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by Sam Dixon

I admit to feeling a bit of wariness whenever I see the topic of AIDS associated with a piece of fiction. Both AIDS and HIV have become such trigger words in today's society, always sending numerous associations cascading forth, both personal and cultural. In fiction, as in life, the topic of AIDS demands an exploration of the best and the worst in each of us.

In the first half of the 1980s, no one understood enough to write about the subject of AIDS. It was the invisible killer that had infiltrated while we weren't looking, and now was striking down left and right without rhyme or reason. We could not understand, we could not fix, we could only fear and comfort and grieve. AIDS was the perfect villain for any story, but who could write the villain's part of the tale? All we saw were the bodies of his victims.

As society as a whole begins to sit up and take note, AIDS acquires bogeyman stature. We still don't understand, but we all fear, and every individual has created his or her own image of the spectre. But now we know our villain, and now the tale of our heroes can be told.

This isn't a definitive or even necessarily representative list of books which deal with the subject of AIDS here, but these are books that I have enjoyed and that intersect with the topic of AIDS, sometimes in an unforeseen fashion.

I think one of the most important books to examine when looking at fictional explorations of AIDS is the short-story collection Monopolies of Loss by Adam Mars-Jones. Four of the stories here were included in perhaps the first collection of stories to focus exclusively upon AIDS: The Darker Proof: Stories from a Crisis. Also including stories by Edmund White (The Beautiful Room Is Empty, Genet: A Biography), the collection was intended to expose the topic of HIV and end the denial and fear that many writers were showing toward the topic. One conceit of the original collection was the avoidance of actually using the term AIDS, thus denying the word any power. Mars-Jones writes in his introduction:

Having written my story, I realized that its indirectness could be turned to further account. If it was read on the radio, say Radio 4, it might reach people who would turn off by reflex if they heard the word 'AIDS', but might hang on and, well, learn something if the trigger-word was delayed indefinitely. I imagined fingers actually frozen on the on-off switch, waiting in a sort of genteel torment for permission not to care."

I would have thought that a book like Monopolies of Loss, which is so unflinching in its subject matter, would be difficult to read. How many stories of nurses and hospital beds, grieving parents and confused friends, personal obligations and physical infirmities can one read at a time? But however single-minded the purpose of these stories might seem on the surface, they transcend the terrors of AIDS and grief. Each of these stories is a little gift. I especially felt that way after reading "Baby Clutch." It left me with that feeling of connection, of heightened understanding of self that only the best writing can impart.

Anyone out there who has not read any of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City books yet (all thirteen of you) should -- as soon as you have recovered from the shame -- go buy all of them immediately. Of particular interest in this context is the fifth book, Significant Others, which I think is the best of the bunch as a novel. While the shadow of AIDS lies over the entire book, this is still a gentle, insightful, and often hilarious look at how we lived in the 80s. Characters we have come to see as friends must cope with the newfound presence of HIV in their lives, but the book is still a bit of a romp, and will definitely prompt many smiles.

Another book that I want to force every stranger on the street to read is Was, by Geoff Ryman. Was tells a number of different stories, connecting them and interweaving them in unexpected and poetic ways. It is the story of Jonathan, an actor succumbing to the final stage of AIDS, who reexamines a lifelong obsession with the movie The Wizard of Oz, and plans a final pilgrimage to that fantastical land, Kansas. It is the story of the orphaned Dorothy Gael, sent to live with an abusive aunt and uncle on a desolate farm in Kansas. It is the story of a substitute teacher named L. Frank Baum, who tries to understand the horror of Dorothy's life. It is the story of the young Judy Garland, and her estrangement from her own parents. It is the story of Jonathan's doctor, and how an encounter with a dying old woman named Dorothy Gael in the Kansas State Mental Hospital changes his life forever. It is one of the most enchanting books I have ever read. I don't think any book has ever made me cry more than once, but this one did so three times when I first read it. Heady stuff, like a ride through a cyclone to the land of Was.

Such Times, by Christopher Coe, is a brilliant exploration of both the uninhibited promiscuities of the 70s and early 80s and their unexpected aftermath in the years which followed. Viciously panned by a number of critics, who ranted about the narrator's obsession with the superficial, the book still merits attention. The reviewers who grew disgusted with the seemingly trivial references to style and clothes and food were missing the point and definitely not hearing the voice. There is humor and irony, and ultimately sadness, underlying all of the superficial dialogue. Good stuff if you are willing to listen.

A novella integrated into a particularly unorthodox novel about time travel and alien invasion might seem out of place here, but "Tiny Tango" from the book The Ragged World, by Judith Moffett, is among the most offbeat stories about dealing with AIDS, and deserves attention. The main character is a woman who is HIV-positive as the result of her first and only sexual experience. In a story that spans the next twenty years, she tells of ostracism in a country embracing a new fundamentalism, and of further isolation in a world where an HIV vaccine has made the plight of the already-infected less important. The story also concerns her quest to develop a fungus-resistant melon, and her experiments in cross-dressing as an opportunity to explore the gender she no longer has access to sexually. If you think all this can't add up to an entertaining and well-written story, you'll be amazed. And the rest of the stories are just as good.

Another novella that is part of an excellent collection is Dan Simmons' "Dying in Bangkok" from the book Lovedeath. Simmons says about his story, " 'Dying in Bangkok' my be my final word on the horror of AIDS, that 'Liebestod' pairing of love and death that has transformed our world...and which will continue to do so into the next century...." This story is not for the faint of heart, but it is a very original twist on the premise that HIV might present a few problems for the hypothetical vampire.

Fiction is the most detached of the arts when it comes to exploring a topic. It is a way of stepping back from the subject and exploring it through different, more objective perspectives. But when one has watched a friend or loved one undergo the worst ravages of AIDS, the anger, frustration and grief are often too personal to translate easily into fiction. In the introduction to Monopolies of Loss, Adam Mars-Jones writes:

Writing about AIDS should be a way of finding a truer picture, but it brings its share of problems. The novel seems to be the obvious form for so weighty an issue, but in any individual case of AIDS the virus has a narrative of its own, a story it wants to tell, which is in danger of taking over.

Sometimes that story is best served not by being covered with the veil of fiction, but being exposed to the light of public attention, to teach and share understanding. I want to mention a few written personal accounts that should not be overlooked:

National Book Critic's Circle Award-winning poet Mark Doty has written a beautiful and powerful book about the loss of his partner of many years, Wally Roberts. The book is titled Heaven's Coast: A Memoir. This is an exquisitely written book; the words and the detail bring the reader painfully close. The book captures the essence of grief, the painful juxtaposition of remembrance and loss.

I have heard a lot of men my age (post baby-boomers, I won't say Generation Xers) dismiss Paul Monette's Borrowed Time: A Memoir. The general explanation they give is "That's not MY life." But for me, Monette's chronicle of the last two years of his lover's life gave words to many of the feelings I myself was struggling with at the time I read it. Read this book, or at least read the other half of the story, Monette's National Book Award-winning Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story.

I have not yet finished reading Geography of the Heart: A Memoir by Fenton Johnson, but I'm going to recommend it anyway. The book speaks to places in my memory that I don't really want to address in one sitting, but I hope that gives some indication of its power.

From Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart to the current Broadway smash musical Rent, the emotional three-ring circus surrounding AIDS has been embraced by the American theatre as a metaphor for our times. One of these explorations is a work that I feel cannot be ignored, and deserves to be read even if it can't be seen on stage. Angels in America, by Tony Kushner, taught me all over again why I love American theatre. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, both book and play, is in two parts. Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part 2: Perestroika.

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