Literary ancestors … beacons, inspirational mentors, useful guides? Outmoded gatekeepers of tradition who cast long, inhibiting shadows? A mixture of both?
Two novels, “Querelle of Roberval” by Montreal’s Kevin Lambert and “Until It Shimmers” by San Francisco-based former Torontonian Alec Scott, draw inspiration from high-profile 20th-century titles and interrelate with literary forefathers with marked differences.
Lambert’s audacious, deliriously stylized “Querelle of Roberval” makes no secret of the author’s debt to Jean Genet’s transgressive “Querelle de Brest” (1947). Genet’s Georges Querelle, a devious sociopathic queer beauty, has long inspired filmmakers, visual artists and fashion designers.
Lambert (“You Will Love What You Have Killed”) doesn’t just propel Genet’s homme fatal across time and space. He alters his character and destiny. In other words, he’s not exactly reverent to France’s irreverent genius (as Sartre called Genet).
Lambert recasts Querelle as a “beautiful labourer” from Montreal, hired at a sawmill that is soon mired in an entrenched — and increasingly toxic — strike that leads to egregious tactics on both sides. A hedonist who “learns to be political,” Querelle’s a work in progress. After hours, though, he’s a “magnificent lover,” an unparalleled stud whose legendary Grindr profile and pornographic endowment magnetizes young men from near and far. (Aside from the pleasure, Querelle views sexual gratification as an honourable pursuit: with a satisfied partner, he “will have been persuaded, for a short time, of his usefulness and, in a strange way, of having saved the world, just a little.”)
Roberval, “a dirty little muddle of bungalows and two-storey commercial units that gnaw away at a portion of the Lac Saint-Jean shoreline,” is the drab stage for Lambert’s grisly tragedy. The author interjects musings on capitalism (in chapters titled “Lumpenproletariat,” “Collective Agreement,” “Solidarity” and so on) with provocative set pieces that include but are not limited to misspelled threats, Javexed coffee, infanticide, Molotov cocktails, suicides, a fatal impaling, prodigious amounts of crack cocaine, a baseball game that erupts into violence and ironic authorial interjections (in which “I — Kevin Lambert, author of this modest fantasy —” explains his personal stance on the strike).
Febrile, postmodern to the bone and unexpectedly affecting, the novel is a startling, mile-a-minute performance.
With chapter titles referring to a handful of august English literary figures (Evelyn Waugh and Christopher Isherwood prominent among them), Scott’s debut novel has muted hedge sparrow tones compared to Lambert’s radiant peacock. “Until it Shimmers” is a quiet novel of conversations and scenes.
“Shimmers” is also notably polite and soft-spoken when viewed in context to acclaimed recent gay Bildungsroman such as Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Swimming-Pool Library” and Douglas Stuart’s “Shuggie Bain.” Elegiac, it emulates an earlier generation of U.K. literature.
On paper, “Until It Shimmers” ought to be riveting: a mild-mannered and shamefaced but disgruntled young Ontarian jets away to educate — and find — himself at the height of Thatcherite England and the devastations of the AIDS epidemic.
Scott does not throw his protagonist into the middle of economic upheaval or sexual politics. Generally well-behaved and more interested in the British Museum and the contents of his eccentric aunt’s home than protests or nightclubs, Ned Baldwin hangs on the periphery. With an introverted hero who’d rather be reading, Scott gives himself a real challenge.
Ned, a “bookish, pencil-thin guy,” has a fittingly bookish view of gay life (in particular, that happy endings are few and far between). He yearns for enriching experiences to dispel his doubts. Whether attending Cambridge classes, wandering London streets, or conversing with friends and family, his affinity for the past keeps him strangely removed from the world around him.
Ned binges on books, scribbles long entries in his journal and takes refuge in music. All this makes sense for his personality, but repeated scenes of a similar stripe make him recede and the story’s momentum stall. Conflicts with parents and, eventually, a boyfriend, come and go but, other than a sequence of events set in time, the novel builds little in the way of a developmental arc.
And while Scott offers exacting descriptions, the abundance grows obstructive: “The next day, the day before Christmas, was, indeed, a quieter one, but still busy. They worked away at their respective chores for most of the day — wrapping their presents in shifts, preparing the stuffing, chopping the assorted root vegetables that always formed part of the feast, cleaning out the fireplaces, choosing wood and setting logs up ready to blaze on the day of.” That characteristic paragraph lists additional items — dining table leaves, linens, cutlery, polish — at the expense of narrative flow.
A character close to Ned describes life as “shimmering all around you.” Though Ned grasps the concept, “Until It Shimmers” struggles to convey that everyday magic to readers.
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