GLR September-October 2022

Seven Variations on an Arc

T HE BRITISH WRITER Neil Bartlett has constantly astonished me, first with his debut novel, Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall (1992), then with novels such as Skin Lane (2007; reviewed by me in the March April 2009 issue), and now with Address Book , a collection of seven first-person short stories that take their titles from the address where each occurs. The stories cover a range of times. In the first, a man re members a sexual experience he had as a teenager in 1974. The second, in AIDS-drenched 1987, has a disco queen describe a moment of rage at a contemptuous straight world. The third takes place in 1891, where a teacher writes about the Italian la borer he uses as a model for a banner of St. Michael. Next, in 2004, a man tells about giving a speech at a celebration of a

The repeated story arc isn’t a failure of imagination. Instead, the recurring pattern suggests that underlying all the differences is a universality of experience, a plot line that fits all of these lives, a possibility for revelation in everyday reality. For example, the disco queen’s story is about shopping for a mattress—about as ordinary a narra


ADDRESS BOOK by Neil Bartlett Inkandescent. 214 pages, $14.09

tive as possible. With his hardship stipend in hand, he goes into a store that’s above his price range and encounters a disdainful saleslady. Already piqued by her attitude, he notices that the mat tresses have furnishings around them: “Like every bed in the showroom was supposed to be part of somebody’s actual life. And some of the cabinets even had little ornaments on them, lit tle pictures or china figurines or whatever. ... But no ashtrays, you noticed, and no packs of Marlboro Lights; no condoms, and no KY. So this was all real life, but just not ours.” In his rage, he

buys a mattress he can’t afford. When he gets it home, brooding about his foolish purchase, he has a revelation: “[W]hen the sight of it lying there starts to make you think about the fu ture—and oh yes my darling, here it comes; here it actually fucking comes, the point ; when the sight of this empty double mattress lying there on your ac tual, real and very-own back-bedroom floor starts to make you feel that the idea of the Future might be a real ac tual fucking thing for once in your dancing-queen life.” And he makes a list of the things he needs to buy to go with the mattress, to create that future for himself. The same arc structures the narra tive of the Irish man who gives a toast at the lesbians’ commitment cere mony. Preparing the speech dredges up childhood memories of a priest who condemned him and a boy who beat him up. The anger surges and then breaks: “Because until I was up on that chair [giving the toast], you see, I had never quite realized that I still absolutely believed all of that stuff. At the grand old age of thirty four. And now—I don’t.” The fact that a gay marriage is actually hap pening lets him realize that he is ca pable of what he at first calls “happiness”: “I don’t think we should even be calling it by that name any more—at least, not until I’ve had the chance to get used to it. No, I think

civil partnership between two lesbians. Then it’s back to 1965, and a pregnant woman narrates her interaction with her gay neighbor. In the early 2010s, a priest tries to intervene in an immigra tion case. Finally, in more or less the present, a man confronts his grief over his recently deceased husband. Seven stories told by seven differ ent narrators. Bartlett skillfully cap tures each voice, paying attention to era and especially class. He fills each story with physical detail that anchors it in time and place. Yet, for all the dif ferences, the stories all have the same narrative arc. Each deals with some everyday situation or problem; there is nothing exotic or even unusual in the events. But out of their ordinariness, the stories rise to what is for each nar rator a moment of emancipatory epiphany, a realization that makes pos sible a new freedom and a new joy. That moment can take many forms: an orgasm (in several stories) or a tri umphant sublimation; a shedding of the homophobic past or a shopping list that affirms the future; or (my favorite) “that someone is teaching [me] that it’s quite alright to smile.” The realization, like the story itself, is small-scale, but that’s what makes it effective. The mo ment feels earned, and the happiness feels real. Michael Schwartz is an associate editor for this magazine. 40

The G & LR

Made with FlippingBook. PDF to flipbook with ease