The Way We Write Now: The Reality of AIDS in Contemporary Short Fiction
Sharon Oard Warner
She knew as much about this disease as she could know. Alan Barnett, "Philostorgy, Now Obscure"
The line above comes from a short story by Allen Barnett, who died of AIDS in 1992. The "disease" the line refers to is, in fact, AIDS, and the "she" is a woman named Roxy, who asks her friend Preston whether he intends to go on DHPG. (To invoke the acronym AIDS is to call forth a whole legion of acronyms: HIV, ARC, PCP, AZT, KS, FDA, CDC.) Roxy knows DHPG is a drug used to treat CMV (cytomegalovirus), and that it requires "a catheter inserted directly into an atrium of his heart" ( 1990, 36). Roxy has done her homework. In her room, Preston finds "a photocopy of an article from the New England Journal of medicine," as well as "a book on the immune system and one on the crisis published by the National Academy of Sciences, and a list of gay doctors" (43). Roxy has read extensively and cares deeply, but there is still much she cannot know.
I identify with Roxy: I have read extensively (though not as much as she has), written some, and care deeply, but like her, there is much I cannot know. What I do know, however, I have learned not so much from television documentaries, though I have watched them, and not from articles and reports, though I have read them. What I know about AIDS--about living with it and dying from it--I have learned from literature, from novels and poems and essays, and most of all, from short stories.
Most of us knew little about AIDS when Susan Sontag's story "The Way We Live Now" was published in 1986 in The New Yorker. "The Way We Live Now" was one of the first stones about AIDS to appear in a periodical, and it is still--by far--the best-known story on the subject. Not only was Sontag's story included in Best American Short Stories of 1987, it was also chosen for the volume Best American Short Stories of the Eighties. To raise funds for AIDS charities in 1992, the story was released once again, this time