Thursday, November 16, 2017

Other Bildungsromans Are Available

Okay, so maybe my novel about young male friendship (or its sequel) has not yet been made into a movie, but I know that there is an audience for such films. I know this because such movies keep getting made. And I know that such movies keep getting made because, once I finished writing Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead, I found myself compulsively reading other authors’ books about intense youthful male friendships. One of those film adaptations has recently been released to critical acclaim, and another has been making the rounds of various international film festivals.

Egypt-born American author AndrĂ© Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me by Your Name is not really so much about friendship as infatuation. Aciman does a skillful job of capturing the excitement and frustration of being a precocious teenager in a privileged, intellectually stimulating environment. The time is summer 1983, and the narrator is 17-year-old American-Italian Jewish boy Elio, living on the beautiful Italian coast. Over the course of the story, he becomes increasingly obsessed with confident and handsome Oliver, his professor father’s 24-year-old live-in summer intern from the States. The book is enjoyable because who would not want to spend his teenage years in such a beautiful place and in such an interesting environment? While the young narrator is (understandably) self-absorbed and sometimes whiny, we cannot help but like him because he has the attractiveness of uncanny intelligence. (He plays the piano and seems to have read absolutely everything.) Not surprisingly, the book and, now, the movie have been embraced enthusiastically by gay audiences, but I was intrigued by an interview with the film’s Sicilian-born director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) in which he insisted that he did not view it as a “gay” love story. I understand what he means. While the love scenes are memorably passionate, the book is not steeped in the familiar gay themes of writers like, say, James Baldwin. The genders of the characters are nearly irrelevant to what Aciman’s book is concerned about. The movie version’s screenplay is by the venerable James Ivory, whose many films (made with his late partner Ismail Merchant) included an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s gay-themed Maurice.

If we wish to compare, then Call Me by Your Name is the near-polar opposite of Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead—despite both of them being first-hand accounts by male teenagers in the mid-to-late twentieth century, who are facing into adulthood. Elio does not have to flee his family and home for his journey. Unlike Dallas Green’s, his journey is mostly internal and definitely solitary. Despite his wary-then-passionate relationship with Oliver, he seems to be someone who has grown up without a best friend.

A better comparison to Max & Carly is Australian Tim Winton’s 2008 novel Breath. In fact, the coincidental parallels are are nearly, well, breathtaking. As with my book, it is set in the 1970s and the focus of the story is a strong, nearly desperate, friendship between two boys in the backwater of Australia’s western coast. The dynamic between Bruce Pike, the only son of a modest and conservative couple, and Ivan Loon, the wild son of a feckless father, is much like that of Dallas and Lonnie. In fact, given the nicknames of Winton’s pair, Pikelet and Loonie, I found myself working hard not to read Loonie as Lonnie. What binds the two is their mutual love of surfing and the need to test their courage against bigger and bigger waves. They fall in thrall to Sando, a onetime surfing legend now living in self-imposed obscurity with his taciturn young American wife. For the most part, the book is a really good read, although I found the final chapters a bit of let-down. Pikelet narrates the story from the perspective of middle age, and the rapid encapsulation of his (mostly depressing) later life is an welcome turn after the high spirits of the earlier sections. Overall, though, it is a very good evocation of being young and male, having and losing a close friend, falling in love and getting on with the not-always-easy business of adult life.

The film adaptation of Breath is directed by Tasmania-born Simon Baker, who also plays the role of Sando. He is probably best known to U.S. audiences, who may not even realize he is not American, as the star of the long-running detective show The Mentalist.

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