Published by Nightboat Books, 2009 | 86 pages
Before reading the reissue of Bruce Boone’s seminal Century of Clouds—a memoir centered around a 1970s Marxist study group—readers should be warned that unless they also happen to be part of the New Narrative school of writing, it will be crucial to first read poet Rob Halpern’s illuminating preface.
Book introductions are often superfluous, bogging the narrative down with extraneous information and not providing necessary context. This is not the case here. Without Halpern’s insightful preface, readers could find Century of Clouds—a lovely object, its cover awash in cumulous clouds—disconcertingly abstract, without reins or exposition on which to grasp. The book, which is set primarily at the Summer Institute of the 1978-79 Marxist Literary Group in St. Cloud, Minnesota, launches at once into digression—and mostly sticks to them. Boone recounts intimate conversations and epiphanies, refers to people by their first names, and jumps back and forth in time with few transitions. Boone also addresses the reader as “you,” solidifying the impression that the intended audience is indeed a very small segment of Boone’s literary contemporaries.
During the 1970s, the gay liberation movement was burgeoning in San Francisco and elsewhere. The 1969 Stonewall riots—almost a week of outraged, violent rioting against the police following a raid at a New York City gay bar—was a catalyst in mobilizing gay activists nationwide to get organized and concentrate their efforts on, among other things, public openness about their sexuality. And, after Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to California public office, was assassinated in 1978, the first national gay rights march in the U.S. took place in 1979. Arising in this context, the New Narrative group—made up of such writers as Robert Gluck, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Camille Roy, and George Bataille—had at its core a preoccupation with gay liberation, sex, and gossip, and was closely associated with Gluck’s workshops and other events held at Small Press Traffic in San Francisco.
Considering that, when Clouds was first published in 1980, anti-gay discrimination legislation was then being discussed in the House and Senate, Boone was writing for a niche audience. Halpern’s 12-page preface justifies Cloud’s insularity by noting that the book “is concerned with social desires and political demands, which can never be cleanly separated insofar as desire and politics penetrate one another at the root….writing, pleasure, gossip, scandal, and emotion writ large are full of radical possibilities.” In other words, Clouds’ gossip is not merely the stuff of life, but is also the basis for political engagement—characters form groups based on shared stories, social justice, and other activities larger than the individual participants. Later, Halpern notes Boone’s intention to mobilize “utopian energies contained by gay community and commodity culture alike [to] find a very different form of social expression in a revolutionized world.”
The material for Century of Clouds largely revolves around events set at the annual meeting of the Marxist Literary Group, which took place in St. Cloud, Minnesota over the course of two summers, 1977 and 1978. As noted earlier, the formal structure of Clouds is one of digression. In the first pages, Boone muses “These thoughts large and public, how to relate them to my life? How to link with experience that touches—only rarely—my past? To tell about desiring, too. Perhaps beginning to tell you stories.” Boone then begins an abstracted tale of ideology and activism, digresses between seemingly unrelated thoughts with no reader-context, back-tracks to the roots of his affinity to socialist thought, then relays a conversation with a crucial, yet unidentified, person in the present. Throughout, the book keeps up a self-conscious commentary, with Boone’s voice often popping into the languid lines to comment on the text; i.e., admitting on page 47 that he sees “much meandering” in his preceding pages. (This is what Halpern means by “performative storytelling,” and although occasionally confusing, it is also entertaining.)
The first portion of the book is filled primarily with musings about ideologies, with Boone delivering a stream-of-consciousness train of thought about bureaucracies, funerals, and the beginnings of his engagement with socialism. There is an absurdly funny segment about existentialism and Kermit the Frog and a digression about why writers write: “Writers may or may not be part of some oppressed group, may or may not be part of a group that allies itself with groups that are oppressed—but write finally in their own interests…Writers get their hands dirty, they’re culpable. “
The second part of the book launches with the line “I’d like to tell you a little about ideology now—or rather, my ideas about the subject—by telling you about my past, about the time of my first realizations of this particular function of language.” This begins a more traditional storyline about Boone’s time in the novitiate of a religious order, and is where the story gets grounded. In this section, momentum and humor (and exposition about Boone’s past) pick up, both in his recollections of his naïveté about homosexuality and via his interactions with the other brothers at the novitiate. The imagery and language is at its most vivid here and in one dramatic passage, Boone spends an entire night in a chapel standing watch over the quickly-decomposing body of a fellow brother. He imagines the young man coming back to life and attacking him, avenging the unkind things Boone said about him while he was alive. This section is also where a young Boone begins to use language for dissent, for instance, speaking up against a masochistic practice of confessing sins publicly. This rebellious act jump-started his activism but led to the loss of “something intangible but as important, something having to do with community values.”
The third and last section jumps forward a number of years, with Boone back at the Summer Institute, beginning to live his activism by wearing a pink triangle pin to honor homosexuals killed in the German concentration camps. Here, Boone finds the courage to speak out about the gay rights struggles within the Institute itself. This leads to a hilarious confrontation about sexism during an Institute volleyball game, a “game you had to like because it was part of the socialist tradition.” This is also the point where Boone begins to relate the shared histories and struggles of homosexuals to women and minorities and discuss “the language of gays and women as symptoms of a still unrecognized oppression.”
Shortly after Clouds’ publication in 1980, the early utopian energies depicted shifted with the AIDS epidemic— a reality that hovers over any contemporary reading of this narrative. In his introduction, as Halpern puts it, “in the time between Century of Clouds and our present, the epidemic transformed everything about the gay community: its institutions, its discourse, its body, its political vision, and its potential for radical intervention into society at large.” Halpern also touches on the tenets of the New Narrative movement, which were essentially to “retool narrative practice, not so much for its expressive value—not merely to represent a generic ‘gay story’—but rather for narrative’s potential to reflect critically on the performative act of storytelling.” This commitment to “story” meant that although the New Narratives shared the Language poets’ commitment to form and language, they were ultimately preoccupied with the specific social and political concerns of their own community.
The affinity towards a larger, community-minded group is something noted by Boone both in the book’s first line “I like the bigness of things, their largeness,” and his thoughtful afterword in which he critiques the book’s flaws but notes with pride its holistic point of view. “There was and remains—wonderful!—a certain largeness to this whole era. It was after all a time of Marxism, feminism, gay rights, black struggles, and beginnings of an environmental awareness all marking this era in question.” Even considering the political and social changes from 1980 to the present-day, it is this idea that remains most compelling in Century of Clouds and gives us a reason to keep reading the book—the idea that pure camaraderie and idealism cannot only exist, they can be mobilized on the person-to-person level to enact social change.
Gretchen Kalwinski is a graduate student at Northwestern University. Her criticism, journalism, and creative writing has appeared in Stop Smiling, The Chicago Reader, Venus Zine, Punk Planet, Time Out Chicago, THE2NDHAND, Proximity, Paterson Literary Review, and Featherproof Books. She is obsessed with scent, and her novel-in-progress revolves around olfaction.