Chaos by Edmund White

Age has always got the better of us. Of all of us – whether it be a man, or a woman, straight or gay, though a lot more in the case of being a gay man, and that’s what Chaos is all about – age and its impact on our lives. The older we get, the more insecure we become, specially more so when you are 66, like the protagonist of the novella, “Chaos”, Jack who is obsessed with Seth, 28-year old charmless ex-Mormon sex bomb. It is rather sad to read to what extent Jack will go to have his way – even if it means paying Seth in return of a sexual favour. The other three stories, about two older men and younger “boys”.

The stories are cliched. You must have read off them before, or probably seen a movie on similar lines, what you have to experience though is the beauty of Edmund White’s language. His prose is so dense at times; that you are forced to take a step back and marvel at what he can do with the language.

For instance, here is something from the book on memory:

He made lists of things to do but forgot to consult them. Nothing yet was completely lost, but he had to write down his appointments right away or they would escape him an hour after he’d worked them out in detail and he’d have to make a humiliating second call (‘Did we say Tuesday at three?’ ‘No, a week from Thursday at four.’).

I do not if gay men out of loneliness wallow in self-pity or escape through opium or by paying prostitutes. I am gay and yes loneliness and old age scare me as well, and I to some extent know where Mr. White is coming from, it’s just that I fail to see how one cannot do more with one’s life. While on the other hand, I also agree to what he has to write to some extent, yet I am sure there is more than just loneliness and being sex-starved when you are an old gay man.

Having said that, each of the four stories carry the theme of aging, of recollection, of longing for the unattainable made out of grasp because of the erosion of time.

‘Time was speeding up just as it was running out, like the last of the water draining form the sink’.

But the manner in which Edmund White carves these tales is not one of desperation, of nihilism. His characters retain the sensual longing yet the inherent dignity of the Marschallin of ‘Der Rosenkavalier’. And the stories are just about that operatic. Reading Edmund White is a feast, beautifully prepared.

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