OCTOBER 29, 2019
MOST PEOPLE PROBABLY hadn’t heard the name André Aciman before 2017, when the adaptation of his 2007 novel, Call Me by Your Name, became a sensation, raking in nearly $42 million in global box office sales and garnering four Academy Award nominations. While that number pales in comparison to the global box office for Brokeback Mountain (2005, $178 million), it falls roughly between two other mainstream queer films you may remember: Milk (2008, $55 million) and Carol (2015, $43 million). What makes the success of Call Me by Your Name notable among this list of films is that it drove sales almost entirely on the strength and promise of its central gay coming-of-age romance with little in the way of politically thematic tie-in (Milk) or bankable A-List star-power (Brokeback Mountain and Carol). The film turbo-charged the careers of actors Timothée Chalamet, who first emerged in a breakout role earlier that year in Lady Bird, and Armie Hammer, who had perennially been pushed as the next “It” man by the industry with little success. For Aciman, who published three other novels in the decade before his big-screen adaptation, the movie launched him into the mainstream literary stratosphere.
What was unique about Call Me by Your Name, in the annals of both mainstream gay literature and film, was its departure from the tragedy and anxiety of discovery that saturate most queer narratives. When a teenage Elio falls for a visiting graduate student, Oliver, he experiences a reckoning with sexual desire, identity, and the bittersweet nature of a first love in the way that I imagine is familiar to most straight people, judging from its frequent portrayal in popular books and movies. Elio wonders if his affection is reciprocated, is a bit unsure about the mechanics of sex, and is crushed when circumstances eventually drive this star-crossed pair apart. He doesn’t wonder if he will get HIV (or any other STD), nor does he conceive of his relationship with Oliver as something that might put him in the crosshairs of the law, or cast him out beyond the comforts of family, faith, and community. In the other movies referenced above, homosexual desire is the catalyst for two murders, several unhappy (heterosexual) marriages, a custody battle, and the threat of a public scandal. The only dark clouds looming on Elio’s horizon are unrequited love and the lover’s departure; not small pains, to be sure, but surely lesser ones. As someone from a generation who grew up understanding homosexual desire as a secret to be kept at all costs until one absconded to a place where it was safe to pursue, who was raised in an affectionate and accepting family yet still worried whether coming out would test the limits of that affection and acceptance (it didn’t), Elio’s story of young queer love in the 1980s read as if it were set in a truly magical past. That was part of the story’s power, and it wove its dreamlike spell over many of us who wished to relive it on-screen and in-print multiple times.
This is not to say that the novel and its adaptation didn’t receive criticism from the LGBTQ community. Aciman, a straight man, has been criticized for what some consider an inaccurate and retrograde depiction of gay adolescence and sexual desire. In these pages, D. A. Miller convincingly excoriates the film for windchiming away the moment when the on-screen characters would have been rendered as viscerally, pleasurably gay: the night when a nervous Elio treads nervously into Oliver’s room and they have sex for the first time. (The novel is similarly demure in this scene, which Miller points out is the very moment that the scenes leading up to it have made us breathlessly anticipate.) Meanwhile, others criticized the film for what they argued was the predatory nature of the relationship between Oliver and Elio, in which a 24-year-old man grooms and seduces a 17-year-old boy. Even James Ivory, one half of the gay couple that helms Merchant Ivory, the film company that produced Call Me by Your Name’s screen adaptation, noted that a scene he’d written addressing the AIDS crisis had been cut and that he was disappointed with the lack of full frontal nudity. “When people are wandering around before or after making love, and they’re decorously covered with sheets, it’s always seemed phony to me,” Ivory said in an interview. “[T]o do what [director] Luca [Guadagnino] did, which is to pan the camera out of the window toward some trees. Well…”
But it wasn’t only the representation of homosexuality that felt a bit out of touch. A good friend of my husband’s told us that, while he’d finally walked out during the scene in which Elio uses a ripe peach as a kind of rustic Fleshjack, he’d considered bailing earlier, when Elio’s mother casually translates German poetry aloud as the family lounges together during a rainstorm. “I mean, who does that?” he protested, “Un-relatable.” This gets, a bit, at the rare echelons of class privilege, whiteness, and a life unburdened by consequences that constellate Call Me by Your Name — gay, straight, or otherwise. Of course, these and other criticisms did little to stymie public enthusiasm for Aciman’s tale of a young, first gay love.
That popularity makes it altogether unsurprising that Aciman should return to the tale of Elio and Oliver in Find Me, a sequel that seems a naked, so to speak, attempt to capitalize on the earlier novel’s runaway success. Readers (and, it seems almost certain, viewers) were left with a desire to know what became of the two lovers after the aesthetic and romantic bliss they shared that one summer in Italy, whether they increasingly grew apart in the way of most first loves or if they ever found one another again. Of course, they do — this reunion is suggested at the end of Call Me by Your Name — but whether or not this is the sequel Aciman’s audience wants remains an open question.
The first disappointment in picking up Find Me is that Elio and Oliver’s reunion is relegated to the last 12 pages. That’s not a typo: their dewy romantic reprise takes up less space than a short story. In place of the sequel readers understandably might expect is nearly half a novel centered on Sami, who you may have reasonably forgotten was Elio’s father, as he meets a young woman on a train to Rome where he is traveling to see his troublingly unattached son. Now single himself — he divorced Elio’s mother soon after the boy went to college — Sami gets a second chance at love with Miranda, a precocious and troubled woman some decades his junior. For more than a hundred pages, readers wander through their first meeting, through Sami’s introduction to Miranda’s ailing father, through the revelation of private secrets (Miranda once wanted to have sex with her brother), and through laughably strained descriptions of sex (“‘My lighthouse,’ she gasped, reaching down my body and holding me firmly. ‘This is who we’ll be even when we’re seen fully clothed and prettified in public, you inside me, all cum and juices.’”). All this before Elio ever appears. While Sami may have had the most memorable lines from Call Me by Your Name (and all the more impactful in Michael Stuhlbarg’s riveting delivery), it seems a stretch that he should be the character whose story anchors the sequel. Sami was the side dish in the earlier novel, but in Find Me he is virtually the main course.
In the following sections, each dramatically shorter than Sami’s, Elio and Oliver manage their separate lives apart while dreaming of one another. Elio, now a successful musician living for a short while in Paris, meets Michel at a chamber music concert and instantly falls in love with the older man. This short relationship proceeds through several dead-end developments — including some brief musical sleuthing into a love affair between Michel’s long-dead father and a young Jewish musician — before Elio finally admits to his new lover that he’s never quite gotten over Oliver, a man who left him some 20 years ago for a career, wife, and family in the United States. When we catch up with Oliver, now a professor living a “humdrum, ever-so-boring day-to-day life in New Hampshire,” he’s at a house party, lusting after two younger colleagues of sorts, one a young man with a “significantly older boyfriend” (of course, no?), the other a younger, married woman from his yoga class toward whom Oliver acts in a manner that reads, at least in part, as predatory. As he falls asleep that night, he dreams of “the three of us naked in bed […] his sweat and hers mingled with mine.” These erotic reveries, and Elio’s honeyed voice echoing in his head, steady Oliver against the dull draining life he lives with his wife and children as a man in his mid-40s, “already dead — and yet too young, too young to die.” When he imagines Elio whispering “Find me,” it’s all the excuse Oliver needs to abandon wife and children and race across the sea to settle in with his erstwhile male lover, and somewhere over the Atlantic this father becomes a daddy once more. In such moments, we also glimpse the patriarchal energy that settles over Find Me and Call Me by Your Name like a bad smell. In both novels, it is only the male’s desire that matters, only his needs that have weight or substance; others pass in and out of the frame, their function only ever to be a catalyst for self-discovery, orgasm, or both, after which they may be discarded.
At least one way to think about the new novel is as a rumination on fathers and daddies. Haunting memories of fathers who have passed and characters falling in love with much older men who resemble father figures saturate the pages of Find Me. There are strong and impactful reflections on loss, desire, and intimacy, but those themes seem rather diluted and distorted from their earlier pitch. That shift can be marked in a transition between Call Me by Your Name’s emphasis on youthful love and Find Me’s anxieties about middle age, about men who are losing their sexual allure, losing their relevance, losing their chance at the brief window in which life might toss a few crumbs in the yawning chasm of their desire. This may perhaps explain why Find Me appears to dwell so heavily on the cross-generational erotics: Sami’s with the much younger Miranda, Elio’s relationship with the much older Michel, Oliver’s desire for his younger friends, and finally, Elio’s relationship with the only-slight-older Oliver. Every daddy is, in the end, rewarded with a pretty young(er) thing, a sort of literary dose of Viagra for characters elegantly wringing their hands over the loss of youth and vitality. This complicates the characters in somewhat unsettling ways, but is this what audiences came for: the languid reveries of regretful older men and the hope of renewed sparkle they glimpse in the younger men and women who find them — rather implausibly, I think — irresistible?
Implausibility is familiar to the world of Call Me by Your Name just as it is to Find Me; these are two novels in which we watch not so much representations of human beings as representations of representations. For example, Sami, allegedly thinking on his feet and worried about how he’s coming off to the attractive young Miranda, blurts out: “It’s just that the magic of someone new never lasts long enough. We only want those we can’t have. It’s those we lost or who never knew we existed who leave their mark. The others barely echo.” These are words spoken less by a character than they are carefully prepared lines straining for depth. They might feel rich, in a fussy kind of way, falling from the mouth of a narrator — and even then, it’s really just bargain bin feeling expressed in an elevated register, isn’t it? — but they feel false in the mouth of what is supposed to be a believable human being. The flaws in these and other moments clarify the unique pleasures of reading authors like Alan Hollinghurst or Garth Greenwell: their characters feel real, even as they swim in prose brimming with masterful aesthetic absorption and delicious excess. That feeling real isn’t merely a trick of language, it’s a trick of writerly, storytelling craft; Hollinghurst’s and Greenwell’s characters come off the page because we feel that there’s something at stake in their experience, something we can connect to, but which stirs us anew and makes the encounter feel fresh. By comparison, Aciman’s characters read as hollow and shopworn, their idyllic lives vapid, inconsequential, uninteresting. Without anything anchoring them to the ground, neither an impactful realism nor the nuance and complications that make a life interesting to read, the characters in Find Me end up feeling merely lost.