Plague Fiction

Charles Nicholl

It sounds like it’s something to do with helping, but that is very far from its meaning. I can’t remember when we first started hearing it; no more than five or six years ago, surely. It’s an Eighties word. When they open the decade up, they’ll find it engraved on its heart.

When Aids first caught our attention, it seemed comfortingly choosy in its victims. If you were gay, you had cause to worry. If you took drugs intravenously, you had cause to worry. If you’d been fooling around in an African whorehouse, you had cause to worry. But for most of us, Eighties-style, there seemed no problem. We called its sufferers ‘victims’, as if it were some kind of natural disaster, like an earthquake or famine: true enough, but also a way of distancing it. Aids was something you watched on the News, something that happened to someone else.

Then we started to learn a bit more. There were wild cards we hadn’t bargained for: the long incubation period; the carriers who hadn’t properly got it but could nevertheless give it. There were the problems of containment and cross-over: gays were sometimes bi, junkies had wives, prostitutes can notoriously give you something more than just a good time. There was the failure of the scientists, the non-appearance of the antidote. The white-coated priests of the Eighties had failed us. The virus had the boffins beat.

So suddenly we weren’t so sure. Suddenly it wasn’t just them any more. We were all at risk. You could get it in hospital from contaminated blood. You could get it if you were a dentist. You could get it if you were Rock Hudson. If your mother was infected, you could get it by just being born. Indeed it was beginning to look as if – in the absence of a sworn affidavit as to your partner’s where abouts over the last ten years – you could get it from straight, normal, two-up-two-down heterosexual sex. Making love, we were now learning, was not the fleeting moment of passion that the poets had told us about. The sexual act had a history: a murky past, an uncertain future. When you made love with someone you were rubbing shoulders, to say the least, with all the other people with whom that someone had made love. This chain-letter notion of sexual seriality was anaphrodisiac in the extreme, as it was doubtless intended to be.

This was a second phase of the Aids phenomenon: a casting-off of its outlandish imagery of anal lesions and dirty needles, a shocked recognition that the virus – or at least the fear of it – had come home to roost in everyday life. Infection lurked in offices and playgrounds, in coffee cups and lavatory seats, in public spaces and private lives, anywhere where people mingled and where droplets of bodily fluid might be unwittingly exchanged. We began to hear a lot about bodily fluids. Blood and semen, the liquors of life, went right out of style in the Eighties.

We began also to hear a lot from the Government. In the earlier stages of the crisis we had heard rather more from the tabloids – quarantining, compulsory screening, foot-and-mouth-style disinfectings – than from the Department of Health. But now that we were worried, the Government was worried. So now we got the new Aids units and hospital wings, the special Aids counsellors and regional health officers. There was big new money for research (though since the Tories had been impoverishing medical research throughout the decade, it was really some of the old money back again). There were leaflets for every household, advertising campaigns, slogans, pop songs. There were TV programmes, so many that at one point last year you couldn’t turn the telly on without seeing someone rolling a condom over their thumb. There was Norman Fowler in San Francisco. And there was Princess Di holding hands with a sufferer, as if even in the Eighties, kingship’s healing magic might still somehow work.

It may be too much too late, but no one can blame the Government for not trying. It’s only in one’s more paranoid moments that one seems to glimpse a ghastly connivance between the socio-sexual effects of Aids and the avowed Thatcherite intent to reinstate good clean ‘family values’. The Aids scare has gone in deep, and applied the carbolic soap to those parts of our lives that even Mrs Thatcher couldn’t hope to reach. We’re back on the straight and narrow now. We’re taking it decaff in case it keeps us awake. We can’t cure the virus, but in the current sexual climate there’s just a chance it’ll die of boredom.

It is one thing to sense that the Aids scare has affected your life. It is quite another to know that the Aids virus has infected your body. That is the sharp end of the crisis, and despite all the sermons and slogans, most of us remain pretty ignorant as to what it entails. The brunt of Aids, in all its grisly cellular reality, is still being borne by the gay community. In The Darker Proof, a collection of stories by Adam Mars-Jones and Edmund White, we are offered penetrating and sometimes harrowing insights into that reality.

The Darker Proof occupies a hitherto untenanted space at the centre of the crisis, a space untouched by the hysteria of the popular press and by the grim epidemical dicta of the medical establishment. For that alone one is grateful – it is a courageous place to write from – and for the writers’ skill in handling such explosive material, one is even more so. Their styles differ, but in both there is depth, compassion and alertness. The dominant mood is necessarily sad – sometimes bitterly, sometimes elegiacally – but there is a surprising vein of humour as well. Above all there is a tough kind of clarity in these stories. The reader comes away not only better-informed about what’s going on, but also feeling in a curious way cleansed by such sanity and subtlety.

In one way or another, these stories show how the virus erodes far more than the physical immune-system. It invades every waking moment, every bodily action, every nuance of social and emotional life. The virus is a factor that dizzyingly multiplies the ‘thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’. Vulnerability is a key-note of the stories, both for the victims – biologically vulnerable – and for those around them. In Mars-Jones’s story ‘A Small Spade’, something as tiny as a splinter becomes a threat to the slender mental defences thrown up against the reality of Aids. The splinter gets lodged under a fingernail, which means a visit to a hospital casualty department, which means a whiff of the inevitable: ‘A tiled corridor filled with doctors and nurses opened off every room he would ever share with Neil. He had always known it was there, but today the door to it had briefly opened – The word sick, even the word death, had no power to match the fact of hospital.’

Mars-Jones writes in a cool, throwaway style. The passions that stalk these pages come over all the stronger when channelled through his dispassionate syntax. ‘I’ve learnt that there is a yoga of tears,’ he writes in ‘Slim’, the shortest and finest of his stories. ‘There are the clever tears that release a lot in a little time, and the stupid tears that just shake you and don’t let you go. Once your shoulders get in on the act you’re sunk.’ Stylistically, he refuses to let his shoulders get in on the act. At times he can summon a kind of gallows humour, as in ‘The Executor’, where the narrator rinds himself on an absurd but touching mission to remove certain ‘kinky relics’ from his dead friend’s flat. He has also that acuity of observation, the eye for telling detail, that is so often a feature of gay fiction. There are small visual similes worthy of Waugh: an eater levering open mussels ‘like a philistine breaking the spines of first editions’; a cat in its litter-tray, turning to inspect its doings ‘with the calm of a master diplomat, a diplomat retaining his composure when served with a hideous local delicacy’. These are trivial, but the eye that gets the trivia so right is to be trusted in its wider perceptions.

Edmund White contributes two stories, ‘Palace Days’ and ‘The Oracle’. His style is the richer, more melodious instrument, as displayed in his marvellous novel of adolescent sexuality, A Boy’s Own Story. There are a couple of references here to the poet Wallace Stevens, and White has something of Stevens’s mix of lyric simplicity and philosophical shimmer. The landscape of his stories is cosmopolitan – Paris, Venice, Vienna, Greece: the topography of the exiled American. Mars-Jones, by contrast, anchors himself more or less to England, sketching it in with a deliberate blandness, so that the foreground drama shows up all the sharper, like blood on the snow.

The bottom line of all these stories, as of their principal subject, is death. Their emotional and moral thrust is to come to terms with this new kind of death, and the nexus of social and sexual implications that surrounds it. They are philosophical in the sense of Montaigne’s adage that ‘to philosophise is to learn how to die.’ Dying from Aids, writes Mars-Jones, seems to require ‘a ramshackle, Post-Modern bravery, that has nothing to do with previous braveries except purpose: a series of bargains from a position that rules bargains out’. In White’s ‘Palace Days’, two men take a last elegiac holiday in Venice:

He was losing his best friend, the witness to his life. The skill for enjoying a familiar pleasure about to disappear was hard to acquire. It was sort of like sex. If you were unconsciously rocking in the groove you missed the kick, but if you kept mentally shouting ‘Wow!’ you shot too soon. Knowing how to appreciate the rhythms of these last casual moments – to cherish them while letting them stay casual – demanded a new way of navigating time. Maybe that was why these days were so beautiful.

These are ‘gay writers’, but it would be very unwise to think that this means their appeal is somehow specialist. They are writers of real quality, and they are looking into a darkness which we’re all going to have to face sooner or later, whether in the acutely Eighties form of Aids or in the other more perennial forms that life has up its sleeve. Sunt lacrimae rerum, and the scientists haven’t yet come up with an antidote for that either.