Review: Beautiful Room is Empty by Edmund White
Posted on May 21, 2010
by Adam Burgess
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The Beautiful Room is Empty picks up shortly after where White’s earlier memoir, A Boy’s Own Story, leaves off. This work discusses not just the growth of boy-into-man, but also gives a historical account of the period. The 1950s and 1960s – the rise and fall of the Beatniks. The advent of hipsters. The strain for one man to understand what being homosexual means, and for one nation – one culture – to begin approaching a similar question. What is “gay?” A disease? A malady? A psychological disturbance or a physical perversity? White seamlessly weaves the individual and the populous struggle and turmoil. There is the question in general, and the answers as approached through different lenses: class, education, region. How do the Midwestern intellectuals, mundane and suburban, treat homosexual? What about the artsy, edgy New York City high-rollers? The rich? The destitute? What’s the difference between a “trick,” his “john,” and day-life versus night-life? This novel attempts to answer these questions, and more. Really, though, it’s a novel of questions. It’s a memoir of life, as lead by the author – someone still obviously affected by the pain, the struggles, the joys, and the many, many questions of his youth.
White’s prose is beautiful, almost musical. The pages turn rapidly because sentences and paragraphs flow richly and uninterrupted. Ideas, encounters, and the (many) literary references are approached with caution, but also with a shy confidence. Personal experiences, like the narrator’s experiences in a prep school – guarded from the subversive Art College just across the way- conveniently and realistically mime moments in time, the greater American sentiment. The psychological fascination with homosexuality as something to be cured, the insecurity of the gay men and lesbian women, so totally aware of who they are, yet still trying to cope with the realization that society around them will not accept their own reality, all wrapped in the narrator’s concession that what he does he knows to be wrong (the consumption of anonymous, meaningless sex, night after night – not being gay in general) and that, though he comes from a dysfunctional family, it is not the family that makes the man. It is both the personal touches, the narrator’s struggle to find meaningful love – and to lose it – friendships, loss, embarrassment, shame, self-consciousness and body image, coupled with the bigger ideas of society, religion, and law (the many references to gender laws, some of which included laws that banned women from wearing more than three articles of “manly” clothing, and a law which required that in each group of men at a night-club, at least one female must be present) which makes this story so impactful, so believable and so important. The personal struggle is terribly hard, but White also wants us to remember that, there was a bigger struggle. Yes, the “Pink Panthers” at the Stonewall Riots found themselves to be a bit ridiculous, yet they were, for the first time, standing up for a certain right being denied them, singing “We Shall Overcome” and, upon waking up the next morning, are crushed in spirit when they find that no mention of the riot, the movement, the importance of their presence can be found in any newspaper. It was a painful time in America, and that strife and clawing-struggle is purposefully and powerfully represented by White in The Beautiful Room is Empty.
There is an uncomfortable amount of time and attention paid to the many sexual exploits of the narrator. Certainly, I understand the inclusion and, admittedly, believe it to be entirely necessary if the novel is to be truly honest. Still, I did oftentimes find it distracting. How could White have remained honest without the repeated, saturated references to prostitution, glory-holes, bathroom orgies? I can’t say – and for this reason, I understand the necessity. Still, I find myself wishing a bit more attention had been paid to the personal relationships, the professional growth, the assimilation of the narrator into “normal” culture, and his feelings in these situations. This is my only gripe, and it is a minor one, because despite my need to find fault with any novel, there’s little to find here. I believe the work could have been strengthened, certainly, by more attention to the late-blooming, loving relationship between the narrator and Sean, which is quickly ended but obviously important to the narrator and his personal growth. The novel also might be more enjoyable if a closer connection could have been made between reader and the narrator. Though White makes an effort to open up the narrator to observation and examination by exposing inner thoughts & feelings, by placing his narrator in the darkest depths of his own embarrassment and making the reader bear witness, yet we don’t ever really get to know the narrator. Not even his name. We know that writing and artistic appreciation drive him, but we don’t ever see any prowess or success in this – in fact, very little time or attention is even paid to the task of writing. Perhaps the novel itself is the writing, the final outcome, the “what” that had been developing from all of these experiences. If that’s the case – I missed the hint.
The Final Verdict: 4.5 Out of 5.0
The Beautiful Room is Empty is quite an accomplishment, despite White’s guardedness over his narrator. I can understand if the story was too personal to disclose anything more than what was disclosed and perhaps, to White, the most sensitive nerves truly were exposed. Ultimately, the development in plot and in prose & style from A Boy’s Own Story to The Beautiful Room is Empty makes me believe, as I seldom do, that the author’s every concealment and revelation was intentional. There are later works in this “series” and I can only imagine that the work continues to grow and improve. That the honesty will continue to be more honest, the writing will continue to run fluid and the self-realization will continue to occur in tandem with the greater growth and understanding of a people. Truly enjoyable, if at times uncomfortable.