Our Young Man by Edmund White
02/06/16, The Guardian
Edmund White’s eleventh novel, Our Young Man, seems, on the surface, a rewriting of Dorian Gray. A gorgeous young French model, Guy, arrives ‘from Paris to New York in the late 1970s when he was in his late twenties but passed as nineteen’, we are told in the first paragraph. Throughout the novel, this agelessness – even when he is pushing forty, people take him to be at least fifteen years younger – is an inescapable note, sounded over and over again. Even Guy, not the most intellectual character you’ll encounter in a novel, is aware of the literary allusion: towards the very end, in a rare moment of feeling sick of his ‘eternal’ beauty, he thinks, ‘What if he were stripped of his looks, if he stabbed the grotesque painting in the attic?’ So although the linkage with Dorian Gray is correct, I think in a book as beguilingly treacherous and deceptive as Our Young Man, this referencing of Wilde is a calculated indirection, playfully, impishly turning our attention to the obvious while subtler, weightier matters churn on elsewhere. I imagine White asking himself the question, ‘Is it possible to write a profound book set in the fashion world that will replicate the lightness of that world itself?’ and then running triumphantly with it. Even the title has a doubleness to it: in the end, you will be asking yourself whether ‘our young man’ is Guy, who is no longer young, or Kevin, Guy’s wholesome, serious, all-American lover from Minnesota, who is in his early twenties when he graduates from Columbia in the final chapter of the novel.
But Kevin doesn’t appear until the exact halfway-mark. Before him, Guy first ensnares a wealthy old Belgian baron, Édouard, with a penchant for masochistic sex, who gifts Guy a brownstone in Greenwich Village just to have the pleasure of being sexually subordinated by the beautiful Frenchman once. In an uproarious scene of sadomasochistic practices in a West End dungeon, Guy torpedoes any chances he may have had as a longer-term beneficiary of the baron’s largesse. Guy’s next conquest is Fred, an American man who has left his wife and grown-up sons to come out in his sixties. Fred leaves him a house in Fire Island before he dies of AIDS. For neither of these men does Guy exactly put out. But with a Colombian art history student, Andrés, the temperature ratchets up several degrees: this is a steamy, obsessive, consuming relationship. But Andrés ends up in prison and it is during his absence that Guy meets Kevin, one of identical twin brothers.
Throughout, Guy’s career as a fashion model ascends dizzy heights. White writes of this world with great knowledge, humour and knowingness – White used to work for Vogue and counts as his friends the designer Azzedine Alaïa, and the world’s top hairdresser, Didier Malige – and while White is clear-eyed and undeluded about the absurdity of this world, frequently sending it up, he never descends to savage satire. This open-heartedness, an essential White quality, makes his writing sparkle with generosity even when he is writing about, say, Guy’s monstrously bitchy agent, Pierre-Georges.
White is the most European of living American novelists. We will have to look back to James and Wharton, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Stein, to find other American writers who travelled to Europe to find their writerly bearings and position themselves in the map of literary tradition. White lived in Paris for sixteen years, a time he writes about in the latest volume, Inside A Pearl (2014), of his autobiographical project, and this novel, while set almost entirely in the USA, can be seen as a fictional companion to that memoir. But the relationship is not straightforward, or not one whose essence is to be found in autobiographical correspondences and geographical locations or even in cultural influences. It is rather the conversation that Our Young Man is having with that great trope of those earlier American novelists, the theme of the endlessly productive friction in the encounter between the simpler, more innocent New World and the complex, dark, opaque and duplicitous Old World. Characteristically, White inverts the trope: he transplants his European character, Guy, to the United States, and in the inevitable comedy-of-manners incarnation that the novel often assumes, one can see an inversion of, say, Henry James’s The American. In Inside A Pearl, White parsed, with immense perception and humour, the disjunctions between American and French cultures. These divergences, and the resultant gaps in understanding, form a wonderful metaphorical underpinning to the novel, too, especially in its sustained exploration of the ramifications of what it means for a novel to have a central character who is described as ‘a black hole in space’.
Every detail in the novel is alive and gleaming, from ‘a big, standing wreath of red and white carnations and a blue silk ribbon stretched across its empty thorax’, the ‘nostrils black as raisins’ in photographs of Rudolph Valentino, to the ‘anti-nostalgia’ mental training Guy puts himself through to deceive people into thinking he is young. While so inexorably tethered to materiality, it is a book that floats above things, so light is its touch, so playful and joyous its execution. Even the onset of AIDS (known, initially, as GRID: Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), a time White has recorded with extraordinary clarity and with the chronicler’s unflinching truthfulness, in both his fiction and his autobiographical works, is played in the comic mode. As Fred lies dying, he jokes of making the first AIDS movie, ‘with two hot young studs dying’, and observes, ‘The lead would have to lose thirty pounds for the last three minutes.’
In a way it goes against one of the two presiding spirits of this Janus-faced book that it should be written about seriously – one could instead dwell lingeringly and all too easily on White’s hilarious treatment of models’ weight-loss regimens, or the lovingly detailed and graphic sex in the book (loads of it), or the anthropology of gay life of Fire Island Pines – but it is shameful that we haven’t managed to free White from the initially ground-breaking but now enfettering label of ‘gay novelist’. It has blinded us to the essential allusiveness, wit and sparkling sprezzatura of his work, its conversations with other books, its effortless ability to say profound things in unsententious and gossamer-light ways. The last five words of the book, a question that Kevin asks after he has read Guy’s farewell letter to him, is a question that returns the reader to contemplate the morality of the novel form itself.