Well everybody is worried about everybody now, said Betsy, that seems to be the way we live, the way we live now.Susan Sontag's The Way We Live Now, a short story published November 24, 1986 in The New Yorker and made available this week to read online, is a window into another time - the earlier years of the AIDS epidemic, when experimental treatments were only first becoming available, when an AIDS diagnosis was still the equivalent of a death sentence. In it, Sontag both tells the story of one man's illness through the flurry of chatter and conversation among his circle of friends, and conveys the zeitgeist of an era.
The story's structure suggests an elaborate, intricate game of telephone (what Max said to Kate who told Quentin who reported to Orson). You could get lost trying to keep track of who said what to whom... until you realize it doesn't really matter. Between the names, Sontag captures the smallest, daily details of Max's experience and the details of the progression of the disease (weight loss, hospitalization, metallic taste in the mouth, bleeding gums, fatigue, re-hospitalization). Beyond the names, the "he saids - she saids" build up a rythym and momentum, coming again and again, like waves, with a cumulative effect that can feel (appropriately) overwhelming. We realize this is not just Max's story, but also the increasingly common, tragic story of friends coming together to care for each other in dying. Read these many years later, The Way We Live Now helps us to remember how profoundly a single disease changed life for so many.
You can read the story online here. Red ribbon logo from the worldaidsday.org website.
* * *