The Theorist in Love: Maria Cichosz’s Cam & Beau

by Kate Maddalena

Kate Maddalena is a media theorist and scholar of science communication. She is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, where she teaches professional writing and communication at the Institute of Communication, Culture, and Information Technology.

Cam & Beau
Maria Cichosz
Now or Never Publishing
2020, 370 pp., $19.75

If you’ve ever worked through critical theory in any substantive way, you know that it can mess with your head. Really, that’s theory’s main job: to reframe and transform the ways in which we see the world, to help us see multiple, alternate versions of the roles we play and the realities we constantly reconstruct (or manifest, or co-constitute—see what I mean? I can’t even end a sentence) every day. To put it over-simply, the more aware you become of your own critical role in shaping your world and the world’s role in shaping you, the more cautious you become about the things you feel and the actions you take. Add to the equation an awareness of the never-knowable but fascinating “other,” who is busy shaping and being shaped by their own world, as well, and the effect can be stultifying. Every interaction becomes more opaque. Ironically, every interaction can become more compelling and lovely, as well. Theory is like a drug—a layer of perception that rarefies and alienates. You’re alone inside your mind with only your perceptions, and the more you read, the more you become able to question and reframe those perceptions. It’s a neurotic way of being. At its best, theory helps us pair a quizzical sense of wonder with a humorous dose of irony as we approach our own relation to reality. At its worst, the theorist’s mind begins to foreclose its own ability to experience social existence with any confidence. It makes for awkward conversation. It can confuse your sense of identity. It can frustrate your libido. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the over-examined life is a bitch, too.

This phenomenon—the theorist’s over-intellectualized, ruminative carefulness, an effect of philosophy seeping into human love as the philosophical person experiences it—is the primary conceit of Maria Cichosz’s debut novel, Cam & Beau. The book is set in Toronto in the early aughts, and it tells the story of best friends and roommates Cam (who has no memorable last name) and Beau Larky (whose name begs to be said both first and last, like the name of a Hollywood star or a grade school crush). The novel’s sections alternate between both protagonists’ perspectives, so the reader comes to understand their relationship from both sides. Cam, a tortured theorist of the kind described above, is a graduate student at the University of Toronto, where he teaches philosophy of language. Beau is a barista at Starbucks and a photographer, when he is well; but the book starts with Cam drug-blitzing with his friend and dealer, Cliff (an odd, Jiminy Cricket conscience to Cam who deserves his own novel) to avoid the news that Beau is very ill. Cam is also desperately in love with Beau—a love that started as a crush, has grown through friendship, and grows beyond even that as it takes up the thankless, selfless, and crushing burden of care. Beau’s illness, Cam’s devotion, and both of their near-pathological refusal to speak about their entanglement as love is the whole of the plot of the story. The characters are well-crafted multiplicities manifesting peculiar particularities, down to their stonerly habits of speech and scholarly neuroses. Moreover, the two main characters are absolutely loveable; this book is a believable love story, a rare find in an often loveless world.

The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the over-examined life is a bitch, too.

And it’s a long story. This novel feels pre-Modern; it paints a cinematic picture of a time, a place, and a specific social scene with an attention to detail that marks fiction that predates cinema. So it’s a genre throwback—a novel of manners and “particulars” in the tradition of Austen, James, or Wharton, with a decidedly postmodern set of social constraints producing a Victorian-style erotic tension. Where the tension in a Victorian novel comes from social rules around sex, in Cam & Beau, it comes from a philosophical carefulness around love—humorous irony, as the novel is set in a relatively libertine moment. It is also as evocative as its naturalist forebears, using richly detailed setting as a foil to the intellectual subject matter of critical theory and human psychology. The famous “golden hour,” the period of slanted light photographers prize for its sentimental shadows, is where this novel lives. Beau’s fight against disease peaks in winter, and the scenery echoes his struggle: fluorescent-lit, grey hospital halls and icy sidewalks, the mingling of breath-steam and pot smoke when Cam helps him escape his hospital room for a moment of fresh air. Beau’s condition improves through spring and into summer, when a cottage vacation brings all of the sexual and social tension in Cam and Beau’s world to a head for the first (but not the last) time. Sun-drenched river-swimming is the backdrop for a rather melodramatic, more-than-platonic love triangle with their friend Stacey. At first, Cam is jealous of her because of the time she spends with Beau; later, Cam and Stacey couple, in truly triangular fashion, and their couplehood becomes important at the end of the story. At the summer cottage, Cichosz’s narrative keeps a loose count of empty beer bottles on the wooden pier. And nobody’s ever keeping count of the joints; the pot smoke—which permeates the whole book—is the only image linking the winter’s desperation to the summer’s decadence. If stories had smells, this one would stink like the good kind of skunk.

The famous ‘golden hour,’ the period of slanted light photographers prize for its sentimental shadows, is where this novel lives.

The scenes in spring and summer spiral from the sky and outdoor air down to various points on Beau’s body as Cam sees him: his skinny shoulders, often, a drop of water on his lip. Cam’s sensual attachment to Beau, which is all visual, at this point, keeps the characters embodied and emplaced. These moments read like memories; they are recognizable as the kind of experiences that you pine for even as you live them. Cichosz evokes the feeling of summer when you’re not young enough to be adolescent but are still young enough to feel more deeply than you ever will again. Michel Foucault argued for the importance of young, male sexually-charged friendships as a way of being in the world, not a passing adolescent phase. Cam, a scholar of Foucault, is painfully aware of the gravity of such feeling, but for him it remains enframed at arms’ length by his willful intellectualization of it. “This is the record that will remain,” Cam thinks, cynically, “of that golden time, when Beau Larky nearly kissed me. Barthes 1978, 44, emphasis mine.” Love as metacommentary, complete with citations.

Cichosz plays with critical theory as this novel’s frame to deep and delightful effect. The book is suffused with the conceptual concerns of certain French theorists; especially, and more particularly, it is concerned with what those theorists have to say about love as a way of being in relationship to the other. Jacques Derrida famously said that he loved every object he deconstructed, and Cam lovingly deconstructs his relationship to Beau to the point where a co-constructed love—a lived experience with an “other”—is impossible. Though the reader is privy to both Cam and Beau’s respective points of view at different times during the book, Cam’s perspective is primary; even his name, “Cam,” evoking “camera,” marks him as the Lacanian gaze, where “Beau,” French for (masculine) “beauty,” names the object of that gaze. Beau is an actual photographer—usually the one framing up the picture, but he needs Cam’s gaze to exist. Beau is constantly acknowledging and deflecting Cam’s gaze, and Lacan might argue that Cam’s reality disintegrates without the self-awareness that the object of his gaze provides.

… Cam lovingly deconstructs his relationship to Beau to the point where a co-constructed love—a lived experience with an ‘other’—is impossible.

Of all of les suspects habituels of the French post-structuralist canon, Roland Barthes is the most consistently visible theorist in this novel. Each section begins with an epigraph from Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, a text that is simultaneously erotic and cynical, in that it frames the lover almost always alone and longing at best, and smothering or mis-representing and thereby obliterating the other, love’s object, at worst. Cam carries around a grey, worn-out copy of the book and even reads aloud from it to Beau in the aforementioned idyllic summer scene. Cam seems to fear Barthes’ declaration that “[t]he lover’s discourse stifles the other, who finds no place for his own language beneath this massive utterance…” and avoids stifling Beau by avoiding “his own language.” True to Barthes’ take, Cam becomes quite “odious” and “monstrous” in his avoidance. Stacey, also a theorist, and, to her credit, less careful with Beau, gives Beau a copy of Barthes’ Camera Lucida, which seems fitting. Beau maintains an easygoing distance from the world, a coping mechanism from a childhood of foster homes; “for me,” writes Barthes, in Camera Lucida, “the noise of Time is not sad […] cameras […] were clocks for seeing.” Beau’s own denial of the depth of his relation with Cam is an effect of his avoidance of emotional involvement in the world in general.

Though I point out each of these links to theory with artless systematicity, Cichosz does no such thing—the book reads like a page-turner, it makes these experiments without calling attention to them.

But for all of its self-denying and second-guessing, we can also take Cam and Beau’s frustration as a productive relation (spoiler alert: the relation turns out to be as productive as it is frustrating). The most nuanced theoretical thread in the novel is its exercise in Deleuzean intersubjectivity and desire (which, of course, owes much to Foucauldian intersubjectivity and desire). Deleuze finds in the beloved the particular, and sees desire as an end in itself. There is no love before the emerging plane of contact between these particular bodies (or bodies without organs) and these particular psyches (or packs of multiplicities). Via Deleuze, the statement of love is a tawdry afterthought, a “productive statement” that acts in the dimension of discourse. One can imagine Beau repeating Deleuze’s famous line, “‘I love you’ (or whatever)” with the “whatever” being an acknowledgement of the sheer inanity of trying to put the unspeakable interpenetration that is so-called “love” into words. It is Foucault’s attitude towards the speaking-aloud of such things that Beau seems to take most to heart.  Foucault calls silence between speakers, the things left unsaid, “an element that functions alongside the things said,” or a form of discourse in itself, and in the History of Sexuality he proposes to “determine the different ways of not saying such things.” He famously loved the careful code by which gay men sought and recognized each other, even going so far as to find the more boldly public, “out” gay culture of 1980s California lacking the subtlety of his so-named silent discourse. He also wrote of the much heavier care and interdependent relation brought to bear by HIV/AIDS on the gay community. Cam’s care for Beau while he is ill is clearly of this kind: “I’d seen him through that, nobody but me, and said nothing, and that was love. That was what love was, beyond anything someone sixteen and breathless could imagine.”

Though I point out each of these links to theory with artless systematicity, Cichosz does no such thing—the book reads like a page-turner, it makes these experiments without calling attention to them. Barthes distinguishes between “readerly” texts and “writerly” ones, and Cam & Beau is both. The only problem is the intervening woman, Stacey, who reads almost as a villain in this story, and whom Cichosz gives relatively short shrift as a person (to say nothing of how Cam ends up allowing himself to use her). But this is less a problem with the book than it is a problematic that a well-told story calls to our attention: the set of circumstances around Stacey’s character is undeniably believable. At the end of the book, the circumstances around all of the characters are at an interesting point of flux, and one wonders how an ever-after can possibly play out. It can’t, of course—there’s another story, not a story of young love, ahead for them. Cam & Beau leaves you wanting to read it.


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera lucida: Reflections on photography. Macmillan, 1981.

Barthes, Roland. A lover’s discourse: Fragments. Macmillan, 1978.

Deleuze, Gilles. & Guattari, Felix. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Trans. by Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1987.

Foucault, Michel. “Friendship as a way of life.” The Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume One – Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow, translated by Robert Hurley, The New Press, 1997, pp.135-140.

Foucault, Michel. The history of sexuality: An introduction, volume I. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1990.


 


Kate Maddalena is a media theorist and scholar of science communication. She is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, where she teaches professional writing and communication at the Institute of Communication, Culture, and Information Technology.

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