... the Chinese boxes of White’s metafiction become ever more fantastically interlocked ... we can’t help but remember that it is White penning these pitiless descriptions of impotence and age, and it is perhaps in these truly hard to read passages that we glimpse the driving impulse behind the book. No matter how elaborately cultured or crudely pornographic the prose gets, it still crackles with a heartfelt insistence that the old and hungry have as much to tell us about the dynamics of sex as the young and sated ... Back in the now-distant 1970s and 80s, White’s dazzling first quartet of novels forever enlarged what gay writing might do with its then newly found freedoms. With this latest report from the frontiers of desire, he has triumphantly dared to continue that project. A Previous Life is elegant, filthy – and quite possibly the queerest thing you will read all year.
... a sometimes humorous and nearly always irreverent tale about love and aging that is experimental in execution if not quite in theme ... Given that this is an Edmund White novel—his work can often be unpredictable and striking––fiction and real life sometimes overlap, especially when one of Ruggero’s affairs is with White himself. The result is an erotically charged literary romp facing the loss of physical beauty and the inevitable passage of time.
One of the peculiarities of the book is that it is mainly set in 2050—although little is made of this, except for the odd jokey allusion to the past, such as White’s disingenuous references to himself as 'the forgotten gay novelist of the twentieth century'. Which begs the question of why anyone should care whether Ruggero had ruined the life of such a neglected figure ... Among the many puzzles of the book is why Constance, who purportedly wrote its final chapters, should choose to focus on the affair between her former husband and a man who died before they met. She has long been sidelined, just as the original premise of the related histories has been discarded. As if to pre-empt criticism of the overfamiliar material, Edmund White the character maintains that 'writers long in the tooth started repeating themselves'. It is hard to deny the sense of Edmund White the author being a prime offender.
... sometimes A Previous Life reads like a fever dream of morning pages, an erotic diversion between the two that we have been invited to voyeuristically experience. White jumps from rhapsodies on Shostakovich to explications of intercourse with various synonyms for parts of the male anatomy.
White’s new novel is one of those outright catastrophes you can hardly believe made it off the editor’s desk. At once artless and affected, it rambles with mind-boggling carelessness between metafictional conceits and contradictory time-schemes before petering out altogether ... ends up like a circle jerk with one man in it ... Unfortunately, White makes little attempt to differentiate the two voices, which speak in paragraphs as aimlessly picaresque as the novel itself ... The back and forth is overwhelmed by the fustian Ruggero, with featureless Constance increasingly crowded out. What we do find out about Constance feels ham-fistedly contrived to provoke a younger (and better) generation of writers ... the dialogue is bad, the erotic writing is joyless, and the book is riddled with grammatical errors ... Elsewhere we find blunt inconsistencies ... Throughout this novel the author fails to do the basics. He can’t sustain a time scheme or a conceit, forgets his place, contradicts himself and changes tense for no reason. He seems to have lost all relish for language. He reserves his powers of observation and imaginative sympathy for himself. A Previous Life is a mess, and it badly needed an editor, but what it needed most of all was a writer.
He's handsome, wealthy, athletic, highly intelligent (as he reminds us frequently), multilingual, sexually irresistible, musically gifted. Ruggero, the bisexual Sicilian harpsichordist at the center of A Previous Life, the newest novel by Edmund White, is also, well, dull. Only slightly more interesting is his late-in-life wife, Constance ... The setup is intriguing. Will they be honest with each other in their memories, or withholding? Will we be made to care? White nimbly switches between the voices and writing rhythms of Ruggero and Constance, drawing us into their colorful stories, which lean heavily toward the carnal. White, who deserves his status as an icon of gay letters, always has written frankly about sex. In A Previous Life he tackles bisexuality with explicit gusto but comes away with what are scarcely more than stereotypes: that a bisexual woman is fluid about partners, sleeping with people she is drawn to emotionally regardless of their gender, and that a bisexual man is just masking his basic gayness ... Confoundingly, White allows Ruggero to remain unevolved. He is vain and narcissistic as a young man, in middle age and in his dotage, never seeming to realize how his superiority complex cuts him off from mere mortals, makes him a boorish bore with no sense of humor.
... an erotically charged and ingenious metafictional story of a married couple ... Through it all, the author hands his characters indelible lines to express their self-knowledge, which often yield insights on gender fluidity and sexuality ... It adds up to a dizzyingly enticing and kaleidoscopic take on the spectrum of sexual experiences.