MARCH 14, 2021
WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be a gay man today?
This is the question posed by Zak Salih’s debut novel, Let’s Get Back to the Party. Set between the Supreme Court’s 2015 legalization of gay marriage and the 2016 massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the novel follows Oscar and Sebastian, two former childhood friends, as they reconnect as adults navigating gay life in Washington, DC.
Let’s Get Back to the Party opens at a gay wedding, several weeks after the Obergefell decision, at which Oscar and Sebastian are both in begrudging attendance. Oscar, who feels that gay marriage is an assimilationist sellout, is employed by one of the grooms. To honor his political commitments, he devotes the evening to planning a hookup on Cruze (the book’s Grindr equivalent) with a college freshman named “A.” In contrast, Sebastian, an AP Art History teacher recently dumped by his boyfriend, is a former political canvasser for the legalization of gay marriage. The guest of one of his straight colleagues, he spends the evening wallowing in the ruins of his domestic bliss and attempting to catch Oscar’s attention. Late in the night, when the two eventually do speak, Sebastian’s hope for a meaningful reunion is dashed as Oscar appears more preoccupied with arranging his hookup than catching up. Not even 20 pages into the novel, the friends establish themselves as the dueling opposites of a well-trodden gay male cultural dyad: Oscar is the queer anti-assimilationist preoccupied solely with sex, and Sebastian the homonormative gay who just wants to settle down with Mr. Right. A book ostensibly about contemporary gay life, Let’s Get Back to the Party’s opening decision to jam its characters into outdated and mutually exclusive gay roles — instead of exploring the overlap between them — sets up the book for an inevitable failure.
Shortly after their run-in at the wedding, Oscar and Sebastian enter strikingly parallel intergenerational relationships, the details of which make up the core of the book. Stood up by “A” at a bar, Oscar is messaged on Cruze by Sean Stokes, a writer famous for his autobiographical novels depicting pre-AIDS gay male promiscuity, a fictionalized (and slightly less horny) version of Edmund White. Oscar and Sean strike up an unlikely friendship, keeping in touch via email exchanges, before meeting in person when Sean returns to town. Meanwhile, Sebastian develops an intense, and mostly one-sided, relationship with Arthur, a gay high school senior who reminds him of a boy in a Caravaggio painting. The two solidify their friendship in the school’s gay straight alliance — for which Sebastian serves as the faculty mentor — and eventually start watching movies together after school. In both cases, the reader gets the sense that Sean and Arthur are supposed to represent something missing from Oscar’s and Sebastian’s respective ideas of gay life.
Toying with the evergreen questions of homosexuality — Do I want to be with or be the beloved? — Let’s Get Back to the Party employs the first person, which moves between Oscar’s and Sebastian’s points of views, to examine what the men desire from their relationships. Oscar, who sees Sean as a living portal to a time when being queer felt “like you were living rebelliously […] [l]ike you were getting away with murder,” lustily mines Sean’s books for sex scenes that support his own promiscuity. None of Oscar’s literary cruising is handled with any nuance or depth; at one particularly embarrassing moment, Oscar unironically adopts as his own the motto of one of Sean’s characters, “I vow, henceforth, to live by cock alone,” thus buying into the long-debunked belief that gay sex alone amounts to a radical politics. Meanwhile, Sebastian becomes infatuated with Arthur, seeing in him an out-and-proud teenage version of himself that was sadly foreclosed. “The uncanny confidence he took in his own body, his own identity […] brought into relief my own high school days,” he muses. “Watching Arthur […] I felt a profound sense of loss for my own boyhood,” Sebastian concludes, waxing nostalgia for a life that could have been, rather than living the one he currently has.
While a successful first-person point of view is a unique opportunity to interrogate a character’s interior world, in Let’s Get Back to the Party it cockblocks the novel from developing a political consciousness of its own beyond the wooden ideological dyad of its leading men. As Oscar’s internal monologues veer into offensive cliché and caricature, he becomes a monstrous hodgepodge of the worst gay men have to offer. Arrogant and missing any comportment of self-reflection, Oscar spends most of the novel raging at other gay men for being “sellouts,” “traitors,” and “Judas gays” who don’t share his politics. A gay misogynist, which is neither novel nor unfortunately uncommon, Oscar takes this hatred to a new level, viewing every straight woman at a gay bar as a “Becky” deserving of verbal and physical assault. “You think we’re just a bunch of harmless fags. You think you’re safe here,” he sneers at one woman before “grab[bing] her by the waist and pull[ing] her to [him] so she feels the pressure of [his] crotch.” Later, when complaining to Sean that straight people only go to gay bars to “see us minstrel for their pleasure,” Oscar — a white gay man — appropriates the history of anti-Black performance to proffer a justification for his actions. Even in sex — the one place Oscar is supposed to be most in his element — Salih offers mostly parody. In one scene suggesting the novel may, after all, be read as parody, Oscar refers to his cum, with complete sincerity, as “salty cock-broth,” sappy like “onion milk.”
Equally laughable are Oscar’s politics, or the antics in which they take expression, which take him (and the book) to some truly cringeworthy places. Energized by his relationship with Sean, Oscar co-founds OUTRAGE, a gay party that meets at different straight bars in an act of revolutionary gay “reverse colonization” of straight spaces. A graphic designer, Oscar volunteers to make the poster: a collage of muscular men in photoshopped military kits with the words “THIS MEANS WAR. TAKE NO PRISONERS. WE WANT YOU. BE SCENE. JOIN OR DIE” printed above their heads. Oscar’s enthusiasm for OUTRAGE indicates a belief that increased visibility necessarily leads to some representational benefit, but there’s no accompanying awareness of who benefits from or can even participate in such a politics of visibility. Furthermore, the militaristic aesthetic is embraced without any reflection on its encounter with race, ignoring the very real ways that Black, Brown, and/or Muslim people would not easily get away with such “threats.” Clear to the reader — but not to Oscar — is the fact that OUTRAGE is a cis white gay festival masquerading as engaged activism.
Let’s Get Back to the Party ultimately fails Oscar’s character by not allowing him to understand the activist histories from which he draws his sexual outlaw posture. At his homophobic father’s funeral, when Oscar notices a gravestone for a young man whom he emptily assumes died of AIDS, he asks the dead man’s ghost to relay a message to his father. “Tell him I don’t need his prayers. Tell him, with respect, I won’t die like you, buried in shame under mounds of dirt,” Oscar says, building to a self-righteous crescendo. “No. Tell him I’ll die out loud. Tell him I’ll die on fire.” Oscar’s vision of the man dying shamefully and without protest not only reflects the very pathologizing discourses about gay male sexuality and AIDS that one would think Oscar opposes, but also overlooks the rich history of AIDS activists who fought — and continue to fight — against government and societal inaction. Perhaps Oscar’s grasp of queer history is best summed up by his lamentation for the loss of “life in bathhouses and public parks, in leather bars and basement dungeons and waterfront piers and private clubs […] all the perverse rebellion, the joyful queerness of it all — it’s gone.” But what Oscar and the novel neglect to explore is how many of these spaces do still exist, nor the structural, historical reasons — namely, the devastation of AIDS — for their erosion. I often wondered if Salih meant for Oscar to be a hollow archetype, or if this really was his best effort at portraying radical queer thought in the present.
Sebastian, too, is more of a straitjacketed archetype than a genuine character. Reading his portions of the novel, one might be compelled to support the idea that homosexuality is the result of a blockage in childhood development. The central wounds of Sebastian’s life are the result of abandonment: he feels abandoned by Oscar, whose family moved to a different state when he was 11, and by Jake, his ex-boyfriend. Desperate for attachment, Sebastian latches onto Arthur, who not only provides a constant presence in his life, but the fantasy of an unwounded version of “a boyhood [he] never had, the warped manhood [he] was stuck with for the rest of [his] life.” Sebastian’s obsession with Arthur, more as navel-gazing fantasy than as a real person, reaches its climax when he masturbates into a sweatshirt Arthur leaves behind in class. “I wanted Arthur. No. I wanted to be Arthur,” he muses, humping a pillow wrapped in the student’s sweatshirt, “[I]f I were Arthur, I wouldn’t be myself.” This creepy nostalgia is offered as self-evident, a given of gay life. Nowhere, in the entirety of the novel, is there any compelling reason why Sebastian remains fixated on his childhood — and by extension Arthur — and why he remains stuck with “a warped manhood” for the remainder of his life.
For a book purportedly examining contemporary gay life, Let’s Get Back to the Party bafflingly demurs in any treatment of race, an area of Sebastian’s life worth exploring and which could explain some of the difficulties he faces. While we’re told that Sebastian’s mother is Arab and his father is white, we’re not given any further information, which leaves Sebastian’s character unnecessarily ill-defined. Sebastian, too, barely mentions race, only providing a few passing comments over the course of the book. To be clear, I’d be happy to respect Salih’s decision to write a book that eschews the representational burdens placed on people of color, but an avoidance of racial politics cannot be excused in a novel where the characters frequently make baldly racist statements and then act as if nothing occurred. For example, in a scene recalling the day he came out, Sebastian recounts his father turning the moment into a joke: “If you were in your mother’s village and you’d just told that to her father, he’d have taken you into the backyard and slaughtered you like a lamb.” Instead of using moments like this as opportunities to consider the intersection of race, nationality, and sexuality in the United States, the novel instead chooses easy narration over thoughtful treatment.
Unsurprisingly, both Oscar’s and Sebastian’s relationships fail miserably, as each man is unable to see their object of infatuation — and by implication, themselves — for who they truly are. When Sean suddenly falls in love and gets married, Oscar’s belief in his radicalism crumbles and he berates Sean on the phone for selling out before dramatically hanging up. Shortly thereafter, Sebastian learns that Arthur is the “A” who Oscar was messaging on Cruze, a blow compounded by Oscar angrily sending Sebastian Arthur’s nudes. These revelations send Sebastian into a tailspin, which ends with him taking a leave of absence from teaching after being caught spying on Arthur and his boyfriend kissing on school grounds. As these relationships end, it’s clear that Oscar and Sebastian see their beloveds as representing an ideal version of the queer past they unfortunately missed. Oscar, who only wants a sexually promiscuous version of Sean, is unwilling to see how the AIDS epidemic, coupled with the natural progression of growing older, has reasonably changed Sean’s priorities, and Sebastian is unable to reconcile the ideal he has built Arthur into with the horny and sexually active “A.” The issue, of course, is that these ideals are fabrications, not human beings — and in that way, they feel a lot like Salih’s dueling protagonists. By the end of the book, the reader is left with portraits of two gay men who don’t seem any closer to “understanding” contemporary gay life, to say nothing of representing the dense textures and sweeping scope of that life, than they did at the start.
But that’s not the end! Right when the book should close, the Pulse shooting just … happens. While a more controlled narrative following the lives of gay men over several years could use Obergefell and Pulse to investigate the contradictions of gay life — rights for some, continued struggle for others — Salih’s decision to bookend the novel with these two events forces them to inherently mean something to the reader, and just feels manipulative. One of the most violent homophobic massacres in American history, Pulse appears out of nowhere. The characters have no direct relation to the event, and the shooting serves only to catalyze the climax of Oscar and Sebastian’s novel-long will-they-won’t-they sexual dance. More offensively, the crucial fact that the Pulse shooting specifically targeted Latinx queers is overlooked so that Oscar can overidentify with the victims and, deplorably, make racist observations about the massacre’s aftereffects: “Still, the Pulse dead are everywhere, bearing down on us,” Oscar thinks. “Every dropped beer bottle’s an unpinned grenade […] Every scream’s the battle cry of some jihadi blowing himself up.” In Let’s Get Back to the Party, gay history exists solely as fodder for the characters’ narcissistic queer identities, not a series of events that could — God forbid — actually change the way people think of themselves and others.
So what does it mean to be a gay man today? Let’s Get Back to the Party doesn’t offer any clear or compelling answers, but perhaps the larger issue is that the book’s fundamental question isn’t all that interesting. Who still believes in a world where one can talk about a unified, homogeneous gay subject? I want a world where gay men see trans people — especially trans women — as natural allies, and where Black queer people are not disproportionately susceptible to contracting HIV and subject to state violence, but I know that there are, unfortunately, many gay men who couldn’t care less about these issues. Let’s Get Back to the Party could have been a book that developed the interiorities of two modern gay men — one white, one Arab American — into a probing story about sex, race, and belonging. Unfortunately, the reader is given superficial characters slotted into a contrived plotline, resulting in a politically shallow book that devolves into utter nonsense.