Robert Glück’s Gloriously Unreliable Memorial to a Lost Love

Robert Glück’s Gloriously Unreliable Memorial to a Lost Love

Bob and Ed met at a San Francisco streetcar stop in 1970. The two men were in their early twenties. They had each come from watching the same film that evening, Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s debauched landmark “Trash.” Ed, who wore a blue peacoat, his hair below his shoulders, spoke first. “I noticed you in the theater,” he said. “Are there other movies like that?” He opened his sketchbook to display his drawings. Bob rode the trolley one stop, hopped off, and ran back to Ed. They lived together for eight years and remained close after they broke up.

“Bob” and “Ed” are Robert Glück and Ed Aulerich-Sugai. This scene appears in Glück’s new book, “About Ed,” a hybrid of fiction and memoir that incorporates Bob’s narration and Ed’s own words into a contrapuntal account of their lives together and apart. Ed was an artist—he painted clouds, X-rays, cells, nudes—and a gifted gardener who eventually became an orchid horticulturist at Golden Gate Park’s world-renowned Conservatory of Flowers. He tested positive for H.I.V. in 1987, and Bob helped care for him until he died from complications of AIDS, in 1994.

Glück, who co-founded the experimental New Narrative literary movement in the late nineteen-seventies, has written two autobiographical long narratives, “Margery Kempe” and “Jack the Modernist,” that center around a literary stand-in named “Bob,” whose background and experience are basically his own. Two decades ago, he started a project about his life with Ed, having begun to accumulate notes and chapters before his ex’s demise. That manuscript became “About Ed,” which was published, in November, by NYRB. Glück is a self-professed slow writer, but he was also delayed by the burden of his book’s content—the subject was his first real boyfriend, and he had to sift through the intricacies of mourning and mortality. “I think I had to grow older, to be closer to my own death,” Glück, who turned seventy-six last year, told The Paris Review in a recent interview. Time enabled him to create something uncommon and powerful. “About Ed” is a literary monument that harnesses memoir’s emotional honesty while indulging fiction’s stylistic latitude.

This slippery approach to genre is a tenet of the New Narrative. The movement, which grew out of workshops that Glück ran in the back of a bookstore in the Castro District, encouraged writers to avoid stereotype by moving between styles and unapologetically embracing subjectivity. Works inspired by these classes contain resplendent, intimate, reflexively unreliable logs of the peaks and valleys of queer infatuation, partnership, and also friendship—writing that never pretends to be balanced because it acknowledges its fictive distortions. In “About Ed,” Glück melds reminiscence, artifice, and documentation—the book draws on Ed’s notes, audio clips, diaries, and dream journals—in order to self-consciously re-create memory’s compound of embellishment and reality.

The book’s subject is not only Ed but also his generation of gay men, many of whom lost their lives to AIDS. In Glück’s hands, memorializing becomes a defiant celebration of sex. Few writers have approached this task with his shameless feeling—Glück is one of the best around at portraying the mysteries of the flesh, and in “About Ed,” as in his previous novels, his amatory writing is magnificently precise. “I felt the complexity of exciting a body that excited me, an alphabet of sites clutching, oozing, slurping, spasming, squirming,” he tells us about topping a younger friend. “I plunged and probed like a prospector losing his cool, made frantic by the growing richness of his vein of gold.”

Hardly a record of carnal triumphs, the book immerses us in Bob and Ed’s sexual inexperience at their relationship’s beginning. Like many of their contemporaries, the couple spend the early seventies slowly growing comfortable with their erotic lives. (“Ouch ouch ouch ouch! I felt humiliated and invaded,” Glück writes of the first time they tried anal sex. “We didn’t think about it again for a year.”) They grow in other ways, too. Bob teaches Ed, who was known as Silent Ed when they met, how to be more social. Ed, an enigmatic, introspective baby boomer who watched “2001: A Space Odyssey” eighteen times on acid, introduces Bob to new sensory experiences—showing him, for example, how to rim. We see their interior universes grow larger through their sexual exploration—at first together, and, after their separation, apart. Glück’s writing charts this process in both Bob and Ed, suggesting that a person’s ideas on their life are in a constant process of expansion and revision.

The New Narrative encourages active self-questioning on the page, and Glück operates beautifully in this tradition, reconsidering and amending his recollections from the vantage of age. “About Ed” revisits the past through moments that he can neither forget nor firmly grasp: Ed’s laughter, his behavior in bed, his relationship with race. (Bob is white while Ed is half Japanese, although he only begins to engage with his Asian heritage in his art after they break up.) The book’s kaleidoscopic structure and long gestation allow Glück to evoke how both his fictional stand-in and Ed change over time.

Still, essential aspects of Bob’s character are familiar from Glück’s previous work. In “Margery Kempe” and “Jack the Modernist,” Bob doted constantly on his lovers, and they generally neglected to reciprocate. The relationship in “About Ed” quickly falls into this pattern: Bob pushes and Ed pulls away. Ed is quiet, thoughtful, and free-spirited, yet he also flies into rages, smashes their possessions, and tries his best to lower Bob’s expectations of their partnership. Bob asks Ed to spoon him one morning in bed, and Ed refuses, repositioning himself so that he’s physically incapable of offering Bob comfort. Bob plans and prepares a celebratory dinner for Ed’s birthday one year. Ed shows up hours late, “explaining without remorse that he had been patiently guiding Sean into bed, a straight friend he was ‘liberating.’ ” Throughout the book, Bob tries to give Ed conventional forms of care, but Ed wants someone steady yet undemanding: As he tells his fellow-participants in a 1975 gay couples’ workshop, he wishes “for Bob to be a home I can always return to.”

The parts of Ed that are barred to Bob are the core of the book’s sadness and mystery. Glück often slips into poetic spacing when integrating Ed’s prose, reminding us of the contrivance of appropriation. We’re always aware of the author’s hand, assembling and editing Ed’s words, and thus of the hard limits of our ability to inhabit and connect with Ed directly. The book makes us question whether human beings in general resist the complete soul-merging that Bob seeks through romantic sex and appropriative writing.

Bob and Ed find ways to coexist despite the unbridgeable distances between them. They hurt each other and move on to new relationships, but, in admirable queer fashion, they never leave each other’s lives. “It’s Tuesday, my night with Ed,” Bob jokes about their friendship after their split. He tends to Ed during his sickness, lies beside him in bed—on top of the covers, while Ed lies beneath—and, with Daniel, Ed’s partner, washes Ed’s body on the day he finally succumbs to the disease, changing him into a nicer pair of bikini briefs and his favorite kimono before the coroners arrive to bag his body.

Scattered throughout “About Ed” are evocations of Ed’s paintings, his floriculture, and his lemon Bundt cake. Glück devotes a section to Ed’s designs for his own cremation niche in San Francisco’s Columbarium, “a diorama, a ground of polished viridian marble and a robin’s-egg sky, across which drift solid white puffs with lavender-gray shadows.” Ed’s tomb becomes a microcosm for the book, contrasting the finitude of mortal flesh with indications of a sweeping, bright, wider world. Glück tells us later in the same passage: “Memorial art supposedly looks backward—old gardens and weathered cenotaphs—but actually it looks ahead, believing in a future audience and in the value of the world to come.” The work makes eternal a part of Ed that would otherwise slip away. It preserves an existence devoted to sex, plants, and psychedelic observation, suggesting that this mode of life is itself an art work. The gaps in Ed’s personality remain gaping. Glück delves deeper into them—all he finds is more mystery, which he fills in with fictionalization, speculation, asides, commentary on their milieu and vivid snapshots of a bygone ethos. He wants us to descend Ed’s endless spiral of self, if only to make his unknowability more profound, weighty and lifelike.

The book’s tour-de-force finale comprises fifty pages from Ed’s dream journals, which Daniel gave to Glück after Ed was laid to rest. This coda, culled only by Glück’s curation, acknowledges its source with just a few context clues. Ed and Bob often collaborated creatively—according to Glück, he had “implicit and explicit” license to include Ed’s diaries, audio recordings, and art. But Glück’s ventriloquism has a purpose beyond character-building or avant-garde experimentation. When Bob scatters the ashes of a late friend, Mary-Madeliene, the wind blows them back into his face, transforming him into a “walking urn.” By transcribing Ed’s words, Glück seems to urge us to preserve the remains of this gloriously libidinous man even more intimately—to penetrate us with Ed’s memory, declaring, “Reader, allow me to erect a monument inside you.”

“About Ed” is a successful memorial in part because it is a promiscuous one. Bob’s bereavement links him to bigoted, amiable neighbors Mac and Nonie, killed by cancer and emphysema, respectively, with whom he trades polite favors, and also to his dog, Lily, who embodies Bob’s tendency toward loyalty and affection; Ed, naturally, owns a cat. Without ever becoming maudlin or didactic, Glück traces both an epoch and an act of commemorating the dead. Grief, no matter how strong, is never just about mourning an individual but also the fact of death, that it has happened before and will happen again. “A new death often enters the stage created by a death,” he writes. He must do justice to both the multitudes that Ed contains and the multitudes in general. “Was I practicing remembering Ed—rehearsing mourning?” he wonders when his neighbor Mac dies. “Was it disloyal?” The living, Glück suggests, inevitably have an open relationship with the dead, which means treating them with respect and compassion, if not exclusivity.

Glück returns to the question of how to navigate this relationship over and over. He writes of the quintessential prose memorialist W. G. Sebald, during one of the book’s several essayistic detours, that “the shock of mass death does not overwhelm the complexity of his characters.” Glück insures that Ed remains the full-fledged person that he was in life and that the virus doesn’t reduce him to a statistic, a name carved in granite, or a cube in an expanse of minimalist shapes. We remember Ed in his remarkable singularity and not as a glossy composite of faultless AIDS victims because he charms us, frustrates us, and refuses to be pinned down. Bob’s ambivalence is as important to his literary memorial as his affection—it distinguishes the fine-grained sorrow of “About Ed” from the manipulative zeal of historical monuments, and also points to the unreliability of all memorials.

Bob emerges as a prodding, loving, faithful, judgmental force whose complicated past with Ed prevents him from open displays of affection. But then Ed gets sicker, and Bob wants to say, I love you. The words don’t come easy. Bob wonders if he did love Ed—love, after all, gets redefined with each new partner, and infatuations come to seem paltry in retrospect. Bob finally speaks up when the end is imminent. “Ed, I love you,” he says, standing above his deathbed while Ed, disoriented from AIDS-induced dementia, fails to respond. Bob leans in to hug him, and Ed “whispers, ‘Doggy ears.’ I wonder if he’s addressing Daniel, maybe he’s mixing us up. I’m crying, and Ed cries along with me, and rubs my back in sympathy.”

For a page or so, the couple at the novel’s center are in perfect focus. We feel the fullness of Ed’s personality and the certainty of his death, his liberated thought and his reliance on others, Bob’s solicitude and the wisp of potential that kept their romance going for years. In this brilliant sequence, Bob doesn’t expect anything that Ed cannot provide—it’s too late, after all, to insist on reciprocity. Ed refused to spoon Bob, and his gentle and emancipated soul would surely rebuff mawkish kindness. But Bob wrote this book, and we read it, to hold Ed. ♦

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