If you are interested in the history and energy of the queer ball scene of the 1980s/1990s — such as was immortalized in the documentary Paris is Burning–, you may love this book. But then again, such as in the case of myself, you may simply think it is fine. I think this one really falls into a category of lesser-by-comparison. That is, I know these stories and have seen other media centered around this specific period of time and community, and found them all to be more engaging than this novel. Which isn’t by any means bad, but just left me a little empty when normally these subjects fill me with much more feeling.
Inspired by members of the real House of Xtravaganza that are seen in the aforementioned documentary, The House of Impossible Beauties follows numerous gay and trans, Latinx individuals as they discover themselves, leave their homes, and eventually form the House of Xtravaganza as a family unit living in Harlem. The point of view switches between numerous characters, as they turn to sex work to survive, face the AIDS epidemic bringing their community to its knees, and find passion and glamour within the ball circuit.
This novel makes sure to hit all the familiar beats from the documentary it is inspired by, as well as many seen throughout the two seasons of Pose which began airing not long after this novel was released. These include but are not limited to: families not accepting their LGBTQ+ children, youth living on the streets and being taken in by house mothers, performing sex work despite the dangers, a trans woman becoming the mistress of a wealthy man, ostracizing of the community and fear during the AIDS crisis, mass graves housing the bodies of so many loved ones that couldn’t afford burials from their found families, a trans woman trying her luck at becoming a model, a trans sex worker being murdered by the same people who solicit her, people diving intro the drug scene just to feel something, and even a quick note on the mummy found in one mother’s closet after she passed away.
While this novel makes sure to make note of –if not directly include– all of the important issues present in the time-period and culture that is being presented, it really ends up feeling more like a homage to real people and their experiences than an exploration in itself; there is a lack of depth that the previously mentioned media of Paris is Burning and Pose provide in their different ways. Having an awareness of the ball scene and queer culture certainly made it easier for me to read and understand The House of Impossible Beauties (there are a lot of slang terms and concepts thrown around that are never truly defined, but more on that later), but it also made me ask: what else? What am I getting out of this other than a rehash of things I have seen before. As I mentioned, it’s not bad, it just doesn’t feel as good in comparison. Even in terms of using the ball scene as a central point to bring this family of characters together, the whole thing is somewhat glossed over beyond one detailed scene in the middle. The whole novel is more about the actual lives of these characters beyond the balls, yet so much importance about it is stated by the characters, so you would expect more to be said about it and how it created this small family, as well as strengthened the greater LGBTQ+ community by bringing people together.
I think this novel was a big undertaking that tried to include so many aspects that it ended up having to flatten itself out a bit in order to check everything off the list. After new characters were introduced the whole thing clipped along to show us different moments in their lives, and all the paths that the novel wanted to travel down seemed like they happened so suddenly, that changes in character and their desires seemed drastic and not totally understandable. Perhaps this was done to show how fleeting things are and how fast life can change, but whatever the case, certain moments where I would have expected more weight or explanation ended up just getting a passing line or two.
And when I used the word “flatten” above, this flattening of characters and my experience with them may have also been due to the inclusion of so much slang and queer language that it felt forced and didn’t flow. It was like the mere subject of drag queens and queerness made it mandatory for “shade” and “tea” and “reading” and “sass” and “butch” and “femme” to be thrown about indiscriminately. I will admit that maybe this would have been better had I been reading it, but I was listening to this one as an audiobook and the reader had a masculine voice which he then put different little inflections on to do the voices and speeches of the different characters. That certainly caused a disconnect between myself and the characters as it just sounded like a man doing a sassy impersonation of a drag queen or gay man, and I didn’t enjoy that one bit. The inclusion of various Spanish phrases and words throughout the novel felt more authentic, and I had no trouble following what they were talking about at any point, even with my limited knowledge of the language.
So in the end, I appreciated the undertaking of this novel and the story being told as a homage to the real lives of those in the House of Xtravaganza. It is filled with big hopes and dreams, but also so much sadness, yet it never really reached me beyond the surface level.