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literature

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Humor  
 
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The Use of a Surrogate

The use of a surrogate (usually an ostensibly heterosexual character who secretly represents the homosexual point of view) is at its most complex in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927). Much of the obvious humor in this long work is based on pointed observations of French society's romantic pursuits, hypocrisy, and gossip.

The narrator, Marcel, has a keen but intolerant interest in characters who seem homosexual, like the Baron de Charlus, about whom he makes jokes, but there is another, more secretive level of humor encoded in the book if the reader agrees with Gregory Woods's controversial contention that Marcel is intended to be understood, at least by gay male readers, as a closeted homosexual like himself.

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This reading, though it is unorthodox, is a good illustration of the specialized nature of closeted humor as a sort of dirty joke to be shared only by those in the know, turning a lengthy literary work into one extended double entendre.

Ronald Firbank becomes his own surrogate in a much lighter way when he has his characters comment on his own writing in order to lampoon both them and himself in The Flower beneath the Foot (1923): "I suppose I'm getting squeamish! But this Ronald Firbank I can't take to at all. Valmouth! Was there ever a novel more coarse? I assure you I hadn't gone very far when I had to put it down."

Gertrude Stein became her own lover's surrogate when she turned one of her whole books into a sort of joke by calling it The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933).

In Breakfast at Tiffany's (1950) Truman Capote still felt it necessary to use a surrogate--this time a female--to represent his own gay sensibility in the charmingly fraudulent Holly Golightly, who like many a gay man exchanges her dull backwater youth for a glamorous Manhattan charade.

Gore Vidal's comic surrogate looks at life from both sides. In Myra Breckenridge (1968), his confused character Myron has a sex change that turns him into the eponymous heroine who wields a wicked dildo in her war against gender roles.

Connecting Openly Gay and Lesbian Characters to a Larger Society

Now that there is a self-defined gay and lesbian audience, and now that writers can publicly identify their sexuality, comic novels do not need a surrogate to connect openly gay or lesbian characters to a larger society. Instead they may allow their characters' lives to express a universal theme, such as coming of age.

In Rita Mae Brown's modern picaresque classic, Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), the roguish Molly Bolt confronts the hypocrisies of both heterosexual and homosexual societies.

Alternatively, gay and lesbian characters may be part of a spectrum of character types in a mixed social setting, such as Michael among his tolerant friends in Armistead Maupin's comic paean to a lovably zany San Francisco, the Tales of the City series (1978-1991).

Stephen McCauley directly involves his gay character George Mullen in the social and sexual lives of his heterosexual friends in The Object of My Affection (1987), as does Joe Keenan with his gay lovers in the farcical Blue Heaven (1988). Robert Rodi ridicules the efforts of his character Lionel Frank to hide his homosexuality from the straight world in Closet Case (1994).

For those who are "twice-blessed" and belong to two minority groups, a character's ethnic identity may be used to connect him or her to a larger society.

A Jewish lesbian feminist reporter explores the demimonde of New York's Lower East Side in Sarah Schulman's The Sophie Horowitz Story (1984). Joseph Torchia suffuses The Kryptonite Kid (1979) with Italian-American sensibility.

Douglas Sadownick ranges from New York to Los Angeles with his state-of-the-art gay vision as he explores the cultures of both his Jewish grandmother and his Latino boyfriend (with a healthy smattering of African-American therapist and Anglo-Saxon lover) in Sacred Lips of the Bronx (1994). And Larry Duplechan's Blackbird (1986) uses gentle humor to trace the growing gay awareness of Johnny Ray Rousseau, a black gay man in a straight white world.

Larger social issues may underlie the comic connection between the gay character and society. The underworld of narcotics users is the setting for William S. Burroughs's savagely funny, surrealistic Naked Lunch (1959). In James Kirkwood's P.S. Your Cat is Dead (1972), the tables are turned when the narrator seduces the man who has come to burglarize his apartment, and the criminal is drawn into the gay world. And AIDS, normally a deadly serious topic, links David B. Feinberg's character B. J. Rosenthal to the world at large in the scathingly witty novel Eighty-Sixed (1989).

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