When I set out to write the novel that became The Lede to Our Undoing, I wanted to revisit the experience of falling in love with another boy when I was fifteen. But the real, lived experience proved too hot to handle––I mean, some things resist an outing. Including what occurs between young bodies trying to find their way, the excesses and awkwardnesses, mistakes and triumphs, details of which an adult lucky enough to have experienced them protects like a dragon prizes a hoard. She carries them to the grave.
I wanted to write about my first kiss, first embrace, first––whatever. I pushed against my own resistance. But it felt wrong, a no-no. What's more, I discovered in my early attempts to capture the experience that one of the worst stories ever is a happy one: People don't roll their eyes at Hallmark movies for nothing. After you've said in so many words, It was fantastic! A blast! Mind- and body-blowing!––after that what's there to reveal beyond the torrid details?
None of this it to say that sex, passion, or intimacy should be excluded from literature––to the contrary. But it is to make a bid for subtlety, for one, and complexity. As Emily Dickinson put it, "Tell all the truth but tell it slant." In an oblique, literary universe, in the world of novel takes on everyday experience, everything is fair game. But it matters how it's clothed, which is what words do, cloak things as much as undress them.
No one does that better than the classic writers. Take Ovid for instance. In the Metamorphoses, in the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, his star-crossed couple–– Shakespeare's model for the lovers-of-all-lovers, Romeo and Juliet––the author wanted to present a hot, passionate love, but tangentially.
All the rhetoric, or diction, points in opposite directions but signals one thing, youthful passion, and outright sex ultimately. Thisbe leaves home at night in order to meet her lover in a private tryst, wearing a veil that she drops and that's picked up by a lioness, just on the event of a kill; the veil becomes stained with blood. Hot in pursuit, Pyramus misses Thisbe, and the lovers' plan to meet loses its footing, ending in a double death by stabbing, or penetration.
I've taught the story a million times, and rarely did it happen that my students viewed it other than a surface tale of two tragic lovers––in a backward reading they often exclaimed, It's just like Romeo and Juliet! When I pointed out to them that the many references in the scene––the veil, blood, lion, cave, sword, stabbing, jetting, spurting, and dying––the entire rhetorical landscape of the story––had to do with the most passionate sex between two lovers, they were not just surprised but shocked. Some blushed, that by the magic of words a thing can simultaneously not be and be, that Ovid was able to have it both ways. That his lovers technically never "did it," but at the level of subtext they're really getting it on.
A more modern, queerer version might be found in the relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael in Melville's Moby Dick. It's probably safe to say that the author had a thing about men of color, apparent from Typee onward, whereby his Anglo heroes take notice, and a liking, to non-Anglo and non-Euro types in their travels around the globe. By Melville's day, unlike Ovid's when people didn't blush at the idea of what today we call queer sex, there were rules about what you could and couldn't write about in the realm of desire. And yet the rules were changing, as anyone knows who's read Madame Bovary. Moby Dick, which came out in the same decade as Flaubert's classic, led that charge. It amazes me still, to read about a tender, interracial, male-male, clearly sexual love expressed during the slavery era, in which the person of color holds the upper hand, at a time when the Civil War was just breaking out.
In the story Ishmael wakes up in the middle of the night to find Queequeg undressing in his room. He remarks about his tomahawk as the man, a stranger, disrobes before him then gets into bed. A chapter break follows that description, leaving the reader to ponder what might have happened during the lacuna both in the story's time and the novel's structure, because at the start of the next chapter Ishmael comments, "Upon waking the next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife. The counterpane [i.e. the quilt covering them] was of patchwork, full of odd, little parti-colored squares and triangles; and this arm of his tattooed all over with an interminable Cretan labyrinth of a figure, no two parts of which were of one precise shade. . . . I could hardly tell it from the quilt, they so blended their hues together; and it was only by the sense of weight and pressure that I could tell that Queequeg was hugging me."
I find it difficult to imagine a greater testament to the beauty of diversity, and humanity in its many hues, which Ishmael––and Melville––fully embraced, all without saying so directly, and at such a crucial juncture in the history of the nation. If there were any doubts in the reader's mind that the writer links Queequeg's skin with everything good, safe, and desirable, the quilt reference nails it. Could there be an object more comforting?––we call it a comforter after all. And could there be an object more American? With that one metaphor Melville blows race panic to bits, along with the mania about male-male love. Though he invokes the hetero version of a married couple in the word "wife," what matters most is that he sees the two as one––wed––and implies a night of sex to boot.
It is these two passages specifically, among others, that I had in mind when it came to crafting The Lede. Again I wanted to write about my first love, in part because it was forbidden, but also because it presaged a sea-change in my life. But I knew I had to tell it slant, to the point that it had nothing to do with what I experienced and also unearthed the very thing I couldn't reveal. If Emily Dickinson was a bit over-ambitious in saying "tell all the truth but tell it slant"––in that getting at all the truth is never really possible––a writer can nevertheless get at a piece of it. And so much more along the way.