updated version of a strict Victorian governess. As the titles of several of the stories show, grammatical correctness is important to her, and she is determined to bring out the best in her students. She is a fantasy figure who breaks all the rules of professional conduct by engaging in intense, kinky sex with students, having served her own apprenticeship by submitting to her superiors.

Teachers learn while teaching, as many have discovered.  No two students seem to learn in the same way, and true learning requires readiness. My late father, whose teaching career was in full swing when mine began, once told me: “You can’t reach everyone.”  In the real world, there are good reasons for a taboo on sex between teachers and their students: intense physical interaction would be a distraction and an abuse of unequal power, even if initiated by the student.

In the Never-Never land of fantasy, however, sexual relationships between professors and their students are perpetually appealing.

In “The Placement of Modifiers,” Dr. Chalkdust enters the one queer bar in a small college town, and immediately attracts attention:

“I’m standing behind three dykes in leather jackets, two well-groomed young men in matching burnt-orange sweaters, and a queen whose big hair must be seven feet above her platform soles. ‘Doctor Chalkdust,’ chirps Alison the bartender. ‘What will you have?’
                “’These customers were here before me, Alison,’ I tell her. ‘You should serve them first.’ Catching sight of my reflection in the chrome coffee-maker, I see that I have not grown any taller than my usual five feet and three inches. I am still a woman in middle age, with large brown eyes, luminously pale skin, a girlish nose and full coral lips. My simple black T-shirt shows a hint of cleavage and the two points of my nipples. I am braless in Gaza, so to speak, because my breasts still stand as proudly as they did in my youth (if somewhat lower), and they still like to breathe freely.
                It seems that I not only have tenure in the university where I’ve taught English for fifteen years. None of the regulars in this bar ever touches me without my permission.
                One of the dykes, who must be uncomfortably warm in her black leather jacket, turns to look at me. She is clearly older than the other two, and a certain bitterness shows in the set of her jaw. ‘Hey, we were here first.’ She speaks in a classic bar-dyke monotone.
                ‘As I said,’ I say calmly.

               One of her companions digs her in the ribs, and that seems to make her more determined to grab and hold my attention. I am always amused to notice how much the behavior of an apparent opponent resembles that of a graceless admirer.
                ‘You want to take it outside, Susie Sunshine?’ snarls Ms. Willing-to-Die-in-Leather. She undoubtedly cherishes an image of herself as a maverick because she has worn out her welcome in several other watering holes.
                ‘No,’ I answer. ‘I see no need for that. I think we should get our drinks, then take them to a table where we can talk without creating a disturbance.’ I glance at the two younger dykes who look like sidekicks or apprentices. ‘I’ll pay for this round,’ I tell them. They look at the floor.”

Of course, Ms. Willing-to-Die-in-Leather secretly wants to provoke the professor into teaching her a lesson. And the professor wants to test the mettle of a promising young colt. In due course, they reach a better understanding.

In  “Tears from Heaven,” Dr. Chalkdust’s favourite student is prepared to make amends for a mistake:

“Didrick, my able-bodied former student, was my gardener and maid-of-all-work. I watched her planting flowers and vegetables in receptive soil, and the symbolic implications of her work did not escape me. She washed the silk sheets of the beds where I took her, and where her diligence left me wet and fragrant. My poor protégé has never learned to write a solid sentence, but she poured her energy into becoming a one-dyke household staff.
               Didrick Bent. The very name arouses such conflicting passions in me that I can’t sit still. My house feels empty, but I feel as charged with electricity as the air beyond my walls.
               The telephone rings on schedule. She was forbidden to contact me for two weeks, and today is the fourteenth day. I let it ring once, twice, sensing her anxiety. One the sixth ring, I answer.
               ‘Dr. Chalkdust?’ She sounds like a child. ‘You said I could see you today.’
               'Yes.’ She will have to express herself without help.
               ‘I really want to come over.’ The tears that I would not shed are as audible in her voice as gusts of rain on glass.”

In this story, the professor has missed her devoted servant and apprentice as much as Didrick has missed her mentor. Both have learned something from being apart, and both must find ways to overcome their guilt and grief from mistakes that can’t be erased.

I hope readers enjoy the stories of Athena Chalkdust as much as I have enjoyed writing them.

Those who enjoy reading blog posts can find my (Jean Roberta's) 25-essay collection, Sex Is All Metaphors here: www.eroticanthology.com

I post every two weeks on this ten-writer blog: www.ohgetagrip.blgospot.com and on the 26th of each month here: www.erotica-readers.blogspot.com
Current Location: home
Current Mood: cheerfulcheerful
Current Music: none
Daughters of Frankenstein: Lesbian Mad Scientists, edited by Steve Berman (Lethe Press, 2015).

Reviewed by Jean Roberta

In the first story in this collection, Dawn – who won’t sleep because she’s afraid of dreaming –visits her lover Alyssa, who makes potions in her basement laboratory. Dawn reluctantly drinks Alyssa’s mixture to counter the effects of insomnia, and the readout of her brainwaves is like nothing Alyssa has ever seen.

In the aftermath of Dawn’s “trip,” a cat named Treacle appears in Alyssa’s house, having apparently crossed over from another world.
Alyssa tells Dawn: “You’ve dreamed there before.” Dawn nods. Alyssa goes on: “And you saw Treacle there.”

“Yeah,” Dawn answers. “She was different.”

“A person,” says Alyssa. Dawn asks how she knows this. Alyssa explains: “she wore striped socks and a pinafore over a frock dress.”

This reference to the title character of Alice in Wonderland (and specifically to Sir John Tenniel’s contemporary illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s 1865 fantasy novel) makes it clear where both Dawn and Alyssa have gone, not only in dreams: to Wonderland, where nothing is the same as in the world we know.

This story sets the tone for a diverse anthology of stories that are both original and full of allusions to actual history as well as to literary history. The stories are preceded by a brief introduction by Connie Wilkins and an essay, “From Alexander Pope to Splice,” by librarian and pulp-fiction historian Jess Nevins. This overview of female “mad scientists,” both fictional and real, dates back to writer and amateur scientist Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) and to medieval scholars before her.  Women who have wanted to understand the physical world and to change it are shown to have existed for much longer than most of us have been led to believe.

Some literary historians trace sci-fi by women to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (first published 1818), a cautionary tale that warns of the consequences of meddling with natural processes by creating a hideous new being that is tragically rejected by humans. By contrast, several stories in this collection feature the creation of humanoid female robots that are capable of complex thought and emotions, and who interact with humans to everyone’s benefit.

One theme of this collection is the thin line between “artificial intelligence” and the more organic kind, and several central characters show their lesbianism by falling in love with female robots. The most moving of these stories, “Doubt the Sun” by Faith Mudge, takes its title from a Shakespeare poem: “Doubt thou the stars are fire/Doubt that the sun doth move/Doubt truth to be a liar/But never doubt I love.” A lonely girl who learns to restore a burned, abandoned “Gorgon,” a kind of bionic experiment, names her Athene and develops an indivisible bond with her. Eventually, Athene is able to return the favour when her human rescuer seems damaged beyond repair.

There is much reference to political and social history in these stories, and to the inventions that are inspired by desperation. The fast-paced period piece “Bank Job Blues” by Melissa Scott is set in the Dirty Thirties and follows a gang of female bank robbers.  In the brilliant “Riveter” by Sean Eads, “Rosie the Riveter” of the Second World War (the image that encouraged actual woman to support the war effort by filling factory jobs left vacant by men at the front) is an actual woman who fascinates Adolf Hitler’s mistress. “The Eggshell Curtain” by Romie Stott shows an unusual relationship between two women during the intellectual and social upheavals that led to the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Each of these eighteen stories contains a perfectly-realized miniature world in which strong, quirky, resourceful women create what they need, for better and worse.  The tone of these stories is extremely varied, from the young-adult-adventure tone of “Meddling Kids” by Tracy Canfield to over-the-top comedy of “The Ice Weasels of Trebizond” by Mr. and Mrs. Brenchley to the realistic horror of “The Moorhead Maze
Experiment” by Tim Lieder,  in which a lesbian academic couple of the 1970s subject university students to a devastating psychological experiment.

If you read only one anthology of science fiction this year, Daughters of Frankenstein should be it. Each story presents a thought-provoking thesis wrapped in a delicious plot.
Current Location: home
Current Mood: busy
Current Music: themeson from The X-Files
02 September 2015 @ 10:59 pm
My updated list:

CALLS FOR SUBMISSIONS with Deadlines (Mostly Erotica)
Characters of any gender
LGBT characters
Female (lesbian) characters
Male (gay) characters

Licked (House of Erotica)  - Sep 15
Winter Shivers (non-erotic, Inkstained Succubus)  - Sep 15
Girls on Campus (Bold Strokes) - Sep 15
Holiday Want Ads   (Torquere) -  Sep 15
Historical Erotica Contest (Lush Stories)  - Sep 17
Stocking Stuffers (JMS Books) - Oct 1
“In Verse” – erotic poetry (Coming Together) - Oct 1                                                                                                        Snowed In (Torquere, 3-10K, HEA or HFN) - Oct 15
Murder, Mystery, Mayhem (House of Erotica) - Oct 31
Tonight, She’s Yours – heterosexual “cuckolding” (Rose Caraway) - Oct 31
Twisted Fables (Torquere) - Nov 15
Riverdance (Torquere, Irish theme) - Dec 15
Badass - outlaw theme  (Inkstained Succubus) - Dec 15
Victorian Era Erotica (Riverdale Avenue Books) - Dec 31
Friends of Hyankinthos (Lethe) - Jan 1
Fool for Love (Torquere) - Jan 15
Femdom Erotica (Riverdale Avenue) - Jan 31
Theory of Love (Torquere) - Feb 15
Time of Your Life: Graduation (Torquere) - Mar 15
Xenophile - alien theme (Inkstained Succubus) - Mar 15
Summer Lovin: 50s theme (Torquere) - Apr 15
Beach Rental (Torquere) -  May 15                                                                                                                                      Back to School: May-Dec Romances in College (Torquere) - June 15
Mythos for the Modern Age (Inkstained Succubus) - June 15
Harvest Moon: paranormal (Torquere) - July 15
Heart Stoppers: uniform theme (Torquere) - Aug 15
Home for the Holidays (Torquere)  -  Sep 15
Friends with Strange Benefits (Inkstained Succubus)  -  Sep 15                                                                                                                                 
04 August 2015 @ 11:53 pm
Okay, the gazelle has been moving. This is my stepson's metaphor.

Stepson has a female friend who is trying to launch a decluttering business - for $60 per room or $200 for a day, she will help clients sort out the messes in their living space.

Stepson thinks his mother and I desperately need this service. He brought Friend to our house to get the tour, so I walked her through all the rooms. She was polite.

Since I'm on my summer break for 2 months, I thought I would start the decluttering myself. I sorted, chucked out, and asked Spouse for her opinion. (She clearly hates making these decisions, but if I chuck out something she values, she obviously doesn't like it.)

We now have a guest bedroom worthy of the name, and curtains at all the windows! My phone/camera isn't handy, but I will try to post some photos in due course. Our guest room has a queen-sized bed with memory foam mattress, area rug, TV,  closet, chest of drawers and a mirror. The window frames a green view of the back yard. I would enjoy being a guest in this house.

When the family and friends went to a restaurant to celebrate my informal anniversary with spouse (anniversay of our first night together in July 1989, NOT wedding anniversary), Stepson commented on my efforts in the house: sometimes a gazelle needs to be chased by a lion so she will run, and not sit around eating grass. (I hardly think gazelles eat grass. They're not cows or goats. And is my writing really equivalent to eating grass? Whatever.)

I'm still trying to decide whether the cleaner, tidier, more inviting home is creating cleaner, clearer thought patterns. The jury is still out.
29 May 2015 @ 12:10 am
Liquid Longing: An Erotic Anthology of the Sacred and Profane by Annabeth Leong (Forbidden Fiction, 2015).

- reviewed by Jean Roberta

Annabeth Leong is a mistress of the bittersweet fantasy with the unpredictable conclusion. When her characters get what they want, it usually costs them more than they could foresee. Although many of the characters in this collection are supernatural beings from ancient myths, their behavior rings true. All genders and several sexual orientations are represented.

Several of these stories are based on ancient Greek myths, and Leong manages to make them fresh. In “Hunting Artemis,” the narrator is sent to become a chaste follower of the goddess at the age of ten. An old mentor tells her: “We run so hard and shoot so sure, Nikia, not only for love of the goddess and the hunt, but also because we must take revenge for all we sacrifice.” At the time, Nikia doesn’t understand how much she will have to give up to remain a perpetual virgin in the service of Artemis. Ten years later, however, a handsome young man comes to pay his respects to the goddess, and Nikia craves his touch as much as he craves that of the goddess he worships.

“Icarus Bleeds” is an even more wrenching story, this time set in a vaguely post-apocalyptic city in which backstreet doctors actually implant wings into the shoulder-blades of those who want to fly – for a hefty price. The operation is dangerous and not always successful, but a man who calls himself Daedalus – the “daddy” of Icarus – is willing to help the young man achieve his desire. As the narrator, Daedalus is surprised to realize that what began as a hookup can rise above the sordid, even in a context of furtive business deals and constant danger.

“The Snake and the Lyre” is an intense retelling of the myth of Eurydice, the woman who loves the musician Orpheus, although he pays more attention to his lyre than to her. After she is killed, he tries to lure her back from the Underworld, but someone there is determined to keep her.

“Andromache’s Prize” is a stunning spin on The Trojan Women, Euripides’ tragic play about the aftermath of the Athenian conquest of Troy in The Iliad. In Leong’s version, the Trojan princess Andromache offers another defeated woman a reason to continue living. (I couldn’t help imagining the Andromache in this story as British actress Vanessa Redgrave, who plays her in a movie of Euripides’ play.)

The plots of these stories have such a logical momentum that it takes the reader awhile to realize that several of them fit into currently-popular erotic themes. There is a “tentacle porn” story, a wickedly funny story about zombies in Hollywood, and a “bucket list” story about a woman who consents to one last fling with a man who can sense her impending death.  There is also a fairy tale story, “The Three Wives of Bluebeard;” in this version, the murdered wives of a rich man are able to comfort and seduce the current wife as she wanders the castle alone in her husband’s absence. There is even a story dealing with heavenly (not demonic) erotic activity in an eighteenth-century convent, “The Miracles of Dorothea of Andrine.” The bewildered churchman who confesses his crisis of faith to his superior is the best possible narrator.

“In the Death of Winter” evokes the unequal relationship between vulnerable human flesh and the merciless cold of a northern climate; the gender-changing winter deity in this story is as powerful as the Snow Queen in the Hans Christian Anderson story. Another story which seems to take place in an imaginary culture is “Fires of Edo,” in which a veteran fire-fighter, on the verge of retirement, meets his supernatural protector.

Each of these stories is so good that picking a favorite is impossible. The brief summary at the beginning of each story seems unnecessary, and so does the sexual labelling (m/f, f/f, m/m), which seems to reduce each story to a masturbation fantasy. This collection is far beyond that, and the pleasure of reading it is beyond a momentary tingle.
09 May 2015 @ 12:31 pm
Review of The Witches of Gloucester by Lisabet Sarai
(Hong Kong: Ladylit, 2015)

- reviewed by Jean Roberta

There should be a genre called “place fiction,” in which the location is a major character in itself, and its personality influences the plot. This fantasy novella belongs in that genre. Here is the opening scene:

“Once upon a time, in an old port city north of the capital where the clippers
used to flit in and out of the bay like giant butterflies, there were three witches.
Well, only two of them knew they were witches, at least at the start of the story.”

The two witches who are introduced at the beginning of this delightful sex fantasy have lived and loved each other for many years in a New England port city which preserves the past. Marguerite, “who counted Portuguese traders and African shamans among her ancestors,” collects keepsakes from various cultures, and occasionally invites the local population into “her museum-like abode” to sell items she no longer wants.

Marguerite’s companion Beryl, a freckled redhead who “hailed from generations of Boston Irish,” runs an antiquarian bookstore and dresses in hippy style. The two women are not immortal but are much older than they look, and they are responsible for much of the city’s natural and cultural charm, from “the crystalline sparkle of sunlight on the waves,” to “the welcoming sense of history that pervaded the narrow streets.”

A reader could object that the history of Massachusetts was not always “welcoming,” especially to women accused or “guilty” of witchcraft, but Beryl and Marguerite seem to have banished the Christian intolerance of the past. They also seem immune to jealousy.

The mission of the resident witches is to find a third witch to complete their circle and multiply their power. They want to spread love and well-being, not destruction, and their primary method of raising positive energy is by having sex with each other. Although some of their activities could be classified as BDSM, neither witch is permanently Dominant over the other, and they want their new recruit to become equally versatile.

Enter platinum-haired Emmeline, a restless visitor to the town who has rented a cottage near the water so that she can “work on her dissertation in peace and privacy” after “the nasty break-up with Tim.”  Emmeline’s ex-boyfriend accused her of being a nymphomaniac, and she has sought refuge near the sea, which she loves, to clear her mind.

The resident witches are aware of Emmeline’s energy, but they know they must not “bind her with magic.” Emmeline herself is unaware that her general horniness is a sign of psychic strength. She needs to be introduced to her inborn talents, and learn how to develop them. She needs to be healed from the self-doubt and self-blame inflicted on her by an insecure man. She also needs to finish her dissertation, but sexual fulfillment and a little magic will help her concentration.

Marguerite and Beryl invite Emmeline over for “tea,” to welcome her to the town, and what follows is a feminist seduction. Emmeline “comes out” as a lesbian and a witch by recognizing yearnings and abilities which were always in her, and she bonds with her two mentors. 

The sex in this short novel is generous, satisfying, varied and orgasmic. The only readers who are likely to find it disappointing are those who would like the three heroines to find male playmates. (Sorry, folks, this is women-only space.) Those who are familiar with Gloucester will probably view it differently after reading this sensuous, upbeat fantasy about its three female guardians.

(For those who aren't familiar with the place, I recommend looking up "Gloucester, Massachusetts," as I did, to find some scenic views of it.)
Current Location: Canada, Regina
Current Mood: busy
Current Music: none
19 February 2015 @ 02:36 pm
NOTE: I tried to post this review of the following book to Amazon.com, where the book is advertised, and the review was rejected.

When She Was Good: Best Lesbian Erotica, edited by Tristan Taormino, introduced by Ali Liebegott (Cleis Press, 2014).

Cleis Press introduced the Best Lesbian Erotica series in 1995, and a new volume has appeared every year since then. From time to time, Cleis has selected stories from the series to be republished, usually in themed anthologies. This one is a kind of best-of-the-best collection.

The title story, “When She Was Good” by Betty Blue, is about a dykey seducer. According to Sadie, the narrator: “Tib was a master of misdirection. While you were watching her left hand, the right was stealing your heart straight through your rib cage.” In a dramatic scene, Sadie meets Tib on a hot summer day while Tib is “playing” a naked blonde in a canyon outside the small western town where Sadie works as a waitress. Sadie is shocked but fascinated, and willing to learn more about Tib. The sex in this story is hot, but a clash of expectations leads to mutual disillusionment. Tib is revealed as a woman with two extremely different identities.

Identities or roles, imposed or self-chosen, seem to be one of the themes of this collection. In Peggy Munson’s “The Storm Chasers,” an Amish girl explores her desires before she must decide whether to make a commitment to the community in which she was raised. There are butches and femmes, mature women and teenage girls, and even a ghost and a family of vampires in these stories.

According to Tristan Taormino, first editor of the BLE series, a major theme in the book is transgression. As she explains in a foreword: “As queer people, we have already challenged one powerful norm by claiming our queerness. So when we tell stories of longing, desire, love, affection and sex, those stories are, by definition, outside of dominant mainstream culture. But the college kid, upper-crust society lady, pro-domme, bootblack boi, female cop, butch Daddy, grocery store clerk, and others who inhabit the twenty-two stories in this book go way past the point of queer lust and fucking.”

The contributors are a good mix of promising new writers in the field and skilled veterans, and the equal-opportunity approach of the editors of the Best Lesbian Erotica series is one of its hallmarks. The writers represented in this collection are (in alphabetical order): Valerie Alexander, D. Alexandria, Jacqueline Applebee, A. Lizbeth Babcock, L. Elise Bland, Betty Blue, Rachel Kramer Bussel, Chandra S. Clark, Isa Coffey, Shanna Germain, Alicia E. Goranson, Roxy Katt, D.L. King, Tamai Kobayashi, Missy Leach, Catherine Lundoff, Peggy Munson, Aimee Pearl, Radclyffe, Nan Rogue, Miel Rose, and Anna Watson. This book is a feast of compelling sexual fantasies.
Current Location: Canada, Regina
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: "Come to My Window" by Melissa Etheridge
17 February 2015 @ 11:48 am
NOTE: this book is due to be released in May 2015. This reviewer got a pre-publication copy for review.

Portraits at an Exhibition by Patrick E. Horrigan (Lethe Press)
Reviewed by Jean Roberta.

The structure of this novel appears at first to have too many frames in every sense. The third-person narrative centered on a gay-male art lover named Robin is interspersed with descriptions of the portraits in a New York art gallery that Robin studies as a means of understanding his own life as well as distracting himself from it. Other characters, including a female security guard and a psychologist who may or may not be the man who could save Robin from his demons, enter the gallery and star in their own streams of consciousness.

The impression of a chorus of voices, or an exhibition of portraits (literal and figurative) resolves itself into a clear pattern after the first few pages. Once the reader has adjusted to the quick changes of tone, the effect is rich and poignant. Here Robin reads a sign that introduces the exhibition of oil portraits:

“Today, portraiture is ubiquitous: people stare out at us from newspapers, magazines, and websites; movies and TV shows contain countless ‘close-ups’; our own faces adorn ID cards, passports, driver’s licenses, and online networking sites; snapshots fill our wallets and photo albums; pictures and family and friends cover our walls at home and our desks at work” [passage in bold in the novel].

Robin is reminded of his own collection of photographs:

“He had finally put away the picture of Brian after weeks of pretending it wasn’t really over. Now there was just the one of Stephen [Robin’s deceased twin] and himself when they were seven years old, dressed for Halloween as Batman and Robin (he always came second—‘Little Squirt’ Stephen used to call him), and the photo of the two of them, arm in arm, on the day of their high school graduation.”

Robin continues reading:

“The camera’s ability to produce an accurate mirror reflection of whatever it sees in the world is perhaps the most vital legacy of the Renaissance portrait.”

The real-life circumstances behind each portrait are explained on signs, but Robin, who dropped out of a Ph.D. program in art history, is already well-aware that art comes from life. While studying Portrait of a Boy by John Singer Sargent, Robin notices that the boy’s mother is painted behind him, fading into the darkness of the background. She holds a book about the War of 1812, from which she reads aloud to hold the boy’s attention. To Robin, the woman looks like a servant, while the beautiful boy in the foreground shows the unconscious arrogance of privileged youth. Robin reads:

“In April 1890, Saint-Gaudens [the boy’s father] expressed a desire to sculpt a portrait of Sargent’s twenty-year-old sister Violet, in exchange for one by Sargent of Saint-Gaudens’ ten-year-old son, Homer.”

Robin considers the status of the two women and the boy as items of exchange between two successful male artists. As a university student, he studied the work of trendy theorists on the politics of inequality, but his sensitivity to the feelings of those who are treated as less-than (“squirts”) can be traced back to his own boyhood.

The contrast between physical and spiritual beauty, and Robin’s awareness of his own esthetic  snobbery, are threads that run through his consciousness. As a man in his thirties, he has moved uncomfortably beyond youth, but he hasn’t yet reached middle age; he is looking for love as well as sex while he is still able to attract attention. Like so many others, Robin is afraid he might never find everything he wants in one Significant Other. He is haunted by a fear of failure on several levels.

The reader is taken on a tour through the gallery as Robin studies Portrait of a Young Man by Sandro Botticelli, Self-Portrait in Fur Cloak by Albrecht Durer, a portrait by Velasquez of his Moorish apprentice and former slave, Juan de Pareja, and Portrait of an Old Man by Hans Memling. Robin’s loneliness, his self-doubt, his hopes and desires are mirrored in the stunningly lifelike portraits of various men from the late 1400s. Few of Robin’s questions are answered by the end of the novel – and his most urgent question is whether he has contracted AIDS, that modern equivalent of a terrifyingly infectious, incurable disease from a past century. Luckily for the reader, his encounters with the living and the dead serve to counteract his tendency to be self-absorbed.

What this novel lacks in speed it makes up for in depth. Patrick Horrigan’s study of the human condition in our time shows the continuing influence of Renaissance humanism. Polymaths of the fifteenth century, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Pico della Mirandola, would probably feel at home in Robin’s world.