Lust - Geoff Ryman
I wasn’t consciously thinking about Christmas, but when I finished this book, it occurred to me that if I had a literate, intelligent friend who wanted to read some gay fiction but not of the traditional romantic kind, then this is the book I’d give him. It really is quite a surprise and, I hope, would be a treasured gift and read many times. There really is so much in it that one read won’t suffice.
I think the author deliberately wants his readers to think that this book is a run-of-the-mill semi-porn novel. After all, the title does little to prepare you for the gem that’s inside the covers. The novel challenges the way you think about life, people, relationships and love, and does all this in a unputdownable great read that actually made me both laugh and cry at points.
Michael is a research scientist, doing some research into how chicks learn. It’s another indication of how grown up this book is that the author can make the hero a man who experiments on live animals. As less sure author might put a gloss of PC-ness on his work to appease the moral minority, and thus miss the opportunity this author has taken to show how humans learn through their treatment of others. For Michael has a unique gift: he can call up facsimiles of people (dead or alive). He calls them Angels, for want of a better term. Literally anyone—whole rugby teams, Picasso, his personal trainer—can be summoned to fulfil his desires. The angels are living and cognisant, and have to do Michael's bidding. All the angels understand what they are and most of them want desperately to live, but Michael can send them away as easily as he summons them, and once gone, everything they have made or changed fades, so no evidence of their life remains. But, as Michael points out in one of the most touching lines of the novel, how does this differ from “real” people—we die and our relatives sell off our precious collections, change the décor and forget us after a while.
Michael is a man in pain. He lives in a dying relationship with Colin, who was once so trusting and kind and needy that Michael took pity on him and took him home. Now, twelve years later, they move around each other without touching or loving. Rare for a gay novel, Michael is also impotent. Don’t let this put you off the book. It’s handled wonderfully and becomes a central theme of the novel, as impotence is shown, I think, not only through Michael’s sexual dysfunction, but through his emotional inability to connect to people.
So, into this sad mix—impotence and a failed marriage—come the angels. As the cover says: Who would you call, if you had the power to call anyone to your side?
This is the point at which I expected the typical kind of porn novel reaction—call up lots of men you’ve always wanted to have sex with and have your wicked way with them. I was pleasantly surprised. Michael, being impotent, isn’t always motivated by sex. He calls up an eclectic mix of people, both male and female and each one adds something to his life. I particularly liked Picasso, who had an exhausting authenticity.
Who are the angels, and where do they come from? How do they ultimately affect Michael?
I guarantee you won’t be able to second-guess this book.
Very highly recommended.
The full title of this book is Lust: Or No Harm Done. I picked the novel because it sounded light and sexy. Michael Basco discovers he can call up in the flesh anyone he desires, to do whatever he asks regardless of their sexuality. I ought to mention he’s a biologist doing brain research using live chickens. If vivisection upsets you beware. It’s a small part of the story but it’s there. There are elements of science fiction and fantasy, together with yummily explicit eroticism. But it’s not a novel about a promiscuous gay man having a lot of sex, more thoughtful exploration of sex and sexuality where the focus is a gay man.
Michael, 38, is stuck in a loveless, sexless relationship long past its sell-by-date. He’s been depressed for years and hates his life. We’re told he’s beautiful but he doesn’t feel it. Because he’s impotent he relies on speedy, anonymous sex with strangers. Michael has a crush on straight gym instructor, Tony. One day at Waterloo station Tony undresses on the platform in fulfilment of Michael’s erotic fantasy. It’s the beginning of a loosely controlled experiment enabling Michael to deal with deep-seated emotional problems that have left him afraid of sex and unhappy in his own skin.
Michael encounters an assortment of men (and a few women), real and fictional, summoned for his pleasure. Johnnie Weissmuller’s Tarzan, Michael’s lust object at the tender age of 12; vampy Jessica Rabbit clone Taffy Duck; Lawrence of Arabia who has Michael beat him with a belt; Billie Holiday teaches him how to have a good time; Alexander the Great, a smelly, drunk, ancient Macedonian nearly kills him; and Pablo Picasso reawakens Michael’s sexuality, rekindling joy in his life. Those bits of the story are a lot of fun.
Michael sees the embodiments of his fantasies as Angels, the product of miraculous intervention sent to help him deal with hang-ups that have made a full loving relationship impossible. Really all he wants is to be held, for sex changes everything. Gradually as the story opens out, from enjoyable erotic fantasy to complex exploration of love, loss and missed opportunity, we discover why he is so damaged. The story has dark undertones dealing with the painful side of love in moments that moved me to tears. Michael belongs to the AIDS generation, for whom a simple kiss has the potential to kill. Michael’s missed opportunities saved his life. Others weren’t so lucky.
The book has elements of A Christmas Carol and A Wonderful Life. What purpose these Angels, questions Michael, when they can change nothing because they’re never really there? The point being, of course, that it’s Michael who is being changed. Unfulfilled potential has blighted his life. Is the miracle a subconscious projection of his need for love?
Complicated, potentially controversial issues, like inappropriate love, are handled sensitively without sacrificing impact. The novel has a dark, disturbing side, that feeds into the slowly revealed mystery about Michael’s troubled relationship with US Marine father. Whatever happened to a beautiful 16 year-old boy, whose obvious delight at being with his beloved dad was captured in a photograph Michael keeps hidden, and how did his nose get broken before return to his mother in England?
I didn’t fully understand the science underpinning the story (neurophysics, alternative realities, gravity, and quantum vacuums). It’s a great concept with enough detail to please those more demanding. I really liked Michael, and desperately wanted the miracle to work for him, to heal wounds from his past that have left him so full of pain. There’s a guiding morality to the character that ensures he uses the Angels for good. The ending of the story is everything I hoped it would be, as Michael realises his destiny. I read quickly and voraciously. Ryman is a sharp observer of humanity, and he gives good sex. Highly recommended.
Or No Harm Done from Amazon here
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