Plays Well With Others by Alan Gurganus
Hardcover, 353 pages
Published by Knopf
Publication date: November 1, 1997
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg, Authors Review of Books 12/21/1997
I can imagine that when Alan Gurganus set out to write a novel about AIDS, he laid out some challenges for himself. Since the wide outbreak of the disease took on plague-like proportions in the mid-80s, an entire body of literature, almost a genre in itself, has penetrated the media culture. At this point, AIDS lit has produced award-winning drama, novels and journalism, has become the stuff of movies and musicals, and has so saturated the culture that it has become difficult for a writer to create a new text about the disease that avoids a whole series of cliches. Some of the stereotypes that Mr. Gurganus undoubtedly hoped to avoid:
1) An AIDS novel is necessarily elegiac in tone.
2) An AIDS novel lionizes the victim, and scrupulously details the struggles of the caregiver.
3) An AIDS novel is serious, serious, serious.
4) An AIDS novel is always about victims, who take their victimhood very seriously.
5) The most important topic in a novel that contains AIDS is AIDS. Everything else is just atmosphere.
6) An AIDS novel is an emotional and political message, not entertainment.
7) An AIDS novel is the story of the general, rather than the specific struggle–its characters are types, not individuals.
Gurganus knew these stereotypes, and from the first pages of the novel, it is clear that he will not let them become traps for his story to fall into. The majority of the characters in this novel, with the exception of the Ishmaelesque narrator Hartley Sims, Jr., die of AIDS. But this novel is not about their deaths. It is about their lives. It is about the people that they were, and the fun that they had, while they were living. It is a novel that is much more about art, play, and life, than it is about disease, dying, and death. It is a seemingly impossible contradiction: a FUN novel about AIDS.
From the first scene of the prologue, it is clear that this will not be your standard weepy elegy. Hartley Sims Jr. is cleaning out the apartment of his friend, AIDS victim and Titantic symphony composer, Robert Christian Gustafson, in preparation for a visit by Robert’s parents, who have come, for all intents and purposes, to be with their son as he dies. In a stereotypical AIDS novel this scene would likely teeter into the realm of the maudlin. Not so here. Instead, our narrator discovers that he will have to deal with a closetful of dildoes (the kind of thing that nobody’s parents should have to deal with). Gurganus is at his best in his comic descriptions:
Thirty dildoes are a lot of dildoes.
They were piled knee-high, like cordwood. Propped, bald, ridged, and spired. Set on end, they formed a little onion-domed Kremlin. Some used adjacent cleaning products as their splints. Clumped there, the dildo quorum appeared unionized yet disgruntled.–Like toys caught in the act of trying to become the Toy-maker. Here were toys that’d crawled up off the floor, yeah, into an erect position, okay‹‹but had not evolved much beyond.
Gurganus never forgets that his characters are people, and he never loses his sense of humor. Hartley, Robert, and Alabama Byrnes are a triumvirate of artists at play. Gurganus wisely chooses not to focus exclusively on the portion of their lives that is dominated by their struggle with AIDS and Death, but to give us a fuller picture of the lives that they lived before (and during) their age of AIDS. The novel is divided into 5 sections: a prologue, followed by “Before,” followed by, “After,” followed by “After After,” and finally an appendix, “Toward a More Precise Identification of Newer Angels” (a short story by Hartley Sims). Each of the main characters is an artist: Hartley a writer, Robert a composer, and Alabama a painter.
Much of the vibrance of the novel comes from the story of the three artists’ struggle to make it in the Big Apple. The “Before” section of the novel, which is the largest, is about artists “on the make.” Before they were famous, Hartley, Robert, and Alabama were poor, hungry, dedicated to making their names, having tons of anonymous sex, and having the time of their lives. Hartley makes no apologies for his promiscuity or that of his friends. And why should he? The “Before” section brings alive a time (Pre-AIDS) when Manhattan was swinging. The book jacket refers to the novel as a “Disco-Requiem,” and these characters are clearly taking part in all aspects of the dance, with no worries aside from the occasional dose of the clap, easily remedied with a shot of penicillin. They are kids in their 30s, who have chosen to live the lives of artists, and they live at full tilt. Hartley makes rent (though not always) by donating sperm and tutoring rich kids. The lives they lead are, at first, not particularly glamorous, and yet is hard not be jealous of these people, they have so much damn fun.
Some of my favorite sections of the novel are those in which we see each of the 3 artists coming into their own. The pure joy of artists who are finally “making it in the big time” is rendered here with the expectant excitement of one who knows what it is like to finally arrive. Robert’s symphony gets a performance conducted by Aaron Copland–Alabama gets a show at the White House–Hartley gets a story (about the effects of a divorce on the family dog) published in The New Yorker). As their address books expand, we readers get to share vicariously in the joy they take in their own achievements in their chosen fields (in addition to the loving jealousy that they feel for each other). If Gurganus had merely done this section of the novel as well as he does, it would be worth reading on its own. Here’s a novel idea: Portrait of the Artists as Young New Yorkers.
But Gurganus doesn’t stop there–he doesn’t neglect the dark side of the lives he portrays. When Robert and other friends are struck with the disease, Gurganus stays with his characters, at the same time as he avoids the pitfalls mentioned above. The experience of Hartley’s plague years is not a generalized one, but a specificized, local experience. These are clearly sad years, but they are not maudlin. The quotidian experience of caring for loved who are dying is painted in great detail, which somehow retains the comic elements of the earlier chapters (Hartley tells us how he spends time with Emily Post’s Etiquette, working on the right tone for his many letters of condolence, and how the people at the flower shop keep a standing order ready for his call). Though the exhaustion of the caregiver is clear, this is never a whine, but a lived experience. When Hartley heads back home “for a rest” he discovers that his parents aren’t in the best shape either. The time Hartley spends with his dying father down South is a potent emotional counterpoint to the time he spends with his dying friends in New York.
This is not to say that the novel is without seriousness or anger. One episode of the novel details a gay-bashing attack made on Robert and Hartley, in which Robert is pistol-whipped and nearly blinded: “The kids ran, cursing, hurling back at us the insult word beginning with F-, a description of gay men that I cannot bring myself to write here even now. How had they known? Were the velvet and magnolias a tip-off? But that year everyone was wearing velvet!” Once again, Hartley and Co. are laughing through their tears. And while the novel won’t sacrifice its comic sensibility for the sake of politics, it doesn’t ignore the political realities either. As he describes the onset of his friends’ illnesses, Hartley takes a moment for a paranthetical:
At about this time, a “civilized” conservative columnist named William F. Buckley proposed in hundreds of American newspapers that every HIV-positive person be tattooed on the wrist, and again upon one buttock, and then deported to some compound in the far West, so as to spare the rest of us. May I quote? I’ve kept it. “The next logical step would be to require anyone who seeks a marriage license [to have] an AIDS test. But if he has AIDS, should he then be free to marry? Only after the intended spouse is advised that her intended husband has AIDS, and agrees to sterilization.”
. . . I read this column . . . on the very first full day Robert was hospitalized. –I sure did hide that paper from my friend, Bill Buckley.
Shame. Shame on you forever.
Plays Well With Others is a virtuoso performance by a writer at the height of his powers. Gurganus plays well in this novel, and brings a whole bag of postmodern story-telling tricks to the table. It is an intertextual novel, that moves across different art forms, including pastiche elements of visual and graphic arts, as well as literary references to many other texts, from works by John Keats to Daniel Defoe to Tony Kushner. Occasionally Gurganus overdoes the playing, but not so much as to distract from the work as a whole. The author took a great personal risk in writing this novel, arguably the first AIDS novel to entertain as well as inform, to have fun even while it chronicles a modern plague. AIDS in this novel isn’t the whole story, it is just the tragic ending of some wild, comic, playful human lives.