I hate André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. I try not to hate things. It’s so rare that I genuinely hate a book. It’s especially troubling in this case provided how many people whose opinions I value have enjoyed this novel. But I just can’t do it. I hated it so much I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I’ve given up on books before because they’re tedious, because they’re not what I thought they were, because I felt like the writing wasn’t speaking to me. But Call Me By Your Name is one of the few times I’ve given up on a book because it gave me such a visceral reaction of frustration, sadness, and distance from my own identity.
Now, because I’m obsessed with nuance and not undermining the feelings of others, I say that and I’m immediately compelled to add that you don’t have to hate it too. I see that the writing, tone, and structure in Call Me are all excellent. Aciman is by all means a talented author.
Admittedly there’s a personal taste level to why I dislike this novel. As a relatively straightforward, narrative-focused person, I don’t enjoy beautiful language for its own sake. Plotless literary novels have never appealed to me, and many common techniques in literary fiction are like nails on a chalkboard to me. The actions that the narration keeps returning to, like Oliver’s drinking apricot juice and smacking his lips or the descriptions of bathing suits or the fixation on Oliver’s saying “Later” all the time—I can’t stand it. I don’t enjoy excessive rhetorical flourishes and that’s a huge problem here because most the novel is those flourishes. Call Me is a journey through eroticiscm in language. Maybe a point or two about youthful sexual fascination is explored, but that’s far from the main purpose of this book. So on some level I wasn’t going to like this book anyway because it’s not the way I enjoy reading.
As previously mentioned, it is especially disheartening for me to hate this book because it is so beloved by many. It is one of the few queer novels in the mainstream literary canon. Yet this widespread appreciation in itself bothers me because people seem to like it for all the wrong reasons. Call Me By Your Name is constructed, marketed, and comes off like a romance. Claiming this book as romance feels like calling Lolita a romance. Not in the pedophilic sense, rather that the relationship between our two protagonists is this mean-spirited practice of manipulative give-and-take that people gloss over. These characters treat each other like shit for no reason other than that they’re pretentious, emotionally distant fucks. Yet reviewers seem to be sympathetic to them, see where they’re coming from. Or they’re at least interested in these problems that aren’t problems.
Although unlikeable protagonists aren’t needed in a good book, I haven’t seen readers even put Call Me By Your Name‘s protagonists into this context. I’ve read a number of reviewers who actually like or identify with Elio. The author himself seems to want us to sweetly wallow in the attraction and relationship between these two dudes. Perhaps it’s just a personality thing, but I can’t identify even remotely with the constant “Are we? Aren’t we? What are we? I’m suspicious and petty so I’m going to go have sex with somebody else out of spite now” of the narrative. This narrative elevates suffering and making others suffer out of erotic compulsion into aesthetic pleasure, and that is bizarre to me.
The setting is evocative, sensual, beautiful. I can understand appreciating the novel for its textured language, the way it establishes and weaves you through this Italian villa and its surrounding locales. But again, it’s tough for me to be so enraptured because the novel takes it on faith that you should care about these dudes despite how they have no problems beyond their own dicks and their egos. Why am I supposed to care about the erotic problems of pretentious white men who have every privilege in the world and ultimately can’t even face themselves?
That’s the main thing for me. I don’t know why this book is so embraced by gay men—I may not have read the whole thing so perhaps I’m misguided (though I can’t finish it for my own mental health so don’t say I should), but it appears to treat same-sex attraction as a youthful dalliance. I’m so sick of this trope, the use of homosexual attraction as a (seemingly) idyllic memory of youth instead of a present reality. It makes me feel like same-sex attraction isn’t valid. Like it’s an aesthetic flair, rather than an identity or a means to build community. Something that has no bearing on our present.
Can you appreciate Call Me By Your Name? I mean, yeah. Because, again, I don’t mean to invalidate your enjoyment of the book. I just need to air these grievances. I can’t see how people read this and see themselves in it, or how they can feel anything other than miserable while reading it. The only other novel I can think of that has caused a similar reaction in me was Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which I’ve written about before. But this was worse because where Franzen sits on his pedestal and pokes fun at his cynical interpretation of humanity, Call Me By Your Name seems to want us to believe that this cynical interpretation is actually beautiful.
Problematic elements are not essential to good literature, so Call Me‘s fickle, pretentious, shitty protagonists don’t need to be these perfect dudes with politically correct views and no personality flaws who wind up together forever embracing the gay side of their sexual spectrum and volunteer at their local JCC on the weekends to boot. Nor does Aciman necessarily need to moralize the behavior of these protagonists. But what I’m worried about is people thinking that there are no problematic elements to Call Me, to not engage with the morality of the story at all, that this romantic veneer is the way Aciman and his readers actually see and process and understand toxic erotic obsession. Yeah no, fuck that.