Wednesday, April 09, 2008
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.