A Review of Sky Gilbert's Sad Old Faggot: A Novel
Review by Dana Hansen
The autobiographical novel – a telling of an author’s lived experiences through the use of fictive devices – is by no means a new genre. Its roots may be traced back to the 19th century and to the work of a number of canonical writers. More recently, though, in our highly self-referential (That’s so meta!) era, authors such as Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante have thrived by turning to this genre to narrate the tragicomic real within the forgiving harbour of fiction. Done well, such self-parody in an imagined work of literature may in fact reveal much more than facts found in memoir. The reader is challenged to consider the notion of truth in art and the question of whether or not it is ever possible - or even desirable – to represent a life unembellished.
Inspired by the idea of writing a better "reality novel" than the likes of Sheila Heti, Sky Gilbert, celebrated playwright, director, novelist, and poet, tries his hand at the autobiographical novel with Sad Old Faggot, his seventh work of fiction. Absent of any sort of conventional plot, this novel is really a collection of Gilbert’s impressions at 62 years of age of his sexual proclivities and personal shortcomings.
Having written Ejaculations from the Charm Factory (2000), a memoir that Gilbert claims ironically “is the furthest thing from the truth in some ways,” his intention with his latest novel is to “tell the truth about Sky Gilbert. The whole truth and nothing but the truth.” The reader is skeptical of this assertion, especially when Gilbert goes on to say that he will not discuss details concerning certain people out of his love for them. So, maybe we’re not going to get the whole truth. “You’ll just have to accept that,” he says, “Or at least accept the fact that I’m telling you the truth.”
But accept it we do not, because Gilbert undermines his promise of a faithful narrative over and over again, and that is part of the charm of this strange, prurient, and frequently hilarious book that straddles, no pun intended, the banalities of the everyday (relationship woes, self-doubt and loathing, insatiable desire) and the theatrics of farce. A self-proclaimed “really sad, lonely, old faggot,” he insists that his loneliness and lack of friends are attributable to his selfish need of attention and an audience for his brilliance: “I’m essentially a performer, not a real human being.”
It’s not difficult to believe that the fictional Gilbert struggles to keep friends; his focus really is entirely on himself and much of Sad Old Faggot reads as the self-indulgent broodings of a narcissist. With chapter titles like “What It’s Like to Be Sky Gilbert,” “My Dick,” “My Ass,” and “All the Wrongs That Have Been Done to Me,” the navel-gazing overwhelms any hope of broader themes or perspectives. But that’s not the point here. The point is to go with it, to follow Gilbert’s lead down the rabbit hole, to be titillated and bewildered, fascinated and appalled.
Eventually, through a lengthy chapter describing Gilbert’s comical attempt to discover what he hopes to be the truth about his paternity, the novel comes to what seems to be the crux of the matter (or maybe not): “The truth is that in lots of ways I don’t feel like the child of my parents or even a child of this world because I am such a freak and I don’t fit in.” The intense need for Gilbert to feel a sense of belonging – in a family, with a partner, with friends, in his creative work, in his own skin – pervades this noteworthy novel and is the element of Sad Old Faggot that rings most profoundly true.