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This review is from: The Beautiful Room Is Empty (Vintage International) (Paperback)
This is a remarkable book. The second in Edmund White's autobiographical trilogy (following "A Boy's Own Story", a growing-up-gay novel, and succeeded by "The Farewell Symphony", about the onset of the AIDS crisis), this follows the un-named narrator through his days at a prep school, through college and into New York, up until the Stonewall Riots.
What I find particularly enjoyable about White is the lushness of his prose; it's so sensually enjoyable, comparable to Nabokov. It really brings alive the physical sensations of the narrator, whilst there is an intellectual ballast to the novel which is equally prominent but never overwhelming. White is as comfortable dealing with ideas as he is with physical descriptions, a rare combination. There is a trajectory of increasing warmth throughout, starting from the "deep freeze" of the prep school, which only ever seems to be in Winter, and the art students nearby are wonderfully described as working alone in the cold, with mittens to warm their hands, an apt metaphor for the isolation of intellectuals and artists in the Eisenhower 50s.
As he progresses through college, things heat up, literally and metaphorically; he meets people that help him to develop, and he starts to at on his sexual compulsions, although still in a solitary and loveless fashion. College life, the fraternities and faculty life are skillfully evoked, characters always vibrant - "Mick" is particularly memorable, as is William Everett Hunton.
But the most important character is Lou, an addict and writer, an introduction to bohemia. Like Allen Ginsberg, although from a completely different tradition, White is remarkably unselfconscious about describing sexual activity, with an unflinching eye. Their relationship, with its various tumults, provides the backbone of the novel, as only Lou can fulfill him both intellectually and physically. The ending, during the Stonewall riots, marks the passing of the era of "gay shame", though it does seem a little pat and neat.
This is a wonderful novel, full of life, ideas, memorable characters, unflinching self-analysis, evocative passages, sensual desrciption, and a vitality that keeps you returning to it. It's not "a gay novel" but a brilliant bildungsroman about a man who is gay - and a brilliant read.