Now that my own book is mostly done (and I will have updates on that eventually, don’t worry), I’m trying to take a breather and actually read some new fiction. This is a challenge for me—has always been, because my interests tend to be past-oriented. The reasons here are multiple, including genre (no one writes the kinds of things I like to read anymore) and residual-snobbery (I still, in the recesses of my brain, wonder why I should read new fiction instead of older stuff—after all, the new won’t last, will it?). So this year I determined to make an effort. I tracked down several coming-in-2018 lists and preordered what amounts to a book a month for the next five months. I had a couple of requirements here:
1] The book has to be new, of course.
2] It has to be a novel; I do fiction professionally and should probably keep abreast of developments here.
3] The novel has to be outside my wheelhouse. So, very little detective fiction, nothing or almost nothing to do with American small towns, etc.
4] I privileged novelists writing from a minority perspective or dealing with settings and themes I don’t normally cover. There are two reasons for this: first, because I need to read some diverse voices after the long string of mostly-white, mostly-male, mostly-straight authors I covered for the book. I was beginning to feel constrained and needed to break out of the mold. Second, because if the book is outside my wheelhouse  and covering topics or characters I haven’t done scholarship on , I’ll feel less pressed to make the reading “matter” by writing some piece of academic work on it.
5] The novel should by an American author, because I do American fiction and I want to see what it looks like these days.
6] I plan to log my reactions to the books I read in this project here. Don't expect anything deep. These are almost-totally-off-the-cuff ruminations, and sometimes I'll be speaking more from a place of ignorance than knowledge.
Now, rules are made to be broken—at least [Bette Davis voice] mine are, by me. So, for instance, when David Peace’s new novel hits Kindle, that’s my book for the month, and I don’t care if he doesn’t fulfill  and  and  because Peace is, for my money, among the authentically great living novelists of the day. One day, perhaps, I’ll do some writing on him. He’s certainly in my list of distant-dream-projects, along with Pai Hsien-yung’s Crystal Boys (or, at least, the TV series based on it—which you really should watch because it’s excellent).
Speaking of Crystal Boys, the second novel in this project reminded me of Pai’s novel in a number of key respects. (The first novel, James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux, is quite good, of course, but it was part of the project before there was a project, so it barely counts). Joseph Cassara’s The House of Impossible Beauties follows a group of young LGBTQ characters from 1976 through 1993. These are characters who have been rejected by their families. They find themselves hustling on the streets and eventually form the House of Xtravaganza. Which is real.
I won’t repeat the Wikipedia page. I know nothing of the ball scene and won’t pretend to know any more after reading the novel. We’re talking Paris is Burning, here. The characters are, we are told, fictional (except when they’re not) but they do seem to map roughly onto the real-life persons of the House of Xtravaganza. Venus is Venus, for instance, and Angel is Angie. Dorian is Dorian, and is also the only character to narrate her own sections in first person.
This isn’t a happy book. Most of the real-life persons involved died from AIDS (or, in the case of Venus, violence), and the book doesn’t hide that fact (it is dedicated to the people lost to AIDS as well as those killed in the Pulse shooting of 2016). It could be argued to be a joyful book, in that it celebrates the community formed by these outcasts and bears witness to their triumphs as well as their tragedies. In this sense, the novel can be thought of as a tribute to the House of Xtravaganza and to the ball culture in general.
Which is fair, of course, but the question to ask of any novel is whether it works. And I’m honestly not certain. It did make me feel things, which is, from one perspective, the point of fiction. The prose is racy and energetic, musical without falling into that hoary old critical cliché “lyrical” (whenever I see a novel’s prose described as “lyrical,” I tend to run the other direction). The characters are defined and their struggles nobly portrayed (Cassara pointedly refuses to show either actual deaths or the aftermath of deaths, which I assume is the contemporary version of “drawing the veil” over scenes too delicate to be shown).
But, really, I can’t say right now what I think about the novel. It left me with a melancholy that’s characteristic of much good fiction—more than that, it left me with a sadness for these people who lost so much. In that, I suppose, we can say it is good in the same way that all good fiction is good—it succeeded in its task, and it lingers after the last page has been read. And it’s got me finally curious about watching Paris is Burning, so on that level, too, it succeeds.
For a television series that covers similar-though-not-identical ground, watch Crystal Boys.
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Nathanael T. Booth. All views are my own.