Sunday, December 4, 2011

Story Sundays: The Way We Live Now, Susan Sontag

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 website.

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Story Sundays are all about short fiction here on the blog. This weekly meme was created by Ellen at Fat Books, Thin Women and is also celebrated at Novelniche: A Place for Books. Be sure to check out their blogs for wonderful short fiction selections and other excellent reviews. All stories reviewed can be read free online.


  1. It's always amazing how far we've come with the treatment and understanding of AIDS and HIV. Obviously we still have a long way to go but things are getting better all the time!

  2. I remember when this story came out (guess I'm dating myself there) and I welcome the chance to read it again. Thanks so much for the link and the thoughtful review.

    Also thanks for the link you've posted to Danielle's interview on your "about" page. Danielle's advice is so valuable. Authors and publicity people need to learn to respect book bloggers as professionals. And I love how she tells authors to love their books and be proud of them.

  3. Meg, yes that really struck me as well- what a difference (though yes, still more prevention and universal/affordable/accessible treatment still needed). Anne, thanks for kind words. Yes, your/Danielle's piece was so eloquently put, very useful advice for all.

  4. It's sad that in 2011, 25 years later, this story is still relevant to many sufferers.

  5. Nana, agreed, especially since treatment can make such a difference - if one has access to it.

  6. This is really good that AIDS campaigns are transferring great awareness amongst people and also the preventive and curative ways...!!

  7. Timur Sener Timur hasn't shared anything with you. People are more likely to share with you if you add them to your circles. MoreLoading... People. In his circles. 2 people.


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