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literature

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Barnett, Allen (1955-1991)  
 
page: 1  2  

In "Succor," Kerch, the protagonist--famous in New York City in the early years of the epidemic for opening his spare room to homeless people with AIDS--seeks consolation following the death of his latest apartment mate (a Roman Catholic priest defrocked and left to fend for himself in his illness after his church learned of his sexual activities) by returning to Rome, the so-called "Eternal City," where he himself first came alive emotionally and sexually.

And in "Philostorgy, Now Obscure," a man, following his diagnosis as HIV-positive, revisits his college roommates and a former lover, trying to reconcile the person he once was with the person he has become.

Sponsor Message.

In every one of Barnett's stories people are forced to confront "a pain" which is so "utter" (as one character quotes Emily Dickinson as describing) that "It swallows substance up." That pain can be located in the body, as in the case of the lesbian protagonist in the title story whose breast cancer has spread to her lungs and bones, providing her with the occasion to meditate upon the "cause and effect" that has shaped her life thus far, and how her eventual absence will continue to shape the lives of those closest to her.

Similarly, in "The Times As It Knows Us," seven gay men who share a summer house on Fire Island, and who are in various stages of AIDS infection and loss, grapple to maintain "these connections to others, to what it is humanly possible to do" in "an unacceptable world [that] can compel unacceptable behavior."

More subtle is the pain that stems from the emerging consciousness of what one has left behind to reach the richly complex but ambivalent present moment, or of what one must now forsake in order to move forward.

Like his near-contemporaries Andrew Holleran and Edmund White, Barnett fashions narratives in which pain is caused in part by what Barnett calls "the space of your longing"--that is, by the distance between the desirer and the object of his desire, and by the yawning gulf between the brief moment that it took to become overwhelmed by a stranger's beauty and the seeming eternity that one spends under the influence of that moment.

"more than we want to know"

Barnett is an erudite writer, the effect of his stories being enhanced by the reader's familiarity with such cultural monuments as the philosophy of Spinoza, the paintings of Caravaggio, the aesthetics of baroque architecture, and such texts as Augustine's Confessions, T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, and historian of gnosticism Elaine Pagel's Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. Two of his stories depend for their titles upon poems written by Thomas James, an eccentric and otherwise unknown gay writer who mentored the teenaged Barnett in Joliet.

The reader of Barnett's stories is forced ultimately to consider how well people are capable of knowing either themselves or others, and to recognize the ineffable parts of gay experience that cannot be put into words.

Thus, in "The Times As It Knows Us," Clark spends his weekends scrutinizing obituaries in The New York Times for evidence of a man's sexual orientation and cause of death because in the 1980s the nation's most authoritative newspaper still refused to print the word "gay" or to acknowledge gay partnerships, while the families of many AIDS victims, embarrassed by the manner in which a son or brother presumably contracted the virus, often tried to disguise the cause of his death. The general indifference of the medical establishment leaves Clark and his housemates to piece together whatever information is available concerning the source of the virus and the treatment of various opportunistic infections as they monitor their own health and care for that of others.

Similarly, as the title of the story "Philostorgy, Now Obscure" suggests, Barnett possessed a philologist's fascination with the origin and meaning of words, and contemplated in his work what words can and cannot deliver--or contemplated, more precisely, the surprising, even unintended, ways in which words deliver meaning. "You do not understand this. [. . .] You will never understand," a young actor, deaf since birth, angrily tells the hearing director of a play being presented in sign language, insisting upon the limitations, even, of human sympathy.

The epigraph to Barnett's collection is taken from a poem by Thomas James: "If I could reach you now, in any way / At all, I would say this to you . . . ." James's employment of a conditional clause indicates that the speaker accepts the inevitability that his friend, lover, or the poet's audience in general is beyond his reach, despite his resorting to every possible means of communication ("in any way"). The message that the speaker would deliver dissolves into an ellipsis, the message itself fading as mysteriously as the person(s) to whom it is supposed to be delivered.

The epigraph thus signals the sense in Barnett's stories of living on the brink of dissolution where no effort at communication can ever fully succeed, where the message itself is too complex, the audience too distant, and the speaker's voice too faint.

But it is in the very mystery of their ellipses that Barnett's stories communicate so profoundly, delivering, perhaps, "more than we want to know."

Raymond-Jean Frontain

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    Bibliography
   

Barnett, Allen. The Body and Its Dangers and Other Stories. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Gambone, Philip. "Interview with Allen Barnett." Something Inside: Conversations with Gay Fiction Writers. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. 68-82.

Smalec, Theresa. "Subjects at Risk: The Discursive Limits of Representation in Allen Barnett's Short Fiction." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 40.2 (January 1999): 181-92.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Frontain, Raymond-Jean  
    Entry Title: Barnett, Allen  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2006  
    Date Last Updated January 28, 2006  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/barnett_a.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2006 glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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