The Pills in the Fridge

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Christodora by Tim Murphy
    Picador, 432 pp, £16.99, February 2017, ISBN 978 1 5098 1857 0

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.

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[*] Wojnarowicz’s memoir has been reissued by Canongate (304 pp., £10.99, March, 978 1 78689 027 6)