SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS
LOVE NOTES TO MEN WHO DON’T READ (LIMEHOUSE BOOKS) BY NORTH MORGAN.
Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read is a brand new book, the third novel by North Morgan. Personally, I loved it, which means that this essay might end up being very critical, because I hate myself and have an inherent distrust of my thoughts and feelings.
The novel has a tight first person perspective and offers us an insight into two years of the life and thoughts of Konrad Platt. Platt is an affluent man in his early to mid-thirties who leaves London in 2013 following the messy break-up of a long-term relationship. He moves to Los Angeles where, for the couple of years the novel covers, he fills his time with working out, partying, playing on the internet and having unfulfilling relationships and enjoyable casual hook-ups. He is body obsessive, about his own and other people’s, and every character who enters is described in physical detail. This is reminiscent of the brand consciousness of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, where each new character’s clothing is used to swiftly define them. Is judging a person by their muscle tone better than judging them by their clothing? I think they’re pretty much the same, especially in this context, where Platt’s favourite body type is muscular, muscle-bound, big assed – he’s into guys who have the free time and the money and the obsession with personal beauty to work out almost every single day. This is the setting of Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read: the international gay bro scene.
Everyone here aspires to the same look, physicality is central, the Body is worshipped, everyone wants bodies that look like theirs and they want their bodies to look like the bodies of people they want. Not people, men. Platt has little interest in women, especially women’s bodies. Women are conspicuous by their absence from this book, which is about extremes of masculinity, extremes of man, it is a homosocial text far more than it is a homosexual one: this is a book about men, unshackled from a) the repression of gay sexuality in the past, b) financial concerns and c) the heteronormative societal pressures on monogamy. It is Lord of the Flies but in the entire world instead of on an island. Also, no one dies, no one gets physically hurt and there’s no one epileptic: these are fit, healthy, men who are living a dream.
I referenced Bret Easton Ellis above on purpose, that wasn’t throwaway. Morgan reminds me of Easton Ellis due to his thematic interests, his intense opening up of a consciousness and his narcissistic acknowledgement of sex as a constant male concern (even body-shaped food turns men on: see this piece I wrote about simulating cunnilingus on a fried egg sandwich). With Easton Ellis, however, there is always a threat, there is always violence or corruption or horror waiting close by (more so as his career developed), but with Morgan we are safe, always. Platt is always in a safe space. Some of this, perhaps, comes from his physicality – he is gym honed, strong and physically fit, he prides himself on his tough masculinity and he isn’t the kind of person who would end up in trouble, despite being constantly surrounded by other tough, strong, men. In Morgan’s evocation of this lifestyle there is a very literal “gay community”, with a camaraderie, a brotherhood, amongst gay men, and with this comes freedom and physical (though not emotional) safety.
Platt’s world of privilege is the thing some readers might find alienating about Love Notes… Platt has a highly remunerative part time job that he can do from anywhere in the world, he can travel anywhere whenever he wants to. He has no responsibilities, no pets, no children, no relationship that lasts. He is free to do what he wants to do. And what he wants to do is fuck and get fucked, and the world of social media puts millions of potential hook-ups at his fingertips. He adds hot-bodied strangers who are thousands of miles away on Facebook and they chat, sometimes fucking when their paths cross months or years later. Grindr’s usefulness is self-evident, as too are all the other social media apps you can think of: any software, really, that allows the swift transfer of horny words, pictures and videos with someone who looks sexy. Everyone has a great body and everyone is looking for fun. The world that Konrad Platt exists in is internationalist, liberal, moneyed, connected, leisured. No one is tired from work, just from the gym; no one has money worries, no one has real worries about their body because they’re working out near daily, nothing worse than being cheated on ever happens to anyone, but as they all cheat themselves or fuck men who they know have boyfriends, the normalisation of promiscuity is accepted as an irrevocable truth. With clear and frank conversations and widespread understanding of health, everyone wears condoms and even when Platt hooks up with HIV positive guys, it’s not an issue. They all know what they’re doing and everything is consequence free.
It sounds fantastic.
My main fear, as I read through this engaging, hilarious, novel, was that it would turn moralising, was that it would crowbar in an encounter with a poor, obese, woman to highlight the distance of Platt’s life from the lives of the majority of people. It doesn’t. There is no 2am mugging, no conversation with a woman who works as a prostitute in a supermarket, no death from drug use, no sex disease (do people still call them “love bugs”?), no fight, no sickness, no serious muscle injury from over-exercise, no becoming overweight whilst bulking, no stock market collapse, nothing. This was, to be honest, fucking refreshing: Morgan’s book is about what it is about, the life of an affluent, international, single, toned, gay man. It doesn’t feel exaggerated, it feels exactly like the kind of behaviour any man would indulge in if he could. If I could move to California, have a guaranteed income that required little work and wasn’t painfully sexually repressed, I’d love to live like Platt. It sounds and it reads like a believable lifestyle, and North Morgan’s real life Instagram account looks pretty similar to how he describes Konrad Platt’s, albeit with more books.
Love Notes… is a very funny book, and I was laughing raucously from a few pages in. There are great send ups of heavy social media users, of gym fans, of ravers, of whatever a non-pejorative word is for people who have a lot of sex. Even though I’m not gay, muscular, single or connected (unless having met the people who run Open Pen counts [ed – lol not even]), I could constantly relate and was constantly amused.
Platt isn’t happy, he often thinks about the repetitive nature of his life and finds it unfulfilling, but he also finds it fun. Platt is trapped in an aspirational lifestyle that he really enjoys, but doesn’t necessarily like it when he reflects on it. But does anyone truly like their life? Is anyone happy when they think about the process of ageing, of mortality, of war and famine and disease and hatred and prejudice and these flesh cages we are all trapped inside in an existence none of us chose to begin? No, I don’t think so, I think deep down everyone is empty, there is a hole at the core of every individual that used to be filled with naive religion but is now covered up with intoxication, the internet, entertainment and sensual pleasure. Platt is behaving in a rational, understandable, way, and Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read is a well-written, very readable exploration of a particular lifestyle. The lack of women (there is one recurring female character and she is not sympathetic) or consideration of money are the factors I’m sure people looking to critique the book will cling onto, but I think that would be unfair.
This is a great novel about extremes of masculinity, about gym culture, hook-up culture, drug culture, one particular strand of gay culture: this is a funny, smart, knowing, book, and one that was a real pleasure to read. Getting exposed to great, new fiction like this is exactly why I took on this reviewing role. It is emotional, it is intelligent and it made me laugh over and over again. My one criticism would be the lack of detail in the sex scenes, but I’m a very prurient man, it comes with the repression.
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North Morgan will be reading from ‘Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read’ at Open Pen Live on Wed 28 Sep. Tickets available here.
Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read is out now and available in two formats priced at £14.99 and £8.99 online at Limehouse Books.