A Novel by Matthew Stadler
Hardback $22.00, 256pp.
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Reviewed by Alistair McCartney
In his fourth novel Allan Stein, author Matthew Stadler is entering risky territory on two counts: one, by the very fact that its central narrative, describing the obsessive love of an adult gay man for a fifteen year old boy, is a topic generally regarded as taboo in American culture, and thus better left undocumented and unsaid. And two, that on the contrary, in Western literature, particularly gay literature, this subject of boy love is a valorized subject, much written about, and very well written at that. Think Mann's Death in Venice; think Alan Hollinghurst's The Folding Star and Dennis Cooper's Guide. Stadler has a lot to lose (mainstream culture's approval,) and a lot to live up to (a cozy place in the rather cluttered canon.)
And live up to this heady task he does, by managing to infuse such a problematic narrative, (one that places the writer in danger of either ending up banned, or leaving readers bored,) with his own very distinctive style; by the time I had finished reading this, Stadler's elegant and sticky fingerprints had been left all over this slightly overdetermined genre.
How does he manage to do this? By way of a number of devices, particularly through the startling and sheer narrative pleasures this book contains. The narrator, a high-school teacher living in Seattle, is fired from his job over a sex scandal with a male student that occurs after the fact: it is only after he is accused of seducing the young soccer player that he actually does it, wondering why he didn't think of it earlier.
With time to kill, he jumps at the chance of going to Paris on a business trip his best friend Herbert had been planning. But this is not your everyday vacation; rather it is a journey designed to undo the aimless monotony of his every-days. He travels to Europe incognito (and interestingly, travels through most of the novel similarly veiled, until close to the end his "false" identity collapses under its own weight, and his "true" identity as "Matthew" is artfully revealed in an epistolary fashion.) The narrator is not only tagging along with his best friend, but as him, assuming Herbert's identity as a highly respected museum curator.
This is where the title of the novel comes in, for Herbert's interest in Paris lies in a desire to locate three missing 1906 drawings by Picasso, portraits of Allan Stein, the young nephew of Gertrude Stein. Once in Paris, however, the new "Herbert's" interest latches onto a somewhat different object, locating his desire in the angelic form of Stephane, the fifteen year old son of the family he is staying with. This new "Herbert" proves to be not so new, but actually a shaky fiction incessantly haunted and ambushed by memories of an unnervingly real boyhood.
In the hands of a skillful writer, a story gains power when swooped and circled by other stories. On the whole, Stadler proves more than capable of this, deftly holding this reader's attention in all three-rings of his boy circus. Occasionally he oversteps the mark, adding one layer too many. For instance, he inserts a fair number of quotes from early twentieth-century guidebooks to France, that I found somewhat unnecessary, their presence a distraction from the careful weaving going on throughout the rest of the text.
Even more skillful is his ability to dig even deeper beneath the surface of these three constantly overlapping boys, Allan, Stephane and "Matthew", exploring the tension between their exquisite exteriors and complex, labyrinthine interiors, excavating their highly distinctive beings until they become both individually unique (as a reader I felt attached to all of them) and fundamentally indistinguishable from one another, and the novel becomes a meditation on the profound mysteries of boys.
Avoiding and challenging pop-psychological pabulum, Allan Stein presents us with a disturbing implosion of all those "becoming a man" theories and novels steeped in such rigid systems; in the regions of this novel, it is boys who are the real McCoy, the men they are doomed to become, pale, watered down versions of their true selves. This is a thinking-writing, and unlike many American novelists writing at this time, Stadler seems unafraid to position himself as such.
The novel's philosophical bent works, mainly because it is coupled and wrapped up within a narrative that is authentically sexy. This eroticism is created partly through the details and circumstances, which as the narrator not-so reluctantly confesses in the first few pages, will often "...lapse into...pure pornography...." I for one am a sucker for twinned high porn and high philosophy.
But the sensual heart of the novel lies in Stadler's gift for language. He displays a talent for maintaining a density of language, pushing it to its limit, writing breathlessly beautiful near page-long sentences promiscuous with commas. Then just as I found myself wishing Henry James (along with his endless clauses) had never been born, he would take a sharp turn and swerve into an equally beautifully short and spare observation.
Nowhere more evident is this gift, than in his giddy descriptions of Stephane, as he enumerates the ways and why he loves this boy. Utterly convincing, full of ripe and unexpected metaphors, Stadler lovingly strokes the skin of the words until the words themselves seem to caress the skin of Stephane:
"Stephane stood facing away, the air full of calling birds, tilting his head like a slow metronome or a boy whose thin neck is sore. Dirty hair tickled his shoulders. Bright sunlight shadowed the grooves of his spine, and feathered outward along his ribs. His shoulder blades this morning were made golden and prominent by the sunshine, and they rose from his smooth back whenever the boy moved his arms. The hollows behind his knees hid in the shadow of his baggy hemmed shorts. Stephane turned toward the house, toward me, and what I saw verged on abstraction: the hollows of his collarbone, the way sunlight pooled in the slim lip of his belly button, his pale nipples soft as drained blisters, the broad gap between his rabbit teeth, plus the relaxed, arrogant tilt in his hips and neck."
Gertrude Stein, yet another of this novel's ghostly (de)centers, proclaimed that, in her own work, she was "always... possessed by the intellectual passion for exactitude in the description of inner and outer reality." Not only does Stadler, following in the crisply unmistakable footsteps of his stylistic mother, follow this credo, but gracefully twists it, possessed as he is by an intellectual exactitude for describing passion. Likewise, not only does Stadler live up to the precedents of a pearly string of past novels focusing on disenchanted men swooning over impossibly distant youth (in fact through his casual self-reflexiveness he takes a guilty delight in this lineage,) but, at the close of our over-written century, he bitter-sweetly breathes and rigorously injects unexpected forms of life into it.