Blackouts: A Novel
“Torres’ intricate web of narratives is gripping from beginning to end. His richly drawn characters are passionate . . .”
In Manuel Puig’s classic novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, a prisoner establishes a connection with his cellmate by recounting the plots of films he loves. In Justin Torres’ fascinating, inventive novel Blackouts, a nameless young man and his elderly, dying companion, Juan Gay, recount memories and stories of other people as if they were movies. Our narrator and Juan met years ago in an asylum; now the narrator is Juan’s companion through his last days in a ramshackle building called The Palace, somewhere in a western desert.
The narrator spins tales of his family and his experiences as a hustler, a partner in older men’s sexual fantasies. Juan tells of his relationship with a lesbian couple, Zhenya and Jan Gay. He was a lost eight-year-old boy when Zhenya found him and used him as the model for drawings for the children’s books she and her partner created. The couple accompanied Juan on the long journey from Puerto Rico where he would live with relatives. They were so important to him that he took their name.
Juan’s dying wish is that his friend pass on the story of Jan Gay (born Helen Reitman), and her book Sex Variants: A Study in Homosexual Patterns. Jan was the daughter of Ben Reitman, partner of celebrated activist Emma Goldman. Something of a revolutionary herself, she founded a nudist colony in upstate New York. Jan worked on her book for years, amassing case studies of eighty lesbians and gay men in order to disprove the theory, accepted by the psychiatric community at the time, that same-sex desire was a pathology. To continue her work, she founded the Society for the Study of Sex Variants but broke from the group when the research began to follow psychiatric doctrine. Unfortunately, when the book was published, George W. Henry took all the credit, and Jan only received an acknowledgement.
Helen Reitman’s story is historical fact that Torres has woven into his novel. At the end of the book, the narrator writes, “Even when there are undeniably real people named in his book—most significantly Jan and Zhenya Gay—they have become fictional characters, first filtered through Juan’s remembrances (who is himself a fictional character whether or not he existed), then my own remembering of his remembrances.”
Throughout the book, it is impossible to delineate between fact and fiction. Is the novel, like Torres’ previous book We the Animals, partly autobiographical? To what extent are the memories the two men share fabricated or embellished? The narrator admits that with his lovers, he presented versions of himself that would please them. He recalls with disgust “the false self, the pseudo-philosophical self, or the naif, or simply remember, in a flash, a scene in a bar, or in bed with some man, what a phony I’d been, or how afraid or repulsed; how I grasped desperately for admiration, or pity, and lied to get it.” To what extent do we make memories into good stories?
Yet Blackouts is more interested in erasures than fabrications; erasures of lesbians and gay people and of ethnic groups. The copy of the two-volume Sex Variants that Juan owns has been heavily redacted, filled with black marks that change the meanings of the remaining words and phrases. However, the book Jan Gay wrote was already redacted by the group who published it, changed from a series of affirming portraits of gay people into the straight-jackets of categorization and pathology, “confined to the realm of the symbolic, naked and labeled: Narcissistic, Homosexual, Hoodlum—determined and erased.” No wonder the narrator has a negative view of himself.
The novel is interleaved with the redacted pages of the book Jan Gay began and illustrations that are explained in endnotes created by the narrator.
Torres’ intricate web of narratives is gripping from beginning to end. His richly drawn characters are passionate, but painfully self-aware. Attempts to erase or pigeonhole these characters do not rob them of their compassion for each other and the author’s compassion for them. There are echoes of Manuel Puig and of Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Blackouts is a worthy successor to its classic antecedents.