In "The Western Canon," Harold Bloom recounts a conversation with the novelist Gore Vidal in which Vidal remarked "with bitter eloquence, that his outspoken sexual orientation had denied him canonical status." Bloom politely disagrees; in his estimation, what's kept Vidal out of the canon is the fact that he writes historical novels. "History writing and narrative fiction have come apart," Bloom argues, "and our sensibilities seem no longer able to accommodate them one to the other."
An interesting claim--and yet one that I suspect the novelist Laura Argiri would vigorously protest. She has been working for 18 years on "The God in Flight," a novel that both by Vidal's rules and Bloom's ought to be blasted out of the canon at first volley. Set at Yale in the 1880s, this is essentially a love story that features a brilliant, neurasthenic boy beauty from West Virginia called Simion Satterwhite and a strapping, demonic man-god from Greece by way of Oxford called Doriskos Klionaros. They are mad for each other in the most Hollywood sense of the phrase--Doriskos has even drawn pictures of Simion before meeting him--and essentially the "plot" of the novel describes the prolonged obstacle course--malevolent father, scheming spurned (male) mistress, all manner of illness graphically rendered--that the pair must maneuver before they can finally achieve Big Happiness in a meadow. "If you ever make love to me, it'll rock us both like thunder," Simion says to Doriskos. That by the end of the novel he has, and it has, indicates the sort of predictability--not to mention cartoonishness--into which "The God in Flight," at its worst moments, devolves. But this is a very mixed-up book, and to speak only of its worst moments is to do it inadequate justice.
In "The God in Flight" Argiri seeks to explore the bonds of "Ukranian love" that crisscrossed the intellectual landscape of the late-19th Century to create an unpublicized but vital network. Yale, lovingly and accurately reproduced here, is her "world in miniature" (to borrow a phrase from E. M. Forster), and like the larger Victorian world, homosexual intrigues rule it. Women are nearly invisible, the faculty is largely made up of discrete "sodomites," while most of the supposedly heterosexual boys seem to prefer buggering their swish dormitory mates to visiting brothels or wooing girls from New York.
Into this suppurating ambience of athlete's foot and gin-soaked carpet arrive both the burdened, primitive Doriskos, a gifted sculptor born to an Athenian whore, but raised by a dilettante English Lord, and Simion, who is tiny, bookish, delicately constituted. (I lost count of the number of times he was called "pre-Raphaelite.") Big and small, dark and fair, hairy and smooth, these heroes personify the twin poses toward which 19th-Century homosexual aesthetics inclined: they are the swarthy Southerner and the androgynous Northerner, Lord Byron's Eusthatius Georgiou, "with those ambrosial curls hanging down his amiable back," and Oscar Wilde's Lord Alfred Douglas, "quite like a narcissus, so white and gold." But Simion also has a wildcat side, a bitchiness he's developed as a defense against his father, the brutal fire-and-brimstone preacher John Ezra, who seems to have walked straight out of Dickens. There's trouble from Page 1. Indeed, it would be tedious to catalogue all the woes to which the world subjects this pair (and to which they subject each other); suffice it to say that academic persecution, cigarette burns, gunshot wounds, blackmail and starvation all get trotted out. Along the way a lot of vomiting takes place, and is graphically rendered in terms both of color and texture.
That Argiri manages to keep these soap-opera machinations churning along with such lusty vitality testifies to her distinctly novelistic temperament. And yet as "The God in Flight" progresses one can't help but suspect that she's really too good a writer for this kind of thing. Moments of lyricism take the reader by surprise, such as when the narrator describes New England winter cold as "the frigid exhalation of all those dead, once-murderous Puritans, whose vicious revenants are married to the Arctic weather currents. It is the pathetic fallacy in action, the violent, pragmatic American soul." As the novel moves forward, moreover, so do the characters, bursting through their cardboard suits with human fists. Doriskos in particular reveals more and more complexity until he seems entirely too interesting for the lurid situations into which his inventor keeps thrusting him. One wants to find a less trashy plot for him to live in.