Island in the Storm
AMONG OTHER THINGS, I'VE TAKEN UP SMOKING
By Aoibheann Sweeney
Penguin Press. 257 pp. $23.95
Two years ago, David Leavitt published an essay in the New York Times about the welcome transition from gay fiction to what he termed "post-gay fiction" -- "novels and stories whose authors, rather than making a character's homosexuality the fulcrum on which the plot turns, either take it for granted, look at it as part of something larger or ignore it altogether." Aoibheann Sweeney's first novel is a lovely example of that shift, the striking way in which the issue of sexual orientation can now permeate everything in a novel without overwhelming it or even rising to the surface. Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking is a coming-out novel about a world we don't quite live in yet, a world in which the great dividing line between straight and gay looks as faint as that other once life-and-death demarcation between Protestant and Catholic.
The novel, which comes to us as a series of delicate short stories, is told by a teenager named Miranda, who lives alone with her bookish father on a little island hidden by a thick fog -- "our own dark kingdom," Miranda calls it. You don't have to catch the allusions here to "The Tempest," but part of the novel's considerable charm is how lightly it taps into older, sometimes ancient stories. Miranda's family came to Crab Island off the coast of Maine when she was almost 3; shortly afterward, her mother drowned, presumably a suicide. Since that time, Miranda has led an unusually isolated but contented life, enjoying the sea, leaving their island only when weather permits, and taking responsibility for all the chores around the house that her father can't or won't do. By the time she was 9, she tells us, "My father gave me his watch and told me to go wherever I wanted as long as I was home on time for us to make dinner." When he buys a typewriter, she becomes his secretary and drops out of school to help him with his work.
From a social services point of view, of course, it all sounds patently neglectful, but Miranda says she's "glad that we had left the rest of the world behind." Her father is an odd, taciturn man, wholly focused on translating Ovid's Metamorphoses. She grows up on these myths (they have no television), and even as a child she knows what a rich imaginative heritage her father has provided. "I was convinced," she writes, "that all around the island there were women inside the trees. . . . Sometimes I could almost feel my skin thickening into bark, my toes rooting into the ground, my arms raising stiffly to the sky." Swimming in a small cove, "I started imagining I was a fish, that my body was thinning and flattening, that my mouth and salty lips gasped open and closed on a translucent hinge." Her father may be stuck in time, emotionally frozen and locked in his own grief, but Miranda sounds like a character from Ovid's song "of bodies changed to various forms."
The pleasure of this novel stems from Sweeney's gentle balance of comedy and sorrow, the predicaments of an odd girl hurtling through adolescence with little guidance. At times, she writes, "loneliness descended on me like a cold fog," but now and then she manages to go through the motions of "normal" teenage life, gossiping about boys and listening to cosmetics secrets, but it's always like trying to sing along with a melody she can't hear. Her only real friend is Mr. Blackwell, a kindly fisherman who helps maintain their house, often cooks their meals and seems to be her father's lover. The nature of his role, however, remains entirely unmentioned by anyone.
At first blush, this reticence would seem to harken back to the pre-Stonewall days of a love that dare not speak its name, but in fact Sweeney is doing something far more modern. The gay relationships in this novel never become the subject of scandal, are never a source of pride, are never "accepted" in the face of an oppressive straight culture. Among Other Things isn't interested in looking at homosexuality as a socially constructed lifestyle or a biological orientation; in fact, although almost all the characters are gay, the novel doesn't seem interested in looking at homosexuality as a distinct and defining characteristic at all. Instead, Sweeney completely subsumes sexual orientation in a larger process of self-discovery, and with that subtle shift, she has moved from "gay fiction" to "post-gay fiction."
That distinction is even more evident when, halfway through the story, Miranda's father sends her to New York to contend with a city of 8 million people. It's a crash course for a young woman who knows almost nothing of the world except what Ovid described. There's a lot of slapstick potential here, but Sweeney keeps her subtle touch as Miranda gasps at this "brave new world, that has such people in't."
Working as a secretary at the library her father founded long ago, she meets some of his old friends and begins to plumb the depths of his mysterious personality. It's a touching reminder of how long we're blinded by the conviction that our parents could never have had a life outside of us. At the same time, she also begins to plumb her own mysterious personality, and that leads her to try on some conventional roles that don't fit her very well -- particularly during a wickedly satiric scene at a high-society wedding. When she finally awakens to what she wants, the metamorphosis is painful, of course, but she's not surprised -- or sorry. Ovid has prepared her well. There's real wisdom in those classic myths, and there's real talent in this sensitive novel. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.