Blackouts: Book Review

Peter Endicott reviews Blackouts by Justin Torres (Granta, 2023) and reflects on the text’s place in queer histories and re-readings of HIV/AIDS.

Cover of Blackouts featuring a black box containing the title and author name in white text. This box is layered on top of a photograph of a person's shoulder, bicep and chest with their hand placed on their collar bone. Behind them is an orange background.
Cover of Blackouts. Credit: Granta.

The structure and style of a diagnostic manual, or medical journal, can appear to act as a stern final word on what an illness actually is. It can be easy to forget that descriptions of illness change over time, are malleable, and not free from manipulation and motives outside of the desire to heal. How these descriptions can be used, and how they can be reconfigured, are central questions in Cyril Collard’s film Les Nuits Fauves [Savage Nights] (1992) and Justin Torres’ novel Blackouts (2023). Crucially, both demonstrate how queer lives are impacted by how illnesses are constructed. As definitions become porous, other meanings, and other motives, can sneak in. The issue is not just medical, but political.

Contextualising Blackouts in Queer Stories of Illness

Les Nuits Fauves tells the story of a young man diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, at a time when there were no effective treatments, and tremendous stigma surrounding the virus. The film would win four César Awards, though Collard never collected them – he died from complications of AIDS three days before the ceremony. Collard’s death haunts the film when watched today. His handsome figure, his assuredness, his sports car, all seduce the viewer – and the men and woman who love him, and whom he loves – even as trips to clinics for blood samples, and jokes about his prescriptions, serve to show how sick he is.

This motion between being sick and well exists in the context of an illness that cannot be seen, a sickness so terrible it cannot be believed. In his novel À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie (1990), Hervé Guibert has the character Muzil, a thinly veiled representation of philosopher Michel Foucault, laugh at the idea of HIV/AIDS: “A cancer that would hit only homosexuals, no, that’s too good to be true, I could just die laughing!” In Les Nuits Fauves, an acceptance of AIDS’ presence has a concrete illustration in a moment when Jean, played by Collard, informs Laura, his girlfriend, that he is HIV positive. He does so only after they have slept together for the first time. Initial furious remonstrances eventually lead to a return to bed. Jean reaches for a condom and opens it before Laura, played by Romane Bohringer, takes it from his hand and discards it in an ashtray. Where is she moving in this scene? Possibly back in time, to before Jean revealed his sickness. Or maybe to a place of refusal – denying the existence of something so terrible, yet, after all, invisible.

In Torres’s novel Blackouts we move back in time through the stages of one of the narrator’s failing relationships. After the narrator admits infidelity, Liam, his partner, returns to their bedroom with a condom. ‘Where the hell did you get that?’ (242)  the narrator asks. On being told to shut up, he persists: ‘Already? Already you bought that?’ The narrator, who has betrayed Liam, is himself betrayed by the idea that Liam would have predicted such an act. As they come together in an embrace, the narrator expects a kiss – an act they have not performed yet despite their sexual relationship – but instead Liam slams his head into the floor.

Illness haunts both these scenes. It has created the conditions necessary for each betrayal, and the fear and distrust necessary for the violence that is portrayed in Blackouts. ‘I know that the hatred of faggots has to do with AIDS,’ (144) the narrator recounts, when describing his American adolescence in the 90s. What Torres shows in his novel, however, is that AIDS was not the first illness to haunt homosexual desire in America. Rather, it is madness with which the book opens, quoting American psychiatrist George W. Henry (1889-1964): ‘Poetry loses some of its charm through the suggestions that it may be an expression of the writer’s sexual maladjustment. But as a matter of fact it is beginning to seem that all imaginative writings are attempts to find libidinous satisfaction in fantasy’ (quote from Foster, 1956). Ironically, it is this language of the psychiatric establishment that is reconfigured to show that desire can be something emancipatory: ‘Libido was the last defence I had,’ (36) one character, committed to a psychiatric ward, attests: a defence against the ‘nothingness’ (the blackout) of the psychiatric institution.

Blacking Out: Erasure Poetry and Queer Re-writing

An photo of a page in Blackouts which shows a blackout poem by Torres reading 'Jose has felt / Jose's desires ' alienate Jose / Jose will emancipate himself / Jose is an attractive young man / lithe body and / Latin blood / Jose is also pursued by men. They "go for" him wherever he goes. / Jose is beside himself and does not know what he will do. / (respite Jose) / Jose is harassed by homosexuals. / The world is going crazy". Jose / might as well do as he wishes'. From 'Homosexual Cases', page 349.
Blackout Poetry Extract from Blackouts. Credit: Granta.

Blackouts follows an unnamed narrator as he arrives at a mysterious, decaying mansion in a nameless Southern border town to administer to Juan, an ageing man who at one time had been an inpatient on the same psychiatric ward. Juan knows he is dying but wants to ensure the survival of the work of Jan Gay, a sociologist who was responsible for the ground-breaking work on queer lives that George W. Henry would eventually pass off as his own. Juan owns a copy of Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns, written by Henry. Scanned pages of this modified book are reproduced in Blackouts, showing lines thick with text that is blacked out. The words that are left create new and exciting patterns, the language poeticised from its stern, clinical original. 

In the novel this blacking out forces a reading-between-the-lines. The title ‘PREFACE TO ONE-VOLUME EDITION’ becomes ‘FACE ME’, with the entire body of text redacted save for the line ‘However, many homosexuals fail to survive the rigors of… the constant intimate association with men.’ (8) This textual subversion is followed by a structural one: when the narrator first opens Juan’s copy of Sex Variants, the binding, loose with age, falls apart and the pages ‘spill out’ (48), across the floor. This deconstruction turns out to be no great loss, as, Juan attests, there is ‘no particular benefit to reading in order. Flip through to any page and there is a sketch of a life, ever unfolding, rising up out of the past, each a single testimony of how that person did or did not get over.’ (89)

Constructing Diagnosis

The testimonies contained within Sex Variants are from forty men and forty women who came into contact with the psychiatric establishment, which, in the 1940s when Henry’s text was published, viewed them as having a serious illness. The narrator notes that homosexuality was only removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1974, though then reintroduced six years later in the 1980 edition as ‘ego-dystonic homosexuality’, before being finally removed in 1987 (Drescher, 2015).         

Juan points out additional strange labels in past editions of the DSM. One example is ‘Puerto Rican Syndrome’ or ‘Ataque de Nervios’, a diagnosis given to Spanish-speaking people from the Caribbean. Symptoms included non-epileptic seizures, which Juan observes in his sisters. As the reader, we see Juan holding two things to be true at once: the ridiculousness of an American-mandated ‘Puerto Rican Syndrome’, alongside the truth of his sisters’ symptoms. ‘Do you believe in Puerto Rican Syndrome?’ (126) the narrator asks Juan. ‘No, of course not,’ he replies, ‘though it is describing something,’ (italics my own). Juan goes on to reassess ‘Puerto Rican Syndrome’. He sees it not as a hysterical reaction in the ‘patients’ which the term seeks to describe; the description itself is in fact a ‘hysterical reaction to Puerto Rican presence’ (127). Are they not suffering from ‘white people syndrome’? Juan suggests; ‘coloniser syndrome’, the narrator offers in response.

Poster for Les Nuits Fauves, featuring artwork depicting a couple embracing as well as the cast credits of the film.
Poster for Les Nuits Fauves. Credit: Pan Européenne.

Why not? The creation of an illness, of diagnosis, is perhaps always at its most visible in the realm of psychiatry, but all illnesses are brought into existence – and specific ways of existing – as they are described. AIDS was brought into existence as an ‘infectious disease’, yet it is not (though HIV is a sexually transmitted infection). Nevertheless, Collard’s character, who is living with HIV in Les Nuits Fauves, weaponises a description of AIDS as infectious when, at the end of the film, he slashes open his hand with a knife to threaten a group of men. It doesn’t matter that Collard’s character cannot ‘give AIDS’ to the men – they run away.

When Collard’s character slashes his hand and raises it, he is using pre-existing descriptions of an illness that have served to ostracise him from society. When George W. Henry’s work is ‘blacked out’, however, a new form of description is being written. When Juan and the narrator of Blackouts re-interpret ‘Puerto Rican Syndrome’ as ‘Coloniser Syndrome’, they are doing the same. In his endnotes, Torres quotes American sociologist Erving Goffman: ‘in America at least, no matter how small and how badly off a particular stigmatized category is, the viewpoint of its members is likely to be given public presentation of some kind. It can thus be said that Americans who are stigmatized tend to live in a literarily-defined world…’ (italics my own).

Blackouts succeeds as a novel in its ability to demonstrate the ways in which varied literary elements (from psychiatric texts to erasure poetry) are able to construct diseases, and to demonstrate how both stigma and empowerment can result from this process. Its characters – based on real people, but rendered fictional in the text – are fascinating because of their agency in re-writing their ‘literarily-defined world’ to find new, more bearable ways of being. What Collard’s film and Torres’ novel show is that the boundaries of illness are not fixed but held in place through culturally contingent descriptions. These descriptions are often made by those with political power; their reconfiguring, their re-description, is therefore a political act of redemptive dissent.

About the Author

Peter Endicott is a doctor and writer living in London.

References

Drescher, J. 2015. Out of DSM: Depathologizing Homosexuality. Behav Sci (Basel). 5(4): 565–575.

Foster, J.H. 1956. Sex Variant Women in Literature: A Historical and Quantitative Survey. New York: Vantage Press.

Goffman, Erving. 1990. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. London: Penguin.

Guibert, Hervé. 1990. À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie. Paris: Gallimard.  

Les Nuits Fauves. 1992. Directed by Cyril Collard. France: Nella Banfi. [DVD].

Torres, Justin. 2023. Blackouts. London: Granta Books.

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