Originally published in the LA Review of Books. Read the original here.
I FIRST ENCOUNTERED Sarah Schulman by accident in 1995, on the “New Fiction” shelves of the public library in Irvington, New York. I don’t recall what made me pick up Rat Bohemia, the slender blue volume with electric yellow lettering, but I had been making a methodical survey of the library since approximately 1985, and so I suspect there were very few books that didn’t pass through my hands at least once during those years.
Ours was a small-town library; by this point I’d read everything in “Fantasy & Sci-Fi” (my preferred mode of escapism), done a solid tour though “Mystery,” and devoured — with that particular brand of teen disdain that masks real interest — the entirety of the “School Reading” section. I also had an intense secret relationship with “Art History,” some few dozen dusty tomes that contained the only mentions of homosexuality anywhere to be found on our nonfiction shelves (as I knew, because I’d learned to use the card catalog specifically to look for gay things).
I say “secret” relationship because I never took any of these books out. I read them hastily in the stacks, a page at a time. This is how thirsty being a gay teen in the nineties could make you: I would sometimes later fantasize about a particularly winsome marble statue or Greek mosaic — porn by way of Walter Pater.
What I learned from my independent study in classical faggotry? All gays were dead white men with an interest in the arts. Growing up in the years between the discovery of HIV and the invention of the triple drug cocktail, this felt like confirmation of a fact I already knew: have sex, turn to stone.
Rat Bohemia — with its messy but real queer community, and a character with AIDS who wasn’t a prop in some modern day morality play — felt like a reprieve from a death sentence no one else knew I carried. It was a hint of possibility from somewhere beyond my hermetically sealed suburban bubble. Schulman wrote:
The way I figure it is that if I make my contribution to truth, some Rat Bohemian down the line will notice and appreciate it. She’ll be sitting down in a city strewn with rats and rat carcasses and will come across my petite observation. That’s the most amazing relationship in the universe. The girl on rat bones who knows that she is not alone.
And I felt like she was talking to me.
Over the next few years, Schulman’s books appeared occasionally in my life, always arriving out of nowhere, unsought, like a wind blowing in from some far off place, carrying a tantalizing scent. I read Stagestruck, her blistering critique of New York City’s theater world, for a class in college. Though it ruined Rent, which was at the time my favorite musical, it also cracked open a new understanding of the line between imitation and representation, creation and co-option. After Delores I found in my bedroom one day, a momento mori of some forgotten hook-up, and I devoured its tale of punk mystery and lesbian romance in an afternoon. Somehow, in two different cities, I acquired two bent-eared copies of Empathy, though I wouldn’t actually open either for another decade.
None of the books were connected per se — no sequels, or characters who continued from one to the next. Instead they complemented one another, each slotting into my consciousness like another piece of a puzzle. Book by book, Schulman was building a world. Or to be more precise, she was translating into literature the real world in which she lived, one populated by lesbian playwrights, radical AIDS activists, outcasts, working class revolutionaries, drug users, artists, sex workers, intellectuals, and those who were all of those things, all at once. To tell complicated stories from unusual perspectives, she embraced experimental structures, frequently swapping points of view, jumping time periods, and abandoning the traditional three-act narrative. Not every experiment was a success, but there was mindfulness in every choice she made, and a desire to represent a point of view that rarely (if ever) made it onto the published page.
For this continued insistence on chronicling life from an authentic lesbian perspective, Schulman paid a price: her books often received little attention outside of the queer press. With few other authors willing or able to keep publishing under such circumstances, Schulman — like that narrator from Rat Bohemia — often stood as a lone voice broadcasting to a far-flung audience. Or as Edmund White (another unrepentantly queer author) put it in the second of Schulman’s two New York Times book reviews, “There are few other works of fiction that I could compare with Rat Bohemia […] Schulman seems to have the field to herself.”
This month, The Feminist Press (TFP) is publishing Schulman’s 17th book, The Cosmopolitans, a period piece set in New York City in the late 1950s, loosely based on Honoré de Balzac’s Cousin Bette. It is the first book in the “corrective canon,” a new initiative by TFP and VIDA, the literary organization whose annual “VIDA Count” documents the publishing industry’s rampant sexism. In a press release, the two organizations announced that the corrective canon will highlight works that “encourage conversation about gender parity, as well as developing awareness of issues related to race, sexual orientation, and disability,” with hopes that this will begin to ameliorate “the patriarchal literary legacy that led to these imbalances.”
In anticipation, I spent the last year filling in the gaps in my Schulman education, reading everything from her first novel The Sophie Horowitz Story (a pulp-radical mystery published in 1984 by storied lesbian publishers Naiad Press), up to 2012’s cri de coeur to queer activists, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International.
What struck me most in this reading is the coherence of the world inscribed inside her writings, and the rigor with which she approaches her ideas. Some authors develop a coherent body of work via stylistic trappings and repeated tropes. For Schulman, however, deeper questions draw a web between her fiction and nonfiction, her period and modern work, her mysteries and her tragedies. She places a high premium on accountability, responsibility, and consistency, and it shows in the way she chases an idea from book to book, from nonfiction to fiction and back again. Some might see her writing as insular — too concerned with a small queer portion of New York City to have meaning beyond the world between Broadway and Avenue B. Yet it is precisely this close examination of her city, her self, and her community (as well as the external forces that act upon all three) that gives Schulman’s writing its power. She knows of what she speaks, and she speaks, openly and honestly, of what she knows.
While no one book can contain the revelations of an entire career, The Cosmopolitans is a novel that has deep roots in Schulman’s nonfiction, which I would broadly classify as an attempt to explore, catalog, and explain the queer experience in America today through the specific lens of her own life. A close reading of The Cosmopolitans can reveal the fruits of many of her earlier scholarly endeavors, from the profound commitment to urbanity she espoused in Gentrification of the Mind, to the powerful reflections on trauma at the heart of Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences.
Set in Manhattan in 1958, The Cosmopolitans follows the story of Bette (a middle-aged escapee from Ohio with a painful past and a job as a secretary at a failing ad firm), Earl (Bette’s neighbor and best friend, a gay black man who works in a meatpacking factory, but is also a stifled classically trained actor), and Hortense (Bette’s young cousin, who appears suddenly and disastrously on her doorstep).
Bette, we learn early on, was driven from Ohio by the cruelty of a man named Frederick, who loved and then betrayed her for her cousin Crevelle, the more “proper” love interest. When Bette refuses to go along with his lies about what happened, her family abandons her. The consequences of this act condemn everyone involved: Bette to her shunning, and Bette’s family to a life of banal falsity. As Schulman writes,
[Bette] had long ago come to understand […] that her expulsion by her family was the most determining act of their lives, as well as hers. It made them who they are. Just as their cruelty had created her it had also created them.
When Bette’s past returns to threaten her safe, small world of platonic love with Earl, she goes to drastic lengths to save them both — and nearly destroys Earl in the process.
The Cosmopolitans opens on Bette sitting at her second-story window on the corner of 10th Street and Broadway, watching the world unfurl beneath her. She prefers this view to the cinema, she ruminates, because
sunken in the seats of Loews […] she was diminished and felt controlled. Bette could never ignore the simple fact that what passed on the screen had already been seen by multitudes before her. Each time the projector clanged its reels, the characters reached an identical conclusion.
How can one story unfold the same way under so many different circumstances?
It could not. She didn’t care for it.
On the other hand, Bette’s window offered her human stories “in panoramic variation so that the simultaneity of our lives became irrefutable. That we’re all in this together… who needs Hollywood when there’s Tenth Street?”
Over the course of the novel, Bette proves to be an insightful and surprising narrator, but there is perhaps no more enduring character in all of Schulman’s writing than New York City: it is her muse, her moral compass, and her love interest, much as it is for Bette.
Some of her most simply beautiful prose can be found in her trenchant observations of the city, like this paragraph from Shimmer, an earlier novel that’s also set in mid-century New York City:
Somehow we ended up walking into that cavernous town square called Penn Station, and I gasped for air, suddenly so overcome by its beauty. All around me the detritus of human frailty. Each item was filled with meaning. The wall of sober wooden phone booths, how many tears had been shed behind those doors? A beckoning parcel depot. Private gatherings of hats and overcoats stamping out cigarettes. A colored porter with shined black shoes led white guests to the Hotel Statler across the street. Assuredly his brother was the porter at the Hotel Ashley, wall phone in every room. And it all started to spin around me. The details. Barbershop. Immunize against diphtheria. She’s kind of shifty. Ace Dairy, special on cottage cheese. Our milkman lives on Staten Island. The clatter of glass bottles in his carrying case. Rooms to let. Beds twenty cents. Free reading rooms. Lodging. Showers. The Bennet girls of Brooklyn. Rupert Brewery. Gracie Mansion. Tugboat on the river. On your way, Sonny. Over the teletype. If the door gets stuck it’s bad luck. Kettle on the stove.
The beauty of New York celebrated here is inseparable from its “simultaneity,” much as it is for Bette in The Cosmopolitans. Throughout Schulman’s writings, the city appears as a chaos orchestra where 8,000,000 instruments play a rapturous, unpredictable symphony, and the harmonies, melodies, and counterpoints are all the more beautiful because they are unexpected.
This idea is most clearly articulated in Gentrification of the Mind, Schulman’s detailed examination of the role that the AIDS crisis and homophobia played in gentrifying New York City (and, by extension, the minds of its inhabitants). Early in Gentrification, she writes “urbanity — the familiar interaction of different kinds of people creating ideas together […] is what makes cities great, because the daily affirmation that people from other experiences are real makes innovative solutions and experiments possible.”
In The Cosmopolitans, this abstract observation is given flesh in the central and most important relationship in the book, the one between Bette and Earl — exactly the kind of friendship that would never have developed in Bette’s hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio. The novel is a paean to their neighborly love, which stretches across hallways and demographic distances, and which is earned, as opposed to obligated, the way familial love is. As Bette puts it, “to love when you are not supposed to is so much deeper than to love as instructed to do […] One is imposed, the other discovered. One is pre-ordained, the other improvised. One brings reward, the other must survive despite punishment.”
As a lesbian, Schulman obviously knows that it is possible “to love when you are not supposed to” no matter where you are, but city life provides both the grand public in which to discover that love, and the safe private in which to pursue it. She’s not the first author to glorify the city-as-melting-pot. But in her rigorous moral cosmology, this belief leads inexorably to the next: if the city is beautiful because it contains multitudes, than to love New York — to be a true New Yorker — one must recognize and celebrate these differences. Furthermore, it means we have an active duty to ensure that many different kinds of people are free to live where and how they want, because diversity does not exist in the abstract. It requires an embodied multitude and a recognition that (as Bette says), “we’re all in this together.”
It also requires real work. Throughout her career, Schulman has articulated a radical understanding of responsibility. In her moral worldview, passivity is a secular sin on every level. If we believe our country is unjust, and we benefit from that injustice, we have a responsibility to resist. If we want a more diverse city, we have a responsibility to create it. If a friend is hurt, we have a responsibility to care for them. And if we ourselves have done wrong — wittingly or unwittingly — we have a responsibility to pursue both forgiveness and justice. Indeed, one cannot exist without the other.
In the introduction to her book Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, Schulman states very clearly the connection between her identity as a New Yorker and her active commitment to diversity, writing: “I am lucky to have been born in a multicultural city, and this privilege breeds responsibility. Responsibility to think, to speak, to act.” Somewhat surprisingly in a book that chronicles her embrace of the campaign for Palestinian justice, she also points to another root for her commitment to response: her Judaism. A Jewish concept of justice, she writes, “requires that the person causing pain say that he caused it, take actions to undo it, and start an amends process.”
Although Bette seems to come from one of the WASPiest wasp families to ever wear khakis to church, this idea of justice is one that she shares. It is a restorative (as opposed to punitive), vision, where the goal is not to punish the offender but to heal the offended (and, by extension, the offender as well). In The Cosmopolitans, Bette calls it “the duty of repair,” saying:
I believe in the duty of repair […] I know there is cruelty in life […] But I believe that it can be followed by reconciliation. In order for this pain that remains in me to heal, Frederick must see the healing. That is what I want from him. To make peace with me, in person.
While new wounds are opened over the course of the novel, in many ways, The Cosmopolitans is about the healing of past trauma, particularly of the familial kind. Bette, like Schulman, is in her 50s, and has spent nearly her entire life considering what was done to her, why, and how her family went unpunished for lying, while she was exiled for telling the truth. Although Bette is straight, her song is one many queer people know by heart — including Schulman herself, as she makes clear in Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences.
Ties That Bind investigates the specific mechanisms at play in the day-to-day workings of homophobia, with a focus on the family because homophobia so often starts at home, where it is considered unassailable by outside forces — a “private matter,” much like domestic abuse. At the start of the book, Schulman lays out two experiences that most queer people go through at some point in their lives:
One is “coming out,” a process of self-interrogation in opposition to social expectation that has no parallel in heterosexual life. The second common experience is that we have each, at some time in our lives, been treated shoddily by our families simply, but specifically, because of our homosexuality.
Taken as a whole, Ties That Bind is one of a few recent books — along with Kenji Yoshino’s Covering and Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl — to examine on a granular level the actions, thoughts, and social structures that support and enable the oppression of queer people. It is an uncomfortable and important book, and one that has gotten far less attention than it deserves.
In Bette, Schulman has crafted a central character who, though straight, has gone through a similar process of abandonment and self-interrogation. This inverts the common entertainment trope in which gay characters think, act, and move through the world identically to their heterosexual peers. She provides a way for people who haven’t thought deeply about homophobia to understand its practical workings, enabling them to see these dynamics more clearly in the real world. Bette’s experiences are balanced by those of Earl, who is gay and has also been shunned for it, making the parallels all the clearer.
Perhaps because of her palpable desire to work out important interpersonal ideas through fiction, Schulman’s narrators can sometimes seem too self-aware. Even in moments of chaos and passion, some are able to internally articulate their own motivations too clearly, too neatly, and too easily. This can give her fiction a didactic edge. In The Cosmopolitans, however, Bette has literally spent years considering these issues, and thus her realizations feel natural and earned.
The same can be said of Schulman herself. Each book she’s written has served as a chance to refine and present her ideas more clearly. In her collection of essays My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush Years, Schulman expresses this directly, saying “I also made a decision for myself personally that I was not writing a novel documenting the life and death of a single individual. Instead I wanted to use the examples of people’s lives to express a precise political idea.” Here, she’s referring to her novel People In Trouble, one of the first books to deeply investigate the social meaning of the HIV crisis in the eighties, but this seems to hold true for much of her fiction — including The Cosmopolitans.
It would be easy to enjoy The Cosmopolitans even if you had never heard the name Sarah Schulman before. But the book rests upon a powerful foundation, and it is my hope that the recognition given to The Cosmopolitans by The Feminist Press and VIDA will encourage readers to go back through the rest of Schulman’s oeuvre — or forward through it, for that matter, as Schulman already has her next book in the works. Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair is set to be published by Arsenal Pulp Press in October of this year. In the description of the book on Arsenal’s website, they write that it “reveals how punishment replaces personal and collective self-criticism, and shows why difference is so often used to justify cruelty and shunning.” It’s not hard to see the conceptual threads that connect this book with The Cosmopolitans. It is the next logical step, the next avenue of truth to pursue, and the next book in Schulman’s own personal canon.