[December 1 is World AIDS Day, an occasion to remember not just the global epidemic overall, but also and especially the individual and communal stories within it. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the commemoration and a few of those stories, leading up to a weekend post on whether and how we can learn from those stories in our own ongoing pandemic moment.]
On three novels that help us trace an epidemic’s cultural evolutions.
1) Alice Hoffman’s At Risk (1988): I read Hoffman’s best-selling novel, about an 11 year old girl infected with HIV after a blood transfusion, for the AIDS chapter in History & Hope in American Literature. It’s as well-written and moving as all of Hoffman’s works, and charts all the identities and perspectives in both her focal family and the small town around them with nuance and power. But it also reflects some of the same fraught motivations behind the early, children- and family-focused Worlds AIDS Day themes I highlighted on Tuesday, or the prominence of the Ryan White story on which Hoffman partly based her novel: an understandable desire to dispel the association of AIDS with only gay men, but an accompanying unwillingness to look closely at precisely what the epidemic was doing to that community in (and well beyond) the late 80s.
2) Samuel R. Delany’s The Mad Man (1994): As I wrote in yesterday’s post, both Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1991) and the film Philadelphia (1993) helped turn the national conversation around AIDS back toward that devastated community. But I’m not sure any literary or cultural work did so more stunningly than sci fi titan Delany’s “pornotopic fantasy” novel (his own term for it). Like all of Delany’s books, The Mad Man crosses genres with willful abandon, featuring a murder mystery, magical realism, graphic sex scenes, intellectual digressions (the narrator and protagonist John Marr is a philosophy grad student), and more. But at its core the book is a historical novel of early 1980s New York, a deep-dive into the sex and stigmas, the love and fear, the loss and resilience, of the outset of the AIDS epidemic in the place that was and would remain its epicenter.
3) Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home (2012): I haven’t had the chance to read Brunt’s best-selling and critically acclaimed debut novel, but it seems to combine elements of each of these other two works: focusing on a youthful protagonist (in this case 14 year old June Elbus) as part of a historical fiction depicting 1980s New York at the depths of the AIDS epidemic (and in direct relationship to the city’s gay community, as June’s uncle Finn is a gay man and artist who passes away from AIDS when the novel opens). And in so doing, I’d say that Brunt’s book reflects a later stage in the cultural representations of histories like the AIDS epidemic: a moment where such subjects move beyond controversy to becoming part of the communal histories from which literary and cultural works can draw to tell a nation’s stories. I look forward to seeing where AIDS novels go from here!
Last AIDS story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Stories or histories you’d share?