How do we write about repression and toxic masculinity without valorizing it? Philippe Besson's Lie With Me is equal parts poignant tribute and glaring warning.
Lie With Me
It's Besson's tribute to the teenage lover to whom the book is dedicated, although it's unclear just how much of the narrative is novel and how much fact. As with all good literature, it doesn't really matter. The first two thirds of the story chronicles their relationship: from furtive glances and idle daydreams to the moment of first contact. The tension is already such that this moment -- after recess on a winter's day as the narrator roots through his bag for a biology textbook – is both banal and deeply thrilling. And then love: both a growing and intimate chumminess, as well as a physical passion consummated wherever two teenagers can find privacy in a smallish French town in the homophobic '80s.
It's a tribute – to first love, especially those first loves which prove immutable and enduring. It will resonate with anyone who has felt love, which is to say all of us. And it's a tribute to the 1980s, which this autobiographical novel conjures in all their awkward, awful innocence.
The innocence: florescent hair, Cyndi Lauper, the ineffable need to escape small towns for anywhere else, bars that serve minors and everywhere the numbing halo of cigarette smoke.
And the awful: the mystery of AIDS, the hiding from family and friends, the repressive closet as societal institution.
It's also a warning about the perils of the closet. Repressing elements of one's sexuality (or other identities) may seem, to a teenager of the '80s with their whole life ahead of them, like a legitimate choice in response to a homophobic world. Yet it comes with a price to one's future happiness and dignity, one whose sorrows inevitably impact others as well.
The final third of the novel, which follows the protagonists through the remainder of their lives after their youthful relationship, doesn't just read as a matter of idle curiosity. It's a reminder that the choice to stay in the closet comes with a terrible trade-off, leading inevitably not to a stable and secure life but to regret, self-hate, and an inability to enjoy life. And what may have seemed like an acceptable trade-off to an insecure teenager may come to seem less and less comforting to an adult looking back on a lifetime of self-repression.
There is a third theme to Lie With Me – the potent force which is toxic masculinity. Lie With Me has evoked comparisons to Annie Proul's "Brokeback Mountain"  among reviewers, and I would say that's not just because of the broad contours of the plot – the poignant remembrance of a love that 'dare not speak its name' yet whose power persists over the years – but also because its protagonists are just as plagued by the dictates of toxic masculinity as are those of the iconic film.
"I would like to make a gesture, something resembling tenderness, but I stop myself," the narrator recalls, after the first time he and his partner Thomas make love. It establishes a pattern; the narrator avoids expressions of tenderness lest they be repelled by his lover. The aversion to emotional intimacy, the narrator asserts, was primarily on Thomas' part.
He tells me to leave the shed first. He'll wait a few minutes, to lock the door. He stands back a little at a distance as if to avoid any possible outpouring of emotion, any tenderness. For the duration of our relationship, Thomas will be wary of anything tender.
The narrator for his part yearns to share his feelings with Thomas, but doesn't dare speak the depth of his emotional response aloud – "it's part of the contract."
Naturally this leads to unhappiness for both of them, during their relationship and after. If they had been more openly expressive with each other, might things have turned out differently? In the narrator's recollection, the active reticence toward feelings was primarily on Thomas' part: "I start to press myself against his back, wrapping my arms around his pelvis. He tenses at the contact, repelling my tenderness. I say: It's so you'll be less cold." Yet the narrator, a writer-to-be who dwells within a vividly imaginative headspace, still plays along. The impact of toxic masculinity on him is to inculcate a sort of fear, a self-restraint that empowers the vicious cycle of silence and emotional repression.
When I first watched Ang Lee's film, Brokeback Mountain (2005), I was surprised to find I didn't feel as moved by the story as everyone else's reactions had led me to expect I would. There was an almost performative outpouring of grief from everyone I knew who watched it, yet I found the film's long spaces of silence and languorous looks, filled with emotional repression, to be oppressive. I yearned to scream at the protagonists – stop being so foolish!
Certainly, this type of repression is sometimes the result of a society where homophobia is deeply institutionalized. But its portrayal in film and media often hints at a sustained romanticizing of the strong, stoic, silent man that can both be overdone and can serve to merely retrench the stereotype. When I see it enacted in media and popular culture, it repels me. In Brokeback Mountain, it interfered with my ability to develop any deep feelings for either of the protagonists.
Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain (2005) (IMDB)
It risked doing so in Lie With Me too, but the first person narration helped to avoid the worst of this tendency. Despite the emotional restraint, the narrator is full of deeply felt and well-articulated feelings, and these emerge in his many reflective musings and asides. This glimpse at a character's interiority helped mitigate the repellent silence of their cool and tough exteriors. Indeed, it is those sparse spaces of deepest feeling that provide the story's most powerful and beautiful moments: the sense of abandonment the narrator feels when they first leave each other after having sex, which evokes memories of parental abandonment as a child. The nightmare through which he lives – nine days, he still remembers counting them – before Thomas approaches him again. And of course, the story's powerful denouement, which is rendered powerful precisely because it offers a rare moment of expressive intimacy between the two.
Insofar as gay relationships can fall prey to very toxic expressions of masculinity, this then is the writer's challenge in seeking to portray love under repressive times and places: how to do so in ways that convey the reality of repressed intimacy, without romanticizing it in a society where male emotional repression is still valorized in unhealthy ways. There's a danger that by seeking to use this repression as a means of generating tension in a narrative, writers may inadvertently create heroes out of their flawed protagonists. Lie With Me achieves a respectful balance, reminding us of the powerful and destructive impact of such attitudes, while implicitly hinting at the beauty of a better, more open way.
But ultimately, it's simply a beautiful and poignant love story, a short and very French tale whose sparse, delicate prose is gorgeously translated by Molly Ringwald, retaining all of its heart-stopping power. If one can look past the tough-guy facades of the main characters – and Besson's vivid first-person narration does wonders at revealing the churning thoughts and repressed feelings hiding behind such exteriors – one can easily lose oneself in this gorgeously resurrected memory of '80s love, with all its awkward beauty and lost innocence.
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