States of Desire: Travels in Gay America by Edmund White - review by John Lanchester

John Lanchester

Butch Perrier Drinkers

States of Desire: Travels in Gay America


Picador 343pp £3.95 order from our bookshop

Edmund White has written exquisite, evasive fiction (Forgetting Elena, Caracole) meticulously detailing the relations inside imagined societies; he has also co-written The Joy of Gay Sex. In him a talent for indirection and implication co-exists with an impulse to wards explicit subject matter. This travel book – a journey by a homosexual author round the homosexual communities of America’s great cities – dramatizes both facets of White’s writing, and allies them to his view of homosexual life as a process of self-invention: ‘Once one discovers one is gay, one must choose everything, from how to walk, dress and talk to where to live, with whom and on what terms.’ A consequence of this view is that everything becomes a drama of taste, a comedy of manners. ‘No clothes, of course, are casual; they are so densely superscribed with messages it’s a wonder the ink doesn’t run when it rains.’ White’s manner is always sympathetic, but with a hint of distance which allows us to deduce the author’s amusement and relish: in New York,

The gay male couple inhabiting the Seventies is composed of two men who love each other, share the same friends and interests, and fuck each other almost inadvertently once every six months during a particularly stoned, impromptu three-way.

It’s a dandy’s style, a dandy’s manner which enjoys positioning its intelligence against a background which will display it to better advantage: ‘fist-fucking, as one French savant has pointed out, is our century’s only brand-new contribution to the sexual aramentarium.’

The surfaces, though, tend to remain as surfaces. White’s professed solidarity

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