TK421's Reviews > I Look Divine

I Look Divine by Christopher Coe
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Jan 30, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: literary
Read in January, 2012

Sometimes, when I am in a rut for reading material, I try to find a slim novel that helps purge my brain. That’s not to say that I look for fluff; this exercise merely allows me to read a novel quickly, not spend too much time with the story or the characters. Admittedly, most of these types of novels have been of the science fiction variety. Few have been “literary.”

So, the other night I was in one of these funks. I knew I was about to embark upon a reading experience with John Updike so my mind kept wandering toward my bookshelves, looking for a “quick read.” I have about 400 books I have not read in my collection…science fiction, mystery, literature, crime…but, for some reason, my eye caught I LOOK DIVINE by Christopher Coe. Nothing I did was going to dissuade me from reading this novel. It fit all my requirements: slim (109 pages), sparse/crisp writing, few creative acrobatics, and an easy reading style. Perfect.

Or, so I thought. You see, sometimes, these novels pack a heckofa left hook.

I LOOK DIVINE is the story of Nicolas, told through the memories of his unnamed older brother. Nicolas is a homosexual with a few eccentricities. Besides being a certified genius, he chooses phrases or words that represent him for that year, words like: élan, panache, de trop. He may not use them correctly to society’s standards, but in his world they work. Nicolas is also obsessed with his face. He refuses to even be photographed with a smile; those pictures that are taken when he is smiling he ruins. He requires that he be posing in a photograph, nothing is natural, uncensored. When talking to prospective partners, Nicolas reinvents his life. But, again, there is more to it than just that. You see, Nicolas will reinvent all parts of his story. For instance, when discussing his birth with a rich man at a bar in France, Nicolas not only makes up a story about how he was conceived in one of the rooms upstairs, he also makes up the date, the setting, the people involved. The only thing Nicolas never makes up his brother. For this reader, I was both appalled by Nicolas’s narcissism and vanity, and, strangely, enthralled and eager to read what lie he was going to say next. While reading, images and thoughts of Dorian Gray kept popping up in my head. But all of this is seemingly innocent. Unfortunately, Nicolas has a darker side. He is prone to make fun of people with his incredible knack of duplicating the person’s voice he is trying to make fun of. The more this happens in the book the darker and more malicious these acts become. Most noticeably, when Nicolas and his brother are in a piano bar, after having been in a seedy bar that Nicolas frequents to troll, Nicolas mocks the lounge singer after he convinces the piano player to play the same song that the singer previously sang. At first, I thought this was funny. But as the episode unfolded, Coe had an agenda. He wanted the reader to hate Nicolas. He wanted Nicolas to be despised. It worked. I did hate Nicolas for his outward cruelty. The only saving grace for Nicolas was his brother. Coe writes the seen so well:

I thought about the time, the practice, that Nicolas must have gone to, to teach himself to sing so exactly like the singer.

I asked him why he had not sung with his own voice, like himself.

Nicolas gave me a look that told me I had missed something.

“Why would I sing like myself?” my brother asked me. “I have never done anything like myself.”

SNAP! I finally got it. After reading 103 pages of a 109 page novella, I finally began to understand Nicolas. He wasn’t being malicious for malicious’ sake, he was being malicious because he can’t control what mask he wears. For Nicolas, the world is a big stage, he the star performer. Sometimes his roles are innocent, as when he was a child. But, as age closed in on him, and his looks faded, and money lost that fake luster of happiness, Nicolas was only good at roles that served the purpose of him one-upping another individual. Again, this may not seem as such an emotional impact, but once the reader realizes, and it is mentioned a few times obscurely throughout the text, that Nicolas was murdered by one of his lovers, does true empathy for Nicolas come out from the reader.

I LOOK DIVINE was Mr. Coe’s first novel. He only published one more before his own untimely death from AIDS at the age of 41. For my money, Coe is as a powerful writer as any that came out of the 1980’s New York scene; I’m looking at you Brett Easton Ellis, and, you too, Donna Tartt, and, though I hate to admit it, even you Jay McInerney.

In summation: The best way to leave you is with what the New York Times said of Mr. Coe’s novel I LOOK DIVINE: “a daring novel, with unflinchingly honest characters…[Coe] is about the truth of [his] character’s hearts.”

Not bad for a slim novel, eh?


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Reading Progress

01/30/2012 page 109
100.0% "A truly remarkable read! Sad, thought-provoking, and leaves the reader with deep introspection. Stunning."

Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Richard (last edited Jan 31, 2012 08:43AM) (new)

Richard Derus For my money, Coe is as a powerful writer as any that came out of the 1980’s New York scene; I’m looking at you Brett Easton Ellis, and, you too, Donna Tartt, and, though I hate to admit it, even you Jay McInerney.

Complete, total agreement from me. Your appreciation-cum-review would get three likes from me if I could.


TK421 Richard wrote: "For my money, Coe is as a powerful writer as any that came out of the 1980’s New York scene; I’m looking at you Brett Easton Ellis, and, you too, Donna Tartt, and, though I hate to admit it, even y..."

Thank you, sir. It is tragic, IMO, that more people have not read this.


message 3: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus He died before he got the full measure of fame he earned. I guess I see it, in practical terms, but it still irks me mightily.


message 4: by TK421 (last edited Jan 31, 2012 09:07AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

TK421 Richard wrote: "He died before he got the full measure of fame he earned. I guess I see it, in practical terms, but it still irks me mightily."

I guess my beef is this: Where are his contemporaries? Why haven't they spoken out about his brillance. David Leavitt and Amy Hempel both laud the novella, where are the others?


message 5: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus I can't imagine who else would...careerists like Ellis, Tartt, McInerney wouldn't and in the case of the men, couldn't lest they be seen as pro-gay. My generation of Murrikin men still worry about that. The one after us, that we screwed up in a variety of other ways, they don't see the issue.


TK421 Richard wrote: "I can't imagine who else would...careerists like Ellis, Tartt, McInerney wouldn't and in the case of the men, couldn't lest they be seen as pro-gay. My generation of Murrikin men still worry about ..."

Good points. If any of my writings ever do get a wider audience, be sure to know that I will make it a point to mention Coe as an influence.


message 7: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus Prominently! Using words like "shamefully neglected" and "shockingly under-read," I hope.


TK421 Of course. What else would I say? Perhaps I would work in the word woeful.


message 9: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus "Woefully underappreciated."

"In today's woeful landscape of wanna-bes and never-wases, Coe's shameful neglect becomes all the more outrageous."

I'm pretty good at indignation.


TK421 I tip my cap at you. Well done, sir.


message 11: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant So I read Such Times years ago and loved it - you'd love it too - but I a) never head of this one and b) hadn't known of the author's death, which was a bit of a jolt. Great review.


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