The Folding Star was already sitting on our shelf at home and had caught my eye earlier in the week, so when John recommended it, it secured a spot in my duffel bag library. This would not be my first tangle with Alan Hollinghurst. Back when The Line of Beauty won the Booker Prize, I kept hearing it's praises being sung and seeing gushing reviews, so when I saw that my boss had it one day at work, I had asked her if it lived up to the hype. She seemed a little skeptical, not really loving it and seemingly feeling guilty about this. She enthusiastically suggested that I could borrow it when she was done, which hadn't really been my intention when I asked about it, but when she brought it to me at my desk one day and said she'd like to hear what I thought of it, I thought, why not?
It was wondered if perhaps something would click with me that didn't with her because, like me, the protagonist was gay or if maybe it would resonate more with someone from a younger generation. These seem like reasonable assumptions, and I thought going into it perhaps that would bear out. It did not. Well, at least not until the end or until I found myself discussing it with her later.
From the beginning, I hated the protagonist. Ok, hated is too strong a word. I never actually wished him harm; he just struck me as a sort of irritating narcissist. Part of this is the practical person inside of me hating the shallow stupidity that gleamed through anytime he spoke of love and lust and all that. He lusted after the obviously inaccessible straight friend in whose house he had found himself staying. The family had invited him in as a family member and he treated this proximity simply as an opportunity to incubate this glowering desire. Now at this point it should be noted that I am not trying to suggest that I've never had any inappropriate desire or lusted after someone who was for some reason or another never going to happen. The attraction and desire I can understand, it was his relationship to this desire and how it colored his relationship to his friend and other people that grossed me out. Throughout the book, he shits on potential friendships and wastes the affection of others, until he finds himself at the end with both everything sort of taken care of and also falling to pieces around him.
In his downfall, I find him more likable and less heinous, but I also felt like he had been carefully laying the foundation of his ruin along the way. At this point, he also shines in contrast to how horribly those around him are painted (when margaret thatcher comes across as one of the more agreeable characters in a gay novel, you may be sure there is a problem), though if I remember correctly, the object of his affection was the most likable of the bunch, visibly wounded by being left out of his confidence about being gay and dating their close friend in secret. I found myself moved by the rejection the protagonist felt, but also feeling resentful at being forced into solidarity with him. Nagging in all this was that the book was written beautifully. The construction of the story, the way it was told, the visualizations, the language – all amazing. I simply found myself inside the head of a character whose head I didn't want inside of.
Not the entirety of the character, but parts of him and how he thought reminded me of perennial arguments between me and close friends. Particularly my friend John, who has now recommended a second Hollinghurst novel. Our relationship is famous amongst those who've known us since college for being lovingly antagonistic. On so many things we agree heartily and connect and understand each other, but on others, we are like oil and water. It was almost as if we were each other's punishment. Neither of us would let the other get away with any glib conceit. He thundered political and identity certainty, openly challenging and proclaiming things that were wrong in the world, which terrified me at the time, but I howled back about dealing with things the way they are and being realistic instead of idealistic, making peace and making do. I don't think it is too much to say that either of us would be unrecognizable today without this push and pull from the other. Even today, no longer in daily conference with him, I run things past an idealized version of him in my head, anticipating his objections or critique or praise.
This, of course, would be a person I'd enthusiastically read a novel about, but it wasn't a full image of John that this character evoked for me. Rather, it more recalled things that had irritated me about him, things that we never saw eye to eye on and only those things. I wonder if there is some ugly literary other out there, some worst scenario version of what I'm like given a glimpse inside my head.
It was the glimpses inside the character's head that made him insufferable, not most of his exterior action in the story, so I wasn't surprised when Ben told me he really like the mini-series based on the novel. I'll watch it one day, and perhaps forgive and make up with this character and quit my silent judgment of his vacuous self-importance.
Getting back to my own current vacuous self-importance, I've started trying to read The Folding Star. And I've stopped trying to read it. Again, beautifully written. The language and description is brilliant, but this character has even less to redeem him. He is basically the same character, only he seems to hold less potential for redemption this time around.
If I knew someone else was reading this right now and could compare notes with them, I might trudge on through, but in absence of that, finding that I have less time for reading than I had originally anticipated, I can't devote more to this bland fool. I would have kept going but for a single scene which abruptly launched me out of the book (literally throwing the book to the other end of my bunk), no longer able to care about anyone in it. I'll not describe it fully, but for those of you who have read it, it is the moment in the bar with Cherif when the main character makes his declaration of love. This was my deal-breaker.
When I gave Ellen back her copy of The Line of Beauty, I had to agree with her that it was beautifully written and left a bad taste in my mouth, though as we discussed the particulars I found myself defending the protagonist and even the story itself. The language and the story I could defend, just not the narration. I may yet come back to The Folding Star, but for now it is only the language that I can defend and with other books begging my attention, that is not enough.