I enjoyed this novel just fine, but I will be thinking about it for awhile. For one, it’s just so effing clever in its construction and its story. In a way, it does the opposite of what I was annoyed by in Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul, where he makes explicit reference to an author he’s parodying.
This is a Henry James novel if homosexuality were not criminalized in England in the 19th/20th century. I know this because our main character is a graduate student working on a dissertation on Henry James and a film adaptation of one of his lesser well-known novels The Spoils of Poynton, and Nick himself sees the world around him as a kind of Henry James novel itself. What’s interesting about this and why it works for this novel is that not only is he definitely wrong, but he incorrectly thinks this worldview is shaping up around him as well.
But, this IS a kind of Henry James novel. In much of Henry James, you have the old world of Europe confronting a quickly changing modern society. This often presents as aristocracy clashing with “new money” or some other kind of gauche outsider. Whether this is a rich American girl who refuses to follow the subtle rules of society, Americans who can never be Europeans, as well as plenty of other types of these clashes. James himself was a kind of outsider. He was a latent American who became a British citizen, but felt a constant dis-ease with his adopted country. He was possibly a queer figure, never married, never really linked romantically to women, but friends with several famous and influential women throughout his life as well as with several cosmopolitan men. He also sometimes created characters who were social and intellectual dilettantes, at least one, Osmond from Portrait of a Lady, who could be read a sinister queer figure.
So for this novel, our character Nick Guest (this novel is too good to see this an anything but a tongue in cheek obvious symbol of a name) is literally the guest of an upper-class London family whose patriarch has just been elected to parliament in the early days of Thatcher’s England. And how does he celebrate? By going on a blind date with Leo, a Black Londoner, with whom he has sex with in the garden’s of the family estate.
This sets the tone of the novel. Explicit 80s gay sexuality alongside rich-ass Conservative British uppercrust. Oh and lots and lots of drugs.
So what makes this not a James novel or a fake one is that Nick isn’t subtly breaking society’s rules and being made to pay the price for his transgressions. Instead, he is living his own life, taking some risks with his station and his life, but not doing anything more taboo than the rich kids themselves are doing. But because he’s gay, it’s the 80s, and the AIDS crisis is starting to hit its awful peak, he does become a kind of pariah. But because the cost is different from in James, and Nick isn’t actually all that concerned the stakes are lower, socially. So there’s a kind of ironic inversion of a James novel.
This novel has a lot of fun nostalgia for a time and place I don’t know, it’s a familiar kind of novel in a lot of ways, while being deliciously wry and cynical throughout. It’s not quite the scathing sardonic style of Edward St Aubyn, but it’s close.
And yes, cultural conservatism truly truly is a vile worldview.