- The Queer Child: Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century
At the time I write this, a slew of videos circulate on the internet, promising LGBT youth that if they can just hang on, just get through high school, "it gets better." But in the slogan and many of the videos, the present is a void bereft of any solace beyond the future and, crucially, empty of images of what one can do in the meantime. One thinks of Lee Edelman's No Future, which excoriates any politics that would defer fulfillment until one grows up. In The Queer Child, on the other hand, Kathryn Bond Stockton illuminates a poetics of survival for queer children in their own now: her fictional queer children's refusal of the future is neither suicidal nor comprised of a solely negative dialectic. Instead, it generates a storehouse of strange literary and filmic images: corpses swinging from trees, fat bodies, dogs running alongside cars, legs in churning ambulation, uninvited dinner guests, and chocolate dripping from the lips of a child. Stockton looks through these images darkly to show [End Page 128] us how queer children appear in twentieth-century fiction not only to adults but also to themselves—in terms of delay, suspension, sideways growth, and backwards birth. These metaphors, in turn, combine to create our culture's most opaque case studies: the child queered by innocence, the Freudian child, the ghostly homosexual, the child queered by color, and the child queered by money. Yet the children continually escape these categorizations and, as Stockton puts it, ride the vehicles of the metaphors used to contain them. If Lee Edelman's No Future demands that we abjure figuring the future at all and aligns queerness with deformation and de-constitution, Stockton's Queer Child cases children as impresarios of signs pointing in any direction but upward to adulthood. Stockton shows us where we might find queer children or where they might find themselves, if they refuse to get stuck in the waiting room waiting for adult gay life to arrive.
Stockton's book gets some of its energy from important work by Philippe Ariès, James Kincaid, and Eve Sedgwick in particular—three critics who make it possible to think about the paradox of the eroticized, yet sexually stymied child. For Ariès, childhood emerges by the seventeenth century as a condition of managed delay. For Kincaid, in Erotic Innocence, the culturally prevalent figure of the innocent and imperiled child is itself erotic, but only on adult terms. For Sedgwick, the gay child can appear to straight people only as the terrible outcome of bad parenting, and to gay people as the impossible object of retrospection, the loved and hated person whom one might have been. But in Stockton these ideas take on a centrifugal force. Out of the social imperative that for such children "there [is] simply nowhere to grow" (3) sexually, Stockton shows, they cultivate a strange garden of delights.
In an introduction reminiscent of Sedgwick's "Axiomatic" introduction to Epistemology of the Closet, Stockton describes how if the central means of controlling children is delay, then children learn to use delay to grow sideways, to establish non-reproductive, lateral relations. Other chapters consist of very smart collations of fictional texts that clarify one or another form of laterality. Putting James's The Pupil next to Edward Carpenter, Venus in Furs, and NAMBLA, Stockton argues that the smart child turns delay into masochistic suspense, using man-boy love to avoid growing "up" into the sordid economies of adult kinship. Moving kaleidoscopically in her next chapter among Mrs. Dalloway, Nightwood, and The Well of Loneliness, Stockton explores how girls use dogs to swerve from heteronormative futures. A tour de force chapter on Lolita (the novel and the two films) sharply compresses the first two chapters, adding the ingredient of frenzied motion to the child's escape: Lolita's churning legs, Stockton suggests, "are a form of 'personhood' that the law in 1955 does not allow a twelve-year-old girl...