A review of Seeing Through by Ricky Ian Gordon

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Seeing Through
A Chronicle of Sex, Drugs, and Opera
By Ricky Ian Gordon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
June 2024, ISBN 9780374605728, hardcover

I thought about writing this review using a sobriquet, but I decided not to.  Instead I’m going to be completely upfront and declare that I’m hugely biased about Seeing Through and definitely not an objective reviewer. Ricky Ian Gordon is my uncle and I love him. I lived through much of what he writes about in this book, albeit from a different angle, so the book has particular interest to me. Given our closeness in age, Ricky is more like an older brother than an uncle, and has been hugely influential in my own literary development. He sent me each chapter as it was written in its early, most tentative form, so I’m intimately connected to this book. One of the things I love most about Seeing Through is how clearly I can hear Ricky’s voice in it, and how much it feels like he’s telling me one of his always-at-the-ready anecdotes about someone super-famous he knows or a poem he wants me to read by a friend of his that I’m already a fan of, Marie Howe for example, which he has memorised in full.  You can stop reading this review now if that level of subjectivity bothers you. I won’t be offended. But I am a book reviewer and it feels wrong not to share my perceptions of Seeing Through, so if you do decide to keep reading, think of this as an endorsement and engagement rather than a critique. 

In spite of my extensive disclaimer, I have to say that Seeing Through is a funny, profound, painful, moving book that will bring the hairs up on the back of your neck, and change the way you perceive the world. If you love opera, you are in for a special treat, because Ricky is an eminent modern composer with a significant body of work including 27, which explores Gertrude Stein and Alice B Tolklas’ life at 27 rue de Fleurus where they lived from 1903 to 1938, A Coffin in Egypt based on the play by Horton Foote, Intimate Apparel, soon to be released as a Time Life recording, based on a play by Lynn Nottage, The Grapes of Wrath has just been performed by MasterVoices at Carnegie Hall, and a new show featuring Ricky’s poems, My Huit Chansons de Fleurs, which is about to be performed at the Kennedy Center. This is just a tiny portion of his work, much of which is explored in detail in Seeing Through, including life events happening while he was creating the operas, the insecurities and creative process in honest, often funny and often self-deprecating prose:

I don’t always write from beginning to end, in order. I have written about how in The Grapes of Wrath I picked hot spots that would get me going, partially so I could feel as if I had stones to build with and mostly to quell my fear of creating something so large. But with Intimate Apparel, I started from the beginning. Lynn’s set pieces are seamlessly sewn into the fabric of the piece, so instead of singling them out, I wanted to arrive at them organically so that I was at that point in the story and ready to write it as if I were living it. It created an urgency for me, an excitement in writing it. (414)

As the subtitle states, this is not solely about Ricky’s operatic work. Seeing Through is also a beautiful and harrowing memoir about coming-of-age in post World War II Long Island, the Suburban dream, a father’s smouldering PTSD, toxic masculinity in many forms and guises, a mother’s internalised trauma and its extended impact, sexual abuse, love, desire, grief, growing up gay, Jewish, and gifted amidst such a backdrop, studying arts at Carnegie Mellon in the 1970s, the AIDS crisis, and above all, the power of music to transform a lifetime worth of pain into astonishing beauty. Many of these themes are so honestly and painfully depicted that I know they will be helpful to others, shedding sunlight and healing on the shame of abuse and drug addiction. Seeing Through is a book of broad appeal that covers a lot of ground!

The AIDS chapter is particularly poignant, written in a series of sequential snapshots that reveal the extent of the devastation of this illness and the way in which it was politically ignored for many years through prejudice and fear. The impact on many of Ricky’s friends, colleagues, crushes and a litany of famous people, culminate in the death of his own partner Jeffrey Grossi. Even in the midst of this plague and the terrible death of so many beautiful people, most of whom I had a crush on as a teenager, there is always humour and a sense of the creative transformation which makes this book a constant joy to read. Ricky’s descriptions are so apt, darkly funny and full of delicious gossip, you want to commit them to memory for re-use: 

Everyone had a crush on Duncan. His hair was so thick it was as if his scalp were having a follicle festival, inviting all the hair everyone else, like me, had lost, to the party. His wardrobe was decidedly cinematic, based either on English movies about disaffected youths Tony Richardson might have directed, fops like Oscar Wilde, or movies by Godard, Truffaut, or Melville. Lou Reed even wanted Duncan to poop on him when he met him—that’s the kind of adoration he inspired (195)

Of course there is also the wonderful Kevin Doyle, the “fixer”, Ricky’s partner, who comes at nearly the end of the book with such warm, accepting charisma that you can’t help but fall in love with him (it will come as no surprise that I already love Kevin). Kevin feels like the culmination of a critical narrative arc. In spite of all the pain, and there is an incredible amount – much more than I was ever aware of growing up, Seeing Through is a powerful, uplifting and redemptive book full of poetry and music that feels, to me at least, like a wonderful gift. I can’t think of anyone who would be left unchanged by Seeing Through.