Friday, July 13, 2018

Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976)

This book was significant for me, because I was meant to read it for a college writing workshop, and...I didn't. Lazy, half-assed me. I read I think the first chapter and a half, maybe. I mean, I suppose you develop at the pace you develop, but if I could go back and tell twenty-year-old me one thing, it would be DO YOUR WORK, DAMMIT. DON'T BE SO USELESS.

Puig (1932-1990) was an Argentine writer. Our teacher told us that he was dying of AIDS but on account of being too ashamed, told everyone he had bone cancer. Which is a horrible and pathos-laden story that has the small disadvantage of not being even vaguely true in any particular. Oh well!

This book is about two cellmates, a Marxist revolutionary political prisoner, Valentin; and a gay man who's in for "corrupting youth," Molina. The novel mainly consists of unattributed dialogue between the two of them. It concerns their relationship, and is basically structured around Molina recounting the plots of movies to Valentin to pass the time (Puig himself was a huge cinephile). There are also lengthy footnotes, mainly concerning theories about homosexuality, with generous lashings of psychoanalytic theory.

It's all perfectly accessible and entertaining and somewhat moving. Those footnotes, and the character of Molina in general, do make one...unsure, however, and one is aware of what delicate ground one may be on here. He's that...figure that you see in a lot of media from when gayness was more stigmatized than it is how, the Melancholy Homosexual, a kind of inherently, ineffably tragic figure, with excessive mother-attachment who aestheticizes everything (one of the movies is a nazi propaganda film about noble German soldiers and villainous maquis; he loves the central romance and is able to separate it from the actual, you know, nazi parts) and inevitably comes to a tragic end. Now...Puig himself was gay, of course (I don't know how openly); I don't know if you could exactly call this homophobic (really: I don't know). And he's still a sympathetic character, basically. But he's also, maybe excessively, the subject of pity. Or so I felt. The aforementioned footnotes have an unclear relation to the text as a whole, but they seem to be Puig grappling with Issues, only in a way that feels very dated from a contemporary perspective. I don't know!

I DO know that the wikipedia entry on the novel refers to Molina as a transsexual woman and consistently refers to him as "she." The fact that I do neither should be an indication that I think this is completely wrong. He does identify with women, but he also identifies as a homosexual (yeah, using a clinical term like that makes me uncomfortable), and he never objects to Valentin identifying him as a man. And then there are all the footnotes, which would be completely irrelevant if he weren't gay. You can, I suppose, read the text against itself and say that, oh, this is what he really is, but you have to recognize that this is not a natural reading. Don't act like that's somehow just The Way It Is, dammit.

Okay, that's neither here nor there. This book won't change your life, probably, unless it does, I don't know, but it was still worth reading, I'm glad to no longer be haunted by things left undone, and it made a welcome respite from the heavyish things I've been reading of late.


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