Like some tacky aunt showing up at an elegant ball, Alan Hollinghurst’s unfortunate third novel, The Spell, seems out of place and unwelcome among its relatives. Hollinghurst’s career began with the bang of a witty and compelling debut, The Swimming-Pool Library, which cunningly weaved the tweed threads between an old gay imperialist world and a new one. His reputation continued soaring with Booker Prize–shortlisted The Folding Star, called “a homosexual Lolita“ for the emotional precision and passion in its portrayal of a private tutor obsessed with one of his students.
Whereas his previous work sustained a tarnished glamour by contrasting the sordid lives and the stately environments of his characters, Hollinghurst always managed to combine the two elements provocatively. Will, the smug would-be biographer in The Swimming-Pool Library, abuses his social privilege only to discover he’s being victimized himself. The Spell, perhaps because it’s Hollinghurst’s first novel written in the third person—a realm where the author has more distance on the characters—drives the four British gays at its center into dreary archetypes.
The first chapter, set in the ’70s, opens on an affluent architect named Robin, who has begun having homosexual liaisons just as his girlfriend announces that she’s pregnant. The next chapter takes place twenty-some years later, when an unhip public servant named Alex arrives at Robin’s country house. Robin shares this retreat with an amoral Casanova named Justin—who used to live with Alex, until he met Robin in a public bathroom. In the intervening years, Robin has had a lover, Simon, who died of AIDS, and his son Danny has turned out gay. It’s as if there’s an entire novel missing between the first two chapters—namely The Lost Language of Cranes. Chapter 3 goes back another four years or so, to the time when Simon is fading and Robin encounters Justin in a public bathroom and begins their affair. Just as this interesting if confusing nonlinear pattern is established, the book goes narrative and focuses Alex’s trips to the country house, and the ensuing mind- and parlor-games between the four, inside a hermetically sealed homo terrarium.
If it seems as though gay dress-up dolls are cavorting around on the set of a pastoral 19th-century novel, that’s evidently the point, at least according to the flap copy. Though updating Austen in this manner sounds like an amusing starting point, especially given Hollinghurst’s abilities, the result lacks bite. In fact, The Spell‘s deepest social critique is that boys will be boys. Among this group of gays, social norms break down as loyalty takes a slightly uncomfortable backseat to desire. Hollinghurst adds not even a tuft of whipped cream to this stale queer motif. Everyone sleeps around, most often bonking the local-boy handyman, Terry, as a way of acting out. (Hollinghurst’s blunt class distinctions are especially bothersome and unoriginal here.) In two weeks’ time, Alex falls for Robin’s son Danny, who introduces him to the gay club world—including a shockingly dull Ecstasy trip:
Danny shifted round so that they were face to face, their legs hooked round each other as though they were talking in bed. “All right?” he said.
“Yes, darling. I know why it’s called house music, by the way.”
A humorous pause. “Why’s that?”
“It’s because you just want to live in it.”
Danny pushed his hand through Alex’s hair and kissed him. “Do you want your other E?”
…The idea seemed grossly greedy, like eating dinner straight after lunch; though he’d read about how people did four, or six, or twelve. He couldn’t imagine anything better than what he was still going through.
“Nah…” Danny was struggling to his feet….” Let’s go home.”
Danny and Alex’s relationship, which turns out to be the enchantment—or time period—of the title, doesn’t last. Rather boringly, it represents the superficial fascination the old have for the young, and country dwellers have for city slickers, and vice versa all around.
The Spell is well-observed and briefly funny at times. When the bookish Alex sees a magazine called Big Latin Dicks and thinks “penes magni,” for example, one hopes the novel will ultimately come off as a beach book for the overeducated, saving its sly, sage observation for the denouement. But the more it meanders into familiar territory, like the contrived game of Scrabble toward the end where resentful ex-lovers spell out words like “exasperate,” the more frustrating it becomes to watch a novelist capable of greatness slum so clumsily. “The thing about spells,” one character advises Alex once he’s fallen for Danny, “is that you don’t know at the time if they’re good ones or bad ones. All black magicians learn how to sugar the pill.” But when, like Hollinghurst, the sorcerer has made the pill itself out of sugar, the spell usually isn’t effective at all.