Ever since the Great Toilet Paper Hoard of 2020, marking the start of quarantine, the Internet has been full of people howling into the abyss about the agonizing pain their gnawing isolation, a collective holler of loneliness that can, at times, overpower even the accounts of people suffering through COVID-19. Months later, all these lonely people have thrown caution and self-preservation to the wind by shoving themselves into collective spaces like booze cruises and bridge raves or perhaps worse, suffering through bad Tinder dates, scrolling mindlessly on their phones to break the tension that comes with risking lives for awkward silence. But, what of the people who not only don’t mind the loneliness forced upon us by a pandemic, but choose it?
Can being alone be a welcome choice? A subversion of the normative drive to couple-up? Even, an understandable comfort?
Thomas Moore’s engrossing third novel Alone, recently published by Amphetamine Sulphate, explores an embrace of being alone, connecting it with an inability to seek meaning in typical romantic relationships–an alienation forged through not only childhood trauma, but the specific generational trauma of growing up queer in the doomed, death-strewn culture of the 1980s and 1990s. And if you want to be left alone, there’s no better way than to read Moore’s novel in a public space (with a mask on, of course!). Beyond the fear of contagion, the cover of Moore’s novel by artist Michael Salerno made me recoil in horror every time I caught a glimpse of its cursed imagery on social media: a photograph of a young boy’s torso through which a wet and sticky fluid-coated thumb pokes, phallic and abject. Ye-uck! But what a perfect way to maintain social distancing!
However, this distressing image doesn’t mean the book’s subject matter is equally as disturbed. While there is an unforgettably memorable scene in which one of the protagonist’s lovers Daniel shoves his foot up the ass of a 16-year-old sex worker, who is on a career break from being a “semi-famous YouTube star” best known for unboxing Pokemon toys, Alone is mostly inward-gazing and introspective, more concerned with conveying the unnamed narrator’s emotional state and relational experiences than taking readers on a journey through the queer underworld.
And in this way, the novel differs from Moore’s previous novel In Their Arms, which cruised through both IRL and online spaces, finding a mix of alienation and transcendence in the arms of other bodies. There are, however, some rhetorical similarities between the novels, including the ghostly and unknowable protagonist, as well as references to an amorphous “you” (“I’m touched by a stranger’s hand but I can tell that it’s you”).
Like the indiscriminate thoughts captured within a diary, Alone traces a meandering, nonlinear account of the protagonist’s failed attempts at connections with others. The novel, in fact, begins with an ending–the departure (perhaps permanent) of the aforementioned Daniel (“The door closes. He’s gone. I’m alone”). As the first line of the novel reads, “I’ve seen enough people leave to know when they’re not coming back.”
Proclaiming “Being alone is a choice that I actively make,” the narrator presents this decision through a flurry of fragmented chapters containing his musings about loneliness, love, sex, desire, death, suicide, suicidal impulses, happiness, cruising, Grinder, AIDS PSAs, and teen stars of the 1980s and 1990s, unanswered messages from dating apps (“lookingforameet: hi daddy”), and imagery from a news story about a Hollywood cult. Ultimately, though, these disjointed scenes come together to not only create an absorbing reading experience that had me speed-read the novel in two days, but also illuminate the protagonist’s attachment to aloneness. “People are so scared of being on their own. I think I understand, but I find it hard to relate. It frustrates me. A lot of the time, I can be my own favourite company. People are afraid of themselves,” the narrator explains.
The entire book pulsates with a confessional vulnerability–one that is intensely personal, yet wholly relatable. I mean, who hasn’t felt that, “Loneliness has been the one constant. It’s always been there and I can’t imagine a time when it won’t be”? Part of this relatability is due to Moore’s simple yet bluntly effective prose, which allows him to directly examine and dissect frustratingly untranslatable topics like isolation and the dual desire and avoidance of connection (I mean, it’s even hard for me to write about it in this essay. But maybe that’s just my COVID brain). Just take this passage, which expertly portrays the experiences of both inevitable pain and fleeting happiness:
“I feel like I was hardwired for abandonment. It’s not as tragic as it might sound. If a person understands things about themselves and can be honest with themselves about it, then a lot of life’s pain is much more easily dealt with–pain, no matter how people try to fool themselves, no matter how other people try and fool them–is never going to leave. The idea of happiness as a goal rather than a transitional state is a dangerous and much more damaging notion for a person to carry around than just knowing that each and everyone is fucked in some way or other. If you can admit that, then at least you’re able to recognise when you’re outside of the worst of it, those moments when you’re able to dance amidst the ashes.”
Who doesn’t revel in dancing amidst the ashes?
Despite the plethora of subject matter, the protagonist weaves together an exploration of differing forms of relationality, as well as their failures. The most extreme, of course, is the Hollywood sex cult, which represents the ultimate need for collective attachment turned pathological, psychotic, and abusive. Even more pointed, however, is the questioning and critique of contemporary queer sexual cultures, namely the proliferation and popularity of dating apps and what was lost in their wake. As the narrator observes, “Growing up I felt and I presumed other gays had an innate and deep way of reading the straight world, of being able to see through it–to spot the hypocrises inherent in everyday life and in everyday roles…. Now I feel it might be harder. Hookup and dating apps have made things way too literal. People can perform on there in a way that I can’t spot… I think whatever queer psychic abilities are still left must be so thinly spread, that they are almost non-existent.” Or as he puts it more bluntly–this sentence making up one entire chapter: “Has Grindr killed psychic gay powers?”
The protagonist’s skepticism of hookup and dating apps largely relates to his seething distrust of language: “Language is a lie that we are all guilty of and have told so many times that most of the time we either believe it or are too tired to be able to fight off–I think it’s the latter. When it comes to love, or fucking, or dying, or blood or cum, or loneliness, language can do nothing for us but lie.” In this case, how can hookup apps, completely reliant upon language, fully create an honest, however momentary, connection? For the protagonist, language becomes a distancing intermediary between bodies whereas cruising in public spaces allows queer men to rely on, as the protagonist describes, “psychic gay powers,” a type of communication beyond the restriction of language. He explains, “There was a time in my early twenties when I could go to a cruising ground and tell the guys who were there for sex. It sounds obvious, but there were often just genuine people walking dogs, exploring the countryside, people who had wandered across the place without knowing what the area was used for. Some people were able to conceal their behaviors and intent so well, but other cruisers could read them.”
Unsurprisingly, then, the protagonist is, as he puts it, “kind of emotionally invested in the memories I have of cruising and public sex.” For the protagonist, wandering alone in fog-filled landscapes searching for and finding intimacy with strangers is “where my ideas about being alone in the best way were fully realized and investigated.” And though group sex and anonymous sex are not the versions of romance accepted in heteronormative society or even assimilationist homonormative society, the narrator argues, “Strangers have given me the most romantic and exciting nights of my life. For brief moments I have felt like I have been able to know them as well as I know myself–I’m able to put that much into the interactions.”
Significantly, the protagonist articulates this moment of alone-togetherness as a kind of “blurring”: “bodies merging like shadows or clouds, new shapes resulting in a physical blur and vagueness that needs to be happening all the time.” This description reminded me both of Leo Bersani’s notions of “self-shattering” in “Is The Rectum A Grave?” and perhaps even more so, David Wojnarowicz’s line, “I was losing myself in the language of his movements” from his dreamlike account of cruising the Hudson River piers in his essay “Losing the Form in Darkness.”
Actually Moore’s protagonist echoes much of Wojnarowicz’s own thinking about the transcendence in cruising, collapsing of boundaries between bodies during sex, his suspicion of language as inherently repressive, and even, just the characterization of this solitary man traversing queer spaces alone. In fact, the protagonist’s confessional style and leaps between topics even mirror the vulnerability found in David’s tape journals, published in The Weight of the Earth. David’s own reflections such as “…having a fear of showing myself completely to somebody that I desire: that it will drive them away or give them cause to become disinterested, mostly because of the way that I feel, that I think and that I approach things” would not be out of place in Moore’s novel.
Now, it’s not lost on me that both Bersani and Wojnarowicz’s thoughts about anonymous and public sex are a product of another era of gay sexual culture, one that disappeared, much like Wonjarowicz himself, due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. This makes Moore’s protagonist’s connection to this type of public cruising, before hookup apps, as a kind of anachronism, a holdover from a coming of age during the late 20th century. But, he’s certainly not an aberration. In fact, the protagonist’s attachment to being alone seems to derive from a kind of generational trauma for those who grew up in that media-soaked culture filled with terrifying and shaming AIDS PSAs and the youthful faces of doomed teen stars peering out of the pages of Tiger Beat.
And sure, the protagonist himself has childhood trauma (“My six year old body was black and blue when Children’s Services took me into their care”), which certainly accounts for some of his avoidance of relationships. But who wouldn’t be permanently affected by this AIDS public information film, which the protagonist recounts in the novel:
The narrator continues, “I asked my dad what the advert was about and he told me that it was about a disease that gay people caught–and that it killed them.” It’s at this point in the late 20th century that sex and death become inextricably linked, particularly in the minds of those growing up queer.
But, this is not the only way desire is connected with death during the narrator’s formative years. Throughout the novel, the protagonist recalls his early and influential attractions to teen heartthrobs of the 1990s, from Jonathan Brandis in Stephen King’s IT, the amorous gaze of Wil Wheaton at River Phoenix in Stand By Me, Corey Haim with his blood full of dolphins, and Ed Furlong, particularly in Terminator 2 (for some pics of these boys, check out this blog feature on Alone on Dennis Cooper’s blog). These “boys who looked like they could cry at any time” impacted the types of boys and men to which the narrator is attracted. However, most of these teen icons–Jonathan, River, Corey–are dead and died tragically from suicide, drug overdoses, or extensive drug use. And though Ed Furlong is still alive, the boyish version in Terminator 2 has certainly been replaced by eye bags and thinning hair. He too is dead, in a way. With lifelong same-sex attractions forged by those who were ultimately doomed, learning about their deaths while on acid at a party or in the news, how could anyone be able to create stable, normative relationships in their absence?
Though actively choosing to be alone, the protagonist is certainly not alone. Many who grew up in that specific era are forever marked by that conflation of same-sex desire and death, with a sprinkle of stigma and shame tossed in. As the narrator writes in reference to his teen idols: “All the boys I loved would leave,” and later, “All these boys are dead.” And this generational queer trauma and how it’s affected individuals’ relationships today, as well as the nostalgic desire for cruising through public spaces–the woods, the bathrooms, the piers, the ramble–doesn’t exactly have a place within the celebratory, assimilationist LGBTQ+ community (ugh!). And it’s easy to see why–it’s difficult to articulate and certainly not able to be simply cloaked in a rainbow flag or covered in a clickbait article promoting visibility. But through fiction, despite the protagonist’s dismissal of language, Moore is able to engage with these complexities, speaking for those who are “beautiful and alone.”