When he did return to New York […] he found Sutherland standing in the middle of the room with a mudpack on his face, round earrings and a red dress pulled down to his waist—all that remained of the costume in which he had gone to a dinner dance as La Lupe—and the twenty-five-foot foot telephone cord wrapped around his body. He squirmed, like a Laocoon trapped by snakes, and made an anguished face at Malone. ‘I simply must get off,’ he said into the phone, ‘the bank beneath us is on fire and we’re being evacuated.’ He hung the telephone up and said, as he shook Malone’s hand gravely: ‘My sister, in Boston. Our brother just cut off three toes in the lawn mower, after defaulting on a bank loan, our other sister has hepatitis and will have to finish school in Richmond, Mother is drinking, Father refuses to see anyone, and the woman across the street went into her garage yesterday and turned on the automobile and asphyxiated herself. What is wrong with this country, for God’s sake?’ he said, pulling off the red clip earrings. ‘Americans, for my money, are just too damned sophisticated!’
Here, the telephone acts as a way of providing a context for Sutherland, one of two protagonists of this 1978 novel describing the gay disco scene in New York. It also acts as an apparatus of glamour, captured in this remarkable image, and elsewhere is the conduit for invitation after invitation, all requiring the sending of ‘regrets’ if not taken up. The telephone therefore maintains a crucial social presence and profile even when someone is absent. Here, camp subverts the function of the phone in passing on serious news. There is an awareness in this passage of what a phone call in a narrative should do, and how someone in a phone call should speak, but both of these norms are unsettled.
The following incident is also interesting because it relates to the romantic trope of the unanswered call, but in the context of a gay relationship. John Shaeffer is obsessed by Malone, the novel’s second protagonist, replaying things Malone, who is ‘so confident, so at ease’, has said to him. This manifests itself as not answering the phone ‘for days’, described as ‘an indifference to the invitations of life that not only astonished but struck John as extremely erotic: the thought of Malone sitting in his chair, bathed in sweat, while the phone went on ringing and ringing through the hot afternoon with importune lovers unable to break through the thorns of his perfect indifference. […] Malone did not return his calls. John stayed in his uncle’s apartment on East End Avenue on the chance that he might call.’ (192/3) The novel’s gay landscape is enacted and galvanised through the telephone, creating and maintaining an erotic and sexual network. The urgency of using the phone to make arrangements still exists, but with the aim of the sexual fulfilment of a hook-up.
by Rebecca Cullen