Call Me By Your Name: More Thoughts

call-me-by-your-nameA week after reading it for the first time, I read Call Me By Your Name again. Actually, I listened to it again, which is practically unheard of for me. In fact, I’ve never re-listened to an audiobook (although I have a few on my list). But this book was so lush and so layered that I was drawn back into it almost immediately. If anything, it was better the second time around. There is just so much going on in this novel–it’s staggering. It’s the kind of book that makes me wish I was in school, because I’d really like to read a paper about it

In lieu of that, here are some of the things that struck me upon rereading this novel. If you’re interested, you can read my original review here. This one contains mild spoilers.

One of the biggest takeaways from my second read was just how brilliantly messy the characters are. Elio and Oliver, but Elio especially (mostly because we are so immersed in his POV) is so imperfect. He is almost painfully honest with himself (even when he’s analyzing his own denial), and this makes him such a full, whole character. He’s exploring and coming to know himself over the course of the book, and it’s not always a good, clean, neat process. His exploration is many-faceted–sexual, intellectual, emotional–and sometimes his thoughts/discoveries/desires are dark, or messy, or unhealthy.

I fell down a Goodreads rabbit hole (I don’t recommend this) after falling in love with this book, and was interested to find a theme among negative reviews: namely, that Elio’s character is not good or moral, and condemning the age gap in his relationship with Oliver. This got me thinking about representation in literature. Good representation is important, but it’s also dangerous to hold characters from marginalized communities up to higher (or different) moral standards as it is to write them as stereotypes.

Here’s the thing: people–all people–are messy as hell. Sometimes we fall in love with people we maybe shouldn’t. Sometimes teenagers fall in love with people who are not teenagers. Sometime’s those relationships are abusive and unhealthy; sometimes they’re not. Relationships–gay, straight, sexual, non-sexual–are rarely just one thing or another. Though Elio and Oliver, Aciman explores all of that complexity. He doesn’t pass judgment on his characters. There’s no moral in this book. It’s simply a whole, true, nuanced portrait of desire, as illustrated by one particular relationship.

Their age gap matters. It’s clear that these two people experience the relationship different, and some of that has to do with their age. Elio obsesses in a way that Oliver does not, and I think some of that has to do with the fact that he’s seventeen. There’s certainly power dynamics at play, and age is a part of that, too. So is gender. But power dynamics are a part of every relationship, whether there’s an age gap or not. What makes this book so remarkable is how deeply Aciman delves into it all, while still telling a highly specific story. Everything that happens has to do with these specific characters–yes, their ages, and that they’re both men, but also their interests, their personalities, their fears, their experiences. Everything matters, and this, I think, is why is’s both so relatable and so unique.

I wrote about intimacy in my first review of this book, but on the second read, I was struck again, and even more so, by the depth and honesty with which Aciman portrays intimacy and desire. He gets at a truth that can be scary–that desire is sometimes dark. Sometimes humans think things we do not want to think, or have fantasies that scare us. Sometimes we don’t understand what we want, or why, and sharing all those insecurities with another person is terrifying. This book explores that so honestly and explicitly–through Elio’s fantasies, through the sex scenes, and through what happens after sex.

Intimacy, I think, is about finding safety, for your whole self, with another person. But getting there is often scary. What people reveal to each other, on their way to intimacy, is often far from safe. That’s what is at the core of this book–that unsafe journey to a safe place. Aciman delves into the fullness of how desire works, especially for a young person or in an intense setting. It is not always neat and pretty.

I was blown away, even more so on the second read, by how Aciman plays with time. It appears to be a linear story, but it’s not. The narrative jumps around constantly, from the middle to the end to the beginning of the summer, retuning to certain moments again and again but not always in chronological order. This gives the book an immediacy and urgency–as if everything is happening all at once. Elio goes off on these long tangents, one moment reminding him of another that reminds him of another that leads him into a fantasy that eventually circles back to where he started. It’s not confusing, but mimics the way the mind actually works, moments expanding and contracting based on their importance. The narrative, in many ways, is reliant on time: when will he touch me again, when will I admit I like him, when will we kiss, when will we sleep together, when will he leave, what happens after? There’s a buildup to each of these moments, but the tension comes not from the linear timeline but the emotional one: how each moment, its buildup, its present, and its aftermath, feels to Elio.

Aciman is a master of the expansive moment. This book is full of them. Aciman is constantly expanding moments that are tiny but meaningful. It’s what, in my opinion, makes the book feel so authentic, because this is how we actually experience life. Our thoughts radiate outward in moments that seems to small to contain them. There’s one particularly beautiful passage (one of many) in which Elio describes Oliver touching his shoulder. This moment probably takes all of ten seconds, but the passage goes on forever: Elio analyzes how the touch makes him feel, his own reaction to it, Oliver’s reaction to his reaction, what it means, what he should do next, on and on and on. It’s one of the most poignant descriptions of what desire feels like–in body as well as brain–that I’ve ever read. Now imagine a book full of moments like that, and perhaps you start see why it is hard to breathe while reading this  novel.

In addition to the way he plays with time, Aciman also blends fantasy and reality to great effect. What came across the second time was how deeply the dialogue is a part of this. In the audio version, there were many moments when I wasn’t sure who was talking. I’d go back to read to that scene in print, and find it was the same. Aciman often disposes of dialogue tags, so you have to pay close attention to figure who is speaking. It adds to the sense of blending, of boundaries shifting and changing, of a losing and regaining of self.

It’s not just the lack of dialogue tags, either. Sometimes there’s just normal dialogue with quotation marks and indents. Sometimes the dialogue happens in a paragraph, switching between people but without the standard formatting. Sometimes there are no quotes at all. Sometimes it’s thought–or fantasy–in italics. I didn’t realize any of this until I looked at  the print version, but it comes through beautifully in the audio version. It all adds up to this sense of the permeability between reality and fantasy. Aciman is playing with the blending of self, the idea of “call me by your name I’ll call you by mine”. It took me two reads to really understand the technical brilliance which which Aciman pulls this off.

So much of this book that is an exploration of what we experience internally and it begs the question, what is real? There were some fantasy sequences, played out in Elio’s had, that were so richly detailed it was hard to image they weren’t real. I’m not arguing that fantasy is real, but the book explores the experience of the mind in really interesting ways. Is a thing less important if it only happens in our heads? Are our thoughts as real as our actions or words, even if they don’t exist in the physical world?

One last thing I didn’t pick up on on the first reading is the brilliance of the San Clemete Syndrome section. The whole first part of the book is so internal. It takes places pretty much inside Elio’s head, and though there are lots of other people around, in many ways Elio and Oliver exist apart from them, in their own reality, a world of their own making.

Then, they spend three days in Rome together, including the one magical night that Aciman describes in great detail. They go to a poetry reading, and then they go out with the poet and his friends afterwards. They have dinner, they go to a bar, and then Elio and Oliver wander the streets of Rome, singing and talking. It is all about connection–not just with each other, but with other people, with a city, with history. This whole section is so unlike the first two sections in so many ways. For once, Elio is not inside his head, but deeply present in the world.

At one point Elio says to Oliver, “I’m so happy,” and Oliver says, “you’re horny,” and Elio says, “no, happy.” It’s such a beautiful distinction and such a perfect description of a perfect night, the kind of night that stays with you forever, that you’re lucky to get a few times in your life: the people, the stories, the food, the wine, the night, the lights, the city, the love. I was less aware of how meaningful this was, on the first reading, but I think it matters tremendously that the two of them share this night, out in the world, with people. It changes their relationship and anchors it. While the first two-thirds of the book are about desire and obsession and possession, this section is purely about connection, purely about love.

This is also true about the last section of the book, which takes place fifteen years in the future. Though part of the strength of the novel has to do with how deeply Aciman is able to inhabit seventeen year old Elio’s head, the other part has to do with how he’s able to imagine Elio in the future, a grown man. The full impact of the summer doesn’t come full circle until that last section. I was so immersed in the intensity of the story that I didn’t quite see this the first time around. But reading it again, I was struck by how complete the book felt. Aciman could have ended the book at the end of the summer. But that would have been incomplete, not quite true, because the story didn’t end there. It’s much more courageous, I think, to take the story into the future–to allow the reader to see it from a different perceptive.

As you can see (if you read all the way down here!) this novel struck me in a way that few books do. Its technical brilliance, its beauty, its emotional impact. Not since reading Homegoing have I felt so passionate about a book. I’m looking forward to reading it again and again, delving into all those messy, beautiful layers.


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