The Elusive Embrac: Desire and the Riddle of Identity

Daniel Mendelsohn, Author
Daniel Mendelsohn, Author Alfred A. Knopf $24 (224p) ISBN 978-0-375-40095-7
Reviewed on: 05/03/1999
Release date: 05/01/1999
Paperback - 224 pages - 978-0-375-70697-4
Open Ebook - 112 pages - 978-0-307-80987-2
Open Ebook - 1 pages - 978-1-299-03941-4
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Weaving philosophical musings and discussions of Greek myths and drama with his personal experiences, Mendelsohn explores issues of identity, sexuality, fatherhood, family and history in five essays that amount to an idiosyncratic memoir. A lecturer in classics at Princeton whose literary criticism has appeared in the New Yorker and Out, he aims to understand the apparent contradictions of his life as a single gay man and a father figure to a friend's son, and as a critic and consumer of gay culture who lives amidst yet apart from his Jewish immigrant family's heterosexuality. Despite his ambition, however, Mendelsohn doesn't entirely hit his mark. The book is flawed by a style that aims to be elegantly elaborate--one sentence is 404 words long--but comes across as pretentious (as when he employs ""necropolis"" instead of ""cemetery"" for little reason). His use of Greek myths is neither original nor insightful; a three-page sketch of the story of Antigone feels like filler. More problematic, however, is Mendelsohn's tendency not simply to generalize but to universalize from his own experience. He makes such dubious claims as this: ""when men have sex with a woman they fall `into' the woman... gay men fall through their partners back into themselves."" He also frequently speaks unreflectively of all gay men as a single group, undercutting his credibility as a social observer and critic. In the end, his intense focus on the primacy of his experience and the lack of social and historical context diminishes the resonance his own experience might have for others. (June)
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