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At the age of 40 novelist Matthew Stadler has seen all of his previous novels go out of print. Positive reviews, prestigious Merrill Foundation and Whiting Writers awards, and a Guggenheim fellowship haven't been enough to keep his books on the restless shelves of your local market-driven superstore. Granted, his subjects are not quite fodder for Oprah book chat: in The Dissolution of Nicholas Dee, the narrator's control of the story, and his own life, is slowly wrested away by a midget, and The Sex Offender is a black comedy about the state's efforts to rehabilitate a man who desires teen boys. Allan Stein (Grove, 256 pp., $22), his latest and most accessible novel yet, has many of the earmarks of commercial literary success. It's a mystery of sorts, a beautifully written and at times incantatory narration of a man who travels to Paris under an assumed identity to track down lost Picasso drawings of Gertrude Stein's nephew Allan. But for all the suspense, rich characterization, and dazzling prose, there's a vital plot thread on which his popularization will probably snag: the taboo subject of man-boy love.
Allan Stein was a beautiful child who caught the eye of Picasso and Matisse, both of whom painted him. Etta Cone, Alice Toklas, and Gertrude herself all left stories about this charming boy. Stadler recalls, "I saw this boy on the margins of photographs of Gertrude Stein and became fascinated with him." But the more Stadler looked, the more he found that Allan existed only as a character in someone else's history. He was romanticized by the adults around him, but never allowed to be himself. "Every time I tried to write intelligently about my relationship to Gertrude Stein's work which I love it sounded stupid and resisted my critical embrace," says Stadler. In Allan he saw both an entry to Gertrude's mythologized life and an opportunity to explore his ongoing interest in children, particularly as a site of projection for adults. In the process, Stadler says, "I tried to rescue any residue of his life."
Stadler blends his research into the fictional plot of Allan Stein, peppering the enchanting first-person narration with actual letters between Gertrude and her family and diary entries of Allan's girlfriend. The narrator, a schoolteacher named Matthew, has been suspended from his job in the midst of accusations that he molested one of his students. Matthew's friend Herbert, a curator at the local museum, is on the trail of some missing Picasso drawings of Allan. With Herbert's permission, Matthew goes to Paris in his stead, taking on his friend's identity to gain entry to the Parisian art world and the vestiges of Allan Stein's boyhood. As Matthew searches for the drawings, he becomes enamored with Stephane, an adolescent member of his host family. By the narrator's account, it becomes, for the most part, a mutually satisfying relationship. But in his own way Matthew does with Stephane what Gertrude and Picasso did to Allan his understanding of the French teenager is overwhelmed by his own fantasies.
The romance plot played more than a small part in Allan Stein getting bumped from its original publisher HarperCollins during a well-publicized manuscript purge in 1997. When Stadler submitted his final draft, the publisher claimed to be "surprised that the book dealt primarily with issues of sexuality" and broke the contract. Stadler asks, "Surprised? And this after they'd just published The Sex Offender? I'm sorry that my books get reduced to their subject matter." He argues that "we live in a culture that thoroughly eroticizes kids and then projects our revulsion onto 'monstrous' strangers." He believes this revulsion comes from our own complicity in that eroticization. Stadler says, "I have an interest in helping us articulate and make nimble this frozen hysterical reaction."
Stadler has already tackled this subject matter in his journalism, taking positions rarely seen in the mainstream. Last year he wrote an article for Spin sympathetically exploring the complexities of the relationship between Mary Kay Tourneau, the Seattle teacher convicted of statutory rape, and her teenage lover. In an article he wrote for Seattle's weekly newspaper The Stranger, he glimpsed into the North American Man Boy Love Association, portraying it for the most part as a bunch of soft-spoken men who find near-innocent pleasure in the eroticized images of children available in mainstream advertising.
Stadler says his own experience of childhood might have led to his interest in the subject. He was raised in the commune-like setting of an antiwar group his parents and their friends founded, which Stadler describes as "a swirling chaos of drunken adults and responsible kids" in which his autonomy was respected. On the one hand he believes this fed his attitude that children should have access to power that the family and culture tend to deprive them of, and that assumptions about adolescents' inability to make decisions regarding their actions, sexual and otherwise, aren't so pat. But at the same time he says, "As much as I meet and experience real boys, I'm threatened by the boy as a site of divinity and spiritual deliverance." Striking a balance between the two is the hard part, and Allan Stein seems to be part of this process. He says, "Where I grew up and how I grew up created my sensitivity to the mythology of the boy. It's a mythology I'd like to dismantle. I hope by the end of Stein I have."
While in Allan Stein sections detailing the sexual relations between Matthew and the boy would make Nabokov blush, they're hardly gratuitous. Though explicit, they underscore Matthew's complete freedom from societal mores. "I wanted to make it clear the narrator has no moral issues in his relations with other people. He's satisfied implicating them in his fantasies, even though where his fantasies begin and end is quite fucked up."
The man in a foreign land enchanted with a youngster smacks of a gay Lolita. Stadler admits as much, saying he wanted Stephane to be the prism that refracts the narrator's vision of Europe, as Lolita was the embodiment of Americanness for Humbert Humbert. He wanted to convey a mythologized experience of Europe, and as such has come up with an inversion of Humbert's wide-eyed cataloguing of America. But Stadler says he wrote the book more "drunk on the fumes of Nabokov's Ada and its fecundity and abundance of language. With this in mind, I allowed the narrative to billow and overreach itself." The narrator says of Paris: "Everything was interesting, even the trash on the street was exotic to me. . . . I drifted into one-way traffic past an old slaughterhouse . . . which smelled like almond pastry, and then cigars and diesel fumes. . . . A silvery bus discharged tourists, pasty and dazed, white-haired, and they shuffled through the gates into the garden."
Matthew's dangerously romanticized view of the relationship, Europe, and the elusive Allan Stein gives the novel its uneasy charm. Allan Stein's inconclusiveness may not be comforting, but that's the point. "Of all my books this one is the most focused on lying. My narrators lie and sometimes they keep their secrets, and that corrodes any revelations they offer." But for Stadler, these lying narrators betray deeper truths about desire than straightforwardness ever could.