You Call This Living?
Review of My Lives: An Autobiography by Edmund White
At a certain juncture in My Lives, Edmund White jokes that the reader must certainly be saying to himself, “TMI! Too much information!” White is, at that point, talking in extravagant detail about his sex life–but then it’s something of a challenge to find a moment in My Lives when he isn’t talking about his sex life, or other people’s, or describing his partners’ physical endowments with the appraising eye of the steer judge at the county fair. When the book is done, the feeling one is left with, above all others, is a kind of disorientation: How is it that a writer with White’s career, talent, and success has so little else to talk about?
Edmund White is nearly twenty years older than I am, and that may explain a great deal. He was already a mature man when I came out in 1976, had already published two novels (though his real masterpieces, A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and his book of stories, Skinned Alive were still before him), had already been through his early attempts to cure himself of homosexuality, his first important loves. In the rapid-fire social evolutions and revolutions between White’s birth and today, twenty years is a very long time, indeed; so I have no difficulty imagining that questions of sex and desire were defining for White in ways that they were not for me.
As I say, that may explain a lot, but I’m not sure it fully explains the obsessive turning over and over of sexual conquests and (especially) sexual failures that characterizes My Lives. In fact, White’s revelations seem calculated to produce humiliation (his own: after a certain number of repetitions, his comments about being fat and underendowed solicit disgust rather than sympathy or understanding) and, simultaneously, to force the reader into a nonconsensual S&M relationship. I suppose you’ve really hit the big time if you can get HarperCollins to help you play dominance and submission, but My Lives is sad when it most wants to be provocative, tawdry when it most wants to elucidate. There’s a great deal I’d liked to have learned from Edmund White, but incessant details about phone sex, late-night cruising, failed three-ways, men who didn’t love him, men he didn’t love, the terrible tragedy of not being young and muscular anymore … those weren’t on my list. In fact, White’s sex life is what makes him exactly like everybody else; I bought the book because I was interested in reading about how he was different.