I’ve been thinking lately about AIDS, so instead of just wallowing in musings, I decided to write something about this novel. I read it almost a year ago with one of my friends at our book club. At first, I didn’t realize that there’s anything gay in this novel. Not even the blurb at the back page of my copy winks at it, so I was surprised when graphic male sex was narrated at the early parts of the novel.
The novel is set during the turn of the decade, the 80s, the years that ushered the AIDS crisis. So yes, it is a grand statement about the male homosexual and AIDS that is propped against a political backdrop laced with upper-class hypocrisy, self-destruction, and the pursuit of beauty, material and innate.
Partying, snorting, fucking, politicking: these four fill most of the pages of the book. If one is shocked by the language where arse-licker and cocksucker belong, he might just hurl this toward the trash bin. But one can hardly do that, because one can hardly ignore the careful construction of the author’s sentences. If one loves style, he will be very much rewarded with this.
She seemed to settle comfortably on that, but only said, “My father’s got tons of Henry James. I think he calls him the Master.”
“Some of us do,” said Nick. He blinked with the exalted humility of a devotee and sawed off a square of brown meat.
“Art makes life: wasn’t that his motto? My father often quotes that.”
“It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process,” said Nick.
Nick Guest, our protagonist, is taking up his doctorate on Henry James. That’s quite a coincidence since this novel was pitted against Colm Toibin’s The Master, a novel about Henry James. Another coincidence, which is more contrived, is the last name of Nick: he’s an indefinite guest of the Feddens, an upper-class family that connects him to them by being college classmates, and then friends, with the eldest son, Toby, and by being the balm of the bipolar flares of the only daughter, Catherine.
Nick acts both as an intruder and a stranger during his stay with the family, the former by observing the rich families, their ways and their privileges, and the latter by feeling a sort of resentment for his own middle-class roots. Perhaps he also resents these rich people, but he doesn’t show it since he is having the time of his life: the youthful age of the 20s, the promises made to a fresh graduate, the reputation of being an aesthete in his own right, and the discovery of the sprawling homosexual scene at the metropolitan undergrowth.
He also somehow gets to be boyfriends with the millionaire heir Wani, a discreet homosexual who hates homosexuals. Together, they line up all the coke that they want until blood spurts out of their noses and pick up random hot men from public pools to political parties, someone to fulfill their fantasies, particularly Wani’s, of pornographic threesomes.
To do these, Wani has to make an excuse for the time he spends with Nick. He sets up his magazine, Ogee, an allusion to the line of beauty, a lazy elongated S that reminds Nick of the silhouette created by the back of a lover. It could be Wani, or it could also be another lover like the ex Leo, but given their promiscuity, does it even matter whose lower back and buttocks they are?
So Wani hires Nick as the editorial consultant. The magazine is soon born, but it doesn’t live long. In fact, Ogee will only be one issue old. Because soon, Wani will die of AIDS. Leo also died of it, just some time earlier. And Nick? I can’t recall if he got positive, and if he didn’t, he sure is one lucky man.
I always thought that you can’t reason your way out if you get AIDS due to unprotected sex. If one can buy grams and grams of coke, perhaps boxes and boxes of condoms could also be bought, yes? Not that it’s the only way to protect yourself, but the attempt to protect oneself is there. So I didn’t feel any sympathy for Leo and Wani, especially Wani. But I think I might have a little for Nick, if he did contract AIDS, only because I feel that I know him more than the others.
And this acquaintanceship, this sort of friendship, is just what it takes for me to shift my views on homosexual people getting AIDS. It’s different when you know the people getting it and dying due to the complications associated with it. This I have proven for myself when a few days back, one of our friends died. He wasn’t even a big whore, or a slut as Wani sometimes calls Nick, and the annoying thing is that one random encounter about three years ago, that one rare time when he got through it unprotected, is probably what did it.
And he only found this horrible thing chipping slowly at his immune system a few months back. A fever and cough that won’t let him go suggested an HIV test. So Nick, if ever he didn’t get positive, and I’m quite sure now that he didn’t, has a chance to redeem himself from the sleaze that he lived through for half the decade. It’s a terribly short time to have people you have loved at different points of your life plucked out of your life one by one.
AIDS has been around for a while, and it’s only now that I truly felt that it is real. It is tragic, but there’s something strangely, vaguely beautiful in it. So cheers to our friend. I can never write the right words, if ever they exist, to somehow ease the pain brought by this loss, but yes, we had wonderful times and memories together.