Alyssa Patterson, Novel in Verse: Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate

Classic Literature and a New Society:

Vikram Seth’s choice to write The Golden Gate in verse

Vikram Seth chose each aspect of The Golden Gate as a way to show the world

the cultural changes happening in San Francisco in the late 1970s and 1980s.  The

choice to set the novel in San Francisco is both relevant to history and to Seth’s life.

In terms of history, late 1970s and 1980s San Francisco was a center for liberal

activism and the counter cultural movement.  It started with the “Beat” poets of the

1950s, who started the trend of celebrating alternative lifestyles and rejecting set

standards.  “Beat” poets are most famous for exploring different sexualities,

religion’s place in the modern world and their portrayal of the whole human

existence.  In 1967, the Summer of Love brought thousands to San Francisco in what

is now called the “Hippie Revolution.”  That summer turned the Haight-Ashbury

neighborhood into a community based in “free love” and sexual and social

inhibition.  This sexual awakening brought a wave of LGBTQIA activism to match the

growing community.  San Francisco is home to both the first lesbian rights

organization in the US and the first openly gay person to run for public office.  Seth’s

characters are thrust, just as many 20-somethings actually were, into a city that was

moving drastically faster than the country, and the world, around it.  San Francisco

is a superb foundation for Seth to build a narrative around the lives of characters

that average readers have never seen.

San Francisco was not only a historical choice for Seth, but also a personal

choice.  Seth was born in Calcutta, India in the early 1950s.  He was educated in

London as a child and again as a teenager.  After graduating from a college in

England, he moved to California for graduate school at Stanford.  This would have

been around the mid 1970s, the peak of San Francisco’s wave of unconventionality.

The welcoming atmosphere that his new home provided, especially in contrast to

that of Indian and British culture, must have shocked Seth, a self-identified bisexual.

Two of Seth’s main characters are gay, meaning that many of his other characters

have to deal with contrasting perceptions about the LGBTQIA community.   This

novel comes off the heels of first assertion of AIDS by the medical community.  At

first diagnosis, AIDS was called GRID, which stood for gay-related autoimmune

disease.  This caused not only a panic in the gay community, but also a backlash

from the rest of the world.  LGBTQIA individuals were suddenly cloaked under a

surge of anti-gay sentiments and general contempt.  The Golden Gate, published in

1986, is the culmination of Seth’s integration into San Francisco at the peak of a

great controversy and his quest to portray the city in a better light.

Seth writes the novel in verse to communicate a larger message.  The entirety

of the novel is written in fourteen line stanzas with rhyming couplet endings and the

following rhyme scheme: A B A C C D D E F F E G G.  This is a combination of both

standard Petrarchan and Shakespearean rhyme schemes.  Petrarch popularized the

fourteen-line stanza construction.  His poems presented a problem or asserted a

desire in the first lines, called the Volta, and then in the last few lines, he changed the

rhyme scheme to indicate that he was stating his final thoughts.  Seth got the idea

for rhyming couplets from Shakespeare.  Some of the most popular pieces of

Shakespearean literature include the rhyming end couplet.  The couplet serves as a

concise conclusion to the previous lines, and usually, makes a poignant last remark

about the topic.  Both Petrarch and Shakespeare are famous for being able to convey

intense love and grief within strict parameters.  Seth’s distortion and recombination

of both Petrarch’s and Shakespeare’s styles can be likened to the innovative styles of

“Beat” poets.  Seth’s recombination of classic styles is a conscious decision.

Furthermore, he portrays complex and unusual characters in common situations.

Seth allows the reader to take in the story with a familiar writing style, before

presenting them with his unconventional characters.

Seth drew inspiration from many other famous writers, including Homer,

Virgil, along with referencing the Bible and other popular literary devices.  In the

opening stanza of the novel, Seth quotes four different archetypical conventions of

beginning a story.  The first is “Hail Muse” (1.1 line 2).  The invocation of a muse is a

common literary device used in Greek mythology, literature and poetry.  Both

Homer and Virgil open the Odyssey and the Aeneid, respectively, by calling upon a

muse to help them recount the story of a great hero.  Epic poetry often cites muses

as the tools by which they are able to tell such long, intricate tales.  Next, Seth quotes

two literary conventions that have unclear beginnings due to their prevalence: first,

“Dear reader” (1.1 line 2) and then “once upon/ a time” (1.1 lines 2-3).  “Dear

reader” is the classic introduction of an exposition character, in this case an

omniscient narrator.  Authors use exposition characters to convey to the audience

information that the protagonist already knows, mostly as a way to jump directly

into the story.  Seth creates an omniscient narrator, possibly in his own voice, that

gives the reader valuable background information.   “Once upon a time” is a story

opener that dates back to the 13th century, but was popularized by The Brothers

Grimm, who started stories with “es war einmal” which was translated into “once

upon a time.”  Seth finishes this ode to traditional openers with the phrase, “There

lived a man” (1.1 line 4).   This phrase comes from the first lines of The Book of Job, a

tale that addresses the justification for compliant worshippers to suffer.  Seth starts

the novel with recognizable literary phrases to introduce the trend of constructing

well-known concepts of marriage, love, sex, religion, heroism and death and then

deconstructing them as they apply to San Francisco residents.

After the dramatic set up of the first stanza, Seth introduces his less than

heroic main character, John Brown.  This completely generic name is an indication

that John is supposed to be an “everyman.”  An everyman in literature is an

individual that is seemingly ordinary, although constantly placed in extraordinary

situations.  The reader is assumed to identify with an “everyman,” allowing them to

more easily put themselves in situations that they are unfamiliar with.  Seth hopes

that John will do just this for the reader.  John is described as average looking and

“dogmatic” (1.4 line 3), and is supposed to represent white Americans who are

neither very conservative nor very liberal, which Seth can assume would be the

majority of his audience.  The typical reader of The Golden Gate when it was first

published might have been a young “yuppie,” who had never experienced the

counter cultural movements happening in San Francisco, so a John Brown would be

a relatable lens from which to view the story.  John’s reactions to issues, especially

to Phil’s sexuality, paints him in an unattractive light, and hopefully presses the

reader to stop identifying with him and question why they identified with him in the

first place.  This is a common technique used by Shakespeare called “projected

audience.”  Shakespeare often had a character that emulated his average viewer.

This character would say things that the general public agreed with, but then do

something that was more controversial, the point being to get audience members to

reexamine themselves.  Seth creates an “everyman” figure to force the reader out of

their comfort zone in the wake of groundbreaking social change.

The interaction between John and Phil represents the interaction between

the reader and Seth.  Seth creates Phil, a bisexual character, with the knowledge that

even in the LGBTQIA community bisexuals are looked down upon. It was, and still is,

assumed that bisexuality is a transitioning phase and that it is impossible to be

attracted to both sexes simultaneously.  Seth illustrates this with Ed’s recalling of

the phrase, “Fall for a bi, and you’ll get burned” (5.10, line 14).  Phil serves as a

multi-dimensional character, outside of the “promiscuous bisexual” stereotype.  Phil

first marries a woman and content in this relationship, which attacks the

assumption that bisexual men are simply partially-closeted gay men.  When Phil’s

marriage fails, it is him that keeps their son, Paul, and raises him.  The tender

interactions between father and son make it impossible for the reader not to

sympathize with Phil.  When Seth introduces Ed, he creates a relationship

independent of the bedroom.  Many believe that homosexuality is simply based in

sex, but Seth paints a relationship much deeper than that.  Seth constructs Ed as a

devout Christian to incite the very same controversy between liberal and religious

communities.  Like “Beat” poets, Seth is interested in where religion fits into new

liberal cultures.  He doesn’t ostracize the reader by discounting religion entirely, but

instead uses Phil’s love to Ed to make a case against the condemnation of

homosexuality.  Phil says:

“Given a God, if he had seen us

And he is just and loving-kind,

Why should you think that he would mind

My touch, your trembling, our caresses,

The loving smart in your clear eyes,

My hands ruffling your hair, our sighs?

If anything, I’d say he blesses

The innocent bodies that express

So forthright such happiness”

(4.53 lines 6-14)

Seth questions why it would be wrong for two people to love each other.  He asks

why would any God, who looks down upon Phil and Ed, condemn the genuine

compassion between them. Similar to how the Book of Job questions why those that

explicitly follow the Bible still suffer, Seth wants the reader to question why a God

would create beings to be homosexual, and then punish them for it.  Phil says, “It

seems to me a curious fashion/ To give a man an appetite,/Then tell him a

starvations ration/Is all he’s due for…” (8.28 lines 1-4).   It makes no sense, not to

mention is downright cruel, for an entire community to be told that their love is

incorrect.  Seth pleads with the reader, through Phil’s appeal to Ed, to acknowledge

that the LGBTQIA community isn’t a hedonistic breeding ground for debauchery, but

instead a marginalized group by an uneducated majority.

Seth redefines love, sex and marriage with Phil’s two relationships.  Seth uses

Phil’s relationship with Ed to justify homosexuality, without denouncing the sexual

and lustful aspects of it.  His point isn’t that the LGBTQIA community is human

because they value love over sexual pleasure, but that the community is human

because it can value both simultaneously.  In a conversation with Ed, Phil questions

anyone’s ability to follow the Bible explicitly, and says, “What’s wrong with sex? The

more the better/If you like someone…” (4.51 lines 3-4).  This combined with lines 6-

14 from stanza 4.53 (quoted above) is meant to celebrate the integration of sex into

everyday culture.  The “Hippie Revolution” of this time prioritized women’s sexual

liberation, which then permeated through every liberal community.  The idea that

sex isn’t something dirty is the first step in redefining love and family.  The 1970s

and 80s reconstructed people’s views on what love should look like by attacking

marriage, an institution that is supposedly based in love.  With the rise of the

LGBTQIA community came whispers of “gay marriage,” a topic that had never been

brought to the foreground before.  Seth chooses to take a distinct stance on this by

inquiring why marriage is a standard for love at all.   Phil and Liz’s fast-paced

relationship is the perfect example of a new way of thinking about marriage.  Gay

rights activists argue that the legal benefits of marriage should be allotted to all

American citizens, and that the religious part should be the choice of the individuals

involved.  Phil and Liz’s loveless marriage seeks to show that marriage itself isn’t

love, but instead a contractual agreement between two people recognized by the

state. In stanza 11.20, lines 9-14, Phil appeals to Liz by saying:

“…love’s a pretty poor forecaster,

I loved a woman—and was dropped

I loved a man—and that too flopped.

Passion’s a prelude to disaster.”

Seth predicts an argument that is still in play with gay rights activists today.  New

fast-paced relationships become necessary in the technological world.  The

technological world creates a need for stability and immediate gratification where

love and marriage may not occupy the same space.  Like Phil and Liz, new

generations may choose stability and contentment over compassion when it comes

to marriage, and in that case, they can examine marriage through the lens of its legal

benefits, not its religious associations.  Seth strives to prove that once marriage is

deemed secular then there is no reason for “gay marriage” ‘s illegality.

Verse is the ultimate contrast in this novel.  The question that

pervades, and goes outwardly unanswered, is why the novel is written in verse.

Why does Seth choose to restrict himself, vocabulary and space wise, when he wants

to convey such complex issues? Seth spends incredible amounts of time choosing

words and molding stanzas in the hopes of creating a piece of art.  He tries to

emulate how both Petrarch and Shakespeare capture audiences with their ability to

both rhyme, and convey exactly the correct emotion.  A reader must tip their hat to

any author that puts that much time into their craft.  The community built in San

Francisco was stigmatized with being dirty, raunchy and against normal family

values, but this novel works to reverse that.  If Seth can describe people that live in

San Francisco with a familiar lyrical melody, then he can assert that their culture

isn’t so unfamiliar either.  This “counter cultural” is actually just the recombination

of past ideas to fit a world that acknowledges a breadth of human existence.

The Golden Gate’s amalgamations of classic literary structures serves as a

contrast to Seth’s trailblazing take on modern relationships and lifestyles of twenty-

something’s in San Francisco.  He presents the reader with a frame that they already

know, namely a novel based in a city and centered around young people looking for

love and satisfaction, but then fills it with characters, situations and outcomes that

are unexpected.  As a member of that community, Seth knows the complexity and

the beauty of its inhabitants.  Seth’s placing of well-known narrative styles next to

his experiences forces the reader to reevaluate their prejudices.  Contrast, in this

case, is the best way to prove Seth’s point.  His goal is to prove that people that live

outside of societal norms and constrictions are exactly like any reader that picks up

The Golden Gate.  His characters, especially his main ones, possess traits that make

them a minority in America, but by making their minority status not the outline of

their entire narrative, Seth gives these stereotyped people multiple dimensions.  It is

easy to deny a one-dimensional being personhood, but it is impossible to see oneself

and the one’s own community reflected in others and still believe that they don’t

deserve basic rights. The Golden Gate is a plea to an ill-informed audience to

examine the spark in San Francisco and ask themselves if it is really so “counter

cultural” after all.

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