I Look Divine (1987)

Book Review, LGBT

Coe, C. (1987). I Look Divine. Berlin: Bruno Gmünder. 126 pp.

Christopher Coe’s (1987) novel I Look Divine provides fleeting insight into the life of two brothers: Nicholas, a proclaimed narcissist of the highest degree, and an unnamed brother, a whimsical, perhaps audacious and incredulous, onlooker on the sudden life and death of lyrical beauty. A retrospective narrative, the brother reflects upon Nicholas’s orientation toward the mirrored-edges that surround the Wildean portrait of his life. The novel ventures no further than Nicholas’s apartment, though transports the reader through time and space, across the Western world, into the geographical possession and dreams of the gay cultural elite at the heart of gay-male literature of the 1980s. It crescendos, as David Leavitt suggests in the 2013 edition, in the ultimate death of self-seduction. The excess of beauty (Nicholas as symbol) is overcome by its intimate ties with youth. Though we see indirectly the purpose and actualisation of his demise, we know too familiarly the demise of Dorian Gray, from which the book springs, and thus beg nothing of the author for post-mortem clarity.

Unlike the pensive, oft repetitive and lugubrious passages in his later novel, Such Times (1993), I Look Divine speedily ushers the reader through the waning of physical beauty so fundamental to gay-male life in the 1970s. Arguably, this portrait remains foundational to the coherence of gay-beauty standards today, which have tip-toed not an inch further from the mirrors that surround our desire to remain youthful even when threatened with the cultural construction of “gay death”. Parallel to this fear of beatific death is, as Leavitt poses, the presence and prevalence of HIV/AIDS floating in the novel’s margins. This at once periodises the novel whilst making it all the more timely for men who, today, remain bound to the logics of biomedical realism (i.e. ARVs, PrEP), and seek cultural validation through sexual desire regardless of age and beauty tropes. Far, now, from the present it unfolds, I Look Divine reminds its readers of the lasting legacies of gay-male beauty and the intimate affairs and aspirations of capitalism bound up in physical attraction. It is a text in line with Andrew Holleran’s beloved Dancer from the Dance (1978): an image culture in which we engender the reification of youthful beauty above and beyond the narratives of sexual and romantic excess.