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  • Lost Causes: Narrative, Etiology, and Queer Theory by Valerie Rohy
  • Hannah Roche
Valerie Rohy. Lost Causes: Narrative, Etiology, and Queer Theory. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015. viii + 237 pp.

In the introduction to Lost Causes, Valerie Rohy acknowledges that science “will never find the biological cause of homosexuality” (14). Yet biologists’ (and queer theorists’) inevitable failure to locate the origins of a diverse and indeterminate sexual identity—“homosexuality … is too heterogeneous to totalize”—is only one of the “lost causes” to which Rohy’s title refers. Etiology, or causality, has long been central to sociocultural and political analyses of homosexuality, with the question of whether or not one is born gay continuing to dominate discussions of queer selfhood and LGBTQ rights. Here, Rohy attempts to displace cause from the center of gay and lesbian debate by “reading causality against itself” (5); in other words, Rohy chooses not to ask what makes people gay but rather to consider how and why narratives of queer etiology have been constructed and communicated.

The implications of this compelling new book are as numerous as those of its title. From the outset, Rohy’s appealingly fresh terminology—the idea that gay people may seduce and recruit unknowing heterosexuals, for example, is dubbed “homosexual reproduction” [End Page 565] (2)—marks Lost Causes as a bold endeavor to move forward from the wearied born gay versus made gay wrangle. Rohy swiftly outlines the history of biological determinism: the argument in favor of an essential, physiological homosexuality, she notes, has been advanced by gay and lesbian communities as a reaction against the growing “rhetoric of homosexual increase through influence” (1). However, in the 1990s, queer scholars began to observe flaws in studies of biological causation, accepting that the detection of a “pure and singular starting point” (Robert McRuer, qtd. in Rohy 3) would remain an impossible—and decidedly heteronormative—task. Causality is, in essence, a linear or straight process, but—as those who criticized etiology’s hetero-bias were biologists and social scientists—an examination of queer cause and effect as narrative form had, before Lost Causes, not been carried out. Rohy’s work thus addresses the need for a study of gay causality as story, dislocating (losing) homosexual etiology from the biological and social sciences (and from religious discourse, as in “God made me gay” [48]) by tracing both born gay and homosexual reproduction narratives in psychoanalysis and literature.

The challenge that Rohy sets herself is an altogether exciting one. While she admits in her introductory chapter that her work will take in “largely canonical” (4) literary texts, Lost Causes nevertheless covers an expanse of not-so-obvious critical ground. Rohy situates her big queer novels—Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (chapter 3) and Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (chapter 4)—alongside references to film (1995’s The Celluloid Closet [91]), popular culture (Cynthia Nixon’s 2012 coming out [187]), and works of contemporary memoir and fiction (Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home [104] and Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch [chapter 7]). In her neat assessment of psychoanalysis and literature as “the realms of the analyst and the detective” (9), Rohy summarizes her own methodology: in Lost Causes, broadly interdisciplinary and cross-cultural connections are detected and analyzed to surprisingly rewarding effect. For instance, Rohy marks a clear point of similarity—the articulation of homosexual identity via the act of reading—between figures as varied as Bechdel, Alberto Manguel, and Hall’s Stephen Gordon. By mapping parallels and relations in this way, exploring the numerous means by which narratives of cause and effect have shaped both fictional and nonfictional queer stories, Rohy establishes a rich new framework for homosexual etiology. Moreover, asking “what happens when we acknowledge and even embrace the abject tropes of homosexual reproduction,” Rohy introduces more positive methods of reading well-worn narratives of gay recruitment and “bad influence” (5).

Having discussed the theoretical underpinnings and consequences of the born gay and homosexual reproduction arguments [End Page 566] in her first two chapters, Rohy devotes chapter 3 to a detailed and insightful reading of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Here, in many ways prefiguring chapter 7’s deft...


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pp. 565-568
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