Robert the Late Modernist
Margery Kempe by Robert Glück. NYRB Classics, 192 pages.
I’d been in search of the novels of Robert Glück for years when they landed on my floor. The old bookshelves in the apartment I share with my boyfriend Jeff collapsed, and out of the fray of pages, dust jackets, smashed vegetables, and broken wood—a mess which will surely be narratively generative for both of us one day—I rescued two books that Jeff bought years ago: Glück’s Jack the Modernist (1985) and Margery Kempe (1994). As buried in the twenty-first century literary scene as they were on our shelves, both are nonetheless classics of post-Stonewall gay literature, offering a generation of queer men uncanny glimpses of their own experience: the annoying, worrisome obsession of romance; the immediate pleasures and overanalysis of sex; and the inescapability of pop culture and politics. Glück and his friends, who formed a loose avant-garde movement called the New Narrative, brought everyday life under the lens of experimental literature with an obstinate domesticity that separated them from avant-garde precedent. Their hometown of pre-tech San Francisco served as an appropriately placid venue for endless conversation, needy phone calls, niggling name-dropping, artistic competition, and love.
The cumulative strength of the New Narrative, which consisted of a core group of writers who took government-funded workshops run by Glück and the similarly under-sung Bruce Boone as well as some kindred, famous spirits far from Northern California—Kathy Acker, Dennis Cooper, Gary Indiana, and Chris Kraus—ensured that Glück’s name has remained in certain corners of the American literary edifice over the past few decades. Yet time and a shifting sensibility has relegated his own fiction to creaky personal libraries such as my own. I crack open original editions of Jack the Modernist and Margery Kempe and see the names of lost, idealistic imprints, SeaHorse and High Risk Books, which went down with the sinking ship of American publishing while larger houses bought space on the lifeboats. The paper trail of gay literature—put out by presses little and big—is inherently splotchy: so many people who had reason to remember died of AIDS.
What changed in the past twenty-five years, requiring an academic explanation for a book of amorous adventure like Margery Kempe?
Lucky, then, that less than a year after I discovered Glück’s work in the momentary wreckage of my rent-stabilized apartment, the trendsetting NYRB Classics reissued Margery Kempe. Although not as influential in its time as Jack the Modernist, which was rightfully welcomed as a significant contribution to a then-burgeoning canon of gay literature for its take on the devolution of a same-sex relationship, Kempe is Glück’s most beautiful work of fiction. Its reissue includes a dry-as-onionskin introduction by éminence grise Colm Tóibín and an inexplicable cover illustration of a Greek winged angel—all of the superficial signs that the heterosexual fiction establishment has decided to acknowledge a literary fag. The novel is followed by a short essay by Glück, “My Margery, Margery’s Bob,” previously included in Communal Nude: Collected Essays (2016). Packaging a reissue like this may be routine, but still it makes me wonder: Why hang Glück’s fiction between two explanations, rather than let his prose speak for itself, with all of the wildness and ambiguity it expressed in 1994? What changed in the past twenty-five years, requiring an academic explanation for a book of amorous adventure like Margery Kempe?
The novel stands alone in Glück’s oeuvre, not for its wildness—his lucid, precise descriptions of sex distinguish each of his four volumes of fiction—but for its ambiguity. Margery Kempe follows the eponymous medieval writer and Christian zealot, widely considered to be the first memoirist in the English language, while she travels around the world of the fifteenth century, weathers intolerance and violence, and has an ardent love affair with Jesus Christ. Margery and Jesus fuck ad nauseam:
When they were about to come, Margery spit in his open mouth.
“That’s gross,” Jesus whispered with a look of grievance.
“Of course it is,” Margery replied in a normal voice as Jesus began to spasm with a weak unwilling groan, shifting beneath her slightly. Margery was giving Jesus something to remember but it was Margery who remembered it. “We had exchanged so much spit but let some fly through the air . . . It was just something I wanted to give him.”
Margery’s oral ejaculation is only one example of Glück’s gender-confounding gaze in Kempe. At the end of his character arc, Christ is crucified. After he comes back to life, he takes the fingers of Thomas the Apostle and “jam[s] them into the wound in his chest with a look of rapture.” Glück’s earlier work located its fervent sexuality within the binaries of gay maledom, but Kempe signaled a change. While working on the novel, Glück published an essay, “My Community” (1991), in which he writes about his fantasy life:
Recently, I’ve been masturbating to the image of myself as a woman, passive, tended, and penetrated by two lyrical young men. Sometimes this woman is in a porn movie and one of the men is black….this lovely black man known for his finesse keeps licking the sides of my clit until my sense of my own twin parts dissolves in turmoil—the walls of my vagina become at once yielding and urgent—and . . . his cock . . . [goes] in, very slowly at first—congratulations all around—and then I experience a pleasure more convulsed than I have ever known.
Laden with pornographic stereotype, Glück’s fantasy nonetheless provides a more fitting entrée to the carnivalesque Kempe than Toíbin’s sober-minded introduction, or Glück’s own tweed-jacket-drag afterword. Glück had always wanted to locate personal obsession within a social, collective framework, and Margery Kempe shows him weaving the two together. Jesus is even depicted at one point as a figment in a communal imagination, one that appears to Margery according to her tastes as “a charming reserved brown-haired blond with bone-tipped shoulders, brilliant skin whose chest hairs could be counted, tiny pink nipples, tiny navel, broad hips, and long blond legs.” Yet to others, Glück notes, Christ presents differently.
The versatility of Glück’s sex writing may be credited to the fact that Kempe, like a number of New Narrative texts, is in part a product of appropriation. Glück lifts phrases from Kempe’s memoir, but more importantly he also employs notes from a litany of friends and writers about their sexual and bodily experiences. The sense of sex as the summation of many minds and bodies, deeply personal in origin yet ultimately unmoored from the baggage of individual preference, makes moments in this often disturbing book gleam with the feeling of utopia.
All utopias reflect their time more than they reflect the future, and in them we can see the futility of an era’s dreamers, the inevitability of their failure. This is undoubtedly true for the New Narrative. The closest it came to a manifesto was another Glück essay entitled “Long Note on New Narrative” (2000). Fittingly for a movement that formed around a social scene rather than a set of clear-cut aesthetic or political programs, Glück’s manifesto was written in retrospect, as though to encapsulate relationships that had already left indelible marks on the people involved. It starts, movingly, “To talk about the beginnings of New Narrative, I have to talk about my friendship with Bruce Boone.” Out of these memories of friendship, Glück surfaces the New Narrative’s political context. He describes the people who made up the movement as “gay, lesbian and working class writers,” an alliance between homosexuals and the proletariat that reflects a bygone optimism in queer politics, a desire to locate gay liberation—then in its “heroic period” —adjacent to class struggle, in the righteously high hopes of the New Left.
With idealism, Glück knew, must come self-criticism. More so than most priapic scribes of the twentieth century, he was aware of how books can act as time capsules for a generation’s mores. He follows the masturbatory fantasy described in “My Community” by writing about how the hackneyed characters who appear to him while jerking off make him retroactively “queasy,” noting that his “community has not developed a language to unravel these strands of identification, desire, and racism.”
A tenet of New Narrative texts is the incorporation of unvarnished personal experience, catty confessions, and thoughts not scrubbed to a P.C. sheen.
The New Narrative never did. A product of predominantly white Baby Boomers, they came only part of the way toward unraveling their own experience of difference. Certainly, Glück’s early writing about gay discrimination, most visible in his first story collection, Elements of a Coffee Service (1982), seethed with urgency and thoughtfulness. The opening story, “Sanchez and Day,” about a gay-bashing incident, ends with the following literary call-to-arms: “And what I resolved was this: that I would gear my writing to tell you about incidents like [this] one . . . to put them to you as real questions that need answers, and that these questions, along with my understanding and my practice, would grow more energetic and precise.” Yet Margery Kempe, like Jack the Modernist and much of the gay literature that followed Stonewall, seemed to emerge from a more cynical place, fixating on how differences in ethnicity and class act as both enablers and barriers to romance.
In Kempe, Glück intercuts Margery’s narrative with a metafictional love story: a Jewish writer named Bob is infatuated with L., a younger WASP “extremely rich” with family money. L. is less effusive about his desire than the stereotypically emotive, semitic Bob, and Glück parallels their relationship imbalances with Margery’s one-sided devotion to Christ. The novelist even casts the Jews as Jesus’ crucifiers, a provocation that doubles as a description of the end of Bob and L., the older man’s overbearing personality and Jewish-bred affection nailing their intimacy to the cross.
A tenet of New Narrative texts is the incorporation of unvarnished personal experience, catty confessions, and thoughts not scrubbed to a P.C. sheen. As time went on, unvarnished meant depicting a life grimy with limitations and disappointments. The desire to appropriate merged with the desire to make light of artist-friends, some of them dying of AIDS; the desire to confess merged with the need to dwell on yet another failed romance: Glück, it should be mentioned, is Jewish, and the character of L. is widely known to be based on his ex-boyfriend Loring McAlpin, co-founder of the artist collective Gran Fury.
In “Long Note on New Narrative,” Glück expressed that his desire was to “‘wake up’ to the world, to recognize the world, to be convinced that the world exists, to take revenge on the world for not existing.” In Margery Kempe, Glück recognized a world that was much different than the one in which he and Boone first imagined their literary paths. The New Left had become a historical term. The gay literature whose commercial growth provided a context for Glück’s first novel had plateaued as fiction writing in general continued to lose its sway over the American public. The New Narrative’s reluctance to create a meaningful dialogue around race seemed, by the mid-1990s, both underwhelming and mindful, as the Rodney King trial had recently shaken America and the O.J. Simpson trial was about to begin. (“Can I write about the trial while knowing nothing about it?” asks Glück in his 1995 essay “O.J.”) Of course, our society has continued to fail to untangle the many knots of its racism, and by then—even by today—we might have only tangled them more.
As with most avant-garde movements, death was always woven into the loftiness of the New Narrative’s self-presentation.
In 1994, deaths from HIV/AIDS were nearing their peak in the United States and the most visible activist responses, spearheaded by groups like ACT UP and the aforementioned Gran Fury, disseminated their politics using the visual media of video and agitprop graphics. Glück was trying to find his place in a society that had not only paved over the politics of his youth, but also one that was increasingly championing images over the written word. He dated a number of artists, a predilection that he jokingly described as “a narcissistic aspiration,” collaborating with exes Nayland Blake and Chris Komater among others. He cites as a contemporary lodestar of New Narrative the art star Julian Schnabel, whose early work with broken plates reflects the New Narrative’s jagged tendency toward the body, its impulse to elucidate an experimental aesthetic using the vocabulary of domestic life. Ultimately, Kempe bears less relation to the era’s gay literature than it does to its gay films, Glück’s method of queering a medieval text echoing loose cinematic adaptations such as Derek Jarman’s Edward II (1991), Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), and Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992).
The New Narrative embraced the literature of transgression from its beginning, yet Kempe’s shock value was also a response to the squeamish landscape of the late 1980s and 1990s, in which writing, painting, film, performance and photography were persistently targeted by politicians. Glück’s Christ, recognizably stoic while dripping-wet with sex, can be seen as a flaunting response to the so-called culture wars that had led to massive cuts in arts funding and heralded a rising tide of art phobia in American society, a shift that all but killed the sensibility binding Glück’s collective. Yet as with most avant-garde movements, death was always woven into the loftiness of the New Narrative’s self-presentation. The gumption it showed in naming itself was a sign that Glück’s movement would one day become a historical footnote rather than a present reality.
Standing at the terminus of the twentieth century, Glück and his compatriots were erudite and well-read, radically bourgeois and worn down by an epidemic—a scruffy group that formed in response to the practical trials of being writers in a terrible time. Even the tendency of the New Narrative writers to name-drop, to network within the texts themselves, seems a devastatingly relatable acknowledgement of the draconian forces mounting just outside the walls of their mutually supportive literary community. By the time Margery Kempe came into the world, these forces had converged; like so many gay people who came out just before or during the AIDS crisis, the New Narrative discovered itself simultaneously with its own death. Yet its ideas are mutable, which makes them immortal. Gay and avant-garde publishing houses have shuttered their doors, and San Franciscans have lost their homes and their culture to the class warfare of gentrification. Books, though, get read, even after the shelves fall from underneath them.