Hollinghurst's gay protagonist, Nick Guest, more or less ingenuously follows his sexual and aesthetic inclinations, which lead him, somewhat incongruously, into the house of Tory MP Gerald Fedden, the arms of a Lebanese millionaire's son, and finally personal disaster and tragedy.
The thin thread that binds and shapes Nick's muddling way through his life is beauty, and his trajectory is in a way a test of its strength and worth. Hollinghurst holds up for us the thinness of beauty and the foolishness of its worship, yet when Nick's ostensibly hollow collaboration with shallow, materialistic, philistine Wani comes to unexpected glorious (but limited) fruition we are invited to reconsider. Beauty is a heartless god, the book admits, but impossible to deny. And sometimes those who struggle and suffer in its service are richly rewarded...
I've had a some discussions with an artist who believes that beauty is a concept that should not be applied to people at all. I said I can't deny the 'tingling in the spine' induced by beauty and she responded 'it's not anyone's purpose to make your spine tingle'. I totally agree with that - but I still can't stop my visceral response to and pleasure in beauty, whether I'm looking at a sunset or a person. The conversation prompted me to think hard about this, and to see how personal beauty being instrumentalised has a regressive effect, reinforcing hierarchies and layers of oppression. On the other hand, if beauty is visceral and inextricably related to positive identification and sympathy, we need to work hard to pull the encultured hierarchies from it. I'm thinking more now about dismantling the whiteness of beauty, the youthfulness and thinness of beauty, all of which are arbritrary and exist because they serve white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Decapitalise beauty! But I'm still working out how to frame this issue and how to reconstruct my appreciation. Here, structures of class and heterosexism pervade relationships, but Hollinghurst only offers them in the way Fitzgerald offers images of an unwholesome lifestyle he can't escape. There is little interrogation. And as in Fitzgerald, there's no redemption.
The characters here are delicately drawn, never rendered without colour and shade, and Nick himself shares his creator's insight and empathy for others. I had deep sympathy for this soul, and felt a mixture of admiration and disapproval!