A colleague of mine at the library lent me her copy of A Single Man. She said she’d never read Isherwood, came across this book on our sale rack, and decided she wanted to try it. When someone likes a book so much they invite me to borrow it, that’s a compelling recommendation, so I took her up on it.
I have to admit, I’d never read Isherwood either. I thought A Single Man was nearly perfect (only nearly, because I’m not sure perfection exists). The characters are so complete they came off the page in my mind. The story is simple but the book isn’t about what happens so much as it is about life happening. It’s one of those novels that is absolutely True, by which I mean it tells capital T truths about what it means to be human, in a way that I think even nonfiction doesn’t always do. It has both a kick-ass beginning and an ending that I can’t get out of my head. My grandmother would give it her highest praise: there is not one extra word. Everything Isherwood wrote belongs.
George, the main character, is an older man whose much younger partner Jim died suddenly in an accident a short time before the book opens. It’s the 60’s, and even in southern California he is not entirely out. He refers to Jim as his “friend” and even pretends to his neighbors that Jim has gone to be near family rather than risk revealing too much by telling the truth. George is still grieving and the opening pages of the book, which describe him having a sort of out-of-body experience of coaxing himself to get up out of bed and get on with the day, drew me in immediately:
“Waking up begins with saying am and now. . . . Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home. But now isn’t simply now. Now is a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year.”
To me this is an intriguing and promising opening. I wanted to know whether George was going to feel better. The rest of the novel takes readers through the rest of this one day in George’s life. It doesn’t necessarily answer my question.
If you read about Isherwood you’ll see that some of the characters in the book appear to be inspired by people in his life. He did have a much younger partner. And Charlotte, George’s dear friend and fellow British ex-pat, might resemble Isherwood’s real life dear friend and fellow British ex-pat, Dodie Smith. Learning those possible parallels made the book even more endearing to me.
But I should add — it’s not endearing in a cute and cuddly way. This is a tough book that confronts prejudice, homophobia, and meanness. It questions consumer culture, the American higher education system, and the dawn of suburban sprawl. George’s emotions range from euphoria over life’s simple pleasures, like going to the gym to despair that the students he teaches at a community college are never going to get what he’s trying to tell them. He is both thrilled to be alive and afraid that his life is meaningless. He feels pure rage at those who vilify homosexuality and loneliness as he observes people together. At times his loss seems to take on a mystical presence yet he seems content with what he still has at other moments. His enormous grief seems to pulse just below the other emotions. Sometimes the streams cross and George is nearly overcome, he changes his mind about what he’ll do next, he seems to be feeling everything at once.
What’s incredible is that readers get this rich sense of the man when we see him on just one day, and also that his inner life becomes so vivid. I don’t want to give away the ending but I have to say it blew me away — I was not expecting it and the last two pages may be among the finest book endings I’ve ever read. I immediately wished I could talk about it with someone and will do so tomorrow. What I will say, and what I’ll leave you with, is that A Single Man gets to the heart of what it feels like to be human — coursing with emotions, full of longing to connect with people, to be purposeful, to be happy and also not to make others unhappy, to know what one’s life should be. I’m a straight woman, born in a far different generation and in another country, but I felt George’s joy and discomfort, I was a part of his humanity, so long as I was reading this book.