AIDS Without Its Metaphors

In AIDS and Its Metaphors, Susan Sontag wrote about AIDS and cancer “not to confer meaning, which is the traditional purpose of literary endeavor, but to deprive something of meaning” — to leech from these diseases the accretion of moralizing, anti-science, and myth that hides within the very language we use to discuss them. She applied to the physical world her critical literary mantra “against interpretation,” letting something be understood as itself, not through a series of symbols so commonplace we don’t even notice them (like our “wars” on everything from cancer to drugs to Christmas).

In Visions and Revisions, his new book about living through the “second half of the first half of the AIDS crisis,” Dale Peck shows himself to be a memoirist in Sontag’s mold, unsurprisingly so for anyone familiar with his infamous literary reviews. I’ll avoid blowing fresh air on old coals, but even a cursory look back through his “hatchet jobs” shows Peck excoriating critics for explaining what a book means to the exclusion of (quoth Sontag) “how it is what it is.” I’d be lying if I said this vituperative history didn’t make me think twice about writing about Peck himself, but it also provides a useful structure by which to analyze his work.

Visions is a patchwork text that explores the time between the formation of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP (’87) and the advent of the triple drug cocktail (’96), by stitching together actual diary entries, remembered moments, literary analysis, and reexaminations of Peck’s early journalism. Its nonlinear structure returns again and again to queer theory, anonymous sex, gay serial killers, AIDS activism, the anger of the dying, and the fears of the living — preoccupations that ran through the heads of many gay men at the time.

The result is less an explanatory guide to the gay early ’90s than an experiential re-visitation. The nonlinear structure ambushes the reader with visceral recollections, replicating the uncertainty and confusion that swirled around those years when death was everywhere (and especially in our heads), when “the sick” were often indistinguishable from “the healthy,” and when our own status could be unknown and unknowable for weeks at a time. Peck corrects and contradicts himself frequently. “[W]e beat the epidemic here. In America, I mean, in New York, or at least in my circle of friends,” he writes early on. Three pages later, he deconstructs this “mistake of thinking the war itself had been won or lost” as a symbolic problem, the result of letting the survival of one person, or one group of people, stand in for a defeat of the epidemic as a whole.

At the same time, Peck is keenly aware that metaphorical thinking, problematic though it may be, is how we make sense of the world. If the trap is unavoidable, then the challenge for the writer is “to make art that points out its own biases, its own falseness, and the necessary illusions without which life is impossible.” His is a postmodern take on the very idea of memoir, the heir to a short but distinguished list of nonfiction precursors that obliterated linear truth in order to honor the fundamental inconceivability of trauma, titles like Ann Marlow’s How to Stop Time, Lauren Slater’s Lying, and Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.

Peck is not the first author to apply the techniques of postmodernism to the emerging genre of AIDS memoir. The title essay of Wayne Koestenbaum’s recent collection, My 1980s, also fires off a profusion of seemingly unrelated memories in an attempt to recreate the chaos of being gay and scared in the time of Reagan. As similar as their narrative concerns are, I was unsurprised when, later in the collection, Koestenbaum referred to Sontag as his “prose’s prime mover.”

It seems not coincidental, as well, that both Peck and Koestenbaum are HIV negative (or at least were at the time when they were writing). AIDS was thenarrative for a generation of gay men, both the ghost story we whispered to ourselves at night and the morality play that was screamed at us in broad daylight: come out, get sick, die. You could be a hero (“Pedro Zamora,” the saintly gay) or a villain (“Patient Zero,” the slutty fag), but your story was narratively conventional and easy to understand. Also, inescapable. In this way, we all had AIDS.

But of course, we didn’t all have HIV, the actual virus that destroyed actual immune systems. And not all of us who had it would die from it. And not everyone who died from it was gay, and all the other caveats that anyone with a basic sexual health education (or about half this country) already knows. No matter. We all lived on some level believing we would get AIDS and die, and now those who didn’t are left trying to tell two simultaneous stories: the lives they actually lived and deaths they feared they were living. Not only is linear narrative useless in this situation (because it depends on the idea of causality, that the details we are given will explain the conclusions reached), it’s misleading and potentially dangerous. To our tragically binary brains, the very survival of these authors suggests that they made the “right” choices (or, more and more, that they were the “right” kind of gay, the sexless smart ones). And you cannot have right without wrong, good without bad. This is the tyranny of logic, and traditional storytelling depends on it. Morality is embedded in the structure, never mind the content. So better to work in pastiche and collage, nuance and inference. Better, if narrative can’t be bent to our will, to break it entirely.

Peck is no stranger to trying to write about AIDS without conveying some kind of settled meaning. If Visions is nonlinear, his first book, 1993’s haunting Martin and John, is anti-linear: A series of alternate universe stories in which three characters (Martin, John, and AIDS) connect again and again and again in an infinite series of combinations that suggests anything is possible — except escape. Or as Peck puts it in Visions & Revisions, “I would try to craft a narrative in which the reader could take no consolation in the depictions of AIDS and the people it afflicted, would instead be forced to find the existence of the epidemic unbearable.”

Peck recently revealed that Martin and John is the first in an unfinished seven-book series called The Gospel Harmonies, along with three of his other published novels (The Law of Enclosures, Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye, and The Garden of Lost and Found) and three that are as yet unwritten. Soho Press plans to re-release all four books later this year, along with his stand-alone novel, Greenville (formerly titled What We Lost).

The meaning of AIDS is being hotly contested in popular culture right now, as the recent boomlet in AIDS exhibitions, books, and blockbuster movies attests. But to look for a singular meaning to the crisis is necessarily a reductive act, a simplification that renders AIDS a symbol of something: judgment, or heroism, or homophobia. Take your pick. In Visions, Peck is more interested in having us experience his experience of the crisis, and letting us make of it what we will. Per Sontag, he shows us the how, but resists telling us what it means. By so doing, Peck allows for real empathy on the part of the reader. Narrating a terrible situation can create sympathy, or worse, pity. Placing us in that circumstance ourselves — even through the medium of text — allows us to genuinely feel the anguish of the experience.

Yet for all that, there is a coolness to the book, a sardonic distance that seems to bubble up from Peck’s very diction and cadence. His is a narrative mode that combines high and low, profanity and profundity, always feinting asymptotically toward total breakdown (or breakthrough) but pulling back at the last moment. It’s a pose (and prose) that feels culturally specific to a certain gay male experience, like the cutting tongue of a rhetorician who moonlights as a drag queen named Auntie Viral. Take this passage, looking back on Peck’s feelings about two friends who had been diagnosed with HIV:

I remember hoping it would be that simple: that Alan and Byron would only think of their deaths when one of them got sick, and that I, too, would only think of their deaths when one of them got sick … But the truth was simpler: There were times when I woke sweating from the AIDS nightmare we all had in 1990 and knew it had only been a dream, and there were nights when they woke sweating and didn’t know—they just didn’t know.

I remember this one time … Fuck, that’s how you talk about dead people, isn’t it?

Peck continues the story, but only after an intellectual digression on the nature of knowledge and loss. He is reticent to allow himself unexamined nostalgia or easy sentimentality. Ease, in general, is not part of his narrative DNA. The more I read Visions, the more the structure felt like an effort to impose order on chaos, to hold back the fury and frustration of 30 years lest they pour out in one book-length yowl (which, in and of itself, is part of the experience of being gay in America). We feel the full, searing heat of Peck’s emotions only on occasion. It’s like walking on the austere surface of a volcano, only to stumble across a hidden seam of white-hot lava that disappears again once you go five feet further on.

Perhaps that’s why it took me a while to settle into Visions. There is a certain amount of necessary accumulation before the structure can reveal itself. It is a book that asks to be grappled with rather than just enjoyed, which can turn off readers expecting a more personal memoir. And there will be those for whom the personal experiences are, in and of themselves, a barrier to entry — strangely enough, not everyone loves meditating on dense French theory and Jeffrey Dahmer before heading to a sex club. But the very specificity of Peck’s experience makes it worth trying on, and a little discomfort can be educational. I didn’t always agree with Peck’s assertions about the crisis, but I found myself passionately engaged in the by-proxy discussion, as the chicken-scratched margins of my copy of the book can attest.

At the very end of Visions, Peck recounts the erotically (and phobically) charged experience of trading a sip of water back and forth between his mouth and that of a friend, offering the scene as a metaphor, not for AIDS, but for the book. “The water has left my mouth and entered yours,” he writes.

Now you have choices. You can spit it out, first of all, or you can swallow it. You can swallow some and pass the rest back to me. You can pass it all back to me. You can bring a third person into our chain. You can do nothing at all. There are other choices, some of which are not known to me, but, at any rate, what happens next is up to you.

Meaning, Peck seems to suggest, is created in the exchange of experience, and in the actions we take based upon that exchange. It is a structure we build, not a phenomenon we unearth — a final Sontagian attempt to denaturalize belief and highlight our tangled, moralistic, and symbolically cluttered ways of thinking.