Fiction: “A Single Man” by Christopher Isherwood

I am a huge fan of The Soup on E!. Really, it’is the only show I watch on E!, though I do occasionally catch the opening of Chelsea Lately (you know? She’s funny, but not hilarious). The Soup has an extra factor than just irony, sarcasm, and hilarious out-of-context clips: its host is Alaina’s Pretend Boyfriend #3, Joel McHale (of Community! Which everyone must watch! Screw Bones and Big Bang Theory!).

You may be wondering: “Uh, Alaina? Did you get your entry windows confused? You’re writing in your book blog right now.” I know — I’m getting to it. Because see, on The Soup, there are different categories of clips. Joel usually starts with some standard clips from random shows, then goes into “Reality Show Clip Time!”, and that usually consists of clips from Jersey Shore and Big Brother and definitely The Bachelorette. There’s always some “Chat Stew” (soo meaty), which covers the morning talk shows (“Get Off My Lawn with Regis and Kelly,” “Good Morning LA,” Hoda and Kathie Lee) and of course, the Kick Ass Clip of the Week. But occasionally, there are Gay Shows.

Again: “What does this have to do with that book you just finished reading?” Well, let’s suppose, first, that That’s What She Read is actually The Soup. Then we can look back at some of the titles I’ve read recently. And then, we can propose that, if A Decade of Curious People is the equivalent to “Chat Stew” and A Rogue’s Game is most definitely my version of “Chicks, Man.”, then A Single Man has to be, in its simplest form, “Gay Shows.”

The plot of A Single Man covers one day in the life of a man. It could be anybody, really, but Mr. Isherwood decided to talk about the being known as George:

Obediently, it washes, shaves, brushes its hair, for it accepts its responsibilities to the others. It is even glad that it has its place among them. It knows what is expected of it.

It knows its name. It is called George. [11]

George happens to be a professor at San Tomas Community College in a suburb of Los Angeles in 196…2? (It never comes out and says explicitly what year, but mentions are made of the Cuban Missile Crisis and communists, which, if I remember what little 20th Century American History I was taught, seem to predate the Kennedy assassination.) He teaches English literature (which almost makes sense, for George is British), and he also happens to be gay. George’s partner, Jim, also happened to have died recently, so he’s still dealing with his grief.

But really, the book isn’t about George being gay. (And there’s a section in A Single Man where George, as an English professor, starts thinking or talking about how books are about something, but I didn’t turn the page down and I’m too lazy to go find it now.) It’s about a middle-aged man getting through a single day. It just happens that some of the things that George has to deal with is homophobia and reaching out to a student who might also be gay.

Now, you wouldn’t think that after having seen or read synopses of Tom Ford’s recent adaptation of the novel. If, like me, you watched the movie first, you’d believe that the novel is all about being a gay man who lost his partner and how he deals with the survivor’s guilt, among other things. But it’s not. To me, it’s about so much more and yet, so much less than that at the same time.

I watched the movie first; then, being interested and thinking it would be similar, requested the book from my Local Library. And it is, in many ways: we focus on George the entire time (Colin Firth narrates key moments). George wakes up, goes to work, teaches a class, runs a few errands, comes home, has dinner with his girl friend/neighbor Charley, then goes out to a bar, runs into a student, goes skinny dipping with said student (don’t panic, college student, and they were drunk), he and student go back to his house but nothing happens, I said don’t panic, and then they go to bed, he in his bed, and the student on the couch. End of day.

The huge difference is: in the movie, George is extremely depressed. He still hasn’t gotten over the death of Jim, and he’s trying to cope, but not succeeding. His evening with the student ends up giving him hope for his life that he didn’t have at the beginning of the movie. In the novel, George seems a bit depressed in the morning, but becomes more optimistic and happy as the day goes on.

And I don’t want to give away the ending of either the book or the movie, because I enjoyed both and I think others will enjoy both as well, but I’m going to talk about it in very vague terms anyway. The ending is the same in both, but the ending felt earned in the novel, and seemed like a cruel twist of fate in the movie. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Uh, so in the end, this book is nothing like “Gay Shows.” on The Soup. Wow. Talk about letting a metaphor get away from oneself. Sorry ’bout that, folks.

Grade for A Single Man: 2 stars


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