Let Me See It
Let Me See It, author James Magruder’s novel of linked short stories, might be the closest thing to actually experiencing the 70s and 80s as a burgeoning young gay man without actually having lived it. The experiences within these tales burst with honesty, humor and a frank exploration of love, sexuality and mortality. But beyond that, Let Me See It is not limited to any particular demographic; everyone makes terrible decisions in love and friendship and everyone knows death and disappointment. Coming of age – learning from those awful, misguided decisions – is universal and enjoying another’s ascent to adulthood can be a delightful experience for readers.
Let Me See It follows two cousins, Tom and Elliott, as they grow and learn in parallel and contrasting directions (while rarely meeting). From the innocence of their youth in the 70s, through their not-as-jaded-as-they-think in the 80s and into the 90s, the narratives span a period that is at times filled with joie de vivre and schadenfreude, deep empathy and deep cynicism and a clear-eyed narrative, all in equal measure. “Elliott Biddler’s Vie Boheme,” a romp through Paris and men of dubious character, is warm-hearted and amusing – quite a contrast to “You’ve Really Learned How,” wherein Elliott learns a bit more than he bargained for from an older man with a predilection for candlesticks and a cavalier disregard for the word “no.”
Complementing themes run throughout Let Me See It’s tales. Tom and Elliott aren’t flip sides of the same coin, though they may appear that way at times. The novel, set during the plague years of HIV and AIDS, ends as one might expect it to for one of the protagonists, but it isn’t so much meant as a how-not-to guide. These stories are scripted, but their truths are not. Looking back at this era, it’s easy enough to condemn and lecture. “Why weren’t you more careful,” one might say while wagging a finger. It’s to the novel’s strength that such a sentiment isn’t even implied. Let Me See It could happen to anyone.
Some readers may long for a more obvious connection between the stories, until Tom and Elliott meet up again in the 90s. It’s a fair wish. A bit more direct commentary might have served the stories (and the readers) in good stead. What might Tom learn from Elliott and vice versa? And in turn, what might we learn from their shared growth? We can hazard a guess, even if the answer isn’t directly given.
Where the book really shines is in Magruder’s command of the inner worlds of Tom and Elliott. They are distinctly separate, actualized men. They may share terrible taste in men, but their tastes are indisputably their own. They live and breathe while we read and it makes us wonder: is this pure fiction? Are some of Tom and Elliott’s stories cribbed from an undoubtedly fascinating life? Does it matter if the stories are pure fiction if the stories they tell are true? Probably (definitely) not.
Regardless of Let Me See It’s real-life basis, it remains an uncommonly engaging read. There aren’t enough books that make the reader stop, mark their place and stare up at the ceiling to think. Let Me See It is one of them.
Note: The author of this review has taken a class with James Magruder and regularly encounters him in the Baltimore Lit scene. He does, however, mean every word.