by Matthew Stadler
New York: Grove Press, published 1999
Hardcover, ISBN: 0-8021-1635-3
Review by Michael Walker
Allan Stein is Matthew Stadler's fourth novel, and judging by its burgeoning acclaim in the popular press, his most noteworthy and therefore most noticed. Allan Stein is something of an unusual novel and though I have not read the three Stadler novels that preceded it, I suspect it is an innovation for its author as much as it is for its readership. This book concerns a literature teacher at a private school who is accused of having an affair with one of his young students -- a fifteen year-old boy whom he is tutoring privately-- and how this initial acquisition spurs events in this man's life that lead him on a long, romantic, and complex adventure. The novel is full of surprising and downright bizarre twists of plot and fortune: for example, the alleged affair with the student had not actually occurred when the teacher was accused of it, but upon considering the possibility of such an affair, the teacher actually ends up seducing the student (a situation that the student is completely in agreement with and which he encourages).
The progression of the book is dream-like yet at the same time lucid and clear. In the wake of his affair with this young student, the main character convinces a close friend who is a museum curator to allow him to travel to Paris (the novel up until this point is set in Seattle) on the behalf of the museum to search for some drawings by Picasso of Allan Stein, the nephew of the legendary lesbian writer Gertrude Stein. Of course, Picasso and the Steins were real people --quite famous people at that-- and the introduction of these historical personages into a novel composed up to this point primarily of fictional characters and set in the present day is both alluring and somewhat disconcerting. Fact and fiction are blended shamelessly here, a hallmark of the talent of any novelist concerned with historical fiction; Stadler repeats the efforts of the best of those who write historical fiction, reminding me of such luminaries as Henry James and Susan Sontag. A comparison to Sontag is also suggested by Stadler's grasp of modern society and culture and his inclusion of a wealth of both literary and contemporary cultural references.
As the main character travels to Paris and the reader follows his progression in search of these missing drawings attributed to Picasso, we also discover that he has found himself another fifteen year-old with whom he engages in a sexual relationship. The novel is narrated from the first-person view of the main character and some readers may find that this approach makes the hero of the story's affairs with younger (much younger) men all the more lurid and suspect. The narrator (and the author) seem quite aware of this, and in places the narrator even suggests (quite coyly) that easily offended readers skip over the more detailed sex scenes and continue with the more easily accepted historical narrative. Reading this book as a young gay male, I found myself harboring mixed emotions about the approach taken to what modern law and society would clearly define as a case (or really, multiple cases) of pedophilia. How are we to view and judge the intergenerational relationships between this man and these boys who are still their in early adolescence? Do we see this as simply artful and tantalizing fiction, as many have defended Nabokov's now-classic Lolita? Or should we allow more of an open reading, acknowledging that while all the events offered in this novel are indeed fictional, that intergenerational relationships do take place and many of these relationships --especially in the case of gay male love-- are mutually beneficial for both parties involved? This book does celebrate the main character's romances, but it does so in a way that the reader is not overly encouraged to sympathize with the narrator. Stadler has to be commended for that approach.
The plot of this novel would be engaging in terms of its historical import and the lush descriptions offered by the author regardless of the issues of pedophilia, or for that matter, regardless of the inclusion of gay characters rather than ones who are straight. However, the novel does broadly include pedophilia and deals with the subject in a way that certainly invites the reader to consider his/her own views of this very controversial subject. We see a man who has no ill or untoward intentions in his actions, but also someone who is never hesitant to take advantage of what a situation may offer him; additionally, sex is most often in this book initially considered at face value: as simply sex. Early in the book, the narrator makes it relatively clear that he expects no permanence in his relationships with young, beautiful, students. He also assumes no desire for such permanence on the part of these boys. Emotion is not lacking from these affairs, but it is not the impetus to their formation, either. To understand how the narrator's views towards his affairs evolve other the course of the novel, you'll just have to read the entire book and consider many details and related factors.
Intergenerational male love has recently become a topic of hot debate: once this was an issue entirely taboo, the rarest, most dreadful, of all subjects to leave the tip of one's tongue, but the more open and pragmatic views of the 1990s have allowed for much-needed discussion. I personally dislike the term "pedophilia", which is often used in the popular press to discuss the topic in broad, general, and rather safe terms. Pedophilia, like other "-philias" (loves) is a medical condition pertaining to the unusual and clinically detrimental obsessions and sexual desires of an older person for people who are still minors, or literally, for those who are children. Pedophilia refers to something rather specific: the unusual and problematic desires of one person in one age group for a person in another, but this clinical term cannot encompass the entire range of intergenerational male love. Man-boy love has long been considered by "mainstream" gay rights and gay advocacy groups to be something beyond the normal scope of what should be included within the scope of acceptable homosexual relations. Groups such as the notorious NAMBLA (North American Man-Boy Love Association) have taken a divergent view, suggesting that intergenerational male love has considerable historical precedent (which it does, not only in the well-documented instance of ancient Greece, but in many other historically important societies) and is not intrinsically wrong providing that both parties involved in a romantic or sexual relationship are consensual to the terms of that relationship. The equally infamous writer and professor of literature, Dr. Camille Paglia, has also championed man-boy love under the same terms and pretenses, expressing that she believes that the age of consent should be lowered to fifteen years of age. A book such as Stadler's offers an invaluable perspective for considering these tough issues, even though it does present a fictional and idealized portrayal of situations that in real life can be anything but ideal.
I would highly recommend Allan Stein to anyone interested in well-written, thoughtful, fiction concerned with gay themes as well as those who enjoy writing that incorporates history and the lyrically rich world of art and literature. Some of the passages --especially those that are sexually explicit-- will offend readers who are repulsed by the very concept of an older man loving a boy, and I will offer that as fair warning. It is also fair to say that Stadler writes perhaps better than any other gay male writer working at the present time: a tough claim to either prove or disprove, so suffice it to say that Stadler has displayed immense talent and an equally impressive command of that talent in this book. His research into historical matters is precise and effective but the real key to the beauty of his writing is his directness and ability to build a highly romantic yet never plodding story line which engages his reader. The issues raised regarding pedophilia neither begin or end with this one novel and should be considered in a much broader and more realistic light: I would love to see what Paglia has to say about the book!
Michael Walker is the Science Editor of *Oasis Magazine*. Some day, he would like to write his own novel; how much that novel will concern underage boys can only be imagined. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org