BORROWING TIME: WRITING AND RESISTING VIRAL NARRATIVES IN NOVELS ABOUT AIDS
by Lisa GarmireIn any novel about AIDS there are likely to be rites of passage, hard to avoid but hard to reshape, retroviral equivalents of the Stations of the Cross: first knowledge of the epidemic, first friend sick, first death, first symptom...How do you tell a fresh story when the structure is set?1
The temporality of AIDS inflects every AIDS discourse, from biomedicine to politics to cultural theory. In her book, AIDS and Its Metaphors, Susan Sontag notes this concern with time when she contrasts the ways cancer, syphilis, and AIDS are represented: "Cancer is first of all a disease about the body's geography, in contrast to syphilis and AIDS, whose definition depends on constructing a temporal sequence in stages."2 This representation of AIDS as a temporal sequencing has lethal consequences for the people who live with AIDS, because, as Sontag writes, AIDS becomes "...only a matter of time, like any death sentence."3 It is this representation of AIDS as a linear, temporal sequence that poses such a problem for the novelist who wishes to wrote about AIDS. As Adam Mars-Jones has noted, "How do you tell a fresh story when the structure is set?"
Mars-Jones suggests that this temporal structure develops in many of the AIDS novels because of the invasive nature of talking about AIDS: "Imagine for instance a story interrupted by a footnote that grows to book length, the text never resuming."4 He goes on to write, AIDS doesn't deserve to be promoted up into the body of the book. It's only a bug, after all. Why flatter it?"5 And yet, though Mars-Jones as author wants to deny the "bug's" power to influence the telling of stories, most of the novels that have been written about AIDS are infected by it. I use this term, "infected," on purpose. Rather than viewing AIDS as a footnote or bug, I want to propose another metaphor, one that I hope helps to clarify the narrative structure so many novels about AIDS assume.
I want to talk about AIDS as a viral narrative. A classic example is Paul Reed's novel, Facing It: A Novel of AIDS, which was the earliest novel in the United States to narrativize the experience of living with AIDS. The novel begins with a healthy, happy, and productive protagonist, Andy Stone, who then develops a health problem. As the novel moves forward, what's ailing Andy writes its own narrative onto and into Andy's life and body. It begins to take over the larger narrative, destroying the other narrative options Andy's life, from his political activism to his relationship with his lover, David. Finally, when it becomes the only narrative left to Andy, he dies. This is clearly illustrated in the final passage of the novel, which describes Andy's reaction to David's telling him he loves him:He was ready to open his mouth and whisper the same, but something small and magnificent deep inside him had loosened itself, was growing larger, expanding, releasing itself. Andy could hear David crying, but it didn't matter. It was done.6In this passage, the "something small and magnificent deep inside him" that grows "larger, expanding, releasing itself" could be to the virus, or it could be his life, or it could be his spirit as it moves beyond him. David's crying, signifying the importance of their relationship, no longer matters, because "it was done." Here, the "it" could stand for the entirety of Andy's life and his relationships, except that as the last line of the novel, it also signifies the closure of the novel. Andy's life becomes synonymous with the novel's narrative, and both become synonymous with AIDS and death. It is at this moment, the last moment, that the viral narrative of AIDS has consumed Andy's life and the life of the novel's narrative. The novel dies with Andy. It is in this total and complete dying, not only of Andy but of the narrative itself, that the novel is apocalyptic: there is no redemption, there is no living beyond, there is nothing to be learned about death.
Most of the novels about AIDS that have been published so far in the United States are infected by various manifestations of this viral narrative, and they fall into five general categories:7 First, there are realistic novels that focus on AIDS, like Facing It, which depict the lives of people, typically gay men, as they are destroyed by the virus.8 There is also a large category of realistic novels in which AIDS plays a subsidiary role in the narrative, usually as a way to access other thematic issues.9 Two other, more formulaic categories include science fiction/intrigue novels,10 as well as murder and thriller novels.11 Finally, there are a large number of novels about AIDS written for young adult audiences.12 Though AIDS may function differently in each of these different categories of novels, when the lives of PLWAs (persons living with AIDS) are depicted, most of these novels engage the viral narrative of AIDS such that AIDS parallels the termination of life and often of text.
Novels written by people who actually live with AIDS provide a crucially important exception to the viral narrative I've been proposing.13 For them, a viral narrative that asserts the temporal equation that AIDS=death is quite literally a deadly thread. Rather than simply succumb, their novels struggle to develop alternative narrative strategies, ways for affirming life, for "borrowing time" (to echo the title of Monette's award-winning autobiography, Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir). Indeed, Monette's two novels, Afterlife and Halfway Home, offer some of the strongest resistance to viral narrative.14 Though Steven in Afterlife and Tom in Halfway Home must deal with their AIDS-related diseases, the narratives of these two novels resist the viral virulence of the AIDS narrative. Key elements to their resistance include their insistence on the importance of interpersonal relationships, of love, and of living life in the present--from moment to the precious moment. As Tom says toward the end of Halfway Home:If I have any conscious thought at all, it's that I'd gladly die right now, the moment is so complete. Only another way of saying I'd like it to go on forever, just like this. The contradiction seems entirely apt, and thus not contradictory at all.15Monette's message in both of his novels is one of hope and life, in spite of the specter of AIDS, from which Monette himself passed away on February 10, 1995. Perhaps the ultimate resistance to the inevitable causality of the viral narrative exists within the readers of the text. As long as we and others continue to read these novels, discuss them, and find meaning in them, death is deferred.
1. Adam Mars-Jones, "Introduction," Monopolies of Loss. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992, 1.
2. Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York: Doubleday Books, 1990, 110.
3. Sontag, 120
4. Jones, 2.
5. Jones, 2.
6. Paul Reed, Facing It: A Novel of AIDS (San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, 1984), 217.
7. Very few novels describe the experience of people of color living with AIDS and of non-gay PLWAs.
8. A more well-known example of this category is John Weir's novel, The Irreversible Decline of Socket, New York: Harper and Row, 1989.
9. E.g. Michael Cunningham's A Home at the End of the World. New York: Bantam, 1990.
10. Most of these novels deal with the intrigue and paranoia surrounding AIDS research. Jed Bryan's A Cry in the Desert, Austin: Banned Books, 1987, and Geoffrey Main's Gentle Warriors, Stamford, CT: Knights Press, 1989, are examples.
11. For example, Harlen Coben's Miracle Cur.. New York: SPI Books, 1991.
12. Almost all of these are written by women and function as educational tools to teach about AIDS, e.g., see M.E. Kerr's Night Kites, New York: Harper and Row, 1986.
13. David Feinberg, Robert Ferro and Paul Monette are authors living with AIDS and writing about the experience.
14. Paul Monette's two AIDS novels Afterlife, New York: Crown, 1990, and Halfway Home, New York: Crown, 1991, are widely available; perhaps due to Monette's position as a spokesperson for PWLAs and the widespread publicity of his autobiography, Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, New York: Avon Books, 1988, which one a National Book Award.
15. Paul Monette, Halfway Home, 252.