The Voyeur by Michael Luongo is an excellent first novel. It is fine erotica and many other engaging things to think about as well. Luongo takes a look at the days when Giuliani was Mayor of New York, and when AIDS was an undiscovered and unwanted frontier in public policy.
Luongo’s hero is a man named Jason who is doing some sort of Ph.D. in behavioral sciences. He also happens to be gay which in a large sense is incidental to the discoveries the novel offers the reader. I say that, despite the fact that the subject of the novel is his evolution as a gay man at a time when the very forces of nature seem bent against that state of being. Still, he perseveres, stumbling often and falling into his own shortsightedness. If anyone thinks that is not an experience we all share, then they are probably in junior high school and shouldn’t be reading this anyway.
The novel also presents us with the state of social science as an intellectual discipline, demonstrating once again that “social science,” as it is usually applied, is an oxymoron. The only person who ever fully understands that paradox in this book is Jason himself. He learns from the bizarre and often prurient self-interests of his investigative colleagues. He learns it from the sleazy means by which the research is being funded and conducted. Most of all, he learns it from himself as he slowly confronts the operations of his own mind. It galls me to say it, but he is actually a very sweet person, and I believe I am intended to feel that way. He is also very annoying at times, but you can’t help liking him. He has courage, brains, and a sense of integrity. Best of all, he is only dimly aware of his virtues.
The Voyeur is obviously about the observer, Jason, and the French meaning of the word is fully realized. Jason observes as a detached investigator. He is also hopelessly overpowered by his penis, which rises to the occasion when he is spanked, simply ogling or helplessly fantasizing during his researches. He is fascinated and aroused by situations and people he would otherwise have thought repellant. He is no connoisseur of gay sex, but more a tourist. He is almost never, for example, dressed right for the occasion and feels awkward when he is, even when the event calls for no more than a towel.
He does not observe from an amused and knowing distance like some figure in Huysmans, Balzac or Proust. He wishes he could be more detached as he tours the bathhouses, gay night clubs, bars, street corners, and shrubbery of gay amour in the 90s. His job is to look for HIV positive men to interview about their sexual practices. It occurs to no one that the fact that the subjects are being paid skews the study, but that is because the people in charge are looking for lurid anecdotes in order to support renewed and larger funding. His vocation is some sort of search for purity that is quite impossible.
Jason, like the Jason of myth, is not sure where he is going, how to deal with what he finds when he gets there, and who can be trusted to help him sort through it. Ultimately, his struggle for detachment puts him at odds with his lover. It is really from that point that the scales begin to fall from his eyes, and he begins to see sex less as a unique mystery but a part of the larger conundrum of being. The question is are you living your life, if you are observing it at the same time?
If there is a flaw in this novel it is that Jason is presented as a slightly nerdy and naïve idealist. That rings false given the New York of the 90s, a city he has chosen for his Mecca of gay culture. He may live with his lover in Plainfield, NJ, but he longs for New York’s answer to the Marais, Chelsea. It would seem he is not quite up to scratch for that. The demands of the local chic; his physical height; the very fact that he is taking a Ph.D.; all brand him. As he sees himself, he will never be the equal of those who can charm the world effortlessly on their looks alone. What’s more, he knows it, so there is an element of discontinuity in then making him naïve.
He is up to his elbows all day and night in sex whether in the abstract, or in the sleaziest of fact. The disconnection between his perception and the world he is seeing is not always very plausible especially when he is enjoying the view. I believe Luongo has created Jason this way so that he can go through the long descent of self-discovery that the character makes. At times, this soul-searching gets windy because like most people who wish to think of themselves as naïve idealists, they are tiresomely egocentric.
On balance, however, that is a small flaw given the constant round of genuine insights about human nature and perception that the book offers. The book provokes a groan with a prologue, which presents Jason’s mother as a sex-hating, imperious myrmidon, and we fear for a moment that the next line will be, “My mother made me a homosexual,” with or without the usual punch line. However, Jason’s journeys through his various relationships are always revelations and never what you expect they might be. That is very much the case in the way that Luongo concludes Jason’s relationship with his mother.
Mr. Luongo’s great strength is that his writing is uncompromisingly human. By that I mean, he presents the problems before Jason as neither romantically hopeless nor easily tractable. Life is a pain in the ass. The key is learning to live with yourself. From that well of integrity springs a truly poetic style in many parts of this novel. He writes about sex in a way that is both lyrical and passionate while avoiding none of the essential details.
I wish he would indulge his sense of humor more and his angst less, but nothing in this novel is dishonest or contrived. It is well worth your time. I will leave you with part of a very nicely done passage from the book about seduction:
"No, this leather was soft, seductive, sexy, with a touch of hairiness that tickled gently, and caressed and lulled one into its power, making the observer part of it, not commanding him to pay attention to it. Yet, the choice was still no choice, there was no way to resist something this enticing. Jason was forced to draw nearer."
The Voyeur, p. 191.