AIDS, in its worldwide rampage, has infected over 27.9 people and killed 9.2 million. In its latest frightful exploit, AIDS has infected literature itself. Since stories whose main characters have AIDS end only one way--never happily--their writers are presented with the particularly difficult problem of turning the reader's attention away from the grim plot trajectory and toward the characters' development.
"How might I characterize my loved ones...so you won't become jaded or feel bored?" queries Allan Gurganus in his brilliant new novel, Plays Well With Others. It follows the trend of contemporary literature that includes Rent and Angels in America, in which characters have, and eventually die of, AIDS In this contribution, Gurganus offers up his characters--his loved ones--without pretense, and simply lets the reader live their experience. "I do not want to rush," he continues. "The hierarchy of suffering sets in too soon. What starts as your own self-armoring way of surviving can soon (especially in New York City) become The New Careerism. Manhattan Person A says: 'I've lost most of my friends to it.' Manhattan Person B: 'Only "most"? Lucky you. For me it's total. Twenty years in one neighborhood and, suddenly, we're talking Stranger in a Strange Land. For me, unlike you, a total rout--sorry." By the end of the novel, the reader feels so attached to the characters that the sense of loss is just as complete.
This is not to say that Plays Well With Others has to be depressing: death is only how the story ends. As the literature of this emerging genre insists, the characters are far more important than the fate that eventually befalls them. The novel's first character is the narrator, writer Hartley Mims, jr., who chooses to spell junior "with a lowercase letter because it's quirky and who "planned on becoming a New Yorker when [he] was eight." His story begins when he moves to the Big Apple from Falls, North Carolina in 1980 to pursue a career as a bona fide starving artist. A true writer, Hartley experiences life only to later describe it to friends. He eroticizes New York and almost everything in it, and his humor is his best survival tactic. Hartley is a self-described happy person--"drunk on city life, glad for its free tickets and dollar pizza and standing room."
Hartley meets composer Robert Christian Gustafson in an elevator after a dismal job interview and falls instantly in love with him. Star-struck Hartley sees him as one of the city's "miraculous" people who can walk down any street in Manhattan and greet by name the street-cleaner, the woman at the corner grocery store and any number of vaguely familiar people in limousines. "I've been in New York for five whole years, going on a century," he explains. New York evidently also knows him: with silver eyelashes and gorgeous Nordic hair, Robert is New York's "Prettiest Boy of the Decade." His notoriety proves valuable to his friends, providing them with invitations to the city's best parties, concerts, and cultural events. Though he is an infinitely talented composer--a protege of Aaron Copland--parties constitute his primary activity.
Five-foot-tall painter Angelina Byrnes completes Hartley's endearing circle of friends. He meets her, of all places, at the VD clinic, and she soon draws in him and Robert with her sparkling intelligence and inspired nine-foot-high paintings. Angie, like Hartley and unlike Robert, works first and plays second. Eccentric and ambitious, she saws holes in her apartment so she can slide her enormous paintings through the floor when they don't fit in doorways, calls friends at 3 a.m. to borrow blue paint and dreams of seeing her work in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art. She also loves Robert with a passion that rivals Hartley's. (Though, honestly, Hartley depicts the composer so attractively that it would be surprising if one did not fall in love with him.)
Like all good twenty- and thirtysomethings in pop culture today, the threesome have a table all their own in a coffeeshop down the street--a Cuban cafe called Ossorio's, where Ossorio himself affectionately calls the rag-tag artists his "white and wounded fluffy baby birds." They are each other's best friends and worst critics, literally living through everything together and nurturing each other to the very last. "I don't consider myself psychic, just lucky--with friends," says Hartley. The reader, in being included in the circle, is equally fortunate.
The novel itself is divided into four sections: "Prologue," "Before," "After," and "After After." "Prologue" reads more like a epilogue; everything else that follows is flashback. "Before" details the characters' lives before AIDS, of course, and "After" chronicles what happens after the disease strikes. "After After" catches the story up to the prologue--it is the dirge. The book is further sectioned into chapters with clever Flannery O'Connor-esque titles like "On Feeling New" and "How Shall We Mainly Live? Who to Mostly Be?"
Gurganus's prose, like his characterization, is dense and unconventional. The text is filled with deliciously authentic 1980s New York colloquialisms. In painstakingly describing the city, from Robert's green velvet suit and platform shoes to the gaudy decor of the hottest clubs, Gurganus demonstrates a superb sense of kitsch. Since he presents the narrative through the eyes of a displaced Southerner with an eye for rural detail, Gurganus is able to display his virtuosity in writing about nature, from the smell of soil in Central Park to the silver glitter of the Hudson River through the grimy windows of a Manhattan apartment building.
Above all, though, the tongue-in-cheek chapter titles and neon-lit campy details capture the novel's overarching irony. As humor is Hartley's means of survival, it is also his means of narration: "Just when I'd decided I had the soul of a drudge, just when it came clearest I was the muddy flower-peddler, not her aftermath-princess, just when I felt that Immortality would only know me as a helpmeet, just when I'd gained six pounds, Farce, as it will when your happy-quota shades off into urban gray, intervened: all pinks, oranges, reds." Thus comedy begets tragedy: just as Art Spiegelman could best explain his family's Holocaust tragedy in comic book form, Gurganus makes the ultimate tragedy of Plays Well With Others farcical.
While it might seem appropriate for those who have not read the book to pigeon-hole it as the record of a cultural moment--a peek into the lives of artists with AIDS in '80s New York--Gurganus insists that the reader love the book for the humanness of its characters. "We have all been upstaged by the newsworthiness of our particular disaster," writes Gurganus/Hartley in one of the story's more pointed moments. In Plays Well With Others, however, Gurganus triumphs in crafting an emotionally and literarily memorable work.