Oblique Strategies

Blackouts by Justin Torres. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 320 pages. $30.

The cover of Blackouts

IN JUSTIN TORRES’S NEW NOVELBlackouts, disorientation is a pleasure. You might wonder, at first, if you’re being duped by these characters or invited to share in their confusion. We’ll get to the reasons for that confusion, which is to say the plot, but plot is less the point than form and a nebulous atmosphere. Short chapters, shifting perspectives, and doctored photographs give the novel the air of an enigma to solve.

Memory, in Blackouts, is both personal and cultural, and especially queer. It comes mediated by an older gay man, Juan, whom the unnamed narrator met ten years ago in a psychiatric institution. The two have reunited in a room at a shadowy desert location called “the Palace,” and their conversations there compose the bulk of the novel. “You and I didn’t know each other very long, either, did we? And yet here you are, haunting me,” Juan observes, and soon his own presence will be spectral. He is dying, slowly, which gives a certain urgency to the intergenerational transfer of tales.

Alongside references to the standard literary trappings of gay male inheritance—Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, and Jean Genet—Juan tells the narrator about scraps of a less-cited legacy: the collaborative and combative project in which activists and physicians “studied” homosexuality in the interwar United States. The 1930s, in Juan’s estimation, were “freer and more fluid when it came to sex acts, roles, identities . . . a time when much had yet to be defined.” Torres’s narrator imagines that Juan wants to show him “how little I knew about myself, that I was missing out on something grand: a subversive, variant culture; an inheritance.” Juan has been working on a vague project related to this legacy and a book called Sex Variants, which he asks the narrator to continue after his death. The narrator accepts, aiming to pick up Juan’s work while also making something out of Juan’s life story and his own—implicitly, this is the novel we’re reading.

Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns (1941) is a real scientific monograph that combined the testimonies and medical examinations of eighty “socially well-adjusted homosexuals” living in New York City. Juan gives the narrator an unusual version of the book, and together they ponder its checkered past. The study’s germ was the work of the lesbian activist Jan Gay, who assiduously collected interviews and believed circulating those stories was the means to social change. Gay, unable to publish the material herself, partnered with the psychiatrist Dr. George W. Henry, who saw homosexuality as a type of deviance, and gave her no credit on the title page. “They came to advocate, to inform, to protest the raids and roundups,” Torres’s narrator says of the study’s participants. And then “they were confined to the realm of the symbolic, naked and labeled: Narcissistic, Homosexual, Hoodlum—determined and erased.” What are we to make of these compromises? Of how much is lost in the demand for recognition?

Blackouts asks these questions but leaves them decidedly, and refreshingly, open. Buzzwords like “archival recovery,” “reverse discourse,” and “counterpublic” suit this book, but buzzwords are a bore, and Blackouts is not an academic monograph, but a moving portrait of two people sharing an intimate space until one passes away. Tales of intergenerational gay friendship can slip into kumbaya cliché; this one is saved by wit and misprision. Yes, Juan mentions Rimbaud, but the narrator hears it first as Rambo. Yes, the pair discuss Sex Variants with due gravitas, but they also pore over a specific, beguiling copy. A (presumably) fictional reader has taken a liberal Sharpie to these pages, and the residual text produces the superb blackout poetry that gives the novel its title. A favorite example:


To say that the blackout-er fights erasure with erasure would be true but reductive. What these pages conjure is more game than tactic: one “homosexual genius” scrawling, perhaps chuckling, leaving inky volumes to pass from Juan to the narrator to us.

Torres excels at the art of cutting tragedy with tone. Juan never lets up on the endearments—“Darling, the only thing anyone should be embarrassed about is taking themselves too seriously”—and even homophobia is inflected by irony. At one point, the narrator recalls attending a party and being attracted to a man wearing a shirt with the slogan: “Silly Faggot . . . Dix are for chix.” I grasped the cereal tagline but then found myself pausing. To the man wearing the shirt, this was presumably a slur. But was it also tongue in cheek? In the topsy-turvy world of the Palace, had “silly faggot” been reclaimed à la queer?

Juan would never resolve that query—or deliver a revisionist sermon. “Do you know the difference between a confessor and a martyr?” he asks the narrator at one point. “The way we choose to forget—the human part.” When the narrator asks which of the two Jan Gay was, Juan resists: “I can’t tell you, nene.” In Blackouts, connections are strengthened one moment and blocked the next; Juan recommends omission as much as recuperation. One day, he likens his project’s blend of fact and fancy to the Victorian poet Robert Browning’s verse novel The Ring and the Book, which draws on court documents and personal letters relating to a seventeenth-century murder trial. Juan brushes the trial’s “particulars” aside: “Don’t feel you need to keep them in your head, nene.”

Blackouts is an earnest project that does not seek to distill settled conclusions from the queer past. Torres includes a postface that begins with a translated Spanish riddle: “I entered a room, / And found a dead man, / Spoke with him, / And extracted his secrets.” The answer provided is “Libro. A book.” This is at once a gloss of the narrator’s encounter with Juan and an ars poetica. Yet Blackouts does not simply “extract” “secrets.” It is too pleasingly messy, too multiform, too committed to contradicting itself. As Juan puts it, “Not all ambiguities need be resolved.”

Colton Valentine is a PhD candidate in English at Yale.