Monday, February 3, 2014

Review: Giovanni's Room

Giovanni's RoomGiovanni's Room by James Baldwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Being that I've never read "gay lit" before, I'm not really sure if this is a great introduction to the genre, since I'm almost certain that most modern gay lit isn't like "Giovanni's Room". And why should it be, since this is gay lit written by the magnificent, James Baldwin? Unlike most gay lit--which I'm just guessing, so please don't scorn my ignorance if I'm wrong--this is the story of a man who wishes he wasn't gay, and it details the suffering he goes through loving a man when he knows (or at least, feels), that he shouldn't. It's "Brokeback Mountain" about fifty or so years earlier. And at that, all I can think is, wow, the balls on James Baldwin (The double entendre is, of course, intentional). To write a story like this, which, in a nutshell, is about an American man who falls in love with an Italian man in Paris, as his second novel (in the 50s, no less!) is astonishing. He probably almost sabotaged his entire career writing a book like this, and it's all the more impressive to see just how open and revelatory it is. Baldwin put his soul on the page, and you can see it in every last word. It's even more impressive that he was a black man writing about white men. The scope of this small book is massive, just massive!

Baldwin is a master at characters, so you get a true sense of what all of them are feeling, and why. Giovanni's room itself is actually a metaphor for homosexuality, and the protagonist, David, can't stand being inside it, even though it represents safety and even love for him. Being inside it is the only true time David is happy, and it represents so much in so little that it's a wonderful analogy for being an outsider, even when you're inside somewhere.

That said, while the book is masterful throughout, I kind of didn't like all the descriptions of Paris. I felt the central story was interesting enough and I didn't really need a sight-seeing tour. Even so, the book still stands up as one of the most ambitious novels of the post-modernist age. I've now read both Baldwin's first and second novel, and I hope to read the rest of his fiction in the coming months. This is a masterful, masterful book, that you should definitely read if you're curious about it.

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