Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Such Times


Our book today is Such Times by Christopher Coe, and those nine words toll more sheer sadness than some whole books do. Because Such Times is one of the most winsome and powerful novels ever written about the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, and its author died of that epidemic while he was still only forty-one.

Such Times is one of the greatest AIDS novels ever written, and it is so very self consciously, since its author experienced the worst of that time and intentionally wove it into the story of a long-term love between two men.

Readers today will have little awareness of how bad it was, back when they were infants crawling on their parents' carpets. Right there in the heart of the modern age, this disease erupted - not in Somalia or South Queensland but in Manhattan, stalking and killing not the poor and wretched but the young and the pretty, every last one of whom was within cab-distance of Cedar Sinai medical center.

The problem, of course, was that this particular virus was new in the human population, and young viruses thrive on being new. They can cut a swath denied their older, more seasoned brethren, and they can do so for one simple reason - they've yet to learn the first rule of viruses: don't kill your host too quickly. If you do, you get the cellular satisfaction of a large body count, but you get called a scourge and sometimes you get the resources of whole governments turned to your destruction.

Unless you mostly target the right groups, which is the main reason why we can still, in 2008, talk about the scourge of AIDS. If the corn-fed populace of the American Midwest thought of AIDS as their epidemic, rather than a plague them homersexuals, well then money and research would have been forthcoming, especially in the reign of Ronald Reagan. Instead, scandalously, the American government in the '80s reacted in the same dilatory fashion toward a catastrophe engulfing gays as it did the American government two decades later toward a catastrophe engulfing the blacks of New Orleans.

Coe's a smart enough author to make generous use of his tragic backdrop but not to let it override his story. There's dark humor here, and a perfect ear for dialogue, and some beautifully wrought vignettes of life in a different era. But necessarily the main mood of the book is grief, and it's always perfectly invoked:

There may have been a day this year when I thought of him as dead right off, the first time he came to mind. Most days I think of him as though he is alive. It can happen anywhere. Walking on a street, reading a magazine, I will see a listing for a concert, a review of a movie, a new place to go for dinner, and will think: Jasper and I should hear that, see that, go there. My mind then works out of habit to remember what date we made, when Jasper said we would see each other next. When this happens, it only takes a second, maybe not even as long as that; it is quick, not a time you can measure by a watch, but most of my life is contained in that time.

AIDS in America has become a 'manageable' disease in the 21st century, which has the unlooked-for side effect of throwing the initial onslaught of the epidemic into a weird kind of alternate-history, prompting the few survivors to look around themselves bewildered and ask, did it all really happen? The roll-call of their lost friends will assure them it did, but the literature of the disease has no such apparent consolations. It exists always in a state of culpable improbability - full-blown plague years, unfolding in the heart of the most medically sophisticated society in the history of the world. The literature indicts, and it does so by its very absences - here are writers who will never produce derivative autumnal works, or confound expectations, or rise above them. They're silent now, and Christopher Coe with them, except for the books we already have. Such Times is one of the best of those books, and we here at Stevereads sadly but earnestly recommend it.

14 comments:

Hippolyta said...

Have you seen (or read) Angels in America? Either the play or the movie? After reading your latest post I think you might like it.

Oh, and hello again!

I actually wandered back on to your site to see if you mention anything anywhere about Ursula Le Guin. I just finished Lathe of Heaven, which I couldn't put down, and am now desperate for more books like it, eiher by her or similar authors... Any suggestions? I did see your top sci-fi post, but I guess I'm looking for books that are similar in theme, or at least maybe books that inspire similar introspection. Don't get me wrong, I like Le Guin's other books as well, but Lathe is just different.

Kevin said...

Hey, welcome back!

Sam said...

Is this book still in print? I hate when I've never heard of books I clearly should know about. I work at an AIDS-charity bookstore in Manhattan, for crying out loud.

I know about 'The Lathe of Heaven,' though, and it is great! Thanks for the save, Hippolyta.

steve said...

'The Lathe of Heaven' IS great - in my opinion, the greatest book LeGuin ever wrote (with all due respect to the legions of fans who'd nominate either "The Left Hand of Darkness" or "The Dispossessed").

I can't recommend highly enough Diane English's great script adaptation of "The Lathe of Heaven" for the 1980 TV production (with a hapless Bruce Davison as George Orr, and the great Kevin Conway as Doctor Haber) ... it's enormously good, one of the best science fiction movies ever made.

steve said...

I might also take a moment to recommend LeGuin's new book "Lavinia," in which she does what so many writers who started in science fiction end up doing: she turns to 'writing' the classics - in this case the story of the Aeneid told from the point of view of the hapless Italian girl who's slated to be the bride of Aeneas. It's really very good, and playful as all get-out.

steve said...

Sadly, I believe "Such Times" is indeed out of print (I should research these things to a fare-thee-well and then add an in-or-out of print rating with each review) - as is another, er, seminal work of AIDS fiction, "The Body and Its Dangers." Which is also highly recommended.

steve said...

Oh, and welcome back, Hippolyta! Your return to the hurly-burly of the Stevereads comments field gives restored hope to all the mouth-breathing virgins among its readers, all of whom will now rush upstairs and tell their parents that if they just roll their poly-sided dice exactly right, you might deign to look in their direction for a few seconds. It's more than the little bastids deserve, but I'm sure they're grateful anyway!

steve said...

And yes, I'm know "Angels in America" well - both the play and the delightful movie. In fact, both grow on me more each time I re-watch them. I think the play might just be a masterwork of 20th century drama.

steve said...

Still not clear exactly what you're looking for in a suggestion, but still, I recommend "Up the Walls of the World" by LeGuin's friend and contemporary James Tiptree. Alas, it's out of print as well...

Hippolyta said...

well, so, an out of print book won't help me... anything that's still in print that's similar in theme and style to Lathe?

And thank you all for the warm welcome back!

steve said...

How, O how, can we NOT welcome you back, oh mighty Hippolyta?

steve said...

as far as sci-fi books that are currently in print, we heartily recommend the beautiful new trade paperback of Ian Banks' "Consider Phlebas" ...

brian said...

I recommend 'Legion' by William Peter Blatty. Oh wait, also out of print. Well, if you can't wait for the book to be re-issued, stroll on over to my blog and read about the film adaptation.

*end shameless promotion now*

Hippolyta said...

Thank you everyone! I'm going to check out those recommendations just as soon as I can get my tired and overworked ass over to a bookstore. On Carole's recommendation, I think I'll also be picking up a Philip K Dick book or two...

Oh, and I just netflixed Lathe of Heaven...is the new movie adaptation worth it? or the old one?