Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty is one of the best books I've read in sometime. I almost don't know how to start talking about it. On a plot summary level, it's about a young gay man just out of college and the relationship he has with a friend's family and other men during Thatcherite Britain of the mid-80's. So for plot summary, that's it.
IT's about, as you would expect, much more. I was mostly struck at it's frank depictions of gay sex, gay realtionships, and politics. I don't mean to sound like I'm doing a redux of the Almodovar film reaction here, or that this is somehow meant to be an exalting thing, but it's not simply a gay book. And I think that's one of the reasons it won the Booker. Or the Man Booker, excuse me. Must give the corporation its due.
There has long been a criticism of "gay" fiction or "gay" art that it will never be mainstream or matter enough, or be part of a larger cultural dialogue. Hollinghurst destroys that. I hate to use the word universal, because that's a crock (what does it mean?). He creates a character who is dealing with his sexuality, realtionships, and where he fits in the power structure in the world he is living in. And I do think that's universal. He also explores these same things with some of the straight characters. Nothing is easy or pat, and nothing comes out the way that people expect.
Like Howard's End (one of my personal, if not my most, favorite books-READ IT!) this book deals with relationships, money, power, race, politics, art. Not a small feat. Our hero, Nick Guest, spends all of the book being literally that, a guest, at the home of a rising MP in Thatcher's government. He is a friend of the son of the family from Oxford, and he is planning on only staying a few months. He stays for four years. That time, '82-'87, is explored. There is overwhelming conservativism, lots of money, lots of drugs. And lots of sex.
Hollinghurst does not shy away from the desires of the characters. And he does not shy away from exploring each characters' fantasies about themselves, crowned with Nick's own. Nick is working on a PhD on James, supposedly, but using it more as an excuse to have something to say while he walks through the rich and powerful world he now has access to, and to be impressed with his own cleverness. He becomes infatuated with a young black boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and then with a rich Lebanese closeted mulit-millionaire (another interesting aspect of the book is Nick fetishization of "dark" men). All the while he is expected to be caretaker to the bi-polar daughter of the wealthy family whose house he is living in. Boundaires blur. His place in the family, or what he believes it to be, blurs. This becomes a fascinating exploration of power, the abuse of power, the arrogance and entitlement of money, and sexuality. You can be rich or not, white or not, straight or not, and it seems the last is the most important, which Nick realizes by the end of the book. We have an outsider who is burned by his own assumptions. All of this is ratcheted up a notch with the advent of AIDS from when the book begins in 1983 and when it ends in 1987, near Black Monday.
It's hard not to think of Fitzgerald's Nick looking in on a world of money he does not have, ashamed of his won background. Or, indeed, of what those characters will do to protect their money and the rarified closed-club world that it lives in. Hollinghurst ups the stakes here, though, with the real Margaret Thatcher appearing in the book, and with Nick's own desires and need for love being a huge part of the novel. I keep thinking as well of the gay man as courtier, caretaker, jester, which comes up in the novel. Those who aren't either have money, are closeted, or both.
I have in the past found Hollinghurst's prose to be a bit, shall we say, self-consciously dense. It's fitting that Nick is working on a PhD on James. I found this prose to be rich, though, and not self-conscious at all. The author's constructions did not leap out at me to hit me over the head with their own cleverness, perhaps becuase many of the times that may have happened, words were filtered through Nick's creation. I won't tell you what the Line of Beauty is, as there are multiple meanings, and finding them is one of the delights of this rich book.
I could write much more on this, and have been thinking about it since I have finished the book, but what's the point? I'd rather not ruin any of it. Read it yourself. There are so many richly drawn characters, I wouldn't know where to start. And I think a mini-thesis could be written on anything from aesthetics to politics using this book as a starting point. It's that good. The character's are astounding: from Gerald, the pompous MP whose house Nick is living in, to Rachel, his wife; Catherine, the manic depressive daughter; Wani, the wealthy cad who Nick takes up with, addicted to cocaine and porn; Toby, the son of the family who Nick is unrequitedly in love with. I'm not sure that Nick is likeable, I'm not sure who is likeable in the book (the people seem outlandishly petty, selfish, racist, etc), but everyone is human. And that's a great, rare creation.