Monday, April 15, 2024

HENRY HENRY, unlikable people are so much more interesting to read about, aren't they?


The Unnamed Press
$29.00 hardcover, available tomorrow

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Henry Henry is a queer reimagining of Shakespeare's Henriad, transposing the legend of Henry V's wayward youth into 21st-century Britain in the years leading up to the Brexit referendum.

Henry Henry follows Hal Lancaster—22, gay, Catholic—as he spends his first years out of Oxford floating between internships, drinking with his actor friends, struggling through awkward hook-ups, and occasionally going to confession to be absolved of his sins.

When a grouse shooting accident—funny in retrospect—makes a romance out of Hal's rivalry with fumblingly leftist family friend Harry Percy, Hal finds that he wants, for the first time, to be himself. But his father Henry is an Englishman: he will not let his son escape tradition. To save himself, Hal must reckon not only with grief and shame but with the wounds of his family's past.


My Review
: So, the plot's not a big mystery...Shakespeare did the set-up half a millennium ago, if you haven't read it that's on you and your life choices...but brings the subtect of queerness into full textual focus.

This will make some homophobic numskulls very angry. Good.

I was sexually abused by my mother the way Hal was by his father. The many shamings and abuses, the cruel holdings-up to those gone by, of Hal as a person by his father; and maybe more importantly as a sexual being by the idiocy of religion; and the nastiness of steadily belittling him, all poured acid into my eyes. The playbook of controlling mechanisms are all right here: These awful things happened to me, too, Hal, and I really, really want to hug you while murderering your father. The ugly shadow, dirty smudgy tobacco-smoky brown-grey, that will always separate you from your deeply belovèd Percy who can, in the miraculous way of one truly and purely loved, make Hal clean again, can't be banished. Not with his abuser and the filthy miasma of their god suspended in Hal's breath and between the red blood cells in his veins.

What worked best, then, was the reality of a psychologically abused son in the grip of a sexually jealous and sociopathic parent who expresses their power by coercing the child into sexual servitude and then blaming the child for not being strong enough to live a normal life. What was not necessarily so easy was the mapping of the story onto Shakespeare's "Henriad." It's been a while since my Shakespeare days, but the whole point of the Henriad wasn't to map out Prince Hal's survivorhood, was it? It was meant to explain how, after his rebellious rageful youth, he snaps into focus when he hears the strumpet shriek of Power. Of course, if you don't know the outline of the Henriad, none of this matters because it will sail past you. Suffice to say that book-Hal is a nasty piece of work (though for a reason), and play-Hal is a nasty piece of work too (though for different ones). The father/son conflicts, the verbal cruelties each inflicts, are all in the plays. The thing that isn't in the plays is Hal's self-awarness, or so I recall. Play-Hal is nasty and abusive to kinder people than he deserves to have around him and then, when he attains Power, he changes; book-Hal is more reflective, more aware that he is in fact wrestling with demons that have warped him and could kill him if he does not get the upper hand.

What that meant to my reading of the story was that I half-hoped there would be some mercy for the lost and the left behind. What it actually meant was the book ended before I got a sense that the story was over and all the threads dangled.

Not my favorite kind of ending. Appropriate to the subject matter. Truthful and completely honest. Just...dissatisfying, a lot like the life it limns for Hal. He is not satisfied; he cannot be satisfied; he can only dimly conjure any awareness that satisfaction could exist but can in no way craft any kind of response to those around him that would result in anyone feeling satisfied. It is, as a novel, bitter and hateful and cruel; but it is beautifully said and spoken in clear, unhistrionic tones.

A very big ask, this read. Go in with your Shakespeare goggles on and come away shocked at what a new generation of response to him has uncovered. Go in unaware of the Henriad and the dangling ends might bother you more. Shakespeare took three plays (four, if we're stuffy about it) to resolve the Lancastrian dynasty's fate. Author Bratton tried to squeeze it into less than four hundred pages so no wonder he wasn't all the way successful.

Fully successful or not, the clarity and honesty about the pain that abuse and hateful religiosity of Hal's world make it a highly rewarding read.

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