By Michael Bronski
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It is rare for contemporary art to grapple with the political realities of our lives. Of course, the reason for this is often that the making of a film or writing of a novel does not happen quickly and artists looking to take the longer view and make larger statements about the politics de jour may not have the same resonance two years later. However, in the past year we have seen a growing body of work that deals with the murderous excesses of the current administration’s response to 9/11 and the conflicts in the Middle East. These have been mostly documentaries—such as Jehane Noujaim’s Control Room and Danny Schechter’s WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception—but there have also been terrific fictional attempts to portray life in post-9/11 America. For instance, Danny Leiner’s feature film The Great New Wonderful looks at the complicated lives of some New Yorkers in September 2002 and manages to explicate the effects of physical and political trauma on everyday life.
But Exiles in America by Christopher Bram (William Morrow) sets a new standard for the political novel, not just because the author deals with sex, desire, and art in relation to international politics, but because he does so with a perception and a psychological nuance that is rare.
Bram is one of today’s most exciting and challenging novelists who consistently writes on gay themes. Sure, he is usually listed as a “gay writer.” While that is accurate enough, it is a shame that we live in a culture in which this term doesn’t illuminate an author’s work, but rather immediately limits it. Since 1987, with the publication of Surprising Myself, Bram has published 9 major novels in 19 years—a great run for any novelist. Bram’s record is particularly amazing when you realize that each of his novels has been very different from those before and after it.
From the sophisticated coming out story of Surprising Myself, Bram produced a WWII sex thriller in Hold Tight (1989); one of the first novels about AIDS with In Memory of Angel Clare (1989); and a novel about contemporary international politics in Almost History (1992). Father of Frankenstein (1995), which became the awardwinning film Gods and Monsters, was about the life of Hollywood director James Whale; the 1997 Gossip was a murder mystery about ACT UP and secrets on the Beltway rumor mill; The Notorious Dr. August: His Real Life; and Crimes was a splendid recreation of a 19th century novelized memoir that moved from the Civil War to the birth and death of vaudeville culture as seen through the intersections of race and sex, and the 2003 Lives of the Circus Animals was a novel about contemporary New York theater. All of these novels featured gay male protagonists, as well as various gay communities, and each portrayed themes that reflected the complicated, complex worlds in which they took place.
Exiles in America is also completely different from his earlier work. Zack Knowles, a psychiatrist, and his lover Daniel Wexler, a painter, have been together for over 20 years and while deeply in love, have fallen out of sex. They live in Williamsburg where Daniel teaches art at the College of William and Mary. Their lives are suddenly unsettled by the arrival of a visiting faculty artist, Abbas Rohani, his wife Elena, and their two children. Abbas is Iranian and Elena Russian. Shortly after they become friends, Abbas and Daniel begin a casual affair that later becomes more serious, in different ways, for both of them. In reaction Zack and Elena become confidants.
Bram’s explication of this roundelay of complicated relationships is splendid. Not only does he pinpoint the breath and life of how gay male lovers relate to one another—the silences, emotional hesitations, and unsaid love and resentments—but his portrayal of Abbas and Elena’s relationship (even more complicated than Zack and Daniel’s) is credible and illuminating.
Exiles in America takes on the big questions brought on by 9/11: what does it mean to be safe? How are people defined by their religion? By their culture? How does society hold itself together? How far can society go to protect itself before it destroys itself? Who is an exile? What is the very nature of “exile” and what happens to those people who are exiled? What happens to those who exile them?
While Bram at first concerns himself with the puzzles of sex and relationships at home, Exiles in America soon explodes into international politics when Abbas’s brother, an important Iranian politician, visits his relatives, imploring them to consider their roots, especially in light of the war in Iraq and a possible war against Iran. His visit is noticed by the FBI, which has concerns, fears, prejudices, and plots of their own. Soon the question of open relationships, homosexuality, “homeland,” and safety are all played out on a dangerous international stage.
The trauma of 9/11 is ever present in Exiles in America, mentioned sometimes by Zach’s patients, more often by Abbas and Elena when trying to explain why they feel like exiles in America. But Bram is also interested in what the evolving myth of 9/11 is doing to U.S. culture—our sense of self, ideas of normalcy, sexuality, sense of personal and national isolation. Obviously, the “exiles” in the title refer not only to Abbas and Elena but also to the sexual “deviants” Zach and Daniel, as well as anyone who does not easily fit into the new post-9/11 mindset. What Bram has done is show how defensive, isolationist, nationalist thinking seeps into all parts of our lives and begins to shape people from the inside. Not only does non(hetero)normative sexuality become suspicious in this climate, the very idea of “open relationships”—so natural to gay male culture and enjoyed by both couples here—becomes a suspect category, unAmerican and untrustworthy. Bram exposes how the post-9/11 demand for a strong nation at all costs affects our humanity and how the rhetoric of safety and security shapes our lives and thoughts even as we resist them.
It is tempting to call Exiles in America Bram’s best novel. Not only is it a major “gay novel”— however you want to define that—but it is also one of the new works of contemporary fiction that grapples with the unending complexity of world politics in ways that are both empathetic, enlightening, politically savvy, and emotionally sophisticated.
Michael Bronski teaches women and gender studies and Jewish studies at Dartmouth College. His last book was Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps (St. Martin’s Press, 2003).