The Farewell Symphony
NOT LONG AGO, venereal disease was a trifling side effect of promiscuity, as exemplified in The Farewell Symphony, Edmund White's new autobiographical novel about post-Stonewall gay mores in New York City. In a passage near the beginning of the novel, White's nameless narrator tells us with characteristic poise about an occasion when he sought medical treatment for his monthly bout of gonorrhea. With his usual doctor on vacation, the patient is ushered in by a substitute, who gives him two shots of penicillin and proceeds to ask:
"Wanna fuck me now?"
But I've got the clap! the patient protests. No matter. The doctor has already dropped his pants: "I'll give myself a shot as soon as we're finished," he says reassuringly. It isn't the speedy, cold sex that startles, but the unsettling mix of absurdity and nonchalance at the conclusion of the episode. "As I was leaving the examining room," White writes, "I saw him shooting up and quickly buckling his trousers. I still had to pay the full fee."
Sex is The Farewell Symphony's primary and rather uncomfortable main subject. One need look no further than the first 10 pages for confirmation, as the narrator confesses that he'd had sex with his first thousand men by age 30. (The statistic recalls Gore Vidal's similar claim in Palimpsest, his memoir of a year ago; is it too late to call such confessions a trend?) Any reservations about this sexual scheme float into consciousness only in the last third of this long book, like a massive iceberg rising from the ocean. It is circa 1981, and sex has become equatable with death. In the contemporary time frame of novel's end, most of the narrator's friends have died, including his only long-term lover.
But The Farewell Symphony focuses mainly on the rich gay culture of pre-AIDS New York City, and there sexual hedonism and cultural enlightenment happily coexist. Public-bathroom blowjobs and spirited references to Beckett, Foucault, and Jasper Johns are on equal footing, although there seems to be more time in the course of a day for the former than the latter. Describing himself on page 162, White's struggling writer narrator describes an entire social stratum: "I'm the sort of person who can lick a stranger's boots in a backroom, then come home, turn on the lights, make coffee, take a 30 minute shower [and] listen to the Well-Tempered Clavier."
Which is to say nothing of well-tempered organs, dozens of them, rendered in exacting detail. There are lovers' mouths like overripe persimmons, tongues unrolling "like the angel's words in a medieval Annunciation," and buttocks of every conceivable degree of rigidity. But promiscuity is so naggingly desperate in The Farewell Symphony, and so fickle, too, that it quickly becomes tiresome. After a dozen encounters involving asses, cocks, and tongues, White's arabesque prose becomes an eardrum-piercing car alarm. Turning tricks with a new stranger every night, the undiscriminating narrator transforms into an addict: a slave to his own purported sexual freedom. All of which is to say that White's stamina is a good deal stronger than that of his readers (or the distaff ones, at least).
Fortunately, White sees the darker aspects of sexual freedom--existential loneliness, the stigma of monogamy, and monthly bouts with social diseases, among others--and those moments of aching awareness are often the most moving. When the narrator visits a sex club consisting of nothing more than stalls with "glory holes," revealing anonymous genitalia and mouths, he says:
"We felt like prisoners seeking to establish contact with one another. Sometimes we'd hold hands and kiss through the holes. Yet if a neighbor invited me to his booth I hesitated. Would his whole body be as romantic as these frustrating glimpses, his presence as magnetic as my fantasies?" It's grim, picturing row upon row of naked, horny men holding the hands of strangers who were meant to suck them off.
If the sheer plurality of sexual rendezvous traces the narrator's emotional life through the '70s and early '80s, then fame, or its proximity, is a measure of his growing artistic success. Aside from using the adjective "famous" ad nauseam, White suitably situates major New York art and literary figures in the narrator's midst. Thus we read about famous black opera singers, famous white-haired choreographers, famous choreographer girlfriends of famous painters, etc., and there is some fun to be had guessing their identities while squinting in disbelief at the sexy gossip.
This being an autobiographical roman à clef, the names of the major "famous" characters have been changed: Eddie, a temperamental millionaire poet is really James Merrill, while the composer and music critic Virgil Thompson has been renamed Homer. Celebrities of fleeting importance to the story parade through the book bearing their real names: Lee Krasner, Michel Foucault, Norman Mailer, Lillian Hellman, Jasper Johns. Needless to say, the sheer energy of it all gets silly after a while.
White and his narrator share a number of biographical facts (both are from the Midwest, were born in 1940, had a French lover who died of AIDS, now live in Paris--the similarities continue), and the suspicion that everything about The Farewell Symphony is rooted in fact makes reading it strangely disturbing. After 300-odd pages, the sex binges have lost their steam and the celebrities have bowed out; what we are left with then is a eulogy for an entire generation of men--talented, young, and prematurely dead.