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Too Far From Home
Edmund White's The Married Man

by Charlie Onion

Edmund White's new novel is an immensely elaborate origami work that reveals its complex images in a sudden, unexpected flourish.

Edmund White's new novel, The Married Man, opens with his main character facing a painful dilemma: Austin Smith, an American furniture scholar living on the Ile Saint-Louis, is attracted to a married man he has just met in a Paris gym, but he isn't sure how to initiate a relationship with the man. Austin is twenty years older than Julien, and since Julien is married, even his sexual orientation is uncertain. But most importantly, Austin doesn't know how to tell Julien he's HIV-positive. In America, he reasons, his choice would be obvious, but living in Paris for so many years has complicated the issue:


Cut off from America, from the massive protests and the underground treatment newsletters, from the hours and

The Married Man
Edmund White
Alfred A. Knopf
323 pp.
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hours of frightened midnight conversations with friends by phone and the organized safe-sex and massage sessions, far from the hysteria and the solace, Austin did not know what to think of this disease that had taken them by chance, as though he had awakened to find himself in a cave under the heavy paw of a lioness, who was licking him for the moment and breathing all over him with her gamy, carrion smell but who was capable of showing her claws and devouring him today...or tomorrow.


White is particularly interested in cultural differences, and he establishes early in his novel how different--and equally inadequate--the French and American approaches to AIDS are:


Americans sat up telling each other horror stories, but they were later astonished when their worst fantasies came true, as if they'd hoped to ward off evil by talking it into submission or by taking homeopathic doses of it. The French, however, feared summoning an evil genius by pronouncing its name. Neither system worked. When the lioness awakened and felt the first hunger pains, she would show her claws.


For the moment, Austin opts for the French approach with Julien, and they begin seeing each other without Austin sharing his secret. At his age (forty-nine when the novel begins), Austin can't risk losing Julien. But the duplicity unnerves him, and he eventually tells Julien he's HIV-positive. Against his expectations, Julien not only forgives Austin's earlier reticence; he even decides to stay with Austin in order to take care of him when the virus goes full-blown.

The relationship isn't perfect, though. Julien's divorce proceedings drag on, and he is rather morbidly self-absorbed and tends to go on at length about his perfect childhood, which Austin knows he would find boring if he were French, "but at least half of what attracted him to Julien was that knowing him represented a total immersion into France." As White writes, "a love affair between foreigners is always as much the mutual seduction of two cultures as a meeting between two people." Decidedly more troubling to Austin is Julien's pronounced distaste for gay culture. Julien quickly rejects Austin's gay friends (including his closest friend, an American ex-lover), and Austin finds himself suddenly isolated.

Despite their problems, they travel a bit, and their relationship grows stronger--and more obviously necessary--after Austin accepts a teaching position in America and Julien is kept out of the country temporarily over visa troubles. America, Austin finds, is a foreign, unpleasant place (White's descriptions of Providence's suburbs are exotic and eerily strange), and while he waits for Julien's papers to be straightened out, he worries that he will be trapped alone in America while Julien reconciles happily with his wife in Paris. Indeed, so desperately isolated is he that he begins to seem almost like a Paul Bowles character, trapped alone and dying in a seemingly endless, dark desert with nothing--absolutely, miserably nothing--to follow his death. (More on Bowles later.) The new, politically correct atmosphere at the university doesn't help matters; Austin soon finds himself unwittingly embroiled in a series of bizarre PC issues that gets him in trouble with the dean. (His ready defense--"But I'm gay"--doesn't save him.)

Inevitably, Providence doesn't work out, at least partly because Austin and Julien "had not been the sort of dotty, aging gay couple an academic community likes--great cooks, kindly uncles to faculty children, demon bridge players." They return to Paris, but their relationship has already shifted subtly. Julien's AIDS test comes back positive, and Austin (who, far from sliding into full-blown AIDS himself, is actually gaining weight) becomes something of a caregiver for Julien as the disease begins to ravage him. In time, they grow physically less and less active and even begin to resemble a long-married, burnt-out couple.

White's narrative gets a bit loose as he lets Julien and Austin's relationship wind down through its inevitable, rather stagnating mimicry of marriage, but the intelligence behind his examination of the relationship's shifting dynamics and the sheer beauty of his writing throughout the novel more than make up for it. Here, for example, is a wonderfully concise portrait from Julien and Austin's trip to Venice:


They went for a stroll down the echoing pedestrian walkways that contracted into a sordid little path smelling of cat urine, then dilated into a proper calle lined with elegant shops selling marbleized paper, men's silk pajamas and, further on, multi-hued summer sweaters of silk and wool. A standing gondolier glided past, but neither the canal nor his barque were visible and he looked as though he were a moving target in a shooting gallery.


But The Married Man picks up its pace and sense of urgency in the final one hundred pages, where, as Julien and Austin eventually travel to Morocco for a final trip together, White's writing becomes so beautifully sad that it's almost too painful to read at times. Strangely, while reading these pages, I found myself thinking of Catherine and Frederick Henry's flight from the war in A Farewell to Arms. Both couples are fleeing death--hopelessly, of course--and trying to find a quiet respite of love, but it's such an odd, unexpected comparison that I won't belabor it. The more obvious reference is to Paul Bowles, particularly his first novel, The Sheltering Sky, which likewise ends with a horrific death in the existentially charged Sahara.

But White isn't finished yet. Shockingly, although he has done little to prepare us for it, he reveals crucial secrets in The Married Man's final pages that make everything that preceded them seem like an immensely elaborate origami work that reveals its complex images in a sudden, unexpected flourish. It's a masterly effort, and White's ability to entertain and move his readers on so many different levels shows he's one of the best, most patient and intelligent novelists working today.
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