Owing in large part to Hollywood’s discovery of its infinite star vehicle potential, the “intersecting lives” narrative has become, in recent years, something of a cop out. When the A-story isn’t strong enough, simply prop it up with parallel stories B through F and have them all fatefully (and conveniently) collide about a third of the way through the final act. It’s a trite and often tiresome trick that, with few exceptions, sacrifices meaningful narrative at the altar of novelty.
In riffing on this form with his debut novel London Triptych (Arsenal Pulp, 2013), Jonathan Kemp is playing with fire. Mirroring its namesake, Triptych sweeps across the centuries, tracing the lives of three different men in three historically distinct Londons; men tied to one another by their shared experiences of queer desire and by their participation in libidinal economies of queer touch and feeling that, despite the best efforts of hetereosexual society, refuse to exhaust themselves.
Kemp begins in the mid-1950s with Colin, an advert illustrator-turned-career artist, hopelessly ensnared in mute circuits of self-loathing, anxiety, and shame. Set on the rack by rumors of bathhouse and pub raids and assailed daily by salacious headlines that recount the arrests of suspected homosexuals, Colin retreats into his home studio. Terrified by his own desires and taunted by a youth wasted to propriety, he spends his days alone, fixated on the weathered form of his aging body. However, when a peculiar relationship begins to develop with a stunning young life-drawing model named Gore, Colin’s tightly spun sense of place begins to unravel.
Colin’s chronic guilt, wrought by Kemp in a stately, quietly tumultuous prose, stands stark against the roughshod, working class vernacular spouted by Jack. A sprightly, beautiful young man with a resilience of spirit matched only by his indulgence in profanity, Jack appears by Kemp’s hand in 1894, when a charge of “gross indecency” could easily lead a man to the gallows. In an effort to elude the abusive rule of his alcoholic father, Jack flees his home in Manchester and takes up residence as a rent boy in London, serving some of the city’s most powerful priests, legislators and cultural figures — even, a bit predictably, Oscar Wilde himself.
Completing the trio is David, Jack’s 20th century contemporary. Desperate to escape the hemmed-in monotony of his parents’ quiet morality, David begins at a young age to experiment with sex work, drugs, and the thrill of anonymity. Soon, he has left his suburban home and settled into a life of “whoring” in 1990s London, where time is marked against pills taken, parties attended, and clients turned over. And like the police in Jack’s era and the tabloid press in Colin’s, there is a specter that hangs heavy over David’s endless sexual encounters, even if it does go unnamed until the book’s closing pages: the trailing edge of the AIDS crisis.
Kemp cuts rapidly between the three protagonists, rarely offering more than a short monologue or vignette, each one narrated entirely in the first person. Colin, for example, recounts in methodical, sometimes ponderous detail, the hesitant unfolding of his relationship with Gore in the style of an extended diary entry. He speaks as if to no one, compounding the sting of his isolation. David’s tale, similarly, is rather speedily set up as a letter to an ex-lover, written from a jail cell. Yet, like the disease that drifts silently over his anonymous hookups, that lover goes nameless for almost the entire text. In turn, the “you” that David names maps neatly and immediately onto the reader.
This frenetic crosscutting and narrative intimacy enlivens the text, rescuing it from the worst excesses of the “intersecting lives” trope. Where so many similar texts struggle to even keep pace with the maze of relationships that they create, Kemp’s urgent oscillations across space, time, and the body ensure that the prose is energetic. More importantly, by keeping these three lives in such close quarters, Kemp manages to dredge up the compelling thematic resonances between them, connecting them not so much narratively as harmonically, locating those brief moments in which the three frequencies come into accord.
In particular, Kemp’s formal choices draw attention the historical persistence of those institutions and practices that would exterminate queer lives or deem them less than lives. Whether it is the corporeal punishment that Jack experiences at the hands of the police, the internalized shame that binds Colin to a life of enforced celibacy, or the endlessly accelerating cycles of sexual commodification and consumption that finally leave David abjected, barely able to trace the contours of his own body, the threats of disappearance, of incarceration, and of erasure haunt all three lives, drawing dreary but meaningful links between them.
Yet this gloom does not dominate. Kemp astutely chooses to explore these threats against the backdrop of dramatic shifts in the organization of European and global capitalism, lending to the text a caustic critical edge, turned squarely against to the broader historical and material forces that work to suppress queer lives.
Jack, for instance, enters sex work to both escape and provide for a family clearly exploited and dispossessed by England’s great march toward industrial modernity. This exploitation is duplicated in the practice of sex work itself, in the casual selling and consumption of his body by the very same politico-economic elites who marginalized him in the first place. It’s fitting, then, that Kemp codes Jack’s turn to sex work as a bombastic Faustian bargain, wedding the commodified exploitation of his sexuality to that literary figure so classically identified with the brutal excesses and broken promises of capitalist modernity.
In a different moment, Colin grapples with the demands of a post-war and increasingly “post-industrial” economy that valorized the swift organization of men and women into (re)productive family units, wherein the former was to take suitably-paying professional work while the latter attended to the social economy of the home. It is this deeply gendered division of labour and its many social iterations that both undergird and overwrite Colin’s life of stifled desire.
Finally, Kemp delivers us David, more a child of Thatcher than his own flesh and blood parents — the natural product of a world intentionally dismantled and remade in the image of the commodity by the architects of English neoliberalism. He is constantly awash in dizzying erotic economies, at times held together by little more than the clothes on his back and the powder he puts up his nose.
Often, he rehearses his own feelings of non-identity, of nowhereness, of being utterly inscrutable except in those moments where money is changing hands. Is there any more perfect articulation of Thatcher’s non-society? A subject unmoored from the state, from traditional family ties, and even from the conventional resources of selfhood, but finally re-anchored — ontologically, symbolically, biologically, erotically — in the commodity process and the accumulation of individual surplus.
Grim as it may seem, though, this stinging critique also carries with it a more hopeful valence. For if the suppression of queer desire persists across centuries, so must queer desire itself. Though faced variably with police brutality, with discipline and shame, and with the corrosive force of the commodity, queer ways of feeling and the bodies that they inhabit, survive. Against all odds, Kemp’s narration suggests that the black-market exchange of queer desire eludes and transgresses in all centuries, in any body that knows where to look.
But while Triptych deftly navigates these intriguing conceptual terrains by virtue of Kemp’s formal choices, it also struggles with some very practical narrative missteps. At just under 270 pages, this is a slim text. Once these pages are divided into three distinct eras and played out by three distinct leads, each supported by a swath of extras and background figures, there is little space left for delay.
Yet unfortunately, much of the book’s first half reads as little more than exposition; well-written exposition, but exposition all the same. As a result, the brief chapters and rapid shifts in voice end up feeling like an overlong series of character sketches that offer little in the way of narrative development. What interpersonal plot there is to be had is unfortunately truncated and at times seems incomplete, tacked on, and at odds with the book’s finely detailed prose.
This impression is exacerbated by Kemp’s curious decision to include an explanatory afterword, which heavy-handedly lays out how and why certain characters were developed, how their interactions were strategized, and importantly, how the decision to finally cross their stories had come rather late in the writing process. Instead of adding dimension to Triptych’s closing pages, though, these stage directions mostly confirmed that its long-delayed developments had been, in some measure, afterthoughts, apparently disconnected from the kind of anticipatory narrative structure that might have given them the emotional gravity they deserved.
Even the force of the book’s central conceit, the triptych, suffers as a result. After all, as an art form, the triptych draws its power from its unique ability to preserve the conceptual specificity of each canvas, even while relating them in such a way that the content of each is elevated by the articulation of some more or less coherent argument. The structural imbalance in Kemp’s narrative throws this scheme off-kilter. When all is said and done, it feels that perhaps too much time is devoted to what is within the frame, and too little to the relations that meaningfully exceed it.
These troubles aside, though, London Triptych remains a promising and engaging debut. In its gamble with an increasingly reviled genre, it comes up a qualified success. Kemp’s commitment to formal experimentation, coupled with his often elegant voice, offers the reader a tantalizing and nuanced text that, in its best moments, points toward a world beyond itself, a world given texture by the complicated knots that take shape when our bodies intersect the movement of history and the circulation of desire.
Image: cover detail from the Myriad Editions UK version of London Triptych.