An honest novel about vanity, egoism and the fear of old age. Our protagonist is Guy, a modern day Dorian Gray. He is beautiful, elegant and never ages. Other characters in the book joke about it (“He must have a terrible painting in the attic”), but really Guy does whatever he can to be desired and loved, although he rarely seems to desire or love others than himself.

Guy grows up in a rundown French industrial town, but thanks to his astonishingly good looks, he escapes to Paris to work as a model. Later, he becomes a supermodel in New York in the 80s. It is a world in which beauty and desirability is everything. It might seem like a vacuous existence, and certainly White does not shy away from describing that aspect the fashion world, but he also portrays the lifestyle in a more forgiving light. For one thing, it is an escape from a life in poverty for Guy, and for another, it is a space in which he and many young men can be open about their sexuality. And whilst other young models age or get AIDS and disappear from the modeling world, Guy remains. It seems like all of New York adore Guy; for his beauty but also his exotic French background and inoffensive manner. He never seems to age; not mentally or physically. He is always that beautiful young man, always cool and mysterious. But one day he is spurned for the first time in his life by a wealthy baron after an orgy gone wrong. Guy’s world starts to crack. He becomes afraid of his own reflection, the ‘triviality of his craft’ is exposed to him and he begins to feel lonely. Can he keep his eternal youth and also find true love?

Okay, there is stuff that works in this book. For example, the theme of people around Guy all wanting a longer life or eternal youth and Guy has it and still is not happy is really interesting. Also, some of the most enjoyable bits of the book is Guy’s almost border-line stereotypical Frenchness. He never really feels comfortable speaking English and can never adjust to Anglo-American culture. He often is annoyed by what he consideres to the oafishness of Americans in general.

Anglo-Saxons, Guy thought, always want examples. So 
lowering.They’re incapable of thinking abstractly.”

I know one shouldn’t take part in snobbery and although I am not French, I loved joining Guy in looking down non-French culture. It just so much fun feeling superior!

It is also refreshing to read a book with a gay protagonist, but in which his homosexuality is not a big deal. Of course there is plenty of gay sex in the book and the problems that faced gay men in the 80’s (and sadly still today for some), such as AIDS or begin rejected by our family are major plot points. But this is not the main story of the book. Nor is being gay the most important thing about Guy (and the problems in his life are not caused by his sexuality.

However, I did have some problems with this book. Guy is a difficult character to like. Sure, he is extremely handsome and funny, but he is also, at least for the early part of the book, without much personality. Guy’s agent describes him thus:

"You're universally liked because you are such a 
black hole in space. You don't have any real traits. 
You're sympa, at least as much as a narcissist can 
be, but that means nothing. You're beautiful and 
everybody projects into what they're looking for,
which is easy to do since you don't stand for 
anything definite. You're a black whole in space"

This might sound harsh, but Guy does not really seem to mind this description of himself.   This made it really difficult to become gripped by his story. Perhaps that is why when the book reaches its climax it felt more like an anticlimax; I was not that bothered about what would happen.

But still, Our young man is a perfectly good read; an interesting and well-written story about the fashion world and aging.

‘Our Young Man’ by Edmund White


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