A Mad Bent Diva: David Bateman's collection of life affirming death threats, vignettes, and epithets
by DREW ROWSOME-
Throughout the sumptuous collection that is A Mad Bent Diva: a collection of life affirming death threats, vignettes, and epithets, author David Bateman casually mentions that his work - encompassing poetry, theatre, performance art and other fine arts beyond his writings - is creative non-fiction or fictionalized autobiography. And, despite digressions into short stories and the aforementioned "vignettes," the overall effect of A Mad Bent Diva is of a fragmented biography, shattered sepia shards of memory arranged for emotional effect and truth rather than narrative thrust or life justification.
Bateman writes of a character,
He considered all of life a performance and every encounter, sexual or otherwise, a rehearsal for an opening that would never happen . . . he was never able to move beyond metaphor and into a world of concrete reality - if it in fact existed in the first place.
And of another, or the same, character,
I grew up immersed in Nana's songs and stories, haunted by my gradual disbelief in everything she sang and told, from songs of lady mice marrying gentlemen frogs to tales providing puritan titillation and righteous indignation. I was enchanted by the quiet flow of her tender fervour, coming to believe that finally stories are just the things we tell ourselves to make up lives to lead and listen to, inventing new narratives to thrill us and keep us safe from things that should never frighten us. Now I spend my life in stories I have told and told and told.
A Mad Bent Diva is also a remarkable, and welcome, portrait of the contradictions, wonder, and erotic joy and horror of gay life.
Bateman writes without a filter but framed in a gauzy, ethereal haze of melancholy and befuddlement. There is a wise quote about writing that says, paraphrased and alas uncredited here, "Don't write what you know, write what you don't want others to know about you." Bateman takes that to heart and writes about loving the men who are wrong for you, the dangers and delights of gay sex, living well with HIV and near-poverty, the sexual tension between children and parents, effeminacy, sex with authority figures and celebrities, suicide, gender and sexual fluidity, and even bisexuality. But he writes it all with a sense of wonder and joyful innocence that wraps it all in a glow of fascination instead of judgement or regret.
The characters, shifting from third to first person and all unreliable narrators speaking Bateman's truth, aspire to be Wilde or Coward and sometimes are. And sometimes they are just bitchy as they walk the line between epigram and insult, it is true gay-speak with all its contradictions and comedy. It is the equivalence of Bateman's graceful writing style, occasionally verbose, but always radiating beauty and intrigue, an evening glove concealing the fist within. Each sentence is a joy to savour.
The structure of A Mad Bent Diva is a bit deceptive. It begins with actual short stories, all clever but some straining to stay within the confines of the form and struggling to land their punchlines effectively, before coming unmoored and moving into a more free-flowing thematic grouping of tales, or "vignettes, and epithets." Liberated from strictures, the accumulation of metaphors and ideas coalesce subtly to create a portrait, a history, that is more mood than possibly factual.
I first met Batemen when he performed at Cheap Queers singing a wistful, mysterious and haunting version of "Lemon Tree" while dressed in glowing lights. It was comical, disturbing and delightful - much like A Mad Bent Diva - and evoked an emotional response far beyond its apparent simplicity. Over the years I met Bateman at theatre openings (he writes erudite reviews at batemanreviews.blogspot.com), Naked Night at the late-lamented Toolbox, and some of his own performances (People Are Horrible Wherever You Go, The Case of the Golden Purse), but that only provided an impression, a foggy water colour conception of who this artist is.
Mad Bent Diva doesn't help, it is a seductive portrait but it is an incomplete one, definitely creative non-fiction, infinitely fascinating and irresistible to read but studiedly opaque, the spotlight reveals what the author intends. There are quotes and references in A Mad Bent Diva from influences from across the gay/camp galaxy of role models - Jacqueline Susann, Xavieria Hollander, Tom Selleck, AA Milne and even Margaret Laurence - and that feels just about right. A gay man is the culmination of millions of bits of identity theft, careful pilfering of mannerisms and philosophies, wanton appropriation of witticisms, and fashion emulation. Bateman writes, maybe about himself, maybe about a character,
His mother loved Liberace, but he could never get past the flamboyance, not until he began to recognize his own. Moving from pre-teen angel into effeminate adolescent and then middle-aged queen was not such an easy transition. But he managed with as much grace as he could muster.
Bateman manages enough grace to create A Mad Bent Diva who is, whether real or a fabulous gay conjuring, unforgettable.