Jendi Reiter’s 2016 novel Two Natures follows a rich history of novelistic suggestion and tradition, though the subject matter is drawn from a time not that long ago, the 1990’s in New York City. It lends itself to other titles, as well: if Two Natures were not evocative enough, it might almost be called The Choice: is a person one sort of being, another sort of being, and how does one decide what to do to live with or heal a split in one’s own psyche?
Even more, it might be seen as a relative of Françoise Sagan’s Un Certain Sourire for a new generation and a different sexual orientation. In that book, as the female protagonist is trying to decide about her lovers, she thinks “Car enfin, tout au moins quand on est jeune, dans cette longue tricherie qu’est la vie, rien ne paraît désespérément souhaitable que l’imprudence.” As Bentley Rumble‘s rewardingly close translation has this: “Because finally, at least when one is young, in this long swindle that is life, nothing but carelessness seems desperately desirable.”
It is in fact carelessness which simultaneously tempts and distances Julian Selkirk, the young gay hero of this novel, as being in the middle of the vivid and abruptly changing world of the 1990’s in New York City’s fashion community, and being at the same time involved to a greater or lesser extent in the amorous exchanges that go on all around him. He attempts to negotiate a deal with his God, a god from his Southern background who does not always consort well with the contemporary scene of Julian’s sexual orientation.
Julian is a fashion photographer addicted to assigning values in an aesthetic way to surfaces, to externals, all the while trying to see beneath the surfaces of people and events himself, in order to survive and seek happiness. And the “carelessness” which I mentioned before is something he must be very aware of and leery of in the era of the AIDS epidemic. Still, he is always drawn onward, into risky situations and into mourning for those who have fallen victim to AIDS, and he must constantly be assessing how he will evaluate those of his friends whose behaviors and choices flash up vignettes morally as clear as photographs and yet as confused in their significance for him as double exposures.
More than just being a history of Julian’s accomodations to his situation and moments of growth and decision, this is a romance novel for the gay male community, with none of the quick, easy answers of a cheap trade romance tale. Instead, it is a genuinely fraught romance in the sense of the original French “roman,” a powerful narration of a portion of a man’s life and its loves in the French style, following the bright and sometimes frightening or threatening kaleidoscopic, shifting pattterns and cutting edges that one sees through the lens imperfectly when one is the central viewer; to someone not involved in the changes and their visions, it seems like only a matter of putting the kaleidoscope tube aside, of refraining from vision and wisdom.
But our Julian Selkirk is not a refrainer, and in the course of this novel, follows a path of wisdom-gathering all his own, in dealing manfully, as it used to be called, with everything from a difficult and abusive family situation to the changing fortunes and sometimes collapses of his heroic icons and of celebrities whom he must rely upon for his manner of making a living for himself.
And there is no lack either of scenes of passion, frank and explicit and enticing without being undignified or in any way what one would describe as pornographic, for they are written always from the perspective of a kind of love without sentimentality, and yet sentiment itself is often there. There is a sharingness and a fellow-feeling in these pages that if read with sincere commitment to the human situation do not lend themselves to mockery, derision, or denial. Go along with this author, won’t you, regardless of what your own orientation, or what you may think you already know of that of others, and discover for yourself how faith can be broadened to be inclusive of even those perhaps very different from you, or maybe you may even learn something more about the true nature of love in others. I heartily recommend this book as it covers the entire spectrum of its readers’ experience, from that of the primer for those just finding themselves re: their awareness vís-a-vís this gay life, to that of the already aware/involved.
Cover design by Don Mitchell, Saddle Road Press. Used by permission of the author, Jendi Reiter.
(Shadowoperator: Victoria Leigh Bennett)