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Hag About Town

Resurrecting queer literature with bite

Love Junkie by Robert Plunket. New Directions, 272 pages. 2024 (1992).

Books just aren’t funny anymore. Paul McAdory—outspoken critic of faggotry’s wayward shift toward bleeding-heart syndrome, and, by my account, a friend, agrees. “Do we not grow tired, after so many rounds of this sentimental journey to the weepy, fantastical core of human experience?” he writes. Presumably the editor at New Directions responsible for excavating Robert Plunket’s novels from literary obscurity also concurs. Sober self-seriousness is everywhere in contemporary fiction, but its locus seems to be, disappointingly, gay fiction. We’re already combating cultural obsolescence—boredom and intellectual destitution now too? The future of queer literature seems, frankly, inauspicious; so, like paleontologists, or 9/11 truthers, we search the past for what’s lost in the present: fossil records, steel beams, or in our case, humor.

Love Junkie, originally published in 1992 and the most recent of Plunket’s work to have been reissued by New Directions, is our missing link. The novel follows Mimi Smithers, a wannabe Westchester socialite, as she gets swept up in Manhattan’s gay scene, where she ultimately falls hopelessly, catastrophically in love with Joel, a gay-for-pay porn star who hawks his dirty underwear on the side. Mimi’s purportedly impeccable taste and encyclopedic knowledge of twentieth-century design is outstripped only by her utter delusion and seemingly infinite capacity for cutting hot takes; she never comes correct. A woman she doesn’t like compensates “for her lack of physical allure” by cultivating “an unbridled enthusiasm for everything she [comes] across,” so much so that it crosses Mimi’s mind “how depleted she must be by the end of the day. So many tremors of delight had passed through her body that she must have crawled into bed exhausted.” Cabaret “can strike either men or women and has recently been recognized by the National Psychiatric Association as a form of addiction.” And in a twofer, clones—the “Great Middle Class of homosexuality” who are endemic to major metropolitan areas—are “harder to tell apart than Chinese waiters,” try as she might.

Reading Love Junkie is a bona fide social liability. I found myself catching flies and side-eye, my mouth agape in constant laughter—in transit, in coffee shops, and against my best efforts. I quickly became the GBF Mimi always wanted, captive to her unending wit. I was disturbed but couldn’t look away—like watching a car crash, or a guy beating his meat in public only to realize he’s kinda hot. In fact, reading Love Junkie is a lot like masturbation. It’s guilty pleasure in the extreme; sometimes, we just can’t help ourselves.

When we equate queerness and virtuosity, we conveniently obfuscate the unsavory reality that people can be, and often are, less than perfect.

However talented a raconteur, Mimi is not a convincing woman. If anything, she reads more as an alias for Plunket; Plunket in drag, if you will. A protracted correspondence with Plunket—Bob, he insists—which, alongside vintage smut, included (welcome!) queries about the size of my penis and unsolicited dating advice, did little to assuage this sneaking suspicion. (Besides, he basically admits as much.) But to stay grounded in the text: Mimi’s voice is limper than my wrists. “When are people going to learn that if you want the English country look, you have to be prepared to spend!” she exclaims of the desultory furniture choices made by one gay couple. “The Chesterfield couch looked too shiny and new; the hunting prints were too brightly colored,” and the wingback chair “was flirting dangerously with the Early American.”

Out shopping one day, Mimi runs into Tom, a linchpin of New York’s gay culturati, who begins whisking her along on social outings and, conveniently, enlists her pro bono support to keep his boutique PR agency afloat. Mimi is thrilled; she is in love with Tom but will settle for being a “member of the In Crowd.” It turns out both are unattainable, and slapstick and humiliation ensue. In a last-ditch effort to ingratiate herself with Tom and his posse, she takes a spot as an unwelcome guest in a House of Clones on Fire Island. She spends the majority of her time showering with a douche nozzle before succumbing to a quasi-catatonic state of fear while lost in the Meat Rack, a cruising grounds as carnal as the name suggests. “You can’t imagine what it’s like,” she recalls, “to huddle in a shrub for over an hour, too terrified to show your face, while men all around you are saying things like ‘Watch the teeth, cocksucker.’” I can, actually, but that’s beside the point.

Escaping Fire Island in the middle of the night, she runs into Joel on the ferry, kicking off her love affair and the novel’s second act. She again finds herself doing unpaid labor, this time disseminating Joel’s used underwear to hungry clients and stoking his narcissism. Preposterously smitten, the acidity with which Mimi normally treats everyone is conspicuously suspended when speaking about Joel: his “manipulative streak” is actually a diplomatic “rearranging” of “things for the greater good”; his hostility a “healthy impatience with a world that richly deserved it,” and his “countless hours at the gym” are “a financial payoff, not an ego boost.” Mimi may be spineless, but her mental gymnastics are Olympic-grade—I can’t help but be in her corner, watching her go for gold.

Mimi’s casual malevolence and myopia remind me of two people: myself, of course, and Elliot Weiner, the pompous, closeted protagonist of Bob’s first novel, My Search for Warren Harding. Mimi’s and Elliot’s voices are virtually indistinguishable, though Elliot employs widespread bigotry and cutting social critique as he sublimates his homosexuality into an indefatigable pursuit of a trove of love letters between President Warren Harding and his mistress Rebekah Kinney that he believes will catapult him to scholastic fame. He relocates to Los Angeles to bamboozle Rebekah, wizened with age, into giving him the letters. Soon, living in the pool house attached to her crumbling manse in the Hollywood Hills, he realizes his largest obstacle, literally, will be Jonica, Rebekah’s protective and morbidly obese granddaughter. Weiner figures the best way to the old maid’s letters is through the fat maiden’s heart.

Wooing Jonica proves difficult; he really hates fat people, and philistines, and women. “She lumbers out of bed like a grizzly bear,” he laments. She is “unsullied by any original thought” and “eats bouillon raw!” “I won’t go into details,” he remarks of her body, “but will say this: she had a lot of dimples. Everywhere.” Not enough fatphobia for you? Get this: watching her get airlifted out of the ocean by the Coast Guard following a jump, of sorts, off a friend’s yacht, Elliot wonders, “What would this humiliation do to Jonica’s psyche?” Does Elliot question his own role in her psychic destruction? There’s no time to ask. The stretcher snaps under her weight, dropping her to the ship’s deck. “It wasn’t a long distance—eight or ten feet at most. She had time for only the shortest scream.”

The main difference between Mimi and Elliot is that, while the latter reserves his scorn for others, the former will gladly direct it at herself. “Flitting around the bathroom like a moth in a shoebox,” she frantically tries to escape prostituting herself alongside Nanette, her entrée indésirable into the world of BDSM and clear favorite of their geriatric client. “A failure as a prostitute, even,” she bemoans, “Did my humiliation have no end?” Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. Mimi’s embarrassment is a constant source of comic and cosmic relief. Case in point: she briefly procures Joel’s affections, but at the five-figure cost of financing his disastrous art house porno. It makes laughing at Love Junkie a little easier than laughing at My Search for Warren Harding—disses are met with retribution, a sort of equity of cruelty I trust will be more palatable to the tenderqueers among us.

Mimi and Elliot’s peculiar brand of bite melds with the tumult of their emotions. As with Mimi, Elliot’s rancor not-so-mysteriously dissipates once he is besotted—in his case, with Vernon, Jonica’s layabout stud of an ex-boyfriend. In either case, you find yourself rooting for them despite their insolence. They’re discomfiting only insofar as they are relatable—self-absorbed, insecure, possessed of the shortcomings that make us infuriatingly human. In neither book is queerness glamorous; if anything, it’s the opposite, and that’s quite alright. DEI warriors, stand up: “Queer does not equal good or pure or right. It is simply a state of being,” writes Carmen Maria Machado in her memoir In the Dream House. Queer is “subject to politics, to its own social forces, to larger narratives, to moral complexities of every kind.” Mimi and Elliot are queerer in fact rather than in their identification, and that’s kind of the point.

Bob’s novels have a decidedly queer sensibility; they delight in camp, they slice with merciless social acuity, they reject tidy explanation. This refusal illuminates the crude, contemporary fetish for representation, which is almost always a substitute for substance. When we equate queerness and virtuosity, we conveniently obfuscate the unsavory reality that people can be, and often are, less than perfect. Characters’ gnarly deformities are precisely what give stories the fleshy, imperfect texture of humanness and brings them to life. What makes us bad is, ironically, good—at least when it comes to literature. Mimi may not be a believable woman, but she and Elliot are very believable people. As a reader, and someone who enjoys critical thought, this is much more interesting.

It’s the “critical thought” component that is in jeopardy today. Vicky Osterweil writes that we’re living in a moment of “thudding cultural literalism.” Characters have been reduced to vessels for politics, stripped of conflict and contradiction. If we aren’t paying hard-earned cash to watch outright advertisements (Barbie), then we are still forking it over for sophomoric stories that refuse moral ambiguity (Everything Everywhere All At Once). Works of this stripe are dull and lifeless, sure, but also insidious—in Osterweil’s view, they represent an “attempt to stifle unruly energies, desires and dreams” and defang social critique.

Osterweil may be overstating her case, but I, too, am tired of feeling infantilized by the media I consume. Queer literature is, regrettably, no exception. Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a particularly blunt-force weapon in the arsenal of this kind of prescriptive literalism, meting out ever-mounting miseries in an attempt to legitimize the protagonist’s worldview as not just uniquely sad, but true. A turn of phrase from the novel that seems to occupy an outsize portion of Paul McAdory’s and my mind: “It’s not fair that the word laughter is trapped inside slaughter.” Clearly Vuong is not a fan of Tarantino, or most slasher films (Drag Me to Hell being a personal fave and strong negation of this premise), nor does it seem he has read Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Tristan Garcia’s polemic Hate: A Romance, any of the comedic successes that fleck the commercial crime thriller genre (Carl Hiaasen, anyone?), or any Patricia Highsmith for that matter—literature in which slaughter is, arguably (and intentionally), quite funny. And he definitely hasn’t read Love Junkie.

Following a relationship-ending public humiliation from Joel, Mimi slinks back to the suburbs to overdose on anti-nausea suppositories. “Had nothing good ever happened to me? Had I ever had a break in my entire life? Had I once had good luck?” She’s finally getting the hint; God forgives. Her suicide attempt is interrupted by a phone call from President Reagan; her husband has been cooked in a freak chemical accident in India. “All I could do was sit there and think. How strange, how perfect, that in the end there really is a God after all.” Here, laughter is indeed irreducible from slaughter, but not in the way Vuong laments. Mimi’s internal logic may be deluded, but at least she’s capable of joy.

I like my books like I like my men: thick, funny, and full of contradictions.

Vuong’s disconcertingly limited emotional register reveals a larger issue. In On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous——and, unfortunately, a lot of other obtusely titled queer literature—trauma is central to legitimizing a character’s subjectivity. These characters aren’t relatable beyond their pain; they float around in a primordial soup of misgivings, untethered from anything save the narrative in which they’re suspended. Paradoxes mount: they effuse humility while being painfully self-aggrandizing; searing sexual trauma seeps from otherwise tepid rendezvous (pouty handjobs, sitcom-induced masturbation); they are seriously unserious. I am not the first to make this observation, including about queer literature. While Bob’s novels are a far cry from anything serious, their acerbity offers a livelier portrait of the world precisely because they are unconstrained by victimhood or moralizing. Mimi, Elliot, and Bob’s gang of characters—deranged, devilish, and likable against all odds—seem to have been resurrected to save us from the sincerity-pilled.

Fortunately, and as is often the case, the dolls are one step ahead of the game. Books like Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt—about two trans girls surviving a post-apocalyptic world filled with zombified men and militant TERFs intent on their annihilation (think The Last of Us on estrogen)—and Jackie Ess’s Darryl, which unwinds the musings of a devout cuckold fetishist and his increasing curiosities about homosexuality and transness, reach for something more tastefully problematic. “I was very afraid of just becoming a better or worse voice of Trans Women Of Color,” Ess said in an interview. She didn’t want her transness to communicate any sort of “special epistemic status”—she just wanted to tell a story, unburdened by the saintly political orientations we increasingly demand of queer writers. The prevailing authority of respectability and identity politics has sanitized culture to the extreme, producing an aversion to risk and humor that stymies creativity and complexity. I like my books like I like my men: thick, funny, and full of contradictions.

That’s the beauty of Love Junkie. It reminds us that there are other registers of expression and social critique—satire, however forgotten, principal among them. It encourages readers to tease truth from situations that (hopefully!) don’t neatly conform to their worldview. The tendency to police language is objectionable not only because it’s cop behavior but because it ransacks our ability to think both with and against the ethical and political questions literature can bring to light. Though the moment suggests otherwise, literature is not obligated to answer these questions, only to reveal them. And yet, these days, we prefer answers: advertisements cannibalize search engines with fantastical solutions to your queries; algorithms supplant your social feeds with presuppositions of what you want to see; getting medicated, getting verified, and getting laid have become a little too easy.

In this climate, Love Junkie puts some bite back into a mostly toothless body of queer literature. I texted Bob again, quietly skirting his outstanding solicitation for dick pics with my own request for some book recommendations. It’s blue balls all around: Bob “doesn’t touch” contemporary literature, and I’m starting to see why. Looking back really does seem like one of the best ways forward. For readers who want to feel something, rather than be told what to feel, this sort of nostalgia is our best bet—and there’s no better place to start than Love Junkie.