Published in 1980 “Gaywyck” was (according to the book’s author, Vincent Virga) “hailed as the first gay gothic novel.” So far I have yet to substantiate that quote, but if anyone knows who said it first, tweet me. In this book Virga — again, in his words — “larded the text and dialogue with dozens of quotes from the most famous novels.” In simpler language, this means that he stole a bunch of lines from classic novels and put them into his turgid gothic sex thriller. The result is a breathtaking Jane Eyre/Rebecca/Wuthering Heights/Whatever Happened to Baby Jane/Sister Wendy’s Impressionist Masterpieces mash-up that has to be read to be believed.
“Gaywyck” contains the following things:
· secret passageways
· diaries written in code
· dark secrets
· identical twins
· a sinister past
· a 17-year-old homeschooled boy
· things that are not what they seem
· disorganized libraries
· sexual awakening
· a mute that’s not really mute
· a disfigured dick that’s not really disfigured
· approximately 600 Monets
· Persian cats
· sexy cave paintings
That is but a mere sampling of Virga’s literary succotash. Try to imagine what I’m leaving out and you’ll probably be correct. Boat-shaped like a slice of watermelon? Yep, that’s in there.
Virga obviously did his homework (to a brown-nosing, teacher’s-pet degree, really). Regardless of the way it is presented, there is no question the man knows a lot about art and literature. However, a close reading of the book proves that VV says a lot of things while failing to know what he’s talking about. Woe be to him who tells that to the author, as I’m certain VV throws an Olympian level of pissy dilettante shade. But I am ready for this shade because I do know what I’m talking about, for “Gaywyck” also contains a totally unqualified librarian. To a qualified librarian such as myself, this nescience sticks out like a tarantula on a wedding cake. Matchpoint, Virga. Match fucking point.
The book begins with sexy peanut butter scion Donough Gaylord(!) offering Robert Whyte, aged 17, the job of librarian at Donough Gaylord’s sexy mansion, Gaywyck. Located on the wave-battered shores of fin de sicle Long Island, Gaywyck is the perfect setting for such mysterious goings-on as finding black orchids in a water pitcher and having sex with the wrong twin.
Robert is uniquely (un)qualified for this job, having been homeschooled by his sexy preacher father in upstate New York and never once receiving any kind of library instruction ever. That matters not, because the moment Donough sees Robert he is pummeled by the boy’s trembling beauty.
Before the interview can even begin Robert positively pisses his breeches when he sees the first of Donough’s many Cezannes. Robert is so moved by the brushstrokes that he bursts into tears. It’s like if I went to a job interview and let loose a gully-washer the moment I espied an original Nagel masterpiece hanging behind the boss’s desk.
Once Robert daubs his panties, Donough, barely able to keep it together in the presence of this weeping, ethereal teenager, informs Robert that his, the librarian’s duties would consist of “devising a system for locating specific volumes in the vast collection of books.”
Ok, that’s legit. I’m sure in a rambling pile like Gaywyck there are illuminated manuscripts and Poe’s chapbooks all over the place. Gotta have somebody get them all together, right? Fortunately, by 1899, the year in which the story begins, the Dewey Decimal System was on its 6th edition, and an abridged classification schedule developed especially for smaller libraries was published in 1894. Robert can pop right down to Montgomery Ward, pick up a copy, and get stuck into some hot cataloging action.
Of course, things are not that simple. Donough goes on to say that the collection “was not to be alphabetized because the time and energy required to shift the books was prohibitive and were to be spent on more productive things.”
Hang on there, Donough. Did you just say that the collection was not to be alphabetized because the time and energy required to shift the books was prohibitive and were to be spent on more productive things? Last I checked alphabetizing played a major part in the organization of libraries. For example, fiction books are alphabetized by the authors’ last names. Biographies and autobiographies are usually shelved alphabetically according to the subject of the book.
Had I known that alphabetizing was taking me away from more productive things, I would have mentioned it to my boss when I had a crick in my neck from shelf reading the entire fiction collection at the Tulsa Central Library. If Robert were a real librarian he would have called Donough on that grave oversight right away. But he’s not a real librarian, he is a twit who didn’t even ask how big the collection was or had there ever been any kind of classification system in place.
Regardless of the fact that Robert Whyte wouldn’t know a cutter number from the crack in his ass, Donough puts him in charge of 75,000 volumes, three of which make up a goddamn Gutenberg Bible. I would not let Robert Whyte within 50 feet of my board books for babies collection, much less charge him as custodian of my Gutenberg Bible.
When Robert arrives at Gaywyck, via a sumptuous private rail car with furs and Donough Gaylord’s initials everywhere, he doesn’t set foot into the library for three weeks. Three Weeks. He wanted to get started on those more productive ventures right away. First on his list is more crying and making exhaustive notes on every bit of priceless art housed within the walls.
Robert’s journal is constantly tear-stained because he’s so bloody moved by the della Francesca that he can’t stop sobbing about it. For real, if Robert Whyte were alive today he would be totally into one of those androgynous emo groups with a really long name like To Write Love on Her Arms. His love for them would crush LiveJournal into a twisted mass of band slash and trigger warnings. He would also refuse to take his meds because his pain and TWLOHA’s hit single “Bullet for my Valentine” are the only things that make him feel alive.
By the time Robert finally deigns to enter the library, he takes one look around and immediately decides that he will “assign each bookcase a letter from the alphabet, each shelf a number. For each book, a card would be made, coded, and alphabetized.” What a genius Robert is, coming up with this system all on his own even though, to my knowledge, this is the first library he’s ever been in.
What he “devised” is called a shelf list and has been around since the invention of modern libraries. It’s a very useful tool to have, but only when the books are already classified using Dewey or the inferior Library of Congress system. If the books are jammed randomly on the shelf and you make a list and card for each book, what happens if you need all the books by a certain author or about one subject? Normally they would all be grouped together. But if you used Robert’s plan you would be running all over the place, climbing up and down ladders, looking for the books. In short, a shelf list only works on the assumption that you know off the top of your head the title of every single book in the library.
The first thing Robert does after coming up with his ridiculous plan is, well, you’d think it would be to get up the ladder and start making that list, but it ain’t. The first order of business is to learn to type on the new typewriting machine. It shouldn’t take too long, after all, “If all those young women can do it, it can’t be all that complicated.”
He spends the next couple of months learning to type. That is but one of the “more productive things” Donough encouraged in the interview. Robert fills his days bathing, weeping, getting sick, taking rides in a precious boat shaped like a walnut shell, and chatting with the senile old woman he found living in a room at the end of a secret passage. During these visits, he never mentions the library much less the work he is avoiding by hanging out with her.
The next time Robert is in the library he is “grouping the books according to language and subject, prose and poetry, and was ready to begin [his] filing cards as soon as [he] collected the stray volumes …” Wait a minute, wouldn’t you have to actually move the books in order to achieve this?
Yes! You have to move the books! You have to pull every single one of those 75,000 volumes off the shelves, dust off the spider eggs, and start putting them in piles. Once you’re done with that you have to sort those piles into smaller piles and then you have to put those piles in order. Since Dewey is persona non grata in this particular gothic mansion that will most likely be alphabetical order. Remember Robert, titles that start with ‘The’ are ordered according to the second word in the title and nothing comes before something like ‘bee’ comes before ‘bees’.
But the biggest un-asked question is this: When did Robert have the time to do all this? He arrived at Gaywyck in October and by December he has completely rearranged the collection (against his boss’s wishes). I cry foul. That is a massive job that could take up to a year with an entire staff of qualified librarians working on it. There is no way in hell Robert has done a fraction of that library work. This is further proof that Vincent Virga knows jack-all about libraries and librarians.
I wish I could tell you all how Robert’s shelf list worked out but that is impossible because after we learn that Robert has grouped the books he stops work on the library all together. He never even got around to typing the goddam list! Even though all the books are sorted there’s still no way to find them. Not that you could have found them with Robert’s stupid system anyway.
The rest of the book is dedicated to the discovery that Donough Cormack Gaylord’s thought-to-be-dead brother, Cormack Donough Gaylord, is actually alive and has been trying to sabotage Robert and Donough’s pure true love all along. This dastardly act was carried out through multiple midnight visits to Robert’s boudoir whereupon heavy sexing occurred. Then, during the day when Robert would try and get close to Donough, Donough would push him away because Donough was actually broken inside due to years of forced twincest. Eventually, Robert was driven to the brink of madness. Only Donough’s love (and the murder of his brother by his own hand) was able to bring Robert home again.
That is some heavy shit so I can’t really blame Robert for taking a leave of absence. Eventually, Cormack is vanquished and Robert and Donough are able to love without secrets or shame. To celebrate they go to Europe for a year. Eventually, they settle in Manhattan where Robert oversees Donough’s many charities and his massive endowment. There is no mention of hiring a new librarian.
In “Gaywyck” Vincent Virga traded in on a trite stereotype: “the librarian as a naive sexpot who doesn’t do much beyond putting the books back on the shelf.” With all the research that went into writing this book, I find it impossible to believe that Virga didn’t meet some kick-ass librarians along the way. I hope that when they read the final product they made sure every subsequent item Virga ever wanted was mysteriously unavailable.
You can email Erin Lady Byrne (firstname.lastname@example.org) or find her on Twitter @ErinLadyByrne where she is currently rereading “The Catch Trap.”