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By Michelle Ellis, Jeffrey Lee

AUGUST 2, 1999: 

Something Inside: Conversations with Gay Fiction Writers by Philip Gambone (University of Wisconsin Press, paper, $24.95)

The life span of "gay fiction" is nicely laid out in the pages of Something Inside, particularly if you begin with the older and work down to the younger authors, though the book is not quite arranged that way. Like the word "gay" itself, gay fiction seems to have gone through a period of earnest exploration in the 1970s; a "coming of age," concurrent with furious commercial exploitation, in the 1980s and early 1990s; and since, a decline. The wistful novels of Edmund White and Andrew Holleran (both interviewed here) were sacred texts among literary-minded gay men, but young authors now seem to take their inspiration from outside of the circuit altogether. For their part, the elders, having no real antecedents to cite, talk a lot about Marcel Proust. Working with such a broad range, Philip Gambone explores the ground shared by his subjects, if only through (unavoidably) asking them many of the same questions. Much of the book is concerned with whether "gay fiction," as such, exists anyway, especially as "gay" more and more enters the mainstream.

Beyond that, Something Inside is interesting less for its thesis than for the thoughts -- related or not to "gay fiction" -- of individual writers. White and Holleran, like their novels, are elegant, insular and a bit supercilious. Christopher Bram, author of Father of Frankenstein, and recent Pulitzer-winner Michael Cunningham are among the smartest. Cunningham sums up whole decades when he says, "I'm a member of that generation that could have gone to Woodstock but didn't." (It's Cunningham, too, who makes the comment, "That's why you read great geniuses like Virginia Woolf -- to steal things, and to be reminded of what you can do.") David Leavitt and Dennis Cooper, temperamental opposites, are both interviewed, as are mystery-writer Joseph Hansen, Scott Heim, Randall Kenan and porn auteur-turned anthologist John Preston, among others. Robert Giard's photos are lovely -- especially the smoldering portrait of Brad Gooch thoughtfully chosen to decorate Something Inside's cover.

Solo Variations by Cassandra Garbus (Plume, paper, $12.95)

Cassandra Garbus' debut novel, Solo Variations, examines the life of a struggling oboist in New York. The protagonist, Gala, suffers because of her parents' separation and the disintegration of her own relationship with her boyfriend, Tom. As her relationship with Tom becomes increasingly strained, she finds comfort in her budding friendship with Stephen, a fledgling composer. With her affection divided, she must choose between her old life with Tom and a new life with Stephen.

All of the characters in Garbus' tale are both flawed and forgivable. She presents all perspectives of a situation, demonstrating her empathy for her characters and her fair-mindedness. To her credit, Garbus does not point fingers when considering the causes of love's passing. Instead, she is careful to weigh each character's motives, recognizing that we are all susceptible to the weaknesses to which the characters occasionally succumb.

Images of pain, particularly the suffering of women, permeate the narrative. All of the characters have experienced harrowing horrors in their lives, including Gala's father, who is scarred by memories of the Holocaust, and Gala's mother, who recalls childhood abuse at the hands of her father. Despite her grim background, Gala is determined to end the legacy of pain that plagues her family.

Initially, Gala believes that romantic love can save her from the pain her parents have bequeathed her. As her relationship with Tom unravels, she seeks solace in the tender touch of Stephen. When her involvement with Stephen fails to erase the despair that has always haunted her, she begins to suspect that romantic love alone cannot sustain her. Gradually, she learns that before she can love anyone else she must love and accept herself.

Garbus has written a nonjudgmental treatise on the erosion of relationships and dreams, as well as the recovery of the self. Solo Variations explores one woman's struggle to find happiness in a world in which women must negotiate a balance between professional ambition and personal relationships.

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