The Beautiful Room is Empty by Edmund White - review by Laura Cumming

Laura Cumming

Any Time, Any Place

The Beautiful Room is Empty


Picador 186pp £9.95 order from our bookshop

The title of Edmund White’s new novel is the only phrase in the book which doesn’t quite trip off the tongue, and this is probably because it is a quotation. Every other line of this exquisitely written, cheeringly humane novel conveys its gladdening sentiments, compulsive narrative and precise wit with elegance and virtuosity. The narrator of A Boy’s Own Story, to which this is the sequel, continues to go through the rites of a rather rough passage; but greater intellectual assurance has been added to the celebrated nostalgia and sensual gratification of the earlier work.

Bunny is finishing his Michigan schooldays in a lacklustre fashion, his nose pressed against a window that reveals all the delights of the art college next door in that period of the ’50s before Abstract Expressionism became an investment. There he meets the beautiful Maria, communist and woman of ideas, who becomes his platonic lover and also supplies an alternative commentary on his character throughout the book. Bunny assumes bohemian postures among the splattered paint, makes forays into the gay life of Chicago during the holidays and eventually goes to the State university to study Chinese. Horrified by his own Gargantuan sexual appetites, he indulges his burdensome desires as anonymously and secretively as he can among the locker rooms. Later, shifting boxes in Chicago for a living, he meets the laconic Lou with whom he falls in unrequited love. He follows Lou to New York to pursue a vivid nightlife and a dull job as a junior hack. The journey is always as good as the arrival, and Bunny picks up many travelling companions en route. He reaches Manhattan at a time when Greenwich Village had not yet become its own parody as now, when even the dogs can be seen sporting bondage gear. The famous gay avenues of Christopher and Bleeker Streets, now sanctified tourist traps, are exceptionally well described: half Mecca, half hell.

It is a robustly material world, whose characters are as much understood through their clothes as their dialogue. Consignments of The Outsider arrive at bookstores, Everly Brothers records maunder in the background, beehives collapse into yards of bushy Beatnik hair, people pore over Trocchi and Pound, and order ‘Oysters Rockefeller (with Pernod sauce on a bed of spinach)’ – White explodes all ludicrous pretensions with gentle irony. But these period properties merely fortify a sensual life in which all detail gets free entry. The many sexual encounters between men are never obliquely recorded but disclosed with the lyrical affection White summoned so well for heterosexual eroticism in his last book Caracole. You will be taken into every bed and cubicle but you will never see the lurid, purple-lit cottageing scenes of Prick Up Your Ears.

For Bunny, America in the ’50s is ‘one big grey country of families on drowsy holiday, all stuffed in an oversized car and discussing the mileage they were getting and the next restroom stop they’d be making. A country where no-one else was like me.’ This can be any time, any place. Bunny’s isolation is what gives him charm and interest. A Boy’s Own Story had such a wide popularity because Bunny’s endearing sense of difference, of failure, can be the stuff of tragi-comedy to gay and heterosexual alike. The same will apply to the sequel.

Bunny starts off hoping for a cure, armed with an analyst and a pair of shocked parents. His ensuing uncertainty is comically depicted: half trying to prefer women, half trying to disgust himself with excess. The analyst warns that ‘homosexuality would condemn me to an embalmed adolescence … a stale narcissism’, but the analyst goes raving mad and the hero survives to see another day. His encounters with pick-ups suffer from a touch of the Woody Allen’s – ‘I asked Harry questions which he answered politely from a great distance as though the neural impulse had to be translated into several intermediary codes before reaching me as speech’ – and he has a tendency to plunder the dressing up box for guises, unsure whether to be Peter Pan or a bodybuilder today. While everyone else is overdosing or breaking down, he looks briefly as though he might be verging on success, before becoming very fat and, even better, signally failing to make it as a writer. There is nothing worse than a successful writer starring in a successful novel.

When Bunny affects snobbery, Maria informs him. When he overpumps the iron and begins to prize his own measurements, she laughs at him. Similarly, White politely pre-empts potential criticism, planting references to Wilde and Firbank among the pages to acknowledge some influences. He answers the possible objection that the supple movement of the book, fox after hare, cannot accommodate profoundly dramatic incident by agreeing that all his plots are scrapbooks, and that a snapshot memory can have the force of event for him. This careful housekeeping on the author’s part, coupled with the elegant stream of ideas produces the smoothness of a knife cutting through butter. Perhaps you would prefer to be thrown about in your seat more, or challenged by the gay causes this book undoubtedly espouses, but if not, prepare to read the first great work of 1988.

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