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Liminal: Jordan Tannahill's triumphant not-autobiography 23 January 2018.
by Drew Rowsome-
Before saying anything else about Jordan Tannahill's novel Liminal, it is important to note that it is a very entertaining and absorbing read, a remarkable powerful book. Like Tannahill's theatrical works (Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom, Concord Floral, Late Company, The Magic, Post Eden), a description/discussion of the ideas, themes, process or structure, can be daunting, and obscure the populist pleasures of the works. Liminal begins with the protagonist, also named Jordan Tannahill and having many biographical similarities, watching his mother in bed and trying to determine if she is sleeping or dead. It is a mystery, a fear, that links the entire extraordinary novel together.
From there Tannahill weaves the protagonist's autobiography with a multitude of philosophical, scientific, technological and anthropological theories in an exploration of just what death might mean. Oh, and also confronts his own inability to be emotional instead of just intellectual. This is where Tannahill shows his literary skill, each concept is approached with wonder and simplicity, sharing his fascination rather than strutting or demonstrating his knowledge.
As well as intersecting with the "autobiographical" thread of the novel, the theoretical discussions are triggered by debates about the meaning of life and cognition that form the introduction to the protagonist's evolving relationship with his mother. And, as with all gay men, the mother is key. Making that relationship work, opens the protagonist to making other relationships, and his life, work. To opening his heart as well as his brain and sexuality.
The protagonist's adventures are varied and frequently specific moments clarify a point, but are often more tangentially connected and designed to resonant as the character grows. It is here that I must insert a disclaimer as it is hard to read Liminal, and I suspect this was intentional, without reading it as biographical. Many of the details are lifted from or are from Tannahill's life: the rise and demise of Videofag being the most obvious. But any of us who were there or were part of the theatre world during Tannahill's rise within it, will see places where events and people have been altered or exaggerated/diminished to fit into Tannhill's narrative and themes. For anyone to whom this is new, it will feel utterly authentic, real and brutally honest.
It is always exhilarating to read tales of struggles to make it in the arts, and though the fictional Tannahill downplays the real Tannahill's successes, it rings true. There is a bit of a disconnect between the poverty and suffering implied and the millennial privilege that is exercised, but Tannahill is self-effacing and modest and gets away with it. He is also refreshingly blunt about the sexual aspects and acts of a gay man finding himself: the passages dealing with an older gay couple are among the most moving in a book that is cumulatively, powerfully emotional.
As the protagonist ventures to Mexico to observe plastic surgery on a transsexual artist, braves Burning Man, dabbles in porn, learns to act and not-act and make theatre, visits an uninhibited bathhouse, explores boundaries with a fag hag, and learns what love might be - all while exploring the intellectual implications of life and death - Tannahill keeps flashing back to the central dilemma in his mother's bedroom. Balancing on the unknown, the cusp of life or death, is a dramatic place to be and it opens the past, in all its pain and glory, with intensity. Tannahill's prose is up to the task and he seems to enjoy ratcheting the suspense so that once one begins reading Liminal, it is impossible to put down.