Reviewed by Vickie Fang
A&U, short for Art and Understanding, is a nonprofit magazine devoted to covering “cultural, community-based, and medical responses” to the AIDS pandemic. The cultural responses take the form of plays, poems, and short stories about people who have been infected and those of us who love or fear them. They have been gathered into an anthology that deserves to be read for three reasons. The first is that the book opens a door to a world that all of us know exists, but most of us don’t know much about. The second is that it is written primarily by authors who are not famous, but deserve to be.They are part of the not-inconsiderable battalion of fine writers who hold down day jobs and publish in small literary magazines or through small presses, win awards that are prestigious only within a limited circle of writers, and go largely unknown by the general public.It is part of the great joy of this blog to be able to discover such writers and to introduce them to our readers. Finally, and for me the most important reason to read Art & Understanding, the stories it tells are beautifully written.
The anthology is divided into four parts, each covering five years of the publication of Art and Understanding. Each section begins with a single page that gives a very brief overview of major events of the period. Some surprised me — in 1992 the CDC expanded the definition of AIDS to include women (I had no idea that women had ever been considered immune). Others captured a well-remembered instant of social history —Tom Hanks winning an Oscar for his role in Philadelphia. Taken as a whole, the anthology gives an often disturbing sense of how time marches on, while the implacable presence of early death remains. If there is a theme to this collection, it is dignity in the face of the inevitable. There is a lengthy section at the end that gives the biographies of all the contributors, telling how they teach English or practice medicine or work for social change while taking the time to give us these stories.
The stories (Best New Fiction will only review the stories, but everything in this 444 page book is well worth reading) speak with a variety of voices, of course. Some are extremely immediate and sensory. In Where Are All the Juliets? a woman watches a man gut a fish.
Haley feels the unexpected twist of lust when he wrenches the fish head free. “You go for a drink with me now? A cocktail?” He asks. She looks for the irony in his words, on the pink snail of his tongue, but does not find it. Haley nods, watching the eyes of the fish as the head swings, unencumbered, to meet the ocean bottom with a succinct explosion of sand.
Many others focus on telling you their characters’ feelings in language that is as plain and direct as possible. In The Test a man reacts to a broken condom.
As a teenager, after I realized i was gay, I remember the litany of shame that ran through my head: you’re a homosexual, you’re a homosexual, you’re a homosexual. I remember that cry. Now the litany changed to: you’re going to die, you’re going to die.
Some stories are “open,” inviting the reader to participate by having to imagine what will happen to the people who will soon be left behind. In The White Dog, a man takes his dying lover out for a walk in the snow. It is the dying man who who knows their surroundings, including the big white dog who appears suddenly as if in a fable to lead them home. The dog
. . . had a sweet, gentle expression, but was methodical, not
playful, as if they’d done this before. It put its head down and pushed forward, old and arthritic in the snow as it barely stayed ahead of their slow pace.
As the story ends, we hear the men’s whispered promises, feel stunned by what we already knew was happening, and are left wide open to the survivor’s helplessness. Other stories end with righteous closure. In Property Values, a vulgar, social climbing real estate agent miscalculates her local society’s reaction to homosexuality. After she has launched a nasty whisper campaign about another woman’s gay son, she is invited to a meeting. Once there, she discovers that everyone else is organizing an AIDS fund raiser featuring the same gay son. “You have no power here,” the man says. “Begone, before a house falls on you too.”
The stories are first world and third world. They take place on the beach, in small hometowns, and on the streets of New York. They are about men and women, straight people and gay ones, children and adults. What they are not, ever, is an exercise in irony or pretty language that exists merely for the sake of pretty language, or a suggestion that a story’s really clever structure could ever be as important as its emotional message. These are all deeply felt works of art with something important to say.