Chaos by Edmund White

chaos(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

I sympathise with his sciatica.

And I always wondered what ‘420’ and ‘PNP’ meant.

There’s a good description of the ageing process and the idea that old people smile while they are sleeping as a preparation for the endless sleep which is death.

Suddenly we get a lot of unexpected sex and obsession with penis size.

I liked the descriptions of Istanbul but, overall, the book was boring. (The Guardian reviewer suggested descriptive powers are as sharp as they were when he wrote A Boy’s Own Story in 1982, but, like his characters, his tales seem to have lost some of their old energy.)

chaos 2Interview with the author:

Do you see the new stories and novella as autobiographical in nature?
A. The stories really aren’t autobiographical. They are the kind of stories I like to write, where I take a situation that I inhabit and try to imagine someone I know or somebody slightly different in that situation. For instance, in the story “A Good Sport,” I was Greece last summer like the main character, but he was based on a translator I know who is incredibly refined, passive and self satisfied. He’s entirely different from me because I am needy all the time. The story also takes place in Istanbul, where I once lived and liked to imagine the translator living, where he may have had or not had an affair 20 years ago. Maybe it is just the opium that he is smoking.

Q. The stories often satirize elements of your own biography, referring to characters as semi-famous novelists or older gay men mockingly referring to when they were beautiful. Why?

A. I’ve always had this self-satirizing vein. It sits more easily in fiction like “Chaos” than in a memoir. Self-satire makes people uncomfortable in a memoir because you can be seen as too hard on oneself. It’s cringe-making material when you say, “This is Edmund White talking about Edmund White’s problems.” When you are writing in the third person and it is called a novella, even if people suspect it is autobiographical, there is still a formal distance. I see Jack as partially based on me, but not entirely.

Q. In these stories, what interests you about aging in the gay community?

A. I feel that I am very much of a generation which was into owning up to the reality that we inhabited, and even glorifying it in some ways. I belonged to the Violet Quill, which was a writing group. We were one of the first group of gay writers that addressed gay readers. Earlier books like James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” had been apologies for gay life, addressed to straight audiences. We, however, assumed that the readers already were sophisticated about gay life. It wasn’t our job to be sociologists or anthropologists about gay life, but to get on with the story. Now that the three surviving members of our group, myself, Andrew Holleran and Felice Picano, are all getting older, we write about getting older.

Q. At one point in “Chaos,” Jack’s editor attacks him for pitching another gay novel. Is it truly that hard to publish gay fiction?

A. It’s true. It’s impossible. I think that gay fiction is the last thing that any editor wants to see crossing their desk because it doesn’t sell. I’m considered the best-known gay novelist in the United States today. If it’s true that it’s hard for me to get published, then it is much harder for others. True, there are novelists like Michael Cunningham who are post-gay. They might have one gay character, but they have other straight ones. There is David Sedaris, but he’s a comedian. For people who really write about gay people living in a gay world, it’s been an era of diminishing expectations, partially because literary fiction has been tanking. Literary novelists who used to sell 30,000 copies now sell 9,000. Gay writers with smaller fan bases sell less well.

Q. Another line in the novella refers to the dumbing down of American society? What do you mean by this?A. When I teach literature to my students, I’ll make a reference to John Milton and they’ll scratch their heads. They don’t read Milton anymore. That means people read less. To discuss gay life specifically, there was definitely a feeling decades ago that to live in a big city like New York, to be gay, you had to have an opinion about the opera, you had to know something about the ballet. You had to have read a few of the prominent books of the time. A lot of that was social and cocktail party talk. That has all vanished. Gym culture has replaced that.


Mykonos is no longer the gay safe house it once was. It’s now mostly taken over by tens of thousands of Italian teens all raising hell and racing past on motorbikes, or curling up against one another like puppies in the morning as they wait for the ferry, or clowning around and getting drunk. The road to Paradise Beach is littered with smashed motorbikes, and the hospital is full of Italians who’ve had accidents. Naxos feels peaceful by contrast.”

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