(Originally published in the San Francisco Sentinel, 1990)
Slogans are oversimplifications that motivate. Models describe open-ended, sometimes contradictory social systems. The distinction between models and slogans is powerfully drawn in two new books dealing with current life in the age of AIDS. Paul Monette’s Afterlife, and John Weir’s The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket epitomize Los Angeles and New York as emblems, places which anchor and encapsulate our mortal coils. At their most site-stereotypic, these stories are historical pieces, embellished stage sets replete with slogans about AIDS. But beneath this facade, the psychological subtlety with which the stories unfold is superb. Their richness of detail opens onto larger, ambiguous and fleeting realms of social interaction and emotions, since, relating stories of people’s lives is, in the end, an act of modeling.
Because these stories are so different in content and effect, when taken together, they provide an incredibly wide range of dialogues. The main characters, though white and male, are located at the heart of options and possibilities related to AIDS. With the onslaught of important literature about the first major wave of death and reaction already behind us, these works belie the tone and state of affairs of who we might be now. Indeed, this process of identification is where the two book share a mutual theme.
Monette and Weir have produced well-composed field notes about the decay and rebuilding of common social bridgework, reveal recent repercussions and impacts the disease has on one’s community. Each writer deals less with the isolation of loss, and more with the ecology of the bigger social picture in that AIDS touches everyone. In these narratives, no one is alone nor exempt, and, the deepest, most private wounds in people’s lives are profoundly connected along an unbroken human continuum. Both works provide examples from seemingly disparate locations, the east and west coast.
In Afterlife none of the main characters are dead or actively dying, only parts of them are, in that the cluster of relationships seem to revolve around past or future loss and the difficulty in mastering the present moment. For these southern Californians, only activity frees them from their thoughts, and leads to growth and character development.
We open with a weekly widowers’ dinner group, meeting one last time, each pot luck participant about to retire the stale convention. These are men who have lost their lovers, afraid of repeats or the prospect of dying with someone else. Slowly each player comes to actually require the group by highly stylized and illicit coincidences. We see each character shoring up, examining their wounds, and eventually taking highly consequential actions. There are no noticeable career drives to hinder their paths. All exhibit a resourcefulness, peculiar degrees of maturity admixed with their post-industrial L.A. lifestyles.
Everything that is stabilizing happens at Steven’s house up on the ridge of an otherwise horizontal city. Everything shocking happens elsewhere, above or below this space. Steven is characterized by gradual plateaus of emotional process, through the metaphor of HIV as a holding pattern. One character on the periphery, a very alone Korean office worker with very little support to speak of, rallies everyone through his grueling and sudden death. This event is about sacrifice and is precisely off-center in the story. It weds reality to thought, about AIDS, about healing, but especially about time running short, and allows guilt, pain, anger, fear and action to be identified. The main event in this novel, by the way, is a love story.
The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket is the story of an uneventful, overly romantic and nihilistic young man’s life. He takes a nose dive into catastrophe unintentionally, but nonetheless, violently sweeps everyone along in his path. Eddie is a man-boy who is hollowed out by quotes. He uses them incessantly – from movies, novels, etc. as a means of remove – about clothes, politics, love, and, himself. His bodily collapse is compared to the beautiful and fatalist decay of “the” city, and New York’s larger industrialized existence. Eddie is dead center in the eye of the storm, but so propelled by quotations as to appear voiceless.
When he realizes how little time he has, he finally starts moving. He gets his diagnosis, and a bus ticket going west. In California he entrusts himself honestly, finally, and non-romantically to a black drag queen. Eulene is the only character with a permanent job – which reflects for Eddie a life that is not in quotes. Eddie’s true life begins at this point. It also ends. He returns to a New York City hospital bed.
Overall, Weir’s tale is more stimulating in its sheer dissension of plot expectation. Conversely, Monette’s story is more readable. These two books parallel some of the political postures in the gay movement. After all, pink triangle buttons on the east coast read: Silence = Death. Whereas, on the west coast they read: Action = Life. These slogans reveal different strategic approaches, in the way they are pared-down and condensed from the larger social stew.
However, in each of these books, life’s contradictions are highlighted as being more useful than oversimplified stereotypes. As Weir accustoms us to descriptions of Eddie’s pain, we can salvage some of its latent power. For instance, the quietness of his self-recognition equals new life and integrity. Along these lines, Monette shows not all action is inherently fortuitous, since it sometimes involves fiery death and denials. Such contradictions seem to betray the simple fact that, no matter what you believe or do, AIDS is here and involves everyone.