A Single Man

Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man
(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969)
First published: 1964

But how very strange to sit here with Charley sobbing and remember that night when the long-distance call came through from Ohio. An uncle of Jim’s whom he’d never met—trying to be sympathetic, even admitting George’s right to a small honorary share in the sacred family grief—but then, as they talk, becoming a bit chilled by George’s laconic yes, I see, yes; his curt no, thank you to the funeral invitation—deciding no doubt that this much talked-of room-mate hadn’t been such a close friend, after all…. And then, at least five minutes after George had put down the phone, when the first shock-wave hit, when the meaningless news suddenly meant exactly what it said, his blundering gasping run up the hill in the dark, his blind stumbling on the steps, banging at Charley’s door, crying blubbering howling on her shoulder, in her lap, all over her […].

Comforting his straight woman friend Charley, George remembers her having comforted him after he heard, over the phone, that his lover Jim had died in an accident. The stilted restraint of the phone call—Jim’s (not even named) uncle’s awareness only of the supposed roommates’ peculiar closeness according to family rumour, apparently disproven by George’s apparently unemotional response to the news—symbolises the cruel fractures of living in the closet.

George turns down the funeral invitation because pretending to be Jim’s mere ‘roommate’ would only worsen the pain. Intimate news can be conveyed at long-distance; empathy can be acted out by a literally distant in-law; but the real, wet slobber of grieving has to happen against another warm body—the body of one who knew George and Jim as George-and-Jim.

The book has two other calls. Early in the morning, George is peacefully sitting on the lavatory when his phone rings. He has to shuffle out to answer it, his trousers around his ankles. It is Charley, inviting him to dinner that same evening. He declines, but he later calls her from a supermarket payphone to accept. You can keep in touch by phone, but you can’t touch. The body has its needs.

by Gregory Woods