The Page Turner , by David Leavitt. Houghton Mifflin, 244 pages, $24.
The act of literary larceny that tells you something really interesting about David Leavitt’s writing isn’t the one you probably already know about. That, of course, was the case in which the author appropriated a central episode from Stephen Spender’s autobiography to serve as the plot for his 1993 novel While England Sleeps , thereby generating a successful libel suit by Spender (the original version of Mr. Leavitt’s book was pulled in England and had to be expurgated) and a great deal of negative publicity.
It also inspired the only stretch of Mr. Leavitt’s own writing in which the author-the first gay writer prim enough to get an overtly “gay” short story published in William Shawn’s New Yorker -flirted briefly with something resembling wit. (The 1997 collection Arkansas contains a dry, funny novella called The Term Paper Artist , about a gay writer named David Leavitt who’s reduced to writing term papers in exchange for sex after being accused of plagiarizing the autobiography of an English … etc.) Much more revealing, in terms of Mr. Leavitt’s artistic personality, is the comparatively minor bit of shoplifting that occurs on page 109 of his 1990 collection of stories, A Place I’ve Never Been.
The purloined sentence is one with which Mr. Leavitt attempts to capture the essence of erotic attraction between two characters. “When one person’s body touches another person’s body,” he writes, “chemicals under the skin break down and recombine, setting off an electric spark which leaps, neuron to neuron, to the brain.” This, as it happens, is, verbatim, a sentence he used on page 140 of his 1989 novel, Equal Affections . In the earlier book, the line is used by a character who’s addicted to cybersex: Sitting day after day in front of his screen, he can’t imagine that desire is anything more than a reductive accident of chemicals and electrical impulses.
What’s interesting about this déjà vu is that Mr. Leavitt decided that the line-originally used to describe an emotionally remote person’s pathetic attempt to justify his failure to connect-was equally appropriate for real, living, flesh-and-blood lovers. Eros, shmeros: It’s all the same to him.
No one has ever accused Mr. Leavitt of having a vivid sense of the erotic-his lack of just that is, no doubt, what got him into the pre-“hot” New Yorker -and this line, with its elaborate yet ultimately evasive pseudoscience, is a perfect example of why. Mr. Leavitt has always had a diagnostician’s cool eye, and at the beginning of his career, before the onset of his latest, rather grand Henry James Period (a recent slim volume of expatriate pensées , co-authored by Mr. Leavitt and Lindsey Mitchell, is called Italian Pleasures ), that detachment admirably served his narratives about the elaborate self-deceptions families and individuals use to avoid painful self-knowledge. Those stories, and even his flawed first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes , offer finely drawn failures: closeted prep school teachers, tersely disappointed mothers, thwarted fag hags-to say nothing of the underdeveloped young homosexuals who populate Mr. Leavitt’s fiction, compulsively rereading their favorite children’s books while wondering why their more intellectually adventurous boyfriends have grown bored with them.
But the novels that have followed made you realize that the flip side of Mr. Leavitt’s talent for rendering disappointment and lack is an inability to represent grown-up emotional engagement (an inadequacy of which the recycling of the “neuron to neuron” line may be the best symbol). There’s always been something unpersuasive, something at once overly schematic and insufficiently textured, about his handling of the bigger themes-death and emotional liberation in Equal Affections , erotic and political passions and betrayals in While England Sleeps . This limitation is perfectly mirrored by the author’s stylistic shortcomings: Mr. Leavitt may have perfect pitch when it comes to suburban anomie, but he gets into serious trouble whenever he strays from the bridge-and-tunnel set. The worst thing about While England Sleeps wasn’t that it appropriated Spender’s life, but that it got Spender’s world-the astringent cleverness, the incestuous, catty alliances-so disastrously wrong. Its characters all sound suspiciously like the blandly troubled, middlebrow suburban Jews of Mr. Leavitt’s early stories. (“My, you certainly do have a lot of books,” the Spender character remarks.) In this author’s hands, pretty much everything ends up looking like just another Leavittown.
With the appearance of Arkansas , it looked as if Mr. Leavitt was about to break through to something new, something less hermetic and more adult, but The Page Turner , true to its title’s forlorn allusion to Art’s ancillary characters, drags us right back into drably familiar territory. What’s jarring in this novel of the classical music world is what jarred in While England Sleeps : Mr. Leavitt transforms a place he’s all too obviously never been-a place, you’d think, of great gusto (emotional, artistic)-into an all-too-familiar landscape of small personalities and minor emotional frigidities.
If the temperature is low, it’s not for a lack of activity. In this short novel’s long opening, Paul Porterfield, an 18-year-old piano student, turns pages at a recital given by the famous pianist Richard Kennington. In Rome, the two embark on a brief affair while Paul’s clueless mom, Pamela, mistakenly thinks Kennington is interested in her. A frightened Kennington leaves Rome (and the novel) without warning. Meanwhile, the dog belonging to Kennington’s longtime lover has died, which so upsets the lover, a famed impresario called Mansourian, that he forgets to have enough cash on hand to pay a male prostitute.
In the book’s final 100 pages, Paul’s Juilliard roommate gets a blowjob while reading The Wall Street Journal . Mom learns the Awful Truth when she comes across some gay pornography, and a snapshot of Kennington, while vacuuming under Paul’s bed. Paul, having realized he’ll never be a great talent, allows himself to be kept by Mansourian. Mom flies to New York for a climactic confrontation with Kennington, whom she mistakenly thinks is carrying on with Paul, only to be hustled away into a cab by Tushi Strauss, the famous lady violinist. In the novel’s last paragraph, the Journal blower declares his love for the blowee. They’re on a Ferris wheel.
The problem is that there’s no middle-nothing that justifies, structurally or thematically, the end of the book. Mr. Leavitt may assume that the mere juxtaposition of these episodes will result in a narrative mosaic about desire and self-knowledge and a failure to connect-standard Leavitt themes-but there’s a serious shortage of grout here. Indeed, despite its rarified milieu, The Page Turner turns out to be a disjointed catalogue of by now familiar Leavitt characters and gestures: anxious suburban moms, vacuous gay sons, frightened older men, the flight from desire. The stylistic weaknesses are equally familiar. There are lazy and unintentionally funny attempts at establishing a cosmopolitan mise en scène (“‘ Un cappuccino ,’ Paul said, for the first time putting into practice the Italian he had been studying”). And the flat-footed, homogenized dialogue-once again, all the characters appear to have grown up on the same block in the Five Towns (“I’m the man who stuck his hand into a garbage disposal,” the allegedly distingué Kennington declares. “Like in Carrie .”)-is alleviated, alas, only by flights of High Artistry. When Pamela finds herself “ensconced in sorrow’s hinterlands,” or when Kennington’s desire for Paul becomes so great that only the “speed bumps of anxiety” hold him back, it occurs to you that the next time Mr. Leavitt appears in The New Yorker may well be under Block That Metaphor.
The irony of the Spender debacle is that it was, ultimately, good for Mr. Leavitt-it shocked him out of the narrow narrative and thematic spaces he’d been holed up in and pushed him toward a new and promising place called Arkansas . Despite its trans-Atlantic settings, The Page Turner doesn’t go anywhere; it’s a retreat, another instance of recycling. Those who admired the results of Mr. Leavitt’s recent flirtation with risk-taking can only hope that in his next book, he will break out once again and resume his exploration of new and different places.