There are certain cultural traumas that are so devastating that they are best explored in fiction. From the safe distance of “make-believe,” we can explore truths that feel too acute, too painful when unfiltered. This is why the best works about the Vietnam War have been feature films rather than documentaries (sorry, Ken Burns), and this is why the best way for younger generations to understand the full horror of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s is through literary accounts. Though the disease has become much more manageable in the wake of medical breakthroughs, it has forever changed our world. Here are some books that walk us through its haunting, painful profundity.
David B. Feinberg
A thinly disguised account of the author’s twenties, this focuses on Feinberg’s New York before and after AIDS. Feinberg, who died in 1994 at age 38, was funny, incredulous, irreverent and eminently sorrowful–in short, just the sort of voice that we need and miss as we remember the many who died far too young.
In these ten essays, National Book Award winner Monette shares his experiences of the early deaths from AIDS, his lost lovers, AIDS activism, and the rage and despair associated with “the AIDS holocaust.” This is an enormously important entry in the “never forget” files.
A 1989 follow-up to the author’s seminal Illness as Metaphor, this tackles the culture around “the gay plague”–how it was discussed, packaged, and marginalized, and what lessons we as a country absorbed from it. No one could put malaises into high perspective like the late, great Sontag.
Long-time activist Kramer’s much-lauded play about the early days of AIDS was recently adapted to screen by Ryan Murphy, but reading it on page helps us absorb the full extent of its righteous, brilliantly woven fury.
Set in Margaret Thatcher’s London, this extraordinary novel about 1980s British high society indicts the cultural opaqueness of the elite in the face of AIDS–a sociopolitical perspective that applied on this side of Pond as well, and is one we should never forget.
In this barely fictionalized novel about how everything and everyone he loved in New York City was systemically destroyed by AIDS, White captures the agony and bittersweet solidarity of that era with the lush detail that Proust (one of his biographical subjects) captured the madeleine.
Longtime gay activist and author Sarah Schulman excels at capturing mise-en-scenes on the edge of extinction, and here she tells the story of a lesbian exterminator and a gay, AIDS-afflicted male author against a backdrop of a dying downtown New York.
Set in a 1990s Kenyan village, this children’s book about a thirteen-year-old girl grapping with the impact of AIDS while hoping to become a doctor offers an essential and poignant glimpse into the disease’s ravages in other parts of the world.
Mormons, transgender performers, beleaguered medical performers, rabbis, ghosts, Roy Cohn, powerful social observation, and the beautiful young souls felled in their prime? Kushner’s depiction of the height of the AIDS crisis is arguably the best play of the second half of the 20th century, period.
The last thing anyone expected was for this novel to be redemptive. Yet its account of an HIV-positive, obese, illiterate teenager pregnant with her father’s child makes you weep grateful tears for the tenacity of the human spirit in the shadow of societal heartlessness.