The Beautiful Room Is Empty is an autobiographical novel about growing up gay in America. It was preceded, in 1982, by Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story—a prequel featuring the same narrator—and it is clear from the author’s own comments and from the conclusion of The Beautiful Room Is Empty that this story of a cultural evolution is not finished. The Beautiful Room Is Empty, which covers the 1960’s, the great era of sexual liberation for American society at large, could easily have been a joyous narrative. Instead, it is a halting, doubting story of self-discovery that seems haunted by the specter of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), which would later come to change the gay world irrevocably.
AIDS does not make an appearance in the novel—mention of the disease would be anachronistic. The novel is often characterized by a somber mood, however, which its very title introduces. White opens his book with an epigraph from Anatole France that equates the state of being human with sensual awareness. There is another epigraph, however, the one from which the book’s title is taken, that comes from a letter Franz Kafka wrote to Milena Jesenska. This second epigraph is far more equivocal, filled with a sense of the impossibility of acceptance, integration, or love:Sometimes I have the feeling that we’re in one room with two opposite doors and each of us holds the handle of one door, one of us flicks an eyelash and the other is already behind his door, and now the first one has but to utter a word and immediately the second one has closed his door behind him and can no longer be seen. He’s sure to open the door again for it’s a room which perhaps one cannot leave. If only the first one were not precisely like the second, if he were calm, if he would only pretend not to look at the other, if he would slowly set the room in order as though it were a room like any other; but instead he does exactly the same as the other at his door, sometimes even both are behind the doors and the beautiful room is empty.
This passage conjures up a marvelously evocative scenario, and the scenes from the novel it brings to mind most immediately are those depicting the furtive lavatory and subway encounters where the narrator compulsively pursues both love and anonymous sex. These scenes are certainly among the most powerful in the novel, and although the narrator emerges from such episodes with a sense of unfulfilledness, the author makes no apologies for their intensity. The alternative world, the world of “big baggy grown-ups,” provides little sustenance for a young, hungry soul. Yet, the larger culture exerts a profound pressure to conform (most of the young men in the novel, including the protagonist, cherish the illusion that they will someday go “straight”), which inevitably results in conflicted identities.
Many of the characters peopling the world of this novel are more than conflicted: The narrator’s analyst is a drug addict, as is the narrator’s mentor, the advertising executive, Lou. There is nothing especially schematic about the manner in which White develops his themes, but it does seem that those individuals who achieve the greatest measure of peace are those who learn to embrace their unorthodox sexual orientations. Marriage does not save Lou from his addictions any more than a wished-for-homosexuality saves Sean, the narrator’s first true love, from insanity. On the other hand, Maria remains the narrator’s lodestar, a woman who—regardless of her shifting allegiances—always retains a certain dignity which is bound to her self-accepting lesbianism.
The narrator’s method of coping with his compulsions and consequent guilt is to embrace a singular version of Buddhism, whose outer manifestations are his devotion to the study of Chinese and his capitulation to corpulence, both symptomatic of a truer, internalized Buddhist characteristic: self-denial. The persistence of gay homophobia has become a truism, but...
(The entire section is 1643 words.)