I can’t decide whether I liked this book, In My Room, by Guillaume Dustan. Something about the narrator never felt believable, his distance. His distance from sex, even while present, no, that was fully believable. It’s that there was nothing else but this distance. A little more, at the end. When he was at a bar in London, talking about the pretty boys only looking for pretty boys, studied disdain as the only way of predicting attraction. I’m not sure what made it feel so much like an older guy writing from the point of view of a younger guy, something about the clinical detachment, but it’s not like younger guys can’t be clinical and detached.
I kept thinking Dustan was really writing about the ‘70s, even though the book takes place in the ‘90s. Maybe it’s the gay leather culture he’s describing, which still seems stuck in the ‘70s with its rigid adherence to masculinist roles or a certain style of exploring those roles even when not rigid. For example, the narrator in the book certainly goes both ways with equal abandon. Maybe it’s that both roles seem the same — fucking or getting fucked it’s just a different kind of abandon. But that’s true, or can be true. I think it’s that either way it’s still a butch exploration. Not that calling the submissive role femme would be any progress, but I am curious about femininity and where it can and usually cannot take place in gay male spaces unless it becomes sideshow, stage show or quick campy banter abandoned, hidden and denied once anything sexual comes into play.
So this is good, this book is making me think. I got distracted from what made the narrator’s youth not feel believable to me, like a charade, but then that’s also what the book is about. This charade of gay male promiscuity in the face of AIDS in the mid-‘90s in Paris in a sexual culture where everyone is assumed to be HIV-positive, even if this isn’t the case. I think the narrator’s struggles as an HIV-positive man, struggles with sexual safety and risk-taking, pleasure and responsibility in the face of a coldness inside and outside, all of this felt realistic. If I didn’t see that this book was published in 1996, I would think it was someone looking back at the mid-‘90s through the lens of today. I think because of the nihilism, but also the sexual risk-taking with regards to safe and unsafe, which to me feels like it didn’t become so widespread and expected until a little later, when protease inhibitors made HIV into a somewhat more manageable condition for many. I wonder if it felt more manageable in Paris earlier on, even without protease inhibitors, because of national healthcare.
I picked up this book at Calamus Books in Boston, with yellowing pages since I’m sure it’s been sitting on the shelf since the English translation was published in1998. I was drawn to the spine because I could tell it was part of the High Risk series on UK publisher Serpent’s Tail, with a fluorescent split-image cover design by Rex Ray and I’m always drawn to those covers. And to the books, or at least to looking at them. I bought the book because from the back cover it seemed to take place in a similar culture to the one I describe in the novel I’m finishing now, Sketchtasy, which takes place in Boston in 1995/’96, but the mindset is so dramatically different. And yes, this narrator is a bit older, 27 or so, whereas mine in 22. But also I think it’s that he’s in a world of older gay men, and my narrator is not in that world. I was not in that world. Or, I was in that world, in those worlds, when they were paying me. Or, when I was in a cruising space. But I was never allowed to be part of those worlds, exactly. And, really I would never have allowed myself to be too much a part, since I was always so suspicious of the lack of political engagement, the studied indifference, the groupthink required.
So now I’m thinking that I’ve always been in these cultures — gay male public sex culture, leather culture, cruising spaces — but I’ve never been part of them. No matter how many hundreds of times I’ve had sex in these public spaces, they have never felt welcoming to me. Because of masculinity and the ways that I refuse to play the part. But still I’m always there. I’m a part, and I’m apart. At first it felt so uncomfortable, and then I learned the rules, and it felt uncomfortable, but more comfortable, familiar, and then maybe around when I stopped turning tricks it just felt like too much to negotiate these spaces and places to obtain a kind of sex that was feeling less and less hopeful. And then, over the last few years the whole thing has just collapsed. I haven’t had sex in over six months, I can’t tell if I want to. I only jerk off about once a month, I think. Really. I don’t even know what I want.
The first time I got fucked without a condom, in San Francisco in 1996, at a bar not so different from the ones in Paris Dustan describes, it was in the back of the bar and I was smashed and this guy pulled me back onto his dick without asking, and it felt so good but I pulled away because what was I doing, and he pulled me back. And after that, I was so freaked out. About the lack of consent. About the lack of safety.
But also I was on my way to a trick I believe, a paying trick, and so I held my emotions in and ordered another cocktail. Or maybe I had just come from a trick? But that kind of cavalier feeling towards sexual safety and risk-taking, I didn’t really feel that so much until later, although obviously it was going on, that’s what I’m realizing now. Realizing that I realized, but not quite. I was cavalier toward other thing, right? That mentality always lurked in the realm of paying tricks who almost always prioritized their pleasure over my safety, I mean actually the first time I got fucked without a condom was way back when I first started turning tricks, probably in 1993, and I didn’t realize this one trick had fucked me without a condom until I tested positive for rectal gonorrhea and I realized he had slipped it off without telling me. This made me stop getting fucked by paying tricks for several years.
So I guess I’m saying I don’t exactly believe this character in the book because his interior doesn’t contain the same range of thoughts that mine did at the time. Which is silly, right, because all our interiors contain and fail to contain a different range of thoughts. Why couldn’t sexual nihilism have arrived earlier in his world, especially since the world he inhabits is exclusively a mainstream gay/leather world.
I think I know what feels like it’s missing — the specificity that brought the narrator to this particular place. We know it’s gay male sexual culture, and leather culture, in bars and clubs and back rooms in Paris, but what about the rest? We don’t get anything about the rest. That’s the coldness, that’s what makes the book feel so trapped, and maybe that’s what makes it intriguing.