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Edinburgh (Alexander Chee)

February 10, 2010

I don’t quite know where to begin with this novel. It was certainly not a happy novel, but it was still good. I think the fire motif was one of the most interesting elements of the novel. Fire is everywhere — in cultural folklore (the fox-daemons), in physical contact, in sexual attraction, in Peter’s suicide, in Big Eric’s death, and more. I’m not sure exactly what to make of all this fire imagery. The relationship between fire/heat and love/lust is a fairly common one, but Chee seems to be doing something more complicated than that here. Also, the explicit relationship between fire and the fox-daemons (introduced in the Prologue, of all places) shifts this motif away from that overused one. In any case, fire definitely seems to be a kind of release, a burning-away of extra or unwanted things…but that’s pretty weaksauce as far as interpretation goes. “Hm, let me think, the fire seems to burn stuff.” Yeah. We got that.

Moving on, I also think Chee is doing something unusual with narration here. For the most part, the novel moves forward chronologically and is narrated by Fee. However, it’s broken down into four sections and the third one is narrated by Warden. Oddly, this section also has significant chronological overlap with the fourth/final section, in which the narration returns to Fee. If one were to remove the third section, the novel would continue relatively unimpeded (albeit lacking a complexity that that section introduces, and also lacking some information that would fill in the gaps — which is what the fourth section is relegated to doing at this point). Given the otherwise-consistent nature of the narrative, I’m not entirely sure I understand the full purpose(s) of this deviant third section. For the most part, I think it’s productive, and it does allow for a refreshing outsider’s view of Fee.

Fee’s sexuality kind of gets overshadowed by Big Eric’s molestation of him and the other choir boys…something I’m not entirely sure I like. While Chee goes out of his way to make a point that what Fee feels and is is different from what Big Eric feels and is — in other words, that being gay is an entirely different thing than being a pedophile — I think that the lack of attention given to Fee’s sexuality could potentially be misleading. I mean, it’s true that Fee’s feelings for other boys (specifically Peter) is introduced before he is molested, but it’s also true that his fixation on Peter and his later obsession with / attraction to men and boys who look similar comes dangerously close to making Fee’s “type” look very similar to a pedophile’s “type” or “preference.” Also, the fact that Fee ultimately gives in to Warden makes him all too similar to Big Eric in a way that I don’t think Chee was going for. For the most part, Edinburgh is a gay-positive novel (I mean, even Peter says he wishes he could have returned Fee’s love…which one could read as him wishing he could have been gay). BUT. Yeah, but…I think the way the cycle of abuse starts to repeat itself is not entirely innocent of implicating Fee as a potential pedophile. After all, he fell in love with a boy who died at a certain age and after that he constantly seeks out other boys/men who resembled that first love. This fixation on a certain age group and look reminds me all too much of one Humbert Humbert — a connection that doesn’t do any good for the gay-positive reading of Chee’s text.

In any case, I also want to make sure I address the issue of names here. Fee, well, I’m not entirely sure about the connections except that I think it relates to the idea of a price that has to be paid. A fee, a toll of sorts. I haven’t worked the rest out, but in the vague confines of my mind it makes sense. Big Eric, well, I think the important part of his nickname is the “Big” part — he plays a big role in the boys’ lives, he fails to realize he’s “big” (i.e. grown), he is the “big” event — the defining moment — of their childhoods (not in a good way, of course), etc. Bridey, well, I’m not sure how someone named Albright comes to be called Bridey…and then play the role of the “housewife” (which Fee and Bridey both allude to several times in the final section) who Fee repeatedly picks up and carries places (like a groom carries his bride) and gets down on one knee to propose to. And of course, let’s not forget about Warden…the disturbing/disturbed boy who smiles after murdering his own father and setting fire to his house — a smile Fee soon realizes was a victor’s smile borne of the misconception that he finally had control over Fee (in much the same way a jailer, or warden, has control over his inmates). Not to mention, Warden is the guard who ultimately tests Fee’s innocence (a test he sort of fails and sort of passes) and determines his fate in many ways.

Chee’s novel, while not a happy one (as I said before — and I really liked Fee and Bridey together and wanted them to remain blissful…a wish I knew was futile from the start), is definitely a powerful read. I think Chee gets some unusual political points across and explores a sensitive topic in a way that doesn’t glorify the sexual aspects of molestation while simultaneously not downplaying the trauma that results from molestation.

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