Two Natures takes us back to a time many of us have tried hard to forget
Jendi contacted me a while ago, asking me if I’d be interested to read her debut novel, Two Natures, which hit book stores yesterday. Ms Reiter is an accomplished writer, having won awards for her poetry. I’m always interested in reading a good book, and when a poet branches out into prose, I’m intrigued. I’ve read this novel over the past few days, taking much needed breaks every now and then, because Two Natures gets under your skin.
First things first: the writing is astonishing. Not really a surprise from an award winning writer, but still. It deserves to be said, as poetry and prose are two kinds of animals. Ms Reiter does an amazing job at describing the era, the early 1990ies, the locales, mainly Manhattan, the politics of the Clinton and Giuliani era (seems history has a way of repeating itself…), and the fashion and publishing industry of the time. The characters become alive almost instantly, and I got to follow along the path of Julian Selkirk, the ‘hero’ of the story, as he tries to build a career for himself as a fashion photographer in New York. Work, life, sex, love, death. It’s all there, deliciously described.
A couple of years ago, I wrote The Fallen Angels of Karnataka, and I remember the reactions I got over the descriptions of HIV and AIDS in that book. As it started out in the eighties, I had no choice but to relate to “our” big drama. I also remember the acclamations from the like of e.g. A&U magazine for describing the HIV epidemic in a new light. I think I wrote TFAK the way I did, because I couldn’t bear writing it any other way. For many of us coming of age at the height of the epidemic, we tried to ignore it, stay clear of it, and we repressed it. The condom was there from the first time we had sex, never knowing anything else. Two Natures also takes an interesting, almost in passing, look at the epidemic. New York, at the heart of it, is a focal point for much of the hysteria, the resentment against the LGBT community, and the tiniest slivers of hope for a brighter future, spelling marriage equality, anti discrimination legislation etc.
Two Natures is not an easy read. It is, however, a darn fine read. The beautifully crafted language that belongs to a great literary work, the details in scenery descriptions and the well-crafted dialogues make it a delicious read. But never an easy one. I am not usually a reader of historic fiction, and it pains me to use such a word, acknowledging just how old I’ve become myself, being about five years older than Julian. I read about things like President Clinton signing the Defense of Marriage Act (commonly known as DOMA, repealed as recently as 2013, as it was declared unconstitutional). Twenty years it was in place, this horrible thing, and so much happened in that time. Much I’d forgotten, some I’d just blocked out. My life was not unlike Julian’s: partying, casual sex, friends, work, studying.
At times, Two Natures is really funny and witty, with a sense of humor so sharp it startles you. Here’s a sentence I highlighted in the first part of the book, from Julian’s POV:
Daddy grunted. He believed motorcycles were for Democrats having a midlife crisis.
I stopped mid-track, having to re-read that sentence a few times. So odd, so far away from my pre-conceptions of what a motorcyclist is like, yet what a beautiful description of a southern man’s mindset, his own pre-conceptions. The second example is just as witty:
“Does Linda Evangelista expect to be loved for her mind?”
Julian is quite the cynical photographer in the fashion industry, a typical New Yorker, despite his Georgia background. Not a judgement of Ms Evangelista’s intelligence, but how completely irrelevant it was to her career as model. The present tense of the phrase made it all more edgy. The book is littered with such bon-mots.
Two Natures begins in 1991 and ends in 1995. I remember some aspects of that time in my life. Like Julian, my sex life was varied, and like Julian, I had several relationships. There are many commonalities he and I (along with most gay men of the era) share, and while I was never even close to the fashion or publishing industry, the loose yet oh so important circles of friends were there. Ms. Reiter did an amazing job researching for the book, and it is painfully realistic.
Without going into details about the plot, the two main romantic or love interests of Julian, Peter and Phil are painted in equally realistic colors. Both men flawed, but lovable. No, this is no romance novel, despite the romantic thread that permeates the pages. In fact, the mere mention of “open relationship” might send some readers of such novels screaming for the nearest therapy couch. Yet it is exactly the honesty, the unbridled truth told in Two Natures that makes this book so amazing. In fact, for all I know, Julian Selkirk is just a pseudonym for a real gay man living in New York in his mid-forties, married, no kids. I am deeply indebted to Ms Reiter for writing “our” story, the story of gay men growing of age in the nineties so honestly, so candidly.
As painful as it may be to remember some aspects of it, as hopeful is the picture she skillfully paints, and as we leave Julian on the floor of GalaxyCon, there is hope for the future. And as we all know, that hope has largely been fulfilled in the twenty years since, albeit loads of work still remains. Two Natures is an exquisite work of art, beautiful literary writing that enriches the LGBT section of any book store and Kindle, and it adds a beautiful facet to the mosaic of LGBT life past.
Have a wonderful weekend.