Review: A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

George, the main character, is an English-born gay man, living and working as a literature professor in Southern California.  George is struggling to readjust to “single life” after the death of his long-time partner, Jim.  George is brilliant but self-conscious.  He is determined to see the best in his pupils, yet knows few, if any, of his students will amount to anything.  His friends look to him as a revolutionary and a philosopher, but George feels he’s simply an above-par teacher,  a physically healthy but noticeably aging man, with little prospects for love – though he seems to find it when determined not to look for it.

The Good
Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man is not Isherwood’s most popular or most lauded work, even after the recent Hollywood movie, starring Colin Firth & Julianne Moore (two of my favorite actors).  That this novel is one of the “lesser read” of Isherwood’s novels, I think, speaks volumes for his other works –because this novel is absolutely beautiful.  In some ways, it reminds me of a gay Nicholas Sparks, except the themes are deeper and the language/style is more artistically driven and manipulated.  Edmund White, one of gay literature’s most respected and prominent authors, called A Single Man “one of the first and best models of the Gay Liberation movement” and it’s impossible to disagree.  Isherwood himself said that this was the favorite of his nine novels, and though it is my first encounter with Isherwood’s works, I imagine it would be quite difficult to top this work in terms of emotional connectivity and social relevance.  The language flows beautifully, even poetically, without seeming self-indulgent.  The structure – like short bursts of thought – is easy to keep pace with and seems to function almost in tune with George’s day-to-day musings.  What’s for breakfast?  What’s happening on the way to work?  What am I saying to my students, but what do I hope they’re hearing?  Once I got 15-20 pages into the novel, I knew it would be impossible to put down and, indeed, I completed most of the book in one afternoon.  This is not to say that the book was an “easy read.”  In fact, it was emotionally and psychologically haunting.  George’s love for his deceased partner, his loyalty to a broken friend, and his struggle to control lustful emotions for a student are effortlessly expressed by Isherwood, and the tension is brilliantly divined.  There is a twist ending which, had it not been constructed with such ingenuity and genius, I would have ordinarily found it quite cliché.  Fortunately, Isherwood gets his point across without having to sacrifice his (or the readers) immersion into the plot line.  This was a balancing act pulled of immaculately, and I was –as a seasoned reader- truly impressed.

The Bad
There is little to place here under “the bad.”  I found the novel just so impressive and moving, it’s hard to find fault.  The two things I was disappointed in, I suppose, are 1) the novel’s length.  George’s simple, sad life was so ordinary but had so much promise – largely due to George’s internal monologue – his analysis of every action and emotion (typically literary-inspired).  I would have enjoyed getting more of the back story between George and Jim – and more of the relationship (little as it existed) between George and his student, Kenny.  I was disappointed in George’s kindness to Dorothy, mainly because I would not have been able, personally, to forgive such a transgression and betrayal – so, for this reason, I find it a bit unbelievable (but that could be my problem, and not George’s or Isherwood’s).  2)  No, I was wrong – I covered all of this in point #1.

The Final Verdict: 4.5 out of 5.0
The novel takes place in the course of one day – so the characterization was probably as well-developed as it could be; the emotion of the novel – the desperation and sadness were genuine and personal – I felt exposed and violated, frustrated and hopeful.  I could see myself in George – the future me – and I was disappointed in myself at times, proud of myself at times, but – ultimately – I was left with the sense of knowing who I am (who George is) and of accepting things as they are.  The only truly possible way of living a satisfied (not happy) life.

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