Book Review: Arcade

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by Randall S. Frederick

Arcade is situated between inner noir and fictional sexual memoir, an “indie” kind of novel that is at turns relatable and horrifyingly perverse. What struck me, as a sex writer, was the candid and honest the emotional reservoir of first time author, Drew Nellins Smith. In an interview with him, Smith was adamant that “Sam” was a fictional character, sprinkled with real life experiences. “A lot of me is there, but I’m not Sam. I’ve always had a resistance to writing autobiographically, sort of an elitist sense of myself that I didn’t resort to those things.”

Despite this attitude, Smith says he met resistance in publishing the novel. “It’s definitely far enough away from my real life, that when publishers tried to convince me to do it as a memoir, it was completely un-doable.” This, combined with the graphic content of the novel, significantly delayed taking the book to press. Reading the novel, one gets the sense that Sam is almost too real. His musings, often during a refractory period, are too authentic to fit in the world Smith has designed to be fiction. The reader is struck by a perpetual disorientation where to read the novel and reject it as memoir is to instead become Sam oneself, to find a Sam within the self, and to vicariously experience the funhouse of sexual experiences. Who hasn’t wanted to break into an ex-lover’s email, after all? Who hasn’t stayed up late talking to someone online then never got around to meeting in person? The line between memory and mimetic, writer and reader, becomes hazy. In some sense, what Smith accomplishes with his debut novel is what masters of literature spend their entire lives doing. He has created a real person. Still, though the novel is of course fiction, there are parallels to the author’s own life, some quite significant. Because of this, Smith says, “I worry that, because of the subject matter, people might not pick it up.” He admits that the graphic depiction of reality (as he sees it) in the novel may be too real for some individuals, too accurate a depiction of what it means to stand on the cusp of coming out while simultaneously exploring one’s sexuality with an intensity that threatens community.

The book follows a twenty-something gay man, Sam, who frequents an arcade outside of a town in Texas and engages in sexual encounters that become increasingly dangerous. There are parallels to The Sexual Life of Catherine M. or 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, at times confessional, at times a reflection on life and the nature of existence. Throughout, Sam hurls himself into sexual encounters and worries about catching something; he compulsively asks if his partner is clean and isn’t entirely convinced but still finds himself engaging anyway. Unable to overcome his fears, or perhaps because of them – he’s not sure – he spirals out in the wake of a devastating breakup. But this is no Alician fall down the rabbit’s hole. Sam is too aware of his exploits, too careless to stop and too concerned to deny his hypervigilance. Sex inexplicably becomes as compulsive as his anxieties in this way. He can no longer control either as they begin to consume his life and affect the quotidian.

What makes Arcade so interesting is its utilization of the titular space – the arcade is a hangout for gay men looking to share an encounter but for Sam, it becomes the psychological stage for working out unresolved issues. It becomes, profoundly, the only place where the spool of film that is his life begins to make sense. Sam reflects,

Sometimes I arrived and found that I was the only one there. Or there were just two cars in the entire lot. The question of ‘enough’ arose. I sat in the parking lo and asked myself: What makes it worth it? Because there were certainly times when it wasn’t worth it, when the arcade felt like an empty chat room, and I wondered what I was doing there, what I had ever been doing there with three dollars in tokens.

Symptomatic of the revival taking place in Los Angeles literature, Smith does a lot of navel-gazing that accomplishes very little by novels end. There are no “aha!” moments. No carefully constructed First, Second, Third Acts. Our protagonist doesn’t move through the Campbellian journey and return home with victories under his belt. Instead, Arcade fits into that “Indie” vein of new literary offerings that focus on the internal terrain. Coming to terms with life, with choices, with job failures, the economy, and random sexual encounters where one can find love or nurturing or loyalty that exceeds the complication of relationships – these are hallmarks of Indie lit. It is here that Arcade, a proverbial funhouse mirror with neon lights and puddled imagery solidifying into the grit of concrete floors, focuses intently upon something altogether missing from John Grisham or even Gabby Bernstein and challenges the reader to turn away.

I recently interviewed Smith about the book and put a few questions to him.

Q: There’s a really strong revival of the literary scene in Los Angeles right now, especially with Unnamed Press which has captured the attention of L.A. Weekly, Publisher’s Weekly, and a host of other outlets that are all saying something big is happening on the West Coast right now. What’s it like to be a part of this “Indie scene” in literature right now?

A: Being a part of that movement, if I am, just really means the freedom to be more authentically myself and to put out work that I think is truer to my vision.

When I wrote Arcade, I wasn’t a part of any movement at all. I was just alone in my house writing, so I’ve never thought of that. I’ve always been fascinated with independent presses, though. Independent literature. Even indie films, in a sense. When my agent was shopping the book, she was originally shopping it to publishers in the Big Five, and it was really close. In fact, an editor at one of the big houses was going to buy it and was working on it with me, was very interested, before he finally took it to an editorial meeting where everyone basically said, “No. There’s no way.” He thought he could push it through and make it work, but they were just adamant that there was no way – and this was after I had cut out a ton of the sex.

The great thing for me was that when Unnamed [Press] bought the book, my editor Olivia [also Smith, no relation] said, “There needs to be more sex in this book.” I had a document, on the side, with all of the cuts I had made for that big publisher and emailed that to her. She read it and said, “Oh yeah. This all has to go back in.” I felt such a surge of excitement for her to say that, just so glad that I had found the right place. It was so revealing about what their intentions were and how I would be treated there. With this other publisher, who is great and puts out great books, it was all about mitigating it and softening the book, making it “palatably edgy.” Something where, oh, it’s edgy, but it’s not going to scare people off. And I think it’s better, even more authentic, to write something that will scare people off.

You know, publishing is just such a crushing process. There’s always pitching and so many unanswered emails. It’s so random, you know, when someone actually decides to publish something.

Q: One of the early reviews was quick to call Arcade a “gay novel” as though that were a genre of fiction. How do you respond to that label?

A: It’s funny, I interviewed a gay writer recently and he’s a terrific writer, someone I respect because he’s doing interesting work, for sure. He said something like, “I’m not one of those gay writers who says that they’re writing for everyone. I’m writing for gay readers.”

Many gay writers don’t just want to be known as gay writers. I have an anxiety about being shelved in the gay section of the bookstore, for instance, because that can really narrow the audience and the kind of people willing to pick Arcade up, willing to dig into it. With labels like that, you end up with Death in Venice (by Thomas Mann) in the gay section of the store if you’re not careful; you end up [with] great pieces of literature that just get marginalized that way.

I think people readers aren’t often looking to be challenged by things and I think that in the American cultural response to homosexuality is, Well, they can do whatever they want as long as they don’t rub it in my face. It seems like having labels like that is probably powerful and comfortable for a lot of people, but in my experience, I’m not a big reader of gay fiction. It’s not something I sought out. I’m a big reader, but in my attempts to find connection and resonance in literature, I haven’t sought out gay writers to find that. So, I would rather someone say that [Arcade] is a novel where the main character happens to be gay than for you to call it a “gay novel.”

Q: And even those lines of what it means to be gay are blurry. As I was reading it, there’s a point where one of the characters confronts Sam about being gay and Sam says something like, “What if I’m not gay – what if it’s just this one person that I’m in love with, who just happens to be a man?” and I felt immediately like that statement describes so many people who are questioning.

A: Right! Absolutely. That’s Malcolm who says that to Sam. And it was absolutely my reaction when someone said that to me in real life, it was a conversation that precipitated my coming out. I had really known, my whole life, that I felt this way but I also knew I was one of those guys who was somewhere in the middle of the Kinsey Scale that I had relationships with women and enjoyed having sex with women. I thought I could make it work and I feel like there are a lot of people who just do that. They never have that inciting incident that I did where something just had to give in my life. There was such a buildup of pressure and anxiety that I flipped out. I came unglued for a time. A lot of it was coping with the loss of a first love, which I think happens for most people earlier in life than it happened for me. I was in my late twenties when I gave up on trying to have a straight life. I really had that idea a lot, that maybe I was just in love with this one person, that [being gay] wasn’t a universal condition of my life.

But yeah, there are so many so many gay or even bisexual men living lives as straight men that I’ve encountered. Especially when I was younger. I remember driving out to the suburbs to meet up with these men, have these trysts with these married men at their houses and it would always be the same thing. It was always the conservative, political sign in the yard, and these kind of buttoned-up “straight acting” men, which is a very unpopular term but that’s what they were. They were very straight acting, and it wasn’t like they were coping with it. For some reason, I had to cope with it. It was sort of two separate things, two separate lives, and I was always astonished by it, the way they lived in two completely different compartments with their family and their wives, and obviously they believed in trickle-down economics and the Bush Administration, and also secretly slept with men. But I certainly lived with my own sexual rationalizations, though. So I don’t know. I always feel like I was aware it was a pretty precarious house of cards. I never felt on solid ground.

Q: How does that relate to other relationships, like friendships and parents? I mean, I think we all go through that phase where we recognize people are incongruent sometimes. Especially when it comes to sex.

A: It’s always been a complaint of friends and family that because of being gay, I’ve always had this vision of keeping my worlds separate. I had this group of friends from work and I didn’t want them overlapping with my friends from college. I didn’t want people to meet my family or my friends. I always wanted to keep my worlds separate. I think there’s a part of the book where [Sam] says different parts of you come to life when you see your cousins than you do when you meet your boyfriend’s parents or whatever. I’ve always been kind of (probably to my detriment and to the annoyance of people around me) hyper aware of how I might be different around different groups of people. In reality, I don’t think I am. But I had a self-consciousness about it that I might be called out on it. I’ve always had a hangup about that, wanting to keep worlds separate.

My partner, who I’ve been with for six years, has pretty much broken me of that. When you’re in a serious relationship, you have to mix worlds. In other relationships, I wasn’t willing to do that. But I certainly feel hyper-aware that there are people who exhibit a certain level of flamboyance that I know they’re not exhibiting at work. They have very straight-laced jobs. They’re in executive positions. Whatever. But I guess I don’t think they’re being themselves one time. Maybe the idea of the self is complex.

Q: Speaking of the complexity of self, how much of you is in Arcade? For a supposedly fictional piece of writing, the novel felt very confessional.

A: Well, not a whole lot. It’s certainly not me. I went through a breakup that prompted my coming out, sort of a secret relationship during the more closeted phase of my existence [and] I did go to an arcade, but those thing happened, essentially, ten years apart. I mixed those eras of my life together, but that’s it. Okay, and I currently work at a motel, so I definitely borrowed a lot from my life, but it’s certainly not me.

My fear was that people would assume it was all me. My partner hadn’t even read it until recently. He knew I was working on something, just not what. So when he read it, of course he’s very liberally minded as I am, but I would get these texts at work as he was reading it, “Did this really happen?” It was funny. No, of course not!

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