... a novel about a TV star that feels just right ... As duBois charts the history of her chosen era, she does a fine job of summoning up the atmosphere of confusion and dread in the years immediately before the AIDS epidemic had a name ... While I understand that duBois needed what screenwriters call an inciting event to propel her narrative forward — forcing Mattie to reckon with what his reckless on-air persona has set loose — I prefer the novel’s shrewder explorations of Semi’s and Cel’s intense lives and casual musings ... [The spectators] is full of small pleasures that accumulate as proof that this writer knows her stuff ... DuBois’s mastery of... details earns our trust as she expands The Spectators into a billowing meditation on the responsibility of public figures to contribute something worthwhile to the culture. Although her book takes place decades ago, duBois’s message has a contemporary urgency as well.
A beautifully written, even aphoristic novel, but its greatest strength is its characterization: Semi and his gay friends, Cel and her mother and grandfather, and, of course, the always enigmatic Mattie are brilliantly conceived and, like the novel in which they star, utterly unforgettable.
duBois’ characters are so acutely drawn and vivid that Mattie’s enigmatism—his singular defining trait—serves to draw out the personalities of those around him ... duBois’ language is dextrous, and her pacing impressive. Although we never quite discover the mystery of Mattie, we grow to understand his perspective and his role in Semi’s life. The Spectators is a treatise on the media’s power and a finely-wrought example of intimate pain.
Considering the scope of Jennifer duBois’ third novel, The Spectators it’s especially impressive that she manages to elicit as much emotional and empathetic connection as she does ... Semi’s portions of the novel --- which trace the evolution of the gay community from that post-Stonewall heyday into the bleak horrors of the AIDS crisis --- are the more visceral and emotional ones in the book ... Cel’s portions have emotional heft, too --- not just the school shootings and their aftermath but also her interrogation of who she is and why she ended up in this place. However, her attempts to uncover the man behind the 'Mattie M.' mystique are less compelling than her own journey ... In addition to thoughtful portraits of her central characters, duBois peoples The Spectators with numerous well-drawn secondary characters, all of whom help ground the narrative and provide personal insights to round out her broad history.
An atmospheric chronicle of New York’s bohemian gay subculture in the freewheeling 1970s, a keening depiction of the AIDS-stricken '80s ... ranges widely to investigate contemporary culture through the complicated human beings who inhabit it ... characters sketched with acuity and perception ... Elegant, enigmatic, and haunting.
DuBois beautifully handles Semi’s half of the novel, told in first person, but the third-person Cel sections, in which she plays detective to piece together Mattie’s past life, lack the power of Semi’s. Though somewhat uneven, this is nevertheless a powerful novel.