Landscapes of a Marriage

By Barrie Jean Borich

Graywolf. 294 pp. $24.95

If you didn't know better, you might be tempted to think that "My Lesbian Husband" was written as a spoof on lesbian marriage by the late Charles Ludlum for his campy, gay thespian troupe, the Ridiculous Theater Company. How otherwise to explain the preponderance of ludicrous lesbian cliches, the syrupy New Age lyricism, the breathy, holier-than-thouness and the utter, bathetic self-absorption of the thing? Who could dream up the kinds of scenes Borich describes in such proud, pious detail?

Scenes like the one in which Borich and her beloved get married in Vegas with an Elvis impersonator, or the one in which Borich is tempted to cheat on her longtime companion with a friend from Alcoholics Anonymous being carted off to jail for driving while intoxicated (again), or the one in which Borich describes a '70s radical feminist art scene in which women created abstract impressionist masterpieces by crouching over blank canvases during periods of heavy menstrual flow.

Can it be that all of this is done with a straight face? Without a hint of good-natured self-effacement? Well, to be fair, if you look hard enough you might find the barest trace of a chuckle in the part about Elvis, but it is soon drowned out by a trite, histrionic and exhaustingly belabored image: "When Linnea and I were married . . . we talked about rivers and shores, about meeting and bending and changing together, but never losing ourselves. What would a merged river and shore turn out to be? Just mud. That was not what we wanted . . . But it wasn't so much a stupid plummet into a river where I knew I didn't belong . . . Mostly it was the thing they say can trick even the best swimmers . . . I was scared. My arms flailed. The muddy water carried me deeper . . . I wasn't sure what to grab onto. Which image could float me back to hard ground? And what shore did I want."

This goes on and on for pages. If only Borich had meant to amuse, her self-parody might have been funnier than Frau Unibrow, the lesbian totem with one eyebrow in "The Spy Who Shagged Me," this summer's Austin Powers sequel. Unfortunately, Borich is quite serious and reverent throughout. Her title would suggest that she intends to enlighten us about the thornier aspects of gay nomenclature--i.e., do you call your butch lesbian partner a wife or a husband, and what does that mean? How does one talk about homosexual marriage while using a heterocentrist vocabulary? These are potentially interesting questions, but Borich largely skirts them and opts instead to burden us with loads of irrelevant memoir.

Her problem is somewhat understandable, since what there is to say about gay marriage, both as a sociological phenomenon and as a civil rights initiative, has been said much more intelligently elsewhere by writers like Andrew Sullivan and William N. Eskridge Jr. What there is left to say about gay unions after you've covered the logistic bases is precariously personal, and it can get old fast. The perfect balance must be struck between the informative and the heartfelt. Borich's epithalamium would have worked much better if it had emulated the lyrical understatement of, say, John Bayley's recent homage to his wife, Iris Murdoch.

What one needs from a truly literary take on queer partnerships is a light touch that both elucidates and transcends the definitive codes of gay life, thereby making the story uniquely gay but also profoundly human. Writers like Paul Monette and Edmund White have given us some of our best glimpses of such a genre. But Borich has neither the soul nor the skill to render the deep recesses of intimacy without sounding like a gay Hallmark card:

"Will you marry me? Linnea asked, cradling a black felt box in her palm. The little ruby and diamond-chip engagement ring she bought for me at Montgomery Wards captured the yellow light of the dinner candles flickering in honor of two happy years since the first time we touched in love."

Borich's language fails to provide the promised insights on same-sex monogamy, and it never sorts out the vagaries of gender identity and social custom that are so woven into lesbian love. Consequently, "My Lesbian Husband" is a sorely missed opportunity.

Norah Vincent, a columnist for the Advocate.