“The Dark Symphony” by Eric Andrews-Katz from Saints and Sinners 2014: New Fiction from the Festival (Bold Strokes Books).
Full disclosure: I have a story in this anthology.
I wasn’t expecting to encounter any historical fiction in this collection. Though there have been such stories included in past years, there weren’t any last year, or any in this volume up to this point, and so it took me by surprise. I thought it was a nice change of pace, though the subject matter of the piece is very dark.
The story hinges on a couple of surprises I don’t want to give away, so let me just say that though the protagonist is not likable he’s still intriguing. I’m not sure, though, that I would want to read an entire novel from his point of view. It’s the same dilemma I faced when Poppy Z. Brite wrote Exquisite Corpse. Just because someone is capable of writing from a grisly point of view in a believable manner does not mean I want to spend time in such a character’s head. (And yes, I know it was an allegory. I don’t care. It was no fun to be made to care about characters and then watch them being destroyed in stomach-turning ways, especially by a storyteller whose gift is for vivid description.)
The protagonist here is not a nice person. In fact, he may be a sociopath, and there are some explanations for why this is contained in the text. Again, if I give specifics it will give the thing away, so forgive my being vague. At the very least the main character has some very serious issues. But it must be said that the doctor he’s obsessed with does as well, and most of the curiosity generated by this piece was about that character. He seems to know what the protagonist is up to, yet doesn’t stop it. He actually seems to have set the main character up in order to prove his theory, but then doesn’t intervene to stop what he must think will result. Now that’s compelling.
One really interesting thing about this work is that the unlikable main character is also described as being sexually attracted to the doctor. It brings to mind an argument Edmund White brought up in his Master Class at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival a few weeks ago. He made the case for re-introducing gay villains to the canon. I take his point, though obviously I am well aware that pop culture made gay people the villains for years, and that’s why there’s a hesitation to write gay villains now. Still, if everyone’s tiptoeing around checking themselves, it’s a sure sign that true assimilation hasn’t happened. Trying to always project your most flattering self is an indication that you still feel like “the other”, just as political correctness is nothing but evidence that the larger culture perceives that the smaller one has attained enough power to make things uncomfortable if they’re riled up. It is still, though, a matter of “us” vs. “them”. Just as with race and gender, until we look at another person and see just that–a person–and not first and foremost a female person or a black person or a Jewish person or a gay person or what have you, we are still divided. Reclaiming your ability to do wrong is an important step to having “us” really mean “all”. We are–every last one of us–only human.
At any rate, I’ve certainly read stories with gay protagonists who were no saints. Exquisite Corpse is one example. Still, this protagonist? If Mr. Andrews-Katz really did set out to reclaim villainy by gay characters, he gets an “A” for effort.