BY Sarah Schulman in Frieze | 06 SEP 94
Featured in
Issue 18

As Max Saw It

Louis Begley, Knopf

BY Sarah Schulman in Frieze | 06 SEP 94

Inclusion in the world view of dominant people is part of any repressed group's search for recognition. Contradictions, however, are rampant when we are represented by others on a level at which we do not have a voice. Increasingly, heterosexual America has found an effective alternative to acknowledging and integrating the work of openly lesbian and gay artists. Instead of hearing us, there is a new move to create and contain us in our most palatable manifestations. So, for example, instead of taking seriously 14 years of film and video about AIDS, made by lesbians and gays, straight people produce Philadelphia.

Each art form generates its own version of this process. The stage, for example, has made a particularly bald attempt to contain us. In recent years we have seen the emergence of a Theater of Resentment. Products like John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation or David Mamet's Oleanna are only the beginning. In this school, dominant-culture protagonists encounter pathologised 'others' like blacks, gays and women, who serve as catalysts for the protagonist's great catharsis, thereby affirming his humanity. The liberal veneer of these works is accomplished simply by acknowledging the existence of these 'others'. These writers' subjects are the oppression of the straight white male by 'political correctness', 'reverse discrimination' and other annihilating fantasies.

Novels, as usual, are behind the times. With the exception of feminist writers like Marge Piercy and Marilyn French, who always include lesbian characters - or Lynne Tillman who recently published a novel in the voice of a gay man - the list of straight writers with fully developed gay or lesbian characters in their work could fit on the head of a pin. A list of those who even mention Aids in their books would leave room on that pin for a thousand dancing angels. When you consider how gay writers have invented heterosexual characters for thousands of years, that void becomes a two-way mirror.

So, it was with great interest that I read Louis Begley's new novel, As Max Saw It. Begley, a straight Jewish lawyer known for his work about the Holocaust, has taken on the subject of a straight protagonist's proximity to homosexuality. For, as Max, a professor at Harvard Law School, wanders passively through his life, the presence of homosexuality becomes increasingly obvious.

It is the year of Nixon's resignation, safely before Aids. Max, between marriages, falls for a 16 year-old male beauty named Toby, whom he admires as 'Eros himself.' Never one to probe too deeply, he wastes no time in seducing the next woman in sight, while Toby sits beside him at the dinner table. The next day an architect named Charlie Swann accuses Max's closest friend of being a 'secret fairy.' This charge the friend laughs off with an affected limp wrist.

But it is Charlie himself who is revealed to be the secret fairy, and Toby his clandestine boyfriend. Barely ruffled, Max listens to Charlie's borscht belt humour/coming-out story. The first real disappointment for the gay reader, it's the Dysfunctional Hetero version complete with fear of entry and vaginal engulfment. How reassuring to the straight reader (and to Max himself) who enjoys vaginal engulfment and can therefore continue to read this novel without personal implication.

As the years pass and Aids begins to delete characters, Max finally does commit Homosexuality, but it is so fast, contextualised and unrecognisable that the well-intentioned novel ends on a resonantly false note.

While Begley has an enjoyable writing style, the awkward handling of his chosen subject diminishes the effort. It did make me think about what kind writing I would like to see from straight authors willing to include us in the universe of their books. Perhaps it would be an explanation of why it took them so long, and why our books aren't next to theirs on the shelves.

Sarah Schulman is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, nonfiction writer, AIDS historian, journalist and active participant citizen, based in New York. She is the Co-Founder of MIX: NY LGBT Experimental Film and Video Festival, co-director of ACT UP Oral History Project, and the US Co-ordinator of the first LGBT Delegation to Palestine. Her most recent book, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair (2016) was published by Arsenal Pulp Press.