Review by Timncalifornia
I picked up Two Natures because the summary on the jacket referenced the spiritual struggle of the central character as one of the story’s main conflicts. I’ve been searching for gay themed literature outside the romance/coming out genres. Julian Selkirk is a young man pursuing a career as a fashion photographer in New York City in the 1990s. We meet this southern transplant as he completes his last year of college at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and follow his life and career for the next four years.
Julian is out of the closet in that way men were out of the closet in the early ‘90s – he wasn’t actively lying (except for a short-lived charade when his parents visit), but he wasn’t waving the rainbow flag either. He mostly kept himself to himself when it came to his sexuality and let people draw their own conclusions. It’s the height of the AIDS epidemic and even the more liberal constituency in the U.S. was leery of openly supporting a marginalized population who were largely thought to have unleashed a highly contagious plague. As the story moves from year to year, Julian is more comfortably out and we sense that the U.S., in its urban centers at least, is closer to understanding the gay experience as normal. This increasing openness and acceptance is never explicitly addressed in the book but the author, Jendi Reiter, reels out the story so that we see this evolution of gay acceptance that picked up speed at the end of the millennium.
Reiter’s writing is smart, witty and flows smoothly through the whole of this 400 page book. From a quick jab at a Schwarzenegger film –
“We went to see “True Lies” after dinner because Phil was looking for a movie “where nobody cries or learns anything.”’
To a lyrical passage on an ecstasy-fueled night at a club-
“The lights would soften to a lavender cloud, the steam of the dancers’ bodies would enfold me like an ocean, all stupid jokes would seem pathetically sweet as a child’s crayon drawing, and pretty soon I’d be telling my life story to the Caterpillar and the Red Queen while the Rabbit stuck a teapot up my ass.”
Reiter skillfully weaves humor and pathos. The story is never bogged down by the writing and, indeed, the writing saves the story in places.
I was expecting more of an existential struggle, an internal questioning of morality and existence and purpose. Instead, most of Julian’s spiritual and moral conflicts seemed fleeting and rushed, very much only grazing the surface, the exceptions being when real threat of death loomed. This is either a failure of the book or its brilliantly subtle message.
My take away is that the telling of Julian’s story is very true to real life. As new adults, we are focused on survival – starting a career, building a reputation, forming relationships,building a circle of friends. In the midst of keeping ourselves afloat, there is little time or energy left for the friend who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, for the homeless guy with the cardboard sign we pass daily in the subway, for tackling global warming – no matter how moved we were by a film about it.
This is doubly true for gay men and women whose families have rejected them. Their survival depends entirely on themselves and they are making an adjustment to the social norms of whatever gay or lesbian center or enclave in which they find themselves. It is interesting to note that the one character in the book who has devoted himself to social work and helping the less fortunate lives at home with two intellectual, financially comfortable parents who are not just tolerant but outright supportive of their gay son. The contrast between his life and that of Julian and some of the other characters is evident.
What moved this book from a five star read to four are the rampant verbal anachronisms and literary presentisms. No one was ordering a “grande mocha skim latte” in 1992. The “grande” sizing (and mainstreaming of “mocha skim lattes”) would have arrived in 1994 when Starbucks opened its first store in New York City. Likewise, there was no “Miss Cleo’s psychic hotline” in 1993. People weren’t wearing “hipster” eyeglasses in 1996 or eating “artisanal fucking cheeses” or engaging in “slashfic cosplay.”
These out-of-time references are benign and while noticeable to someone who lived through the ‘90s and would have been contemporaries of Julian and the others, they don’t change the story in a meaningful way. Much more troubling is the literary presentism evident in some of the language used by the characters.
In 1994 we are presented with models who are “too ethnic”, in 1995 the concept of “white privilege” and in 1996 “multiracial” foster kids. None of these words enjoyed mainstream use in that context at that time. Yes, models who were black or otherwise dark-skinned struggled in the fashion industry at that time and yes, white people enjoyed privileges in society simply from being white and yes, people descended from parents of different color and races. Yes, that all happened in the ‘90s but we weren’t using those words to describe those situations yet.
Does it matter? They’re just words, after all, that illuminate social circumstances that did exist at the time just as they exist today where we are using those phrases. And terms like “white privilege” were in use in academia. I think it does matter. It matters because the mainstreaming of “white privilege”, “multiracial”, and “ethnic” represents the raised consciousness of society, and specifically in these cases the raised consciousness of white people like myself. That raised consciousness didn’t just happen. It was the result of work by black academics and activists and politicians who dedicated themselves to communicating their experience of the world so that the world could change and be improved. Those terms have given us a language, given us words, to discuss experiences that can be personal and around which there are heightened sensitivities that make discussion more difficult. We needed these words, but it took effort and sacrifice for them to emerge into the mainstream. That effort and sacrifice is erased when they’re dropped into a time period where they were not yet in use.
For many readers, I suspect the anachronistic language won’t even be noticeable and it doesn’t sink the book by any means. Two Natures is a book I would easily recommend and I would absolutely pick up another book by Jendi Reiter, whose descriptions and humor keep reading a pleasure.