Midway through “Giovanni’s Room”
Tim: There’s something I feel I have to address with this book. Some of this discussion may reflect badly on me. I don’t know. But it was the thing I thought about most as I was reading, so it needs to be talked about.
I felt really uncomfortable for most of the time I was reading Giovanni’s Room. Not in any way that was definitively negative. But there’s no getting around the fact that part of this book made me squeamish. As a straight male, it was so hard to get inside David’s head even though he’s the narrator. I think I’m generally pretty empathetic when it comes to seeing anything from another person’s point of view. But I feel no attraction whatsoever to other men, and I am completely at a loss to understand it in others on anything more than a conceptual level. Much of the rest of the book Baldwin got me to feel what was going on on a visceral level (which is what stories are good at). But for whatever reason, I just completely failed to make that particular jump.
Debby: I find that really interesting. I’m trying to place myself back in that moment when I was reading the scene between David and his first male partner, Joey. I think because I knew from the tone and the setup what was going to inevitably occur prepared me for the encounter. What I am most impressed with Baldwin for doing is capturing the complexity of emotions that fill David’s head and literally transferring them to the reader’s own mind. David isn’t comfortable with this experience either. In fact, he runs away from it and acts cruelly towards Joey, hoping to make that discomfort disappear into the void. I think what you’re encountering, Tim, is exactly the issue that Baldwin hopes you engage with: that society/religion/nature have created within human beings this definition of how we are supposed to feel about homosexuality, but ultimately that isn’t how everybody actually feels.
Tim: Yes, I agree that Baldwin’s doing exactly that – and pretty effectively – but I am going to push back a little. Because even in that moment, I didn’t share in David’s confusion over right and wrong according to the confines of the society in which he was raised. I disconnected from the act and then watched his reaction. It’s a really fine line, perhaps, but that is exactly what happened as I read it. I was intrigued by David and by how he dealt with society, but at the same time I had a marked disinterest, or perhaps better, a disengagement from the particulars of what caused that turmoil. I saw it taking place but found myself utterly unable to experience the moment, only to understand the results.
Debby: But do you think that’s an innate reflex? Or culturally/religiously incited? I’m being reminded of another circumstance in which I felt extremely uncomfortable: watching James Franco’s documentary “Interior. Leather. Bar.” at the Sundance Film Festival. It was essentially a re-imagined homosexual porno from the 80s. I had never seen anything like it before and, sitting in that dark theater, I felt extremely uncomfortable with the images on the screen. In that circumstance, I could not relate at all… not with the desire, the emotions, the acts, etc. Now, I think much that can be directly attributed to Franco’s lack of taste. But looking back, I would completely agree with your feelings of “disengagement”. However, in Baldwin’s book while I was not appreciating the sexual encounters with any sort of eroticism, I really did engage with the human elements and thoughts processes that coincided with the events. I have had experiences where, at the time, I was not at all convinced it was the right thing. But even when some part of you says “no”, there is still an overwhelming desire to drown that voice out and do exactly what you feel. I thought Baldwin captured those emotions perfectly.
Tim: I agree, and that’s why on the whole I’ve stayed engaged with the book. But it was one of the more bizarre experiences I’ve had because there’s such a sense of distance despite the closeness engendered by other elements.