Sarah Schulman, Rat Bohemia (1995)

Rat Bohemia has a special place in my heart as the first lesbian novel that I read, excepting The Color Purple, which is more of a novel with lesbian themes than a lesbian novel per se.  I have no idea where I laid my hands on my copy because Schulman is not at all well known in the UK.  I think she’s one of our best lesbian writers, but the topics she explores don’t make for popularity.  Rat Bohemia sets out to make connections between the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and the heterosexual family.

The novel is definitely postmodern, but written in an accessible style. Schulman never overwrites and her deceptively simple, clear prose masks a complex, carefully thought out narrative structure.

Rat Bohemia is divided into four parts, each narrated by a different character. Like most of Schulman’s work, it’s set in a run-down, gothic New York.  And like much traditional Gothic fiction, the text is a patchwork of interlinked voices telling the story from different perspectives.  The first narrator, Rita Mae Weems, is a Jewish lesbian in her early thirties, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, she works for Pest Control and is obsessed with New York’s rat problem.  Rita has never got over being thrown out of home at the age of 16 when her father caught her in bed with a girl called Claudia.  The second part is narrated by David, a gay Jewish writer and activist living with AIDS who is desperate for some acknowledgement and love from the family members who he feels are trying to kill him.  The third section is narrated by Rita’s best friend, Killer, a bohemian career plant-waterer who is involved in a passionate affair with the enigmatic Troy Ruby.  Along the way, there are other voices: Rita’s Cuban lover, Lourdes, successful closeted lesbian writer, Muriel Kay Starr, and David’s upper-middle class lawyer father.

Rat Bohemia is an angry novel about devastation, the devastation wrought not only by the AIDS crisis, but by society’s lack of adequate response to that crisis. Schulman locates the source of that deadly neglect in the family, daring to make connections between the Holocaust and American society’s ignoring, even cheering on, of the suffering and death of thousands of gay men in the 1980s.  The novel is a no holds barred critique of the family and its contribution to the suffering of queer people, and  Schulman is totally uncompromising in her representation of the way heterosexual families rationalise their cruelties to their queer members.

I remember when I first read it being struck by her point that heterosexual kids usually get some kind of parental cheerleading when they start to date, something that queer kids have to do without.  She doesn’t let heterosexual siblings off the hook, pointing out the ways they can take advantage of the situation.  This is a problem in the structure of the nuclear family, in which love is treated like booty to be parcelled out to members. She has no gratitude whatsoever for scraps of tolerance and ends the novel with the statement that every child deserves someone to be on their side and defend them.

There isn’t much light in this novel, though Schulman keeps it from being depressing with her warm, blackly humorous tone and her faith in friendship.  The only hope for us, she seems to say, is to be found in love and community between queer people.

This is still a radical book and I think I found it all the more powerful on re-reading.

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