Book Review: A Single Man
“And I’ll tell you something else. A minority has its own kind of aggression. It absolutely dares the majority to attack it. It hates the majority–not without a cause, I grant you. It even hates the other minorities, because all minorities are in competition; each one proclaims that its sufferings are the worst and its wrongs are the blackest.” – p.72, A Single Man
Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man is a tale of isolation and loneliness surrounding its central character – a homosexual university professor, George Falconer, who is grieving the loss of his partner of 16 years, Jim.
The novel is 186-page long and centres around a single day in the life of George, using the stream of consciousness narrative. From the start, the stage is set and readers are given ample hints about George’s isolation from society (though the cause of it slowly unravels over the pages) as he goes about his day, navigating the complex social structure of America in the 60s and 70s. For example:
“Obediently the body levers itself out of bed–wincing from twinges in the arthritic thumbs and the left knee…here’s the mess it has somehow managed to get itself into during its fifty-eight years…it starts to breathe through its mouths…it must be dressed up in clothes because it is going outside…it is called George.” (p.11)
In the opening segment, George is entirely referred to in the third person, indicating the detachment between the body that is George and the personality that is George – both of which converge together into the human being that “others must be able to identify…” (p.11) This identification classifies George as an elderly white man and nothing beyond it. The denial of his true nature by those around him is a typical form of repression, where the fact that he is homosexual is entirely erased. One of my old university professor explained it like this: If you have a name, and I refuse to address you by that name, then to me you are nothing because I am denying your single most important form of identity in this society.
The tragedy in the novel is that as the pages turn, we get a deeper sense and understanding of George’s isolation from this world. We see him interact with a slew of characters – like Grant, Doris, the kid at the gym, Charlotte, and even Kenny – but their interaction never reaches the kind of intimacy he once shared with Jim; which makes them futile and perfunctory. It reaches a staggering conclusion when in his search for the new Jim, George realises despite the growing, mutual attraction between Kenny and him, the former can never replace Jim. Not because Jim was irreplaceable (okay this is debatable) but because the replacement did not play by society’s rule – much like George and Jim’s relationship in the first place.
As a commentator on the state of the gay man in 50s and 60s America, the novel also discusses the struggle George (and as an extension to the homosexual community) faces with another minority – the woman – while competing for the affection of a man. A Single Man illustrates this perfectly by the hostile animosity George harbours for Doris – a dying woman who once had an affair with Jim.
“Gross insucking vulva, sly, ruthless, greedy flesh, in all the bloom and gloss and arrogant resilience of youth, demanding that George shall step aside, bow down and yield to the female prerogative, hide his unnatural head in shame. I am Doris. I am Woman. I am Bitch-Mother Nature. The Church and the Law and the State exist to support me. I claim my biological rights. I demand Jim.” (p.96)
This goes back to the quote at the top about the antagonistic nature of the relation between two minorities – they are in constant conflict with each other, even though they want the same thing. They feel threatened by the other, they believe the sense of oppression and injustice dealt to them by the majority is more painful, more tragic, and deserves greater sympathy. Yet, without Jim’s presence, the conflict between Doris and George eventually abates and their animosity dissipates simply because you cannot be a minority without the presence of the majority – and Jim, a likely bisexual white man, was the majority in this case.
All in all, a fantastic and meaningful read. The stream of consciousness and slow-moving plot can sometimes get in the way but in the end, persistence pays because the ending is tragically beautiful.
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