of David Leavitt’s Collected Stories
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/26/09
If I told you that a writer was best known for a) having the first published ‘gay’ story in The New Yorker, and b) getting sued by poet Stephen Spender, the most famous poet that no one can remember a line he’s written, for allegedly plagiarizing parts of Spender’s autobiography World Within World for a novel of his called While England Sleeps, what odds would you lay on that writer being any good? If you said slim and none you would be correct. Well, the writer is David Leavitt, and the book is his Collected Stories, published in 2003 by Bloomsbury, which consists of the three prior published collections of short stories that Leavitt wrote over the last quarter century: Family Dancing (1983), a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize and National Book Critics’ Circle Award, A Place I’ve Never Been (1990), and The Marble Quilt (2001). If you still had any doubts as to the low level of writing you could expect to read, chew on this- the New York Times labeled Leavitt, born in 1961, as ‘one of his generation's most gifted writers.’ Talk about a Sicilian Kiss! And if you still had doubts, know that he is a career Academic, who teaches at the University of Florida (firstname.lastname@example.org), and is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment For The Arts, and The Guggenheim Foundation.
In short, if the word hack had not already existed, it would have to have been invented for a writer like Leavitt. That’s not to say that he did not have some talent when young, for the best of his three books is easily his first, published when he was only twenty-two. That said, even those tales are far too long. One of the things that workshops do is they rent the notion that concision has value in writing. Leavitt goes on and on and on in his terminally dull tales, although the early ones often end with nicely phrased observations, or fillips. The two later books show a hack at the height of his corrosive powers. Another problem that damns Leavitt is that most of the later tales are simply stories designed to show off the gay lifestyle. Yes, we see characters fucking, but little else occurs, which only reinforced the negative idea that gays are only obsessed with sex and define their whole lives by that notion alone. While I certainly have no problems with sex, gay or straight, being portrayed, if the only reason a throbbing cock appears is to try to titillate, isn’t that best saved for Penthouse Letters, not literary fiction? Unfortunately, Leavitt’s characters are wholly defined by their sexuality, and thus are cardboard cutouts, and his tales merely long winded masturbatory salves.
Fortunately, the earlier tales show some ability to move beyond sexuality. In Aliens, a mother tries to talk with Nina, her eleven year old daughter, Nina, about Nina’s delusion that she is an extraterrestrial. Yet, Leavitt tries to play the tale for laughs rather than a serious exploration of why a child, or an adult, might believe in such a thing. The former approach being the far more interesting, thus difficult, approach. In The Lost Cottage Leavitt writes of an estranged husband and wife, on their last vacation together, as their child tries to conjure up literary sounding names for their summer residence. Territory, the famed New Yorker story, tells of a boy’s coming out of his closet to his parents. Yet, even in this first book, an astute reader sees that Leavitt has an extraordinarily narrow purview on life. All of his families are cut from the same cloth, and all deal with the suburban themes that are New Yorker staples, only not handled nearly as well as by a John O’Hara, a John Cheever, nor even an Alice Adams. The mothers are almost all sensitive, nurturing types, while the fathers are remote, if not wholly absent. If there are children, the daughters are fat or bitchy, and the sons confused, sensitive, and gay. And the children are usually even more clichéd than the adults. Is one simply to overlook this manifestation of severe limitation merely because it has one thing countless other tales before it lacked? I say no. A piece of hackery is a piece of hackery- gay or straight.
Things get no better in the second book, A Place I’ve Never Been. In the titular tale, which picks up from the same fictive universe as his first book, a familiar character named Celia is overwrought by the problems of her gay friend, Nathan, also a crossover from the first collection, and his HIV-positive lover Martin. In Spouse Night, a bereaved man and woman have an affair after meeting at a support group for terminal patients and their families. In Ayor, the title is an acronym for ‘At Your Own Risk’, a gay subcultural term. I See London, I See France follows the aforementioned Celia as she travels with a new lover, and visits a villa owned by his rich friends, The tale’s crisis? Celia’s ashamed of her déclassé Queens, New York roots. In Roads To Rome, we get yet another comparison American and European views of sex and sexual loyalties. In Houses, a gay realtor is faced with choosing between his gay lover and his wife. If one can see that Leavitt is not pushing any boundaries, artistically, then one must ask why he’s under the delusions that trite tales that only have one difference- a gay character or theme- are somehow better than the straight versions of such tales. Just to show that he’s a PC sort of guy, the gay Leavitt tackles lesbians in My Marriage To Vengeance. There, a lesbian named Ellen has to attend the wedding of her former female lover who, Heaven forfend!, figured out she’s not gay, and wants to marry and have a family.
Of course, these later tales also all have no psychological depth. The closest thing to a deep moment any of them have is when the gay realtor declaims, ‘I realized that while it is possible to love two people at the same time, in different ways, in the heart, it is not possible to do so in the world.’ So, are we to deduce that Leavitt is making some sort of statement that homosexuals can be as vapid and clueless as heterosexuals? And if so, these sorts of bon mots are worth reading? Apparently, as all the gay men that Leavitt follows are full blown perverts, as well- porno addicts, transvestites, phone sex addicts, email porno addicts, scat addicts, coprophagists, etc.
Things get no better in Leavitt’s third book, The Marble Quilt. In The Infection Scene, a young teen psychotic from San Francisco decides it is best to get AIDS and just get his life over with in a Romantically tragic way. Leavitt contrasts this with a take on Oscar Wilde’s lover Bosie, the infamous Lord Alfred Douglas. Why? You got me. In The Marble Quilt, murder dominates, as the survivor ruminates on his dead gay lover. Why there was any need for the gay theme is never fully explored. Sure, gays get killed and suffer indignities, but if there is no specific reason for the tale to involve homosexuality, which is raised, and then never made anything of, why is it there? In Crossing St. Gotthard, an American family, yet again traveling in Europe, at the start of the Twentieth Century deal with fears as they enter a train tunnel. This is a good premise that just fizzles out. The List is an email epistolary story, between gay Academics, that goes nowhere. In Black Box, yet another bereaved partner, this time of a gay man killed in a plane crash, has to deal with the vagaries of another of the crash’s survivors, a psychotic who ghoulishly wants to sell footage of the crash to major media outlets. Again, a solid premise, but again a poor follow through.
As in the earlier books, heterosexual life is shown to be a sham, yet homosexual life is shown to be even more hollow. Is this some great sociological statement? No, just a writer who can only scratch out minor variances on two or three themes, as shown in the above capsule descriptions. In Out Here, from his first book, it is no coincidence, as example, that a daughter who rejects the traditional nuclear family bears the least emotional damage from her parents’ deaths. Yet, Leavitt’s writing is utterly devoid of humor, of the sort which lifted Raymond Carver’s best domestic tales above mediocrity, and his descriptions of sex, gay or not, are awkward, and I find it difficult to believe all but the most horny queers could possibly be turned on by them.
In fact, Leavitt has been bitterly criticized by some gay groups for supposedly endorsing unsafe homosexual sex practices and beliefs in his fiction, such as when the kid in The Infection Scene believes the rules of safe sex are a lie, ‘perpetuated by Dead White Males in order to suppress the freedom of gay people.’ These critics have attacked Leavitt as demonizing AIDS sufferers and promoting a sex technique known as bareback fucking, or simply not using a condom. In reading some of these screeds against Leavit (easily Googlable) I was depressed to see that not one of these writers attacked Leavitt for what he really is- a bad writer who took whatever little early artistic potential he had, and flushed it down the toilet. I don’t give a damn whether or not Leavitt is a self-loathing gay, as others accuse him of. My beef is he’s an artistic hack whose bad writing has killed far too many trees, and bored too many readers. But, hey, if a bunch of hate-filled Leftists can rip him for ripping sex without condoms, well, let’s simply forget his reams of bad art, for Leavitt proves that gays can be as dull and uninteresting as anyone else, as well as riders of slow creative declension.
Witness these two engaging ends to tales from his first collection. Counting Months follows a dying woman, stricken with cancer, on supposedly her last day of life, yet who ends up at a party instead:
She looked down at the dwarf girl, who looked up at her.
The dwarf girl held a glass of water in her tiny fat hand; the owl eyes in the huge head seemed gentle, almost pretty; in the bright light of the kitchen, she wore an expression that could have indicated extreme stupidity, or great knowledge.
Unmoving, the dwarf girl stared at Mrs. Harrington, as if the big woman were a curiosity, or a comrade in sorrow.
Note how we get an inversion of the main character’s perspective, and end with a poetic description. Now, on to the end of The Lost Cottage:
He keeps his eyes focused on the window above her head, making sure never to look at her. The expression on his face is almost simple, almost sweet: the lips pressed together, though not tightly, the eyes averted. In his mind, he’s already left.
Again, a nice, punctuated end, with a bit of philosophizing. Compare those two ends with this one, from Leavitt’s third book, from the tale The Marble Quilt:
I walk away. I have no idea if the seminarian is watching me, if he is lifting a monstrance or an obelisk to smash against my skull. Instead I have my eyes on the floor. These Escher-like interlardings of color really do create the most peculiar illusion of depth….and yet if you fell into them, they would break your nose, You couldn’t lift it off, once you’d been spread out on that table, and the marble quilt had been drawn over your eyes.
Now, reread all three again, and the difference is, if not stark, certainly quite detectable in the decline of poetic power, concision, and dramatic tension. The third ending is heavy-handed, dull, trite, and prosaic, which is all that one might expect from someone whose two major claims to fame are writing gay tales for highbrow magazines, and incurring the wrath of….Stephen Spender and Left Wing queer activists. It’s spelled H-A-C-K. Don’t make me spell it out again.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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