If you enjoyed Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming Pool Library for the way it depicted gay life both in the late 1980s and simultaneously revealed the lives of gay men before the liberation of the late 1960s, then Rupert Smith's new novel Man's World is certainly worthy of your time. It feels like a natural progression of the themes in Hollinghurst's book and overs a critique of the hedonism that now purports to represent Western gay culture in the 21st Century and of the repression of and struggle for gay identities in the late 1950s.
Initially, Rupert Smith tells the story of a young gay man Robert and the coiterie that forms his extended 'family'. Robert leads the life of what the Daily Mail's Jan Moir might describe as a typical gay man who like many of his generation takes the drug and gym fueled lifestyle in his stride, obsessing about his weight and appearance, whilst knowing very little about the struggle for the very equality and freedoms that he takes for granted. Robert is a sympathetic character because as the story progresses he undergoes something of a Rake's Progress and an epiphany that allows the scales to fall from his eyes and see for the very first time the kind of community, if indeed it can be called a community, gay men are part of in 2010 and where they came from in the late 1950s. The book depicts a group of men in both periods whose hedonism clearly encompasses sexual abuse, drug and alcohol misuse and addiction, serious body image issues and an obsession with the meaningless of celebrity culture.
Robert is exploited by his lover Stuart and eventually, in one of the more disturbing aspects of the book, is violently abused, drugged and, in effect, raped by Stuart and the club-scene cronies they both hang around with. Smith shows the consequences of this in Robert's working life but there is an aspect to this part of the story that suggests a lot of younger gay men may well be indulging in the same unsafe activity and aren't concerned about the real consequences of their actions. Here, it isn't just Robert's career on the line, but by extension his air-head friend Jonathan's life and the decline of a middle aged drug dealer and pimp, Hadley, from HIV related cancer. Smith creates some vivid, if not entirely sympathetic characters. Stuart is simply a bully and serial abuser, Hadley is one of those old queens who thinks he's down with the kids by pimping for Eastern European immigrants and 'helping' some of them become artists. Jonathan, who quite honestly you spend the entire novel wanting to slap because of his complete and utter selfishness, is actually someone you steadily grow to tolerate just as Robert realises that he's probably the only friend he's got, unreliable and conceited as he is.
The gay scene depicted here is both thrilling in its freedom and yet completely vacuous in the experiences it offers. Whilst we may have equality and freedom in England, Smith seems to be arguing that this doesn't necessarily make us any better either as human beings or as gay men. There is a world out there were young gay men are more obsessed about Abercrombie And Fitch, Madonna ('he tells me the lyrics to Confessions On A Dance Floor are very spiritual and he's thinking of going over to Kabbalah and changing his name to Habakkuk'), circuit parties and Sitges but wouldn't know what the Stonewall Riots are even if they were happening right under their noses.
This may sound a bit doomy and gloomy but Smith carries this off with a whip-sharp wit and he completely and satisfyingly demolishes much of the pretentiousness that permeates fashionable gay culture including a few well aimed pot-shots at the art world ('I pace around the walls trying to look interested in the 'work' and overhear someone say: "Brilliant comment on the ubiquity of the photographic eye. Subverting accepted notions of photography as an art form by using the cheapest mobile phone camera and recontextualising it in the gallery space'" From this I assume Nico downloaded a few random snaps from his SIM card and got them enlarged at Hadley's expense.'), mass consumerism and the commodification of sex and desire. It's a book that will make you chuckle at some of the considerably witty one liners whilst simultaneously agog at how fellow human beings might actually treat other.
As if to counter this depiction of a gay culture, where real friendship seems such an anathema, that seems to be a series of downward spirals into pure sensation and nothing more, Smith sets up a second narrative in direct opposition to this. He weaves a fascinating story of Michael, Stephen and Mervyn Wright who all meet whilst on national service at RAF Neville in Lancashire in the late 1950s. Here, Smith depicts the struggles of three men all desperately trying to find themselves and emerge, blinking in the harsh sunlight, from their own closets. His is a detailed observational narrative about closeted gay life in the 1950s, the penalties for being discovered (Stephen's tale about his cure in the Glasshouse reminded me of a similar, very disturbing scene I saw recently in Jonathan Harvey's Canary) and the secret pubs and parties all three are dragged into as they are caught up in the late 1950s world of exploitation cinema and adult photography after they all meet up in London. Smith must also have drawn upon his own biography of celebrated male model photographer John S. Barrington because these parts of the book evoke much of the real-life experiences he details in Physique - The Life Of John S. Barrington. It's a book I would recommend reading if you're intrigued by the male model magazine world of the period.
Again, the narrative focuses on the queer culture of the times, connecting to the present day story when Robert discovers his neighbour is Michael and meets the older Stephen after the death of Mervyn. Michael's experiences will no doubt chime with an older gay generation that struggled to find friends where they could, forge their identities in a hostile world and understand the nature of their desire. The relationship between Michael and Wright is a beautifully observed game of give and take between the two men. Wright's own sexuality is in flux and he's equally at home with women and men as sexual partners to begin with. Michael's friendship with Wright, an amateur boxer, only comes about when, as a keen photographer, he helps him with promotional photo-shoots. Their clandestine meetings in dark rooms and studios provide a wonderful 'will they - wont they' frisson that's a world away from the 'sex on tap' scene that Robert inhabits. Smith shows how gay culture and society have both changed and yet the experiences within both narratives, that of the late 1950s and the present day, often reflect back at each other. Both are exploitative in their own ways, both are concerned with hedonistic experience and with the knitting together of sexuality, commodification, an exploitative media and with substance and physical abuse.
In effect, Michael and Stephen become the conscience for a younger generation who'd rather forget about them because they're 'old' but who may actually need them because they have much more experiences as adults to offer. Smith raises a number of criticisms about both periods and with Stephen's tirade to the bubble-head Jonathan towards the end of the book I think he sums up many feelings that older gay men have towards the younger generation despite older men projecting their own expectations onto a younger generation whose lives, it appears, are so completely different. Still, I think the point is well made. 'You just think of us as the sad old bastards who missed out on the party. Well, let me inform you that without us, there wouldn't have been a party...your generation seem to have lost the ability to love or to care or to fight for a change or to do anything other than fuck each other and shop.' Right on, sister.
Whilst the book says that the more things change, the more they stay the same, it also has a great deal to say about friendship, solidarity and being true to yourself. That it does so in such a witty and warm-hearted way is testament to Smith's ability to spin an engrossing story with parallel themes and characters and plenty of bulls-eye accurate cultural observations. The book suggests that it is possible to form long-lasting friendships within the gay community and across the generations and that young and old both have negative and positive experiences to bring to the discussion. A delightfully funny book that is both moving and thought-provoking.
Man's World - Rupert Smith (Arcadia Books - Published 18th February 2010 - ISBN: 1-906413-40-1 / 9781906413408 (UK edition) - Format: Paperback)