by Tim Murphy.
Picador, 432 pp., £16.99, February 2017, 978 1 5098 1857 0
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The Christodora​ of Tim Murphy’s novel is a New York apartment building, ‘handsomely simple’, built on the corner of Avenue B and 9th Street in the 1920s. By the 1980s the area had become known as the East Village, and the building had come down in the world. After a fire it was refurbished and turned into a condominium, in which Steven Traum, an urban planner, bought an apartment, using it as office space while he continued to live on the Upper East Side. His son Jared, an art student specialising in industrial sculpture (the next Richard Serra, even), started to make it his home. Young Jared took pleasure in the neighbourhood, dirty and dangerous as it was, with homeless people and intravenous drug users camping out in Tompkins Square Park, and was surprised when a contingent of protesters trying to storm the Christodora during the riots of 1988 chanted ‘Die yuppie scum!’ as if the label included him, despite his protests (‘I support the homeless in the park!’). He didn’t work for a bank, he smoked dope, his hair was messy. Why couldn’t they see he was on their side?

Christodora may bear a (real) building’s name, but the book itself seems still to be in search of a principle of construction. Despite the prominence of the Christodora in the title and the opening passages, this isn’t one of those novels that represents a building as a world in miniature, in the manner of books as different as Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building and Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. Despite Christodora’s epigraph having a strong and even exaggerated New York accent – ‘Pull up the shades so I can see New York. I don’t want to go home in the dark,’ O. Henry’s last words, though he was only quoting a hit song of the day and made no mention of the city – the geographical focus is not tight, with the plot’s most dramatic incidents taking place on the West Coast, or the ‘Left Coast’ as one of Murphy’s characters calls it.

Tim Murphy has written a generational family saga, but in the hope of writing something else. The main characters are Milly Heyman, Jared’s partner (also an artist, though her medium is painting rather than sculpture), and Mateo, the orphan the couple adopt after ‘a series of extremely random events’ in the 1990s. Not so random, in real terms, since Milly’s mother, Ava, founder of a hospice for women with Aids, had temporary legal responsibility for Mateo, who turned out to have a fully formed artistic talent at the age of four – something that was bound to catch Milly’s attention when she came in at weekends to give the orphans play-based art coaching. Mateo expresses himself with an unusually poised coherence for an institutionalised five-year-old, processing damage and able to provide a commentary on what he’s doing in his drawing: ‘It’s a monster that’s not mean but not friendly either. It’s an in-between monster … An in-between monster that doesn’t do bad or good, he just watches everything.’ This adoption was clearly meant to be: the events dovetail in an altogether novelistic way, winnowing out the arbitrary.

The Aids epidemic is now far enough in the past (though still present enough for millions of people) to be treated as the Great War might be in literary novels of the 1920s or 1930s. The counterweight to Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, for instance, with her intimations of bliss and connectedness, was the psychologically ruined war veteran Septimus Smith. In that novel the two didn’t meet, though Michael Cunningham, refracting the material in The Hours, had his modern-day Clarissa figure care for Richard, his version of Septimus, worn down by the struggle with HIV. The ending, suicide by jumping, was the same in both books.

Murphy has set out, in fictionalising the world of Aids activism in America, ‘to cleave to the bones, if not the fine points, of what really happened’, as he puts it in his acknowledgments. Though two novels of his were published in the late 1990s, he is a journalist who has written extensively for the magazine Poz, aimed at an HIV-positive readership, and over the years has interviewed many people living with Aids – conversations that, as he says, ‘live in my heart and moved me to write this book’. His dedication page names a handful of friends then adds: ‘And for survivors.’ Why not ‘the survivors’? It seems a revealing slippage, this drift towards the generic. ‘The survivors’ would designate a distinct generational and cultural group, while ‘survivors’ is so broad a church it turns no one away. Who wouldn’t want to identify as a survivor?

At this distance in time it can be said without fear of contradiction (or of lawsuits, at least) that action on Aids issues in New York was held back by Ed Koch, mayor between 1978 and 1989 and a closeted gay man. Elsewhere there’s a little blurring in the novel, and an inconsistent set of conventions in force, whereby Gay Men’s Health Crisis is named but Act-Up (the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) goes by the name of ‘the movement’. A roll-call of honour would be out of place, but it seems small-minded that there should be only a single reference to Larry Kramer – who helped found the first of these organisations before denouncing it for its ineffectiveness and helping to set up the second – and a snide reference at that. An activist asks a colleague who has made a gloomy prognostication: ‘Are you doing a Larry Kramer to entertain me?’ Anyone who has read Kramer’s would-be satirical pre-Aids novel Faggots will appreciate that his alienation from liberation culture, the supposed free exchange of bodies without consequence or deeper implication, was total. That negativity, his lack of investment in the newly entrenched hedonistic dogmas, was part of what made him effective – he had been denouncing the status quo before it imploded. ‘Doing a Larry Kramer’ meant more than one thing.

Murphy, born in the 1970s, isn’t disqualified from writing about events he wasn’t part of, and his position may even have some advantages. Being born in 1981 didn’t hamper Tristan Garcia in the writing of Hate: A Romance, published in 2008, a bitterly convincing account of the equivalent period in Paris, with the feuds and schisms, manifestos and denunciations that are the constants of a metropolitan culture ruled by intellectual fashion. In the early days of the epidemic there was a lot more willingness to organise conferences about the need for ‘a discourse on death’ than to give sick men company or help them with household tasks.

Timing has always been a complicating factor in writing about Aids. Fiction is a leisurely luxury, and early writing about the epidemic was raw testimony, often from people like David Wojnarowicz who knew they didn’t have the time for subtlety, fighting rhetoric with rhetoric by diagnosing a disease whose symptoms were ‘sweating palms, angry outbursts, hysteria, the discharging of handguns’.* Even journalism struggled to keep up with the ramifications of crisis, and a literary novel had to hedge its bets. The first chapter of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library contains a carefully managed piece of future-proofing: ‘My life was in a strange way that summer, the last summer of its kind there was ever to be. I was riding high on sex and self-esteem – it was my time, my belle époque – but all the while with a faint flicker of calamity, like flames around a photograph, something seen out of the corner of the eye.’ A novel published in 1988 that celebrated erotic adventures between men was launched into a world saturated with fear and stigma about an incurable sexually transmitted disease, and needed to sound some such note, both apocalyptic and vague, to avoid giving an impression of decadence and denial, not so much belle époque as ancien régime. If a cure or a vaccine had been announced before publication the passage would simply have receded a little, losing its characteristic of fluorescence, of being marked by an invisible highlighter pen. The rest of the book would need no revising, since any sophisticated account of pleasure shares a boundary with elegy.

By the time of Edmund White’s The Farewell Symphony, published just under a decade later, the world of Aids seemed all-engulfing, a maze with only one exit. The finale of Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, nicknamed ‘The Farewell’, was supposedly a sidelong intervention into court musicians’ conditions of employment, by a composer who was also an employee, though a privileged one. Each player, as his part ends, extinguishes his candle and walks softly out, until at the end of the symphony there are only two violins playing in near darkness. It was being hinted to Prince Esterházy that the court had remained in the country too long, and the musicians were missing their wives and families in Eisenstadt. In White’s novel the phrase darkens, conveying a sense of a whole cultural fabric being thinned down, from orchestral richness to the barest chamber group. This is the terminal inventory of a culling beyond the reach of elegy, with so many friendship networks snuffed out, the designated elegists among the non-survivors they were expected to commemorate: ‘I heard of men who spent all their money having their “chakras” tuned by a charlatan with a flute, of those who ate apricot pits in Mexico, cucumbers in China, macrobiotic food in Japan. They all died.’

In fact, by the time White’s novel appeared, in 1997, combination therapy had started to produce the life-extending results that previously touted breakthroughs had failed to deliver. That’s one of the problems with narratives based on the history of Aids: after an it’ll-all-be-over-by-Christmas period, a queasy honeymoon of hope and trust in science, there followed years of mortal attrition, so that when death sentences started to be commuted at last the feeling was closer to exhaustion than joy or even relief. Linear storytelling poses almost impossible challenges in this context. A drama like the 1990 film Longtime Companion, for instance, necessarily ran out of steam and hope along with its characters, and then the mainstream production’s need for an upbeat ending created a climax of grating kitsch, with the dead loved ones surging back across the beach where they used to play and embracing the miraculously de-bereaved survivors.

A non-linear approach to storytelling, as employed in Christodora, brings its own problems. The book starts in 2001 and works both backwards and forwards in time, even indulging in some half-hearted futurism by ending in 2021. There are novels that include a similar trajectory in a way that is central to their workings (Julian Barnes’s Staring at the Sun, Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City) but here the tactic seems less considered, with the time scheme being artificially extended rather as an artist running out of space might tape on a new piece of paper instead of rethinking the composition from scratch. A contents page would make navigation easier for the reader, and it’s not clear whether the multiplication of perspectives justifies the loss of movement. If Murphy didn’t have a strong grasp of his characters across time, the enterprise of reading would be laborious, and even so in the early sections there is a risk of being left behind.

Here’s the first appearance in the text of Hector Villanueva, once an Aids activist and now an unpopular resident of the Christodora, addicted to hard drugs and joyless sex, Woolf’s Septimus Smith as he might be if shellshock had led him to crystal meth and compulsive promiscuity. He doesn’t even give his dog enough exercise: ‘A fully-grown glossy black pit-shepherd mix scrambled out the door, followed on a massive leather leash by Hector, shaven headed, with a leather vest fitted snugly over a shaven, muscled brown chest. The leather vest melted into tight black jeans and construction boots. His eyes were obscured by massive black wraparound sunglasses. A lit cigarette dangled between his full lips.’ At this point the only indication that Hector will play a significant part in the story is his residual sexual mystique, the fullness of those lips, the snug fit of that vest. Even in his decline Hector retains the precious ability to make leather melt.

Compare this with the sketch of another resident of the building, from the page before: ‘Kenji, a manic boy-puppy pit-shepherd mix, tore out of the lobby, dragging behind him on a leash Elysa, who wore kneesocks, Converse low-tops, and a cotton plaid minidress, her red curls corkscrewing in all directions. She was a 33-year-old off-Broadway actress who sent everyone in the building AOL e-invites to her plays.’ The passages are symmetrical – down to the matching dogs – and the word count is almost identical, even slightly favouring Elysa, but she has no body inside her clothes. The writing is subliminally critical of the little-girl outfit she wears and her naff choice of service provider. It’s clear which of them will turn out to have a tormented past and a redeemable future. Hector will drag others into the black pit of his ruin before he hits bottom. Elysa will do some babysitting.

The 1981 incarnation of Hector, very different from the 2010 model, ‘exquisitely young and awkward’, appears thirty pages later. He’s an intern assigned to the deputy health commissioner for New York (Milly’s mother, Ava), ‘a handsome young Hispanic man in a shirt and tie, square-framed glasses sitting on his face’. This is the part of the book that necessarily comes closest to exposition of the epidemic’s early stages (‘Another Kaposi’s sarcoma report out of St Vincent’s? In a 32-year-old guy?’), complete with moments of clumsy irony – when Hector mentions he’s interested in infectious diseases, Ava objects that ‘infectious is over, everything’s been figured out.’ This is one of the strongest sections even so, as Ava flies through her day, buzzing with ideas in meetings, inspecting restaurants in Chinatown, almost disappointed that a missing notice about hygiene regulations has only been taken down for lamination so as to be wipe-clean, a more hygienic object in its own right.

Her animation and drive are only the surface of a complex mood: ‘the tears and the anxiety wrestling right alongside the exhilaration about all her plans, that lust for life, that rush’. It turns out that working for the Department of Health doesn’t guarantee your own. Ava is also a patient, trying to override her colleagues’ concerns that she’s headed for another breakdown – insisting that she’s unipolar, not bipolar, and coping just fine. Even Milly (ten or eleven perhaps, though a scrambled timeline makes it hard to keep track) fears a repetition of the earlier crisis, and sneaks off to phone her father with a warning. For Ava the supreme humiliation of her condition is the suggestion that she may have to be watched over to make sure she takes her Valium – exactly the sort of ‘directly observed therapy’ (the title of the chapter) she has been putting into place as a health administrator, to make sure that those taking medication for TB don’t interrupt their course and give drug resistance a foothold.

It helps that Ava’s manic energy dovetails with the chapter’s need to cover a lot of ground in its sketch of the beginnings of a world-changing disease. If the infectious-diseases-are-over conversation reads as heavy-footed, there’s a sweeter irony in the chapter’s opening, with Ava daydreaming of having, one day, the power to establish – unthinkable – a smoking ban in the city. Another chapter is named after a therapeutic practice that hints at the way Murphy might have imagined the task of bringing together material dispersed across so many years. It’s ‘parallel tracking’, which in the history of Aids refers to the unprecedented decision, the result of sustained activist pressure, to allow patients excluded from drug trials because they didn’t fit the methodological profile to be included informally, receiving medication and having their progress monitored.

Parallel​ tracking might also describe the way Christodora’s characters in their separate time zones come to trace balancing patterns of courage, weakness, need. Another term might be simpler – counterpoint. Hector leaves a safe job to apply pressure on the system from outside, in the desperate hope of saving his lover Ricky. Ava endures a drug regime that is repugnant to her in order to function in her public role, then crosses the floor to join the activists in their crusade. As he grows up, surrounded by love and encouragement, Mateo remains obsessed with the mother he never knew, calling her ‘04/14/1984’, the date code on the only photograph he has of her, a ‘short, pudgy, goofy-looking Dominicana thinking she’s fly with the Sheila E. asymmetrical haircut and the studded leather jacket, the lace leggings under the denim mini and the high heels’. Mateo can’t believe ‘there was ever a time in New York City called the 1980s; how could he have missed that shit, Basquiat and Haring and Fab 5 Freddy and all the rest?’ Being born in 1992 must have helped.

Murphy doesn’t use the first person for any of his characters but a free indirect style that mixes observations from outside with inklings of interiority. Staying outside when describing Mateo’s clothes (‘his massive hair pulled back in one of those comb-type headbands for boys’, though he would have a less awkward name for it), slipping inside to convey the boy’s sense that one of his teachers has ‘a secret crush on him. She can play it cool and appropriate, but by now he knows how to pick it up in inflections. And he knows what he projects, how to turn it on and off, all the dials – the artist, the homeboy, the gifted child and all his drama.’

The balance suffers when inside and outside perspectives are mashed together. Milly in June 1989, for instance, finishing work at her summer job in the Village after her first year at college, enjoys the six o’clock pocket of silence on the street and surprises herself ‘by sitting down on a stoop and hiking up her black eyelet gypsy skirt and pulling a cigarette out of her fringed brown suede bag’. Milly may be surprised by her own actions, but hardly by her own outfit, unnecessarily emphasised, with the overloading of detail distracting from what she thinks and feels. She recognises Hector walking past, his arm round Ricky, and calls out his name, though she knows he and Ava have fallen out. The conversation is educational for her: ‘She knew a handful of gay guys and lesbians in college … but she didn’t know any gay couples who actually lived together and schlepped bags around and bickered about the bills like her parents did.’

Then the point of view passes to Hector in his incredulous infatuation: ‘He marvelled at how it never got old; just put that butt between his hands for a few seconds and he would be groaning and marvelling, “Holy shit, Holy shit!” Ricky laughing with delight at his powers of assitude, a colourist who’d become a potentate.’ Assitude! Elsewhere in the book extreme experience is often rendered in standard language, so that two characters smoking different hard drugs in separate scenes are described in very similar ways: ‘his world melts and crumples, beautifully and softly, inside his stomach, the velvety crumple blooming through every vein of his body’; ‘his belly crumpled inside a gorgeous velvety rosebud.’ Ricky’s butt calls for awed neologism, but the immediate return to a formal register is disorienting. Elsewhere Murphy struggles to find a convincing tone for Hector’s perception of Ricky, ‘that sunny, silly cutie, like a blond sliver of sunshine on the timeline that Hector envisioned as his life’. In fact the only time Ricky’s character flickers into life is when he’s being bitchy rather than sunny, passing judgment in hospital on a Claudia Schiffer photoshoot where the hair was done by one of his professional rivals: ‘This is horrible. Horrible. That colour is so flat. No depth.’ Hector asks him if he’s relieved and he replies cheerfully: ‘I most certainly am.’

Sometimes the individual is entirely missing from what is in theory a personal point of view; there’s nothing of Mateo’s mother Issy’s own devout, conventional working-class Latina mother in a passage like this: ‘other people … had been taking care of her daughter these past years, had come to consider her their family, and … her own maternal right to intervene in her daughter’s life had withered in the interim. She had forfeited it when she submitted to her husband’s order that Issy was too much a source of anguish and hence no longer welcome in the house.’ Elsewhere Murphy experiments with tiny doses of satire, as in his portrait of Milly’s best friend Drew, now based in LA, who has established herself as an author of narcissistic non-fiction after writing a memoir of addiction and recovery: ‘Drew was still quite spiritual and spent her first twenty minutes upon waking in meditation, even though usually her focused inner mantra would stray off into to-do lists and various petty, nagging resentments, such as irritation at her gardener for leaving the sprinkler on in the middle of a summer drought.’

The question for the reader, though, is not whether Drew fully knows herself but why she should be so prominent in the narrative. Perhaps, as a past abuser of alcohol and cocaine, she is meant to be part of a pattern exploring relationships to drugs, even if that need not be a central concern of the novel. Hector consoles himself with crystal meth for the loss of Ricky, who refused to be tested for HIV until too late and thus forfeited the chance of surviving into the era of combination therapy. Issy takes AZT during her pregnancy with Mateo, knowing it won’t do a lot for her chances but will prevent the virus being transferred to her baby. Milly takes an anti-depressant called Wellbutrin to control her moods, terrified that she has inherited her mother’s trouble. She was so open to the idea of adoption because she feared a child of her own was in line for the same grim inheritance. It’s a very medicated cast of characters.

And there they are, the drugs that transformed the place and time of the book’s chosen setting, the protease inhibitors with their ‘slightly villainous-sounding names’. Ritonavir, saquinavir, nevirapine. The pills that sat in the fridge while someone didn’t die. Hard to perceive them as sounding villainous, given their effects – and doesn’t saquinavir in particular have Arthurian associations? Sir Quinavir on his white horse. The arrival of these rescuers doesn’t have much impact in Christodora, since none of the characters in the book takes them, though they had an impact for the survivors among its readership. It’s an odd omission on Murphy’s part.

It’s reassuring, when reading a novel with a complex structure, to feel that the writer is in complete control. It’s not easy to have that feeling here. There’s a woman called Esther, for instance, in the sixth section, set in 1995. She’s described as ‘the prolific author of thoughtfully outraged books about women’s sexuality in an age of sexual destabilisation and disease stigmatisation, even a(n admittedly highly conceptual and allegorical) novel, Cantaloupe Cowgirls’. Milly’s having an affair with her, and Ava is careful to be supportive, asking after Esther ‘in that dutiful, I’m-a-good-mom-for-acknowledging-my-daughter’s-lesbian-partner singsong’. Forty-odd pages later, six years earlier in time, Ava is approached at a public meeting by a woman with wire-framed glasses, in a pair of overalls and massive black boots, who says: ‘I’m Esther Hurwitz, I’m an activist and a writer. I chronicle the death toll. And I’d like to ask you: with how little you’ve done in this plague, can you live with yourself as a woman and a Jew?’ It’s the same person. There must be a bit more to that dutiful ‘How’s Esther?’ singsong six years later than the narrative lets on. What a moment for Ava, consistently portrayed as feisty and confrontational, to hold back! She must have forgotten. Or her author has forgotten.

Ava’s​ part of the narrative seems to contain the richest material, though she has a much smaller share of the book than her daughter and grandson. She’s positioned at the intersection of all the book’s themes. She’s both an insider and an outsider. Belatedly even Milly can see her mother as ‘a woman who was … larger than her own family, who sucked it up and demonstrated heroism every day, and then often came home and had little left for her husband and daughter except perhaps to charm her husband into giving her a foot rub’. She fights for gay men’s health as well as crusading to remedy the neglect of women’s experience of HIV, establishing Judith House, a support home and hospice for people like Issy. All this came at a cost: ‘the exhausting, rotating mix of pills and their weird, sweaty, enervating, weight-gaining, narcolepsy-inducing, strange-tics-and-sparks-in-the-brain-provoking side effects – the constant titrating up and down, the mind-numbing trips to her autocratic psychopharmacologist, all the tinkering and tweaking’. This personal purgatory gave her an empathy for sick people, something ‘she hadn’t particularly asked for and still half resented’.

If only Ava had a gay brother! For one thing, it would relieve Hector of the burden, as the only major gay character in the book, of embodying every characteristic of his tribe, the whole spectrum from self-sacrifice to mindless hedonism. Hold on – she does. She does have a gay brother. He’s there on page 51. Ava is having a discussion with a colleague about this strange proliferation of atypical Kaposi’s sarcoma cases. As she points out:

‘This cancer is, like, a few old Jewish and Italian men, once in a blue moon.’

‘I wonder if it’s hep B-related,’ Blum said. ‘It’s rampant in the gay community.’

‘A virus-related cancer,’ she mused.

‘Either that or too much disco or nitrites or sex or something.’

This bugged her. ‘Not funny, Blum. You know my brother’s gay.’

Whatever happened to him, the gay brother? Milly certainly doesn’t know about having a gay uncle. She must have forgotten. Or her author has forgotten.

Clearly a writer like Murphy, who identifies as gay and sees the epidemic as having coloured his entire adult life, wouldn’t consciously remove gay perspectives from his novel, though such a move wouldn’t harm its prospects with a mainstream publisher. And it’s not the case that gay men own the rights to the epidemic that seemed, in some parts of the world, to have singled them out. The ghost of David Wojnarowicz (he died in 1992) might be bitterly amused by the idea of HIV disease as a patch of cultural real estate that has come up in the world, ripe for gentrification. As the experience of Jared in Christodora indicates, new arrivals can’t see themselves as any sort of problem, and are sincerely baffled by the accusation of not having the neighbourhood’s interests at heart.

But the analogy with gentrification overstates the case. A neighbourhood has a history and a previous community in residence, as the Castro district in San Francisco did before gay people established themselves there because property was cheap. A cultural space doesn’t exist until it’s occupied – and after that it can be extended, remodelled, furnished with roof gardens and cavernous basements without planning permission. Entitlement is a later dispute, conducted in the name of truth but no less a power struggle for that. Even so, it’s uncomfortable how close Christodora comes to relegating gay experience to the background of the story. Presumably it was Murphy’s intention to paint a portrait in breadth as well as depth by making HIV disease as experienced by gay men the countersubject of his novel, rather than its subject. It can’t have been his plan to turn it into a footnote.

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