|‘AIDS Made Better Writers Out Of A Lot Of People’|
by Mark Doten in Lifestyle & Fashion , 21 mei 2015
In his recently published “Visions and Revisions: Coming of Age in the Age of AIDS” novelist and critic Dale Peck has made a powerful and moving personal account of the turbulent decade between 1987 and 1996, a time in which he was both discovering his adult identity and living amidst an epidemic that claimed many of those closest to him.
Mark Doten in Conversation with Author Dale Peck
Dale Peck published his first novel, “Martin and John,” in 1993 at age twenty-five. In this debut novel he had woven together two sets of stories to create a compelling portrait of an artist in our time. The first is told episodically by John, who flees an abusive father and becomes a hustler in New York. It’s 1982, and at the age of nineteen John falls in love with Martin, who soon becomes ill with AIDS. They leave New York for Kansas, where Martin dies two years later.
In his struggle to regain his own health, John obsessively orders his existence. He begins to keep a journal and then to write stories. Interwoven with this narrative is a second set of stories, penned by John. Each has a first-person narrator named John; each centers on a couple named Martin and John, who are always, it turns out, different characters. John knows he is HIV-positive, but through his writing he learns to accept the prospect of a life that, however brief, has at least been examined.
Peck’s new book “Visions and Revisions,” at once a memoir and a polemical essay, personal exploration and portrait of a troubled time, pays particularly close attention to those involved with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a direct action group created by author and activist Larry Kramer to advocate on behalf of people with AIDS. Few organizations changed the conversation about AIDS in America and, eventually, the world, as much as ACT UP.
Peck’s criticism of the idle establishment that allowed AIDS to go unchecked for years is both fiery and clear-eyed, tempered all the while by moving portraits of the artists, writers, activists and HIV-positive people whose lives Dale encountered, sometimes from afar and other times from painfully close relationships.
From the inspirational beginnings of ACT UP to the widespread killing of gay men, Dale Peck’s account of the most dangerous decade of the AIDS epidemic shines yet with the idealism of a young man discovering his political, artistic, and sexual identity.
Let’s talk about origins. “Visions and Revisions” is a hybrid piece of work. Memoir, literary criticism, lyrical prose, and journalism - including journalism you did for the “Village Voice” in the 1990s. When did you start thinking of it as a book?
Dale Peck: “I have wanted to write a book about those particular years of the AIDS crisis, and AIDS activism in particular, for a long time. When I was working on the early pieces, I wasn’t thinking ‘book,’ though. I had no training in journalism, and it’s heavy material. The idea of immersing myself in a multi-year research project seemed daunting. So instead I would write these short pieces about literature, about people, about moments.”
“No one has written the great book - the definitive history - of that period. And I woke up one day and realized I was never going to write that book. But I had a kind of book already, or at least I had the material for a kind of book. I was watching the David France documentary ‘How To Survive a Plague,’ and was moved to revisit the material. I began playing with it.”
“As just happens when you produce work about a certain subject during a relatively confined period of time, like most of the early essays were, there’s a tonal consistency, and they seemed to naturally go together. It was about a year and a half ago that I pulled them all out and started shuffling them together and breaking them apart and rewriting and turned them into this over the course of the next six or eight months.”
“Visions...” talks extensively about the literature of AIDS. Can you summarize your thoughts about that period for those who might not be familiar with it?
“There was a particular moment in the 1980s when there had been a real reaction in so many forms against seventies indulgent maximalism, whether it was high postmodernism or high bourgie realism. There was a turning in to the body, to real experience. It didn’t necessarily mean realistic art forms, but art that was grounded in a gritty reality, often ugly and brutal. And it was one thing when you were writing about heroin, incest, rape. AIDS was just an order above that. There was a brief period - my favorite period of literature - when AIDS made better writers out of a lot of people, people who might never have published anything of great significance otherwise. Sometimes because they were writing about AIDS and sometimes because they were trying to get something out before they died. I think that that wasn’t really sustainable - and in the couple years before 1996 when the new drugs came out there was already a reaction against it, against the AIDS novel, which had become kind of a formula at that point and kind of kitschy.
People writing about AIDS the way they write about cancer, as some sort of ennobling experience. As you can guess, I’m not a big fan of that sort of thing. And then the new drugs came out, and people just ran. They ran from AIDS as a subject, and they also ran from that whole idea of a literature that was rooted in real experience and rooted in the body, and you saw this sudden return of these fat social-realist novels that were very artificial, or these sort of recherché postmodernist novels, or the new wave of very talented but very surface filmmakers. There’s a lot of technical stuff to admire in a lot of that work, but I felt like reality got a little bit lost.”
Stale Aesthetic Forms
So, your program...
“I know no one in the world would believe me when I say this, but I don’t have a program. The only thing I would ever try to write about in my reviews was when things become a program. That’s when they get stale. That was sort of my beef with what came after. That people resorted to a program in lieu of something real. Some real things popped through here and there, but mostly aesthetic forms dominated. And of course, the stuff that I loved had a program to it, but I think when I was experiencing it I was too young and too naïve to fully grasp that.”
“Stuff that I loved”: you’re talking about the half-generation before you - Dennis Cooper, Kathy Acker, others writers in that group?
“Yes, the new narrative stuff, the realist stuff. That had a program to it as well, but I think it was much less cohesive and artificial than those other programs, especially when you talk about people who write for the canon as opposed to people who write for the readers.”
Ah, you’re talking about writing for the canon in the bad way
“I think that people who write for the canon reproduce stale aesthetic forms because those kinds of things play very well in academic circles. They play very well in pop/critical circles as well; it’s very easy to talk about. These people write books that they want to be judged as works of literature, not as books that they want to be judged for their form and for their content; it’s a subtle difference. They’re writing books for posterity, they’re not writing books about something. They’re writing packages.”
When you think back to “The New Republic” essays, “Hatchet Jobs,” etc., what do you think your career would be like if you hadn’t ever published book criticism?
“I don’t know that it would be substantially different. The person who wrote ‘Hatchet Jobs’ was the same person who wrote ‘Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye,’ and ‘Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye’ was a big departure for me. I was picked up very young. I sold my first book when I was 23 years old and it came out when I was 25. And I was a darling, for all kinds of reasons. You know, the mainstream was bending over backwards to prove that it could accept the gay stuff, and the AIDS stuff and all that. I was a baby, I was cute, I was well educated. It helped that I was white and male. I could talk the talk, walk the walk, etc. It was a very nice package for people, and I got a huge stack of glowing reviews, which I really appreciated, I really did.
But at the same time, as I read a lot of them, I didn’t see people talking about the book, I saw a lot of people talking about the subject, and I saw a lot of people talking about me. Mark, you’re about to publish your first novel, and you’re going to grapple with this - when you suddenly realize you’re a package. People will decide who Mark Doten is as a person as well as as a writer, just as people had this idea of who Dale Peck was and what Dale Peck was. I did my second book, and once again, tons and tons of good reviews. Well, some bad ones, but overwhelmingly positive praise. But again I found it became a ‘Dale Peck book’ rather than ‘The Law of Enclosures,’ and Dale Peck was this well-scrubbed, nice, young gay boy with a nice education who was writing these emotionally sensitive and formally intricate little books.”
But you do put yourself in “Law of Enclosures” as a character...
“I do put myself in ‘Law of Enclosures’ as a very minor character, but my parents are the real stars there, and the whole reason I put them in was because reviewers were bending over backwards to tell me - and tell the world - who my father was, who my mother was, who my stepmothers were, and who I was, based on what they had interpreted about ‘Martin and John.’
Ed White, when he sent his first blurb along for ‘Martin and John,’ ends it very beautifully with the sentence, ‘One senses this touchingly young writer will have a great future.’ But the real quote was: ‘One senses this touchingly young writer will have a great future, dash, if he has a future at all.’
And the general assumption when the book was published was that I was HIV positive, because how else or why else would I have written that book? I was a little bugged by that, but I was more bugged for my parents. You know, my parents, it’s complicated, we haven’t always had the best of relationships, but if anyone’s going to bash them, I’m going to bash them. Not other people based on incomplete information. Part of the reason I put myself in ‘Law...’ was to show the distance, rather than the closeness, between fictional characters and real people. Because the closenesses are obvious, and only interesting vis-à-vis the writer, not the text. But like I said, so often we read writers, we don’t read books. And we fantasize we have this closeness with them based on their books. Which is not true. ‘The writer’ is a construct in a hundred or a thousand or a million different readers’ heads. It’s not the human being who wrote that book.”
This is sort of a tricky question, but how does your being HIV negative affect writing a book like ‘Visions...,’ which takes AIDS as its subject, and is part memoir?
“It’s one thing to contemplate your mortality or other people’s mortality when it seems fairly far off. In the pre-1996 days, pre-combination therapy, the average life expectancy for people with an HIV diagnosis was something like twenty-four months, and if you were diagnosed with an opportunistic infection, it dropped further. That has changed radically, particularly in the United States [and Europe, Eds.]. But it’s still a huge divide, and I would never posit this book as anything other than an outsider’s perspective.”
Last question. You said that AIDS elevated some works. What are your favorite works from that period that deal with HIV and AIDS?
“I’m so unequivocal about this. It’s utterly arbitrary and personal, but my absolute favorite work from that period is ‘The Zombie Pit’ by Sam D’Allesandro. Which isn’t even ostensibly about AIDS. It’s a posthumous collection. The original version was I think 110 very small-trim pages - it’s like 3” by 4”, something like that. It’s not even about AIDS, it’s sort of about... being young. But it’s just suffused with this sense of mortality. It’s gorgeous.”