Christopher Stoddard’s angsty third novel, At Night Only, with its unnamed, ostensibly ungendered narrator (and a minor character named Nico), seems inspired, 50 years on, by the legendary half-deaf “chanteuse” known as Nico, the only thing about the Velvet Underground that Andy Warhol gave a fuck about. Or, Warhol being Warhol: half a fuck. It was plain as a silkscreened dollar bill that Nico was the perfect personification of cool, and that she couldn’t last long, and that she could never be replaced or outdone. She had a handful of half-whispered, downbeat songs, and a few appearances (playing herself) in movies (Fellini’s, Warhol’s); she was a 5-foot-10-inch model in Berlin at 14. Chanel offered her a contract when she was 17, but it was the ’60s, man, so she turned it down and moved to New York City to hang out with Lou Reed and get high and sing lyrics like:
What costume shall the poor girl wear
To all tomorrow’s parties?
A hand-me-down dress from who knows where
And where will she go and what shall she do
When midnight comes around
She’ll turn once more to Sunday’s clown
And cry behind the door.
She had Alain Delon’s first kid. She died at 50 on the island of Ibiza while riding her bike to buy weed. If that’s not cool, nothing is or ever was.
Edmund White described Stoddard’s novel as “stylish, despairing, enviable …” That’s his whole blurb: three words, two commas, and three dots. The book, like the original Nico, is all that, even when it, and the narrator, is a hot mess, which is almost the entire time—a druggin’ and drinkin’ and fornicatin’ character who repeatedly makes the same mistakes, never bothering to learn from them. He overinvests in flimsy relationships with shady, flaky, preoccupied party people and cutthroat performers, then he’s devastated when they disappear or disappoint or die. He likes bohemia but wishes the crazy bohemians would behave a little more like squares. He wants it all, or it all feels like nothing. He had a traumatizing childhood, so naturally he feels most comfortable with a traumatizing adulthood, too.
The story opens with the funeral of a young friend where there’s at least as much drinking and snorting as grieving going on. The narrator’s “best friend,” Pedro, had called after a long silence to say their friend had died. He’s there with Nico, his girlfriend, a character who says almost nothing. “Pedro’s eyes are red like the beach ball in those old Visine commercials [the narrator works in advertising], and for once it’s not from drugs and lack of sleep. I’ve only seen him cry one other time—when Nico was threatening to leave him—and I’ve known him for four years.”
Pedro, a kind of party artist, had once been a designer “for a Hasidic-owned company that mass-manufactured baby clothes.” What could possibly have gone wrong? His friend and colleague at the baby clothes company Jason transitioned to Jessica; the Hasids fired her, inspiring Pedro’s resignation-as-art, which was “sent after the office had cleared out for the night: giant posters of stills super-glued to the walls of the bosses’ offices, taken from a documentary showing gender reassignment surgery in graphic detail. The police questioned Jessica about the vandalism, but she had an alibi. Pedro was my anti-hero. Made me invincible to the drudgeries of working in advertising and the ever-present Void of living in general.”
Later, the narrator offers up what could pass for a motto for the book’s motley crew of sad but voluble characters: “All of us suffer from a manic weakness from which the only relief, however temporary, is sharing it with one another.”
On the back cover of this book published by Stoddard’s own ITNA Press, we’re tipped off that the gender and name of the narrator are “never revealed.” While that is technically speaking true enough, the narrator seems, like Stoddard himself, a good-looking gay guy living in Brooklyn. He’s not worried about getting pregnant, that’s for sure, and hasn’t the slightest maternal feeling when, near the end of the story, he holds his baby niece, who looks for the first time into his glassy, tired 30-year-old eyes only to be handed back to her female mama, who knows what to do with a baby. Does it really matter if the narrator is male or female, or if we’re told the gender is “never revealed”? It matters to me, as a reader. I tried to imagine the narrator was female. It didn’t work. Gender comes through. A genderless human character would be a very tricky thing to pull off; save for Anne Garréta, in her 1986 novel Sphinx, I’m not sure anyone ever has.
Stoddard’s narrator, in my reading of the book, is a typically horny gay guy prone to loneliness who fucks things up for himself on the regular, feels bad about it, and does some other stupid fucked-up thing because he feels bad about that last thing, and this just goes on and on in a lifelike way—at least until he gets five minutes alone after Pedro dies (something to do with drugs, and something vaguely to do with the narrator, who feels remarkably little guilt, though plenty of remorse and self-pity) and then his vain, thoughtless, rude actor boyfriend goes to Hollywood, where he belongs. Finally, the narrator can figure out for himself that just being alive by itself is pretty cool, and feeling lonely for half a day is really no big deal, especially if you live in New York City in the 21st century and have your own apartment and a smartphone, which you can use to order in pretty much whatever you fancy at the moment, and especially if you’re young and hot and employed and white, which he is. He just needs to chill out. And he does. On the last page of the book, and well along into his adulthood, such as it is: “For the first time in my life being alone is comforting: an opportunity to determine what my soul is lacking and how to resolve or accept it instead of desperately searching again for a fix in someone else.” Up until then, it’s a lot of lovely wondering What costume shall the poor girl wear/ To all tomorrow’s parties.
That’s what the book is about: scoring, one way or another, come hell or high water, a little late-blooming, hard-earned, equivocal, queer self-knowledge, which is about learning to deal with our loneliness—our being lonely among other people, and our being sometimes less lonely alone. It’s better than no self-knowledge at all. It’s something a lot of urban gay guys do one way or another: We like to come out the other side of chaos. At Night Only enacts that. It’s a pretty rough kind of book, lightly edited, colloquial, a little too cool. But it’s fresh and real; it’s “stylish, despairing, enviable …” Why enviable? Because it’s a work of art that’s not at all easily made, however easy it may feel. The easy is the hard part, actually, and it’s rarely encountered in a novel. I recommend reading it with Nico, its ghostly muse, whispering that sad dirge of a song in your head. Or better yet read it while playing the whole album for the full twisted, dope effect.