Ethnologists in search of cultural universals often point to our deep fondness for physical embellishment as the single motif common to all societies everywhere, past and present. It’s a compelling notion, really, this idea that cosmetics—rather than, say, the will to power or the endless yen for divinity—always construe our cosmos. How apropos, too, how very all-too-human. And if it’s conceivable that the missing link binding caveman to vamp is simply the universal urge to accessorize, might we not view history itself as one unbroken string of pearls stretching solipsistically through time and space. As the fey, fussy narrator of Richard Klein’s debut novel, Jewelry Talks, writes to his beloved relation Zeem, “We affirm ourselves as human in the signs we sign on our body. . . . I attach an ornament, therefore I am.”
Neither a historical fiction nor an academic treatise but something playfully—some might say preposterously—in between, Klein’s latest work riffs with a delirious passion on the double entendre contained in the familiar phrase “the family jewels.” The conceit is simple, the form bare-bones: An aging transvestite passes down to his “niece” (she’s my daughter, whack, she’s my sister, whack) his collection of fine jewelry, accumulated over a lifetime of fabulous living. Strings, as usual—nay, by necessity—are attached. The meandering memoir accompanying this box of bequeathed goodies purports to explain the historical rendering, personal minutiae, and psychosexual significance of each particular adornment.
“So you can call me Abby, my dear,” he writes, thereby launching into a resplendently gay and loopy prose poem that stitches nostalgic reminiscence to the romantic history of world-famous figures and their beloved jewels. Whether it be the grand vulgarity of a diamond-drenched Elizabeth Taylor, the neofascist minimalism of style maven Coco Chanel, or the masculinized non-adornment of Katharine Hepburn, Abby obsesses and then obsesses some more on the dual significations and glinting come-ons that reside in the options of celebrity adornment. Here pertains a madness for the sex-whisper, a form of Freudian analysis that has busted its own britches; a cigar is never, ever, just a cigar. Abby, scribbling, would have Zeem to understand that carnal appetite alone determines what you wear, and that what you wear only gussies you up for a secret world of desire. It’s a delicious little loop, all these jewels speaking to and for jewels.
There’s a shaggy-dog love story here, but it’s a negligible factor, a surprise ending unjustified by the baubles Klein occasionally tosses in for literary affect. That Jewelry Talks remains pretty damn entertaining despite a poor narrative ballast owes entirely to the inventiveness and energetic intelligence of its author. Klein’s prose, a kind of pill-popping jaded-homo academe-speak, is regularly stunning, and his observations on art, identity, and gender—especially gender, which, God knows, is so old-hat by now—are sharp and idiosyncratic. The intellectual luster he gleans from every beatified object truly becomes an end in itself, a sentimental mystification of surfaces that refract hidden depths. “Wearing diamonds,” Abby explains to Zeem, “the self acquires the luster of eternity. The most frivolous is the most universal.”