Queer Storytelling At Its Finest – Call Me By Your Name and The World of Normal Boys
Two works that tackle the same subject matter – the world of “normal” boys finding themselves in queer relationships.
I’ll discuss both from a literary stance (where they share common ground because World of Normal Boys hasn’t been optioned for a film – but it should be!).
THE WORLD OF NORMAL BOYS, in a nutshell, is a queer story about self-discovery amidst a harrowing family calamity. Robin MacKenzie is a gay boy coming into his own but hasn’t put a finger to his queerness. All he knows is that the next door neighbor kid, Todd, and a boy at school (Scott)- both wrapped up in the secure “normalness” are anything but “normal”, are desired by him. Indeed, what this work does very well, aside from completely capturing 1978 New Jersey, is that there is no normal despite Robin’s desire to be like the boys he craves. The three of them (in different pairings) show how boys discover many things about themselves while professing to the world of their normalcy. They are anything but. Hormones are used for the gay boy pairing up with the normal straight boys. “Don’t make a big deal of it.” When all Robin comes to realize is that they keep saying it because they KNOW it’s a big deal. They just don’t want Robin to bring it out into the light he craves to show everyone who he is.
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME – is not a gay story. After reading and seeing the film, I totally think it wasn’t intended to be a gay story. But it is most definitely queer. Two young men – 17 year old Elio is in a semi-steady relationship with a girl during the summer of ’83 when his father has an assistant, 24 year old Oliver, from America come to help him catalog artifacts from several digs in Italy. At first the boys dance around their mutual attraction. Oliver first advancing in a nonchalant manner giving a back rub that Elio refuses because it endangers his ‘normal boy’ status. Eventually, they spiral to one another – despite knowing that Oliver’s stay is limited. It becomes a queer heady romance. Neither one knows why the attraction is so strong. Elio finds immense comfort in confessing his lack of boy knowledge – he is a boy of books, music and antiquities. Though he eventually has sex with his girlfriend, it becomes quite apparent that his desires are greater and revolve around Oliver. Oliver, for his part, feigns ambivalence – which is later revealed to be because he is protecting his own heart with whatever he feels (unexpectedly) for Elio. Eventually they collide in a mash of bodies and tongues to revel in whatever their relationship is. Elio implores Oliver “I don’t want you to go.” But it must come to an end as Oliver’s time with the family is over. The talk after Oliver departs as Elio’s father explains it all to him – with definite hints of knowing what happened between his son and the assistant is both beautifully written and executed. The way father’s should be with their sons.
What I find interesting in these two works is that both deal with the perceived (and infinitely misplaced) idea that men are to be “one way” with each other. As I’ve stated in another post, this contributes to #ToxicMasculinity. Both works defy standard gay tropes (if there is such a thing, which I am not wholly convinced of any longer because queerdom defies classification – that is at the root of the word’s meaning).
The romantics will insist on happy endings. Neither of these works are romance in the literal/tropic sense. What they are can best be described as a cursory exploration about how men feel and act when they feel comfortable enough in their anonymity (aside from their male sexual partners) and absolution from having whatever they are feeling for another man to be rigidly classified. Both works have a happy ending for the main characters. Robin learns that normal boys can and do behave as he does, craving that male intimacy – if only to allow themselves a moment of breathing without society’s expectations to weigh in on them. Elio becomes more confident in who he is as a man having the intense experiences with Oliver. They part and it is bittersweet, but he’s grown immensely from the experience of it all. Are these relationships gay? No. Decidedly not. But they are queer in every sense of the word.
Highly recommend them both.
Until next time …
– SA C