Reflections: Chaos: A Novella and Stories

Reading Edmund White's Chaos: A Novella and Stories means experiencing delicious doubt: is this fiction or fictionalized? That one cannot tell is a tribute to just how talented White is as an observer of character; the short narratives craft such full and believable characters that one cannot imagine how White could have created them out of whole cloth. Each of the four pieces reports the ornate inner lives of, in the main, aging gay men. Each sings with--in lesser or greater degree--White's pleasurably cultured prose.

Versions of how men confront aging define the collection. The novella "Chaos" tells the story of an older author's gradual winding down of his profession and his life-long relationships. The novella ornaments its gray-toned narrative with wit, most notable in Jack's half-loving, half-mocking descriptions of a younger generation of gay men whose values and foibles differ from that of his own earlier years, and who he finds repulsive in the aggregate yet compelling as individuals. The final story, "A Good Sport," also explores the life of an aging gay man in retirement. The narrator, unlike Jack, accepts his fading sex life more calmly, sinking his energies into an old friendship and an opium-induced fantasy, part historical fiction, part the male equivalent of a bodice-ripper.

Because White's talent lies in quietly revealing the quirks of character developed over lifetimes of experience, his skills are better adapted to the mid-length "Chaos" than to the shorter pieces. These latter rarely incite the reader's engagement. On a sentence to sentence level, White is a master. From page to page, however, he is rather more uneven.

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