It has been more than a decade since the British writer Alan Hollinghurst wrote The Swimming Pool Library, a tale of homoerotic obsession and sexual decadence that since has acquired a well-deserved, if cultish, reputation as a masterwork of contemporary gay fiction. Following that novel with the more meditative The Folding Star (1994), the author sealed his membership among that corps of younger voices--its ranks in this country include such writers as Dale Peck, David Leavitt, and, to a lesser extent, Michael Cunningham--who aspire to the creation of a corpus of serious literature devoted to the clear-eyed, unsentimental depiction of what it means to be gay and male.
With his new novel, The Spell (Viking), Hollinghurst has produced yet another example of what might too blithely be called "the new gay fiction," though one that, laid in apposition to his previous work, is unlikely to be considered more than a minor contribution to the canon.
Not that The Spell--the story of the on-again off-again relationships among four well-to-do, young to middle-aged men in and around gay London--is bereft of charm. Hollinghurst seems incapable of writing dialogue that is anything short of pitch-perfect. The repartee between his characters ranges from the devilishly clever to the fitfully poignant. And the sure-handedness with which he limns the protocols, conjures the atmospherics, and invokes the underlying psychology of the semiunderground culture that his characters inhabit endows his novel with an organic verisimilitude. The author clearly knows his way around this territory, and the novel seldom strikes a false note--no matter how casually improbable, campily flamboyant, or impossibly drug-addled the action may be.
Hollinghurst's cast of characters includes Robin, a cultivated, vaguely high-born architect in his 40s who, having recently suffered the loss of his long-term paramour, lives in a too-idyllic-for-words Dorset cottage; Justin, Robin's new partner, an effete, ennui-prone, self-enamored 35-year-old failed actor more concerned with the status of his inheritance than the emotional state of his bereaved partner; Alex, a thoughtful-to-a-fault, suburban-dwelling, tender-hearted romantic ("the one who falls in love") who also is Justin's recently dumped ex; and Danny, Robin's 23-year-old son, a sexually compulsive, heedlessly high-living hedonist who is as fathomlessly fatuous as he is physically beautiful, and to whose dubious "spell" Alex hopelessly succumbs.
Despite the novel's purposefully contemporary setting, its characters are so comfortable with and self-accepting of their sexual identities that such issues as homophobia and gay-bashing, gay pride, and gay power are everywhere absent. As is virtually all mention of AIDS. The Spell may be a novel sodden with sex--most of its characters unapologetically define themselves by it and are preoccupied with its bacchanalian pursuit--but among its almost 300 pages, there's nary a condom to be found.
This may, on some level, render the novel un-PC. It also is what gives the book its artistic teeth. The Spell manifestly is a novel of manners--in this case psychosexual manners--not of ideas. And Hollinghurst is flatly uninterested in grinding sexual-political axes. He simply will not couch his work in terms of the inevitably reductive formula of "gay" vs. "straight." As it intermittently obtrudes upon the story, the "straight" world exists only in the vaguest, most superfluous of ways. As the omniscient, third-person narrator observes of one of the central characters, "he was so conditioned to a world in which everyone was gay that he found it hard to bear in mind...that almost everyone wasn't."
It is precisely this contextual insularity that lends a humanizing heft and psychological integrity to The Spell that it would otherwise lack. Yes, Hollinghurst's characters are habitués of a necessarily narrow, self-contained, even rarefied world--namely, affluent, privileged, exclusively homosexual London and environs. But it is their world, they are at their ease with its codes and customs, and withal are free to behave within it as they will. They can be cruelly unfeeling, indefensibly shallow, self-adoring to a fault--"As Danny peed he looked sideways into the mirror and saw how terribly beautiful he was"--and yet never less than fully, even deeply, human.
That they may indulge overmuch their phallocentrism--it is the "utopian policy" of one of the main characters "to have everyone once"--is true enough. "By the way darling," goes one of the novel's recurrent, male-to-male mantras, "what's his dick like?" But it is the accomplishment of the author that such behavior remains a function of character first and gender second.
This, then, is what finally makes The Spell literature. What it fails to make it is soundly constructed or especially well written. Indeed, the disconnect between what clearly is a mature artistic sensibility and, at best, a halting, even graceless, technical one, is at times so glaring it threatens to upend the whole.
While it contains a few admirably staged set pieces--most notably a drug-and-dance session inside a London gay disco, and a birthday bash thrown for Danny at his father's country place--the novel is loosely plotless, a quality that need not be a detriment save as the novel drifts into a sort of aimlessness that finds its characters wandering at their leisure from the dance clubs and porn shops of London to the country lanes, thatched cottages, ruined castles, and scenic seasides of Dorset doubling back, strolling about, dallying here and there--in the course of which they capriciously couple, cross-couple, recouple and uncouple, arbitrarily break up or get back together, get drunk (very, usually), take drugs (Ecstasy, cocaine, and hash, mostly), and party, party, party.
Then there is the writing. How, after all, can we forgive the swooning infelicity of such sentences--and such sentences everywhere abound--as:
Lars' features had taken on a marvelous intensity, they seemed to have been cleansed to their essence in a solution of desire...the warm squeezing weight of him was almost a torture of excitement.
And then there was the kiss, slow and luscious at first, and then choking and ferocious, as though each was trying to cram his head into the others' mouth.
His thoughts emerged from the watery interview or vanishing railway-carriage of dreams, stumbled on for a few forgetful instants, pale and directionless, and then fled towards Danny in a grateful glow of remembered purpose.
Ripped bodice, anyone?
At last, Hollinghurst appears intuitively oblivious to the inherent order of diction and syntax--the rhythms and cadences, tonal harmonies, and appoggiaturas that constitute the internal music of language. He has, in short, a linguistic tin ear, an ear of the sort that leads to his strewing his story with ungainly words like "unrefusable" and "desultorily."
The tone-deafness, of course, is not his fault. What is, is his failure to account for it, permitting the reader to sense the extent of his overreaching, his straining after just the right, faux-voluptuous word. In its most jarring parts, the novel reads like an unfortunate translation. Were this a first effort, one would be reluctant to harp upon the point. In truth, the novel would have benefited immeasurably had its author thought to leave matters of style to the stylists, and opted, instead, simply to write the hell out of his characters.
At last, The Spell remains a curiously mixed bag: on the one hand deeply felt, fully imagined, and admirably character-driven, on the other--as a work of prose--a form of high irritation.