Edmund White is gay. If you’re not familiar with him—and I wasn’t until recently—this is the first thing you’ll notice about him in his memoir My Lives. You’ll notice other things, too: his name-dropping, over-sharing, and devout hedonism. These traits are unavoidable in the context of White’s interesting life, described in vivid, conversational prose.
Rather than walking through his life from birth to present, White gives us thematic chapters. This format gives us more insight into White’s view of himself than a timeline-bound format. For example, the first chapter concerns his shrinks from childhood through adulthood. The chapter’s prominence suggests that he learned introspection early and kept up the practice. His particular introspection was closely tied to his own homosexuality, which his therapists saw as sick. Though he would later embrace “the gay,” he agreed with his therapists then, and his strongly self-critical streak shows itself through White’s book and life.
And just as with the first chapter, the second (“My Father”) and third (“My Mother”) outline patterns—difficulty with ’50s-style masculinity and more-friendly-than-maternal interactions with women—that persist through later chapters. These themes build upon each other, culminating in the much-foreshadowed final chapter, “My Friends,” where White waxes about a series of more and less famous friends, representing the capstone of life lived by a boy who just wants to be noticed, irrespective of love or hate.
White does manage to elide portions of his life that he would rather not share, but he doesn’t appear to be holding much back. He goes into very precise detail about gay experiences. From sexually-charged childhood games to paying for tricks (and being paid for being one), the reader gets an awful lot of dirt on the author. (Depending on one’s curiosity, proclivity, or dignity, the chapter on White’s year-long relationship with a much younger S&M master should be either devoured or avoided with relish.)
My Lives depicts the absorbing path of a gay man who lived through the closeted 1950s, the free-spirited but bourgeois modern gay life, and every libidinous period in between. If that’s the sort of thing that interests you, then White’s book is for you.