Christopher Coe - a prose poem really, and maybe one of the most unfortuanately ignored works of prose, and a writer, from the 1980s

Christopher Coe, I Look Divine, Bruno Gmunder Verlag, 2013. [1987.]


Nicholas is beautiful, wealthy and hopelessly vain. With his older brother in tow, he jets from one glamorous scene to another: Rome, Madrid, Mexico. Wherever he goes, he seeks the admiration of other men, until one day - his beauty faded - he winds up dead, the victim of unknown circumstances. His brother is left to pick up and pieces and figure out how Nicholas came to his untimely end. 

"Laconic, subtle and full of lyrical effects - Coe is an icy and acute observer." - The New York Times Book Review

"I Look Divine is - a fascinating account of the relationship between brothers." - The Village Voice 

Christopher Coe was a writer, photographer and cabaret singer. He lived in Paris and New York City. Coe's first novel, I Look Divine, was published in 1987, his second, Such Times, in 1993. His style has been called "reminiscent of both Oscar Wilde's and Marcel Proust's late writings" (Publishers Weekly). In 1994, Christopher Coe died of AIDS.

Christopher Coe was a Columbia student of Lish’s and in the same class was Amy Hempel, David Leavitt, and Anderson Ferrell, who happen o blurb ths book. While Lish was able to publish books by Hempel, Leavitt and Ferrell, he could not get approval from Gottlieb to acquire I Look Divine.
Ever resourceful, Lish was instrument in getting Widenfield and Nicholson, an imprint of Houghton Miflin at the time (and a British publisher that opened a New York office in the 1980s).
I Look Divine is a 109 page novella, maybe 20,000 words with the big type and wide margins and slender trim cut. Chances are without Lish it would have never found its way to print, at least not by itself and not in a journal or as part of a longer collection. That is not saying this novella is bad…no, in fact, it is beautfully brilliant, a prose poem really, and maybe one of the most unfortuanately ignored works of prose, and a writer, from the 1980s, even with a paperback reprint from Vintage’s prized trade paperback imprint of hip young lit.
It is a fne portrait of two brothers, with one writing about another: Nicholas is rich and uncommonly handsome and very egotistical, obsessed with his own beauty that leads to his self-destruction. The narrator, the older brother, tries to understand his brother and wonders how much of the delusion of the priviledged divine is also in him…and what, of their upbringing, has made them both so disfunctional?
Nicholas had brown eyes which, in many lights, looked black, He had extravagant black eyelashes that looked false, and dar hair that even in those years he was allowed to grow so long that he could drag his fingers through it and take almost forever to come out at the end.[…]
I told him brains develop in the womb, that by being born too soon he had probaby lost points […] he looked up at me and said what he always did when he had more of me than he could take.
He sighed, “Oh, go to your womb.”
Much later that night, I heard my brother through the door, whispering to himself.  He must have been studying is face in the mirror when I heard him whisper, “You are the smartest little boy in the world, and you also look like this.” (pp. 23-24)
In a way, this could be qute the annoying read of rich kid’s narcissim and the reader could feel, as we do, nothing about his eventual death. The  perfected sentences are to be admired, and in many ways Coe reminds us of a young Truman Capote.
In Lish’s Lilly archives, there are letters and manuscripts from Coe, all nearlt typed on strangely thick, textured brown paper, unusual for a manuscript.
What happened to Coe? He died from AIDS complications in 1994. He was 41. He published one other novel in 1993, Such Times, from Harcourt Brace in the US and Hamish Hamilton in the UK.
While I Look Divine is an example of tight minimalism, Such Times is a work of maxilamislm, a 100,000 word tme that could have used Lish’s pen, yet is also a fine piece of writing and an intimate view of gay male relationships. -

Christopher Coe, Such Times, Penguin Books, 1994.


In this glitteringly stylish, haunting novel, Christopher Coe evokes both the charmed era of the 1970s and early 80s--when it seems possible for men to love each other without demands and with Dionysian abandon--and the years of loss that followed. Through the story of Timothy and Jasper's twenty-year relationship, Coe creates an inexpressibly moving portrait of people living on the razor's edge of desire, from the bathhouses of San Fracisco to the waterfronts of New York and the streets of Paris, and offers a rapturous, bittersweet homage to those who now face death for having lived so exuberantly in such times.

Never having read a review of my favorite gay novel (and one of the few worth even a mention in literary terms), I was surprised by how misunderstood it has been. "Brittle", "cloying", and "tone-deaf"? What novel did Kirkus Reviews read? Coe is the most eloquent and sophisticated of gay writers, and reminded me more of Proust than of other contemporary gay novels (of the "Will Bob succeed in picking up the buff gym boy or will his heart be broken forever" ilk, or, worse still, the "poignant, funny, uplifting coming out story volume 412").
Structurally, the novel is breathtaking, juggling its leaps in time so brilliantly that the result is a sort of dialogue between past and present, even between old selves and new. Not only do revelations from the past echo in the present, but the present reverberates in the past. This novel shows us modern gay writing as it has never been before and (so far) has not been again, and as such, it's sad but hardly surprising that it's been misunderstood. Calling Timothy "frivolous" is roughly equal in obviousness to calling Captain Ahab "obsessive" or Sylvia Plath "self-absorbed", and it in no way subtracts from the power and the pain of seeing him forced by life and death to lose his innocence and mature into something more. Frivolous or not, he's a character most of us have known and fallen for in life--someone who turns up the volume and makes even the most mundane elements of life seem crucial and real.
Coe's previous novel, "I Look Divine", was a small masterpiece, but "Such Times" is a full-blown classic--sensual and lovely, sad, funny, bitter, and profound, difficult but immensely gratifying. If gay literature is ever to be about more than cruising and coming to terms with who we want to make whoopee with, we should greet writers like Christopher Coe with much joy, hope, and, of course, frivolousness. -  Scott A. Thompson


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