THEATRE: PRISCILLA, REVIEWED.
By Andrew Sean Greer
Greer is the author of five previous novels but he’s hit the literary jackpot with this one, winning the 2018 Pulitzer Prize For Fiction. It’s somewhat surprising as his previous novels have all been inventive literary works, while Less is his first comic novel, and the Pulitzer is usually reserved for “serious” books.
Things are not going well for the novel’s main character, Arthur Less. He’s about to turn 50 – an unwelcome milestone as, like most gay men, he’s clinging gamely to his youth. He’s more famous for being the former boyfriend of Robert Brownburn, a literary great, than for his own works. In fact, his publisher has turned down his latest novel. Then the final indignity: Freddy, his younger boyfriend of the past nine years, dumps him and announces his marriage to someone else.
To avoid the wedding entirely by being out of the country, Arthur accepts every dubious literary invitation that’s extended to him, and embarks on an itinerary that will take him to New York, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Morocco, India and Japan. The American abroad is a perennially popular subject in fiction (from Henry James and Paul Bowles through to Garth Greenwell) but this must be one of the wittiest excursions ever.
In Mexico City, the literary festival director has dreamed up a wish list of authors – Hemingway, Faulkner, Woolf – but as they’re all dead, has to content himself with Arthur Less on a panel with Robert Brownburn’s ex-wife Marian. Yes, Arthur is to appear with the woman whose husband he stole decades ago.
At a party in Paris he’s accosted by a drunk gay writer who accuses him of being “a bad gay” as his books are “selfhating”. In India his signature blue suit (“somewhere between ultramarine and cyanide salts”) comes to an untimely end and, when he turns up in Italy to an obscure literary prize ceremony, he discovers it’s to be judged by a group of surly teenagers.
But all these amusing antics and literary jokes are wrapped up in very beautiful prose, and when the ending comes it’s a wonderful surprise to realise that the narrator is someone known to us.
This award success is richly deserved, not only for this very fine novel but also for Greer’s body of work. Hopefully it will encourage readers to seek out his other novels – The
Impossible Lives Of Greta Wells and The Story Of A Marriage – which both have major gay storylines and are superb.
BLAME IT ON BIANCA DEL RIO: THE EXPERT ON NOTHING WITH AN OPINION ON EVERYTHING By Bianca Del Rio
“Bianca del Rio has been called many things – drag queen, comedian, cunt! – but until now, author was not one of them!”
She may not have qualifications, as such, but she does have “years and years of insightful prying and corrosive gossip” backing her up. So, when Leo writes to Bianca asking how he should tell his girlfriend of four years that he’s gay, Bianca advises Leo to tell the girlfriend that she’s not sucking his cock right and to call on his own experience to give her tips!
When Curious Cathy asks Bianca where her favourite place to fuck is, Bianca suggests Cathy should ask her husband!
If politically incorrect humour offends, then this book is probably not for you, as nothing is off limits with this outrageously blunt and very funny drag comic!
THE FRIENDLY ONES By Philip Hensher
The new novel from this gay British writer has no gay characters or content whatsoever, but it owes a great debt to the author’s husband, Zaved, who was born in 1970 in East Pakistan as a war of independence erupted. Hensher told the story of Zaved’s childhood in a previous novel, Scenes From Early Life, but here he fleshes out an expansive and fascinating story of two families, neighbours in suburban Sheffield, told over many decades.
Hilary Spinster is a white British doctor with a wife and four children; while the Sharifullahs are an upwardly mobile Bengali family who fled the 1971 Bangladeshi genocide and war with Pakistan. The novel begins with Nazia and Sharif hosting a house-warming barbecue for their extended family. It’s a chaotic opening with a vast number of characters while their neighbour, the recently retired Doctor Spinster, is perched up a ladder, pruning a tree, and observing the goings-on.
But if the reader feels overwhelmed by all these characters, a dramatic, life-threatening event occurs, suddenly drawing these two families together. It hooks the reader into the lives of, first, the Spinsters, and then the Sharifullahs, over many decades and almost 600 pages. It’s a deeply rewarding and pleasurable read, although probably best attempted when you have the time to devote to it.
It’s also likely to provide an education into the recent history of Bangladesh, of which, many Australian readers will likely have scant knowledge. The richly developed characters are a highlight of the book, from the comically ghastly offspring of the Spinster children through to a first-class villain, Mahfouz. He is Sharif’s brother-in-law who is referred to as a war criminal early on and then, gradually, the extent of his treachery is revealed. It’s a remarkable novel, especially as much of it is based, not from the author’s direct experiences, but from those of his husband, and presumably observation and research.