Drama Queen

It’s been an interesting week for the oppressed and the dispossessed, for anyone, in fact, who fears that a quirk of identity might prevent them from gaining access to power. Barack Obama has done a pretty fine job of proving that a black man can lead a country, but will the day ever come when a gay man (or indeed woman) could do the same? The question occurs to me having recently read Anne Brooke’s intriguing thriller, Maloney’s Law. Her main protagonist, Paul Maloney, is a gay PI whose sexuality is central to the novel. His ex-lover and a man who is publicly heterosexual, big business mogul Dominic Allen, has asked him to investigate an international company with whom he wants to have dealings, and for all that he’s instantly placed in the firing line, dodging bullets and knife-wielding attackers, the real danger comes from inside his own head. He’s barely recovered from their break-up, several years ago now, that sent him into a spiraling depression.

To call Paul Maloney troubled is something of an understatement. His family has been broken twice over, once when his older sister, Theresa, is murdered, and again when his sexuality becomes a stumbling block to relations with his father. Paul is a severely damaged man, suffering from the terminal pain of being unaccepted, unrecognized and disapproved of by the family who ought to love him. He begins the novel in a certain amount of anguish over his sense of self, rejected and abandoned twice over now in traumatic ways, and as it turns out, things are only going to get worse. Taking on Dominic’s case is going to transport him out of his depth, into a sordid world of double-crossing criminals and onto a trajectory through grief, violence and breakdown. In many ways I found this very interesting; most contemporary detectives are troubled, but few live out the consequences as viscerally as Paul does. But it’s not an easy read, as the case tends to take backstage to the torment that Paul is going through, his sense of responsibility and guilt, of failure and insufficiency, and his possession of a sexuality that is fierce and demanding but which seems to hold him apart from the daylight world.

I was intrigued by the fact that a woman should want to write from the point of view of a gay man, but by the end of the novel, I felt that it was portraying that sense of fundamental dislocation from the mainstream that appealed. Paul can’t regret his sexuality – it’s who he is, but he can never be at peace with himself because of the way he’s emerged from the crucible of his family life. But this kind of portrait of a gay man goes against the grain of some of the more recent principles of homosexual literature. Gay crime was a fairly big genre back in the eighties, or at least it was a significant niche, but the feeling was that fiction shouldn’t present gays as odd, eccentric, unhappy individuals. Consciousness-raising literature for blacks and for women went through much the same kind of journey; whenever a dispossessed or marginalized segment of society was at stake, what was needed was a source of positive role models. Story-telling could do its usual act of rescue by showing the world how you could be different in fundamental ways, but still be admirable, resourceful, strong. Even now, women remain uncomfortable with narratives that present their sex as victims; much better, it’s felt, to see women fighting their way over obstacles and winning the day. But of course, we also turn to fiction to tell us the truth; perhaps it’s just as necessary to show how women, blacks, gays, can and do suffer from prejudice, oppression, and a poor self-image. Even today, in a society that is undoubtedly more liberal than it has ever been.

It’s interesting that only a very few writers have made the crossover into the mainstream commercial world from writing about homosexuals – Patricia Highsmith with the dastardly bi-sexual Ripley is one contender, Patrick Gale is becoming better known these days now that his work isn’t so obviously oriented, and Val McDermid wrote a series of detective novels with a lesbian PI, who if I remember correctly, was not prone to the kind of tears and self-doubt that inflict Paul Maloney, but benefited instead from a somewhat more damaging right hook.  This is a well-written, tense thriller that’s very, very dark, and unflinching in its full portrayal of a gay man’s life. Reading it, it occurred to me that it was rather good for me, would-be liberal that I am, to broaden my horizons this way, to enter unreservedly into the imaginative zone of someone who was wholly other to me. It’s only when homosexuality becomes a matter of transparency and indifference that no hint of unreasonable and unjust discrimination will remain.


12 thoughts on “Drama Queen

  1. I love your conclusion here. Sometimes I feel that authors try TOO hard to make us understand the “other” point of view (whether it’s the women’s view, the gay’s view, the Asian’s view, etc.), and I find that distracting. I like it when authors present an “other,” but focus on all that we have in common, all the “human-ness,” if you will, that we share. As far as gay characters go, Armistead Maupin does a great job. The homosexuality in his novels is completely acceptable. Amy Tan does a beautiful job, too. You know her characters are Chinese-American (or Chinese), but they are also just so, so human. I’ve read other authors that weren’t quite so good, but they, of course, elude me now.

  2. “I was intrigued by the fact that a woman should want to write from the point of view of a gay man”

    And yet so many great and convincing female characters have been written by gay men.

    Very interesting post. I must go and ponder on it.

  3. On the political note, I believe Hilary Clinton would have had an easier time being elected than Barack Obama did, if she had everything needed to beat him! African Americans face a lot more discrimination than female Americans, as far as my experience goes, but homosexuals face the most daunting discrimination of all.
    I think it is interesting that anyone can cross gender, age, sexuality, or whatever, and write true to what we think that “person” would be. Maybe that indicates we are more alike than we realize?
    Have you read the detective/science fiction/alternate history FARTHING by Jo Walton? If you can get past the first few pages (where I, at least, had problems with the Gothic romance style of writing) you may find it very interesting. The story is set in England after Hitler has won WWII, with a very surprising twist at the dark end.
    Thanks for the intriguing review: I think I will put MALONEY’S LAW on my winter break read list.

  4. In America it seems there is a succession of human rights and cultural adjustments that tend to follow one another. First black men got the vote. Then women got the vote. Next came the civil rights movement and the feminist movement followed closely on its heels. Now we have a black president it won’t be long before a woman becomes president. As for the GLBT community, activism took off in the midst of the feminist movement and they have just reached the point where they aren’t quite as other as they used to be. I think the sticking point is religion. As soon as fundamentalists can accept that not everyone is heterosexual and it is ok, then I think we will start to see great leaps. I’ve always viewed literature as a way to help people see that what is ‘other’ isn’t necessarily so very different, they provide the transparency that you mention even if at first those stories have to make big stretches to portray everything as rosy and positive. It is fascinating to watch how it changes in relation to the culture at large. Oh, I’m rambling! I’ll stop now 🙂

  5. Thought I would suggest Laurie King’s detective novels set in San Francisco and featuring Kate Martinelli, lesbian detective extraordinaire. Most people are more familiar with King’s work through her Mary Russell / Sherlock Homes novels.

  6. In the sf-ish blog circles in which I primarily move, several people have speculated what might replace sf’s established tradition of giving the US a black president as one way of signifying The Future. “Gay president” was the most common suggestion, which to me at least indicates that it could unfortunately be a way away from becoming reality. (On the other hand, given 44 presidents, it’s not inconceivable that one of them has already been gay, not publically so. But being public is the issue here, I guess.)

  7. Well, this makes me think thank God I’m not a fiction writer and can leave the tricky job of figuring out how to deal with otherness and difference in fiction to other people! 🙂 There seem to be so many directions to be pulled in here, so many things that can be said and maybe should be said that are contradictory. I think I would find it paralyzing. I do enjoy thinking about how other people have taken the task on (which doesn’t seem the right way to put it, as though it’s something one must do).

  8. I’m intrigued now to see what this Paul Maloney is like and I’m also intrigued to see if anyone can “out” one of those 43 (white male) presidents! But that’s not the point. What I got from this is that authors can be less defensive about their character’s idiosyncracies. I’m trying to imagine less defensiveness all round – not easy.

  9. Sorry, all, to be slow replying – I caught a bug at the end of last week and have spent a couple of days in bed. Definitely on the mend now!

    Emily – now those are two excellent suggestions of authors whom I have shamefully never read! But I have books by both Maupin and Tan on my shelves. Oh why aren’t there more hours in the day? I’ll get around to them soon. Rosyb – and of course sitting here thinking about your comment I can’t think of any gay authors beyond Proust and Jean Genet, and yet there must indeed be loads. I do find gender swapping very intriguing in narratives. I suppose a skilled author could inhabit anyone’s mentality, but it’s intriguing to me that it is a very tricky thing to pull off to cross the gender divide. I very much enjoyed your interview with Anne, btw – I found it fascinating. Anne – I should have said more about how well-written your novel is, but I got carried away with all the issues it raised in my mind! Do hope your shoulder is improving now. Qugrainne – thank you for that lovely and insightful comment. I haven’t ever come across Jo Walton but will go and search her out on the internet once I’ve caught up on my comments. As an academic I always enjoyed comparative criticism the best, as I love the play of similarity and difference. For me, it’s the interplay between them that’s most fascinating, and it’s thanks primarily to literature, I think, that we consider both our underlying bond of humanity and the respect we should always pay to one another’s difference. Stefanie – I agree with every word you say; there is a historical progression underway, and it takes time as generations succeed one another and ideas gradually change. I also think that this arena is the primary political realm of literature, and it’s always done a fantastic job in representing other points of view as sympathetic and intriguing. Frances – hello and welcome! I actually have a Laurie King novel – one of her Sherlock Holmes ones and had no idea that she was the author of lesbian detective novels. Thank you for sharing that! Niall – do you know, I did think that as I was typing this piece. I wonder whether it will ever come to light that a previous president was gay? Well, maybe. Science fiction has a pretty good record of predicting the future though, doesn’t it? So maybe that day will indeed come. Dorothy – I know exactly what you mean! Whenever I used to read about prescriptive feminist criticism, I would feel most concerned about the purity of art. At heart I don’t think literature should ever become propaganda, not even with the very best of intentions. But then the best literature does provide sympathetic portraits of hidden lives that are honest and revelatory. I’m also very glad I don’t have to write them! 🙂 Pete – lol! And I love your point about less defensiveness. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? If only it weren’t also in the realms of science fiction…

  10. I came across this on my Google Alerts for Detective Novels. What a great review! You have convinced me to rush out to my nearby B&N and buy this book.
    I am a published author (DAVID JANSSEN-MY FUGITIVE, co-authored with the late award winning actor’s first wife, Ellie). My FIRST Novel (Fiction), is based on a true story. THE EXECUTION of JUSTICE will be out next month (December 2008). I would be anxious to have YOU review it, and I would accept WHATEVER you say.

  11. Good Afternoon Victoria,

    Michael Phelps here, author of “The Execution of Justice”. I posted a comment on 17 November regarding yuour review of “Maloney’s Law”. I have ordered the book through my local Barnes & Noble here in Miami, Florida. I responded to your kind message of your willingness to review my novel. I sent my response to; “vjlb100@cam.ac.uk. Please advise me if you received my message. I would like to send you a copy of my novel, or I can e-mail the complete manuscript as an attachment. It is 401 pages (119,605 Words).

    Looking forward to hearing from you.

    Best regards,

    Michael Phelps

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