[This is the proposal for an essay I have been meaning to write, 'Opportune Immunity: AIDS and the American Canon'.]
There is no reference to AIDS in Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (1990). It does not ‘matter’ that there is none, but what, if anything, does it ‘mean’? Some readers might be tempted to suggest that a novel set in 1984 with a major character who is a hooker ought to have registered in some way the existence of the epidemic or of safer sex; or, indeed, that a novel purporting to—or reviewed as if it did—look at the changing state of the Union since Vietnam should show some sign of knowledge that AIDS was an important, burgeoning event in the nation’s literal and figurative health. Moreover, as a connoisseur of the conspiracy theory, Pynchon might have found theories of the origins of AIDS pertinent to the development of his typical interest in paranoid plots.
Thinking along the same hypothetical lines, one could ask: what ever became of the scathing Gore Vidal essay about the Reagan state’s negligence? Where was the Norman Mailer exposé of the same? Where was the William Burroughs novel about AIDS being just another aspect of viral take-over? As many have been asking for many years now, we might ask of the canonical American novelists, what did you do in the AIDS war, daddy? Interviewing Vidal in 1992, Larry Kramer had the temerity to say: ‘You’ve not spoken too much about AIDS’. Vidal replied: ‘I’m not a hand-wringer. If I don’t have anything useful to say, what am I to say? It’s a terrible thing. Of course it is. AIDS hasn’t come to me closely except in my own family’. (His nephew, the painter Hugh Steers, had been diagnosed HIV-positive eight years previously.) [Larry Kramer, ‘The Sadness of Gore Vidal’, in Gore Vidal, Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1999), pp.255-256.]
Ronald Reagan was justifiably much criticised for ignoring the AIDS epidemic, which began—and began to flourish—on his watch. But what of the straight, white, male dinosaurs of the American fictional canon? Given their secure reputations for accurate and wide-ranging portrayals of contemporary American society, it may be worth checking on their progress in this respect by considering how they responded, in their novels, to the first two decades of the AIDS epidemic. In contrast with prominent gay writers (Armistead Maupin, Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Larry Kramer, etc.), heterosexual male writers had a much more patchy record in even commenting on, let alone grappling with the detail of, a crisis which once threatened to wreak major demographic and cultural changes across the Republic.
Looking at both passing references to AIDS and much fuller developments of the epidemic’s effects on individuals as well as on the broader society, the essay will consider passages in the following nine major State-of the States novels: Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), Joseph Heller, Closing Time (1994), John Updike, In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), Saul Bellow, The Actual (1997), Don Delillo, Underworld (1997), Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997), Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full (1998), Saul Bellow, Ravelstein (2000) and E.L. Doctorow, City of God (2000).
AIDS appears most often in these texts as a sign of the times, typically alongside such other social indicators as urban graffiti, soaring crime rates and visible homelessness. The epidemic tends to be mentioned merely for the purposes of dating and locating a given narrative—dating it at the apocalyptic fin de siècle and locating it in the hellish city of postmodernity. AIDS hardly exists in human terms in these novels, but functions instead as a symbolic indicator of the consequences of free-market Reaganomics; or else, as in Bellow’s Ravelstein, the personal account of a friend’s illness and death is almost completely divorced from the social context of the most social epidemic of recent times.