At the moment I’m typing this, the world is caught in a surreal place. Half the planet has charged ahead into 2008 while the other half lags behind in 2007, like a child who doesn’t want to accompany his mother into a hellish afternoon shopping at “Fabric World.” Grandma’s already inside, exploring, and soon the kid will also be inside, but not without being dragged and always a step or two behind.
Before the new millennium, or when 1999 became 2000 (I believe they decided 99-2000 was actually a year ahead of the millennium change but no one wanted to wait until 2000 became 2001) I’d never thought about it, but watching New Zealand, then Australia, then Tokyo and so on celebrate the new year while those of us in California had just gotten out of bed on Dec. 31 made me realize how time, as we know it, is merely a human imposition to try to understand and gauge the physical world. Right now, the Chinese better have begun keeping their resolutions while people in Chicago can eat dessert, drink more beer and not exercise for a few more hours. (actually that’s a bad comparison because in China, 2008 doesn’t begin until February 7.)
So in keeping with the theme of “twos”, two weeks ago I grabbed two books from the “must reads” stacked in a corner of my desk, picked up my heavy suitcase with the broken wheel and bolted for Newark Airport. I assumed the books would be different – one was a novel, the other a memoir-ish collection of essays. Coincidentally the two dealt with the same theme: Identity.
First Person Plural by Andrew W. M. Beierle is the story of conjoined male twins. Porter and Owen are dicephalus twins – two heads, one body. Porter is outgoing, athletic…and straight. In early high school, Owen realizes he’s gay. When their shared penis becomes erect while watching a male classmate in a wrestling match, Porter discovers his other half’s secret.
DISCLAIMER: Andrew and I have the same publisher, and he’s a friend from Atlanta.
But putting those biases aside, First Person Plural is one of the best works of gay fiction I’ve ever read. Admittedly, in 2005 when Andrew kindly shared with me tell me his idea for a new novel, I thought “Whoa. THAT sounds like a challenge.” And in the hands of a lesser author,such a premise could’ve been a literary disaster.
Andrew, however, gives us a masterfully written story, which isn’t surprising because his first novel, The Winter Of Our Discotheque, was also a superb tale with unconventional relationships. While Winter focuses on one gay man’s coming-of-age in the long-forgotten seventies, First Person Plural lets us see the world of two men inhabiting one body, through the eyes of one of those men. In a unique way, we see how our ‘selves’ – the ‘who we are’ existing inside this complex body – is infinitely more elaborate than the physical organism. Using simple words and a conversational style, Andrew manages to entertain readers with some difficult concepts.
Richard Labonte named First Person Plural as one of its ten best in gay fiction for 2007. Many other reviews are posted at the bottom of this entry.
The other book I read at this year’s end was The Elusive Embrace by Daniel Mendelsohn. If I’d paid more attention to the title, I would’ve noticed the small print “Desire and the Riddle of Identity.” Part of the book’s very identity is its discussion of identity, something I didn’t identify until well into the first essay.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Elusive Embrace and I was struck by the serendipity, having just completed a book about two men in one body then reading Mendelsohn’s first sentence, “For a long time I have lived in two places.” Mendelsohn’s language is flowery and beautiful and he weaves many stories from Greek mythology with which I was unfamiliar. He uses these “myths” to illustrate facets of modern living – particularly life for a modern gay man. At the end of the book, a family secret is revealed and Mendelsohn comes to terms with it in a way that propels him to the conclusion. Maybe the family secret wasn’t really a lie, “maybe they had all been telling the truth all along.”
Just like Andrew’s book is about two men learning to compromise in one body, Mendelsohn’s book is about one man’s learning to compromise with life. “You find a way to compromise,” he writes near the end.
You move between two places. … This is who you are, this is the grammar of your identity. It is not easy, it is not comfortable, is it not what you thought things were going to be like. But this is how it is, and when all is said and done… you are here and you are there, and you are alive.
Welcome to 2008! You were there, now you are here, and you are alive!
For the complete text of Abram Bergen’s review, go to:
Outsmart Magazine (Houston) review:
Edge website (Boston, New York,
Gay and Lesbian Times (
An interview appears at Chicago Pride.com:
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