This completes a hat trick of books I’ve read inspired by topical events. After Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, I was reminded recently that today is World Aids Day, which seemed a good opportunity to complete my reading of Adam Mars-Jones’s fiction. A dozen or more years ago, when I was enthused by his debut novel The Waters of Thirst, I picked up his first collection of stories Lantern Lecture and enjoyed it, but shied away from Monopolies of Loss. What, I thought, could this collection of gay stories about Aids have for me? Now, wiser than that, the only barrier that remains is the frankly creepy cover, a Pierre le Tan illustration of the author photo. Whichever way you leave the book lying, he’s there looking at you.
It’s a tribute to the success of antiretroviral drug treatments that Aids has become less newsworthy in the developed world of late. Mars-Jones’s stories date from a time when it was still headline news, and as such the ubiquity of the subject here risks dating the book, as with Martin Amis’s 1987 collection themed on nuclear armageddon, Einstein’s Monsters. All this calls into question the ability of literature to deal with news that doesn’t stay news, to address our contemporary issues and remain relevant decades later.
This collection was put together in 1992, from stories previously collected in The Darker Proof, a collaboration with Edmund White, and Mars-Jones provides an illuminating and entertaining introduction. After agreeing a cover design for the earlier volume (“my instinct being solidly for commercial suicide, I suggested a non-pictorial cover”), he tells us that
[t]he title was more of a problem. The usual solution with a collection is to choose the title of one of the constituent stories, but that wouldn’t work when there were two authors. Eventually we settled on a phrase from the first volume of Cocteau’s diaries, which both of us, tireless interveners in the marketplace, had recently reviewed. … Edmund and I were ready with a cod-Shakespearean quotation to explain the title – ‘Friends in affliction make the darker proof of love’, or something of the sort, supposedly from Measure for Measure – but nobody asked. Perhaps people already assumed it was from a Shakespeare play that they weren’t familiar with.
The reviews were generally kind. By then, it took a certain amount of effort to disparage a book with such liberal credentials, to attack its achievement without denigrating its intentions.
Quite. I am able to extend that custom by saying with a straight face that the first four stories in Monopolies of Loss, which are the ones first published in The Darker Proof, are excellent. In them, Mars-Jones refrains from using the words Aids or HIV, and he explains in the introduction that his aim was “to look at Aids directly and then to edge it into the background. I wanted to crown HIV with attention and then work to dethrone it.”
So he begins with ‘Slim’, named after an African name for Aids, where the narrator talks directly about his condition – “being exiled from the young, the well, the real” – his limited lifespan, and his relationship with his Aids ‘buddy’:
Buddy may not be qualified, but he’s had his little bit of training. I remember him telling me, early on, that to understand what was happening to me perhaps I should think of having fifty years added to my age, or suddenly having Third World expectations instead of First. I suppose I’ve tried thinking that way. But now whenever I see those charity ads in the papers, the ones that tell you how for a few pounds you could adopt someone in India or the Philippines, I think that maybe I’ve been adopted by an African family, that – poor as they are – they are sending me what they can spare from their tainted food, their poisoned water, their little lifespans.
The remaining stories from the first half of the book – big bruisers, averaging 40-50 pages each – move back and forward from this moment on the brink. ‘An Executor’ deals with the aftermath of an Aids death, and how friends and family, rarely close bedfellows, can become decisively estranged in circumstances like these. Mars-Jones gets it just right when capturing reduced lives through a particular image, such as noting that “the washing-up … only amounted, these days, to a couple of cups and small plates.” In ‘A Small Spade’, there is a beautifully judged scene of tension and intimate horror when an HIV-positive man gets a splinter in his finger at a café:
Blood in general, and blood like Neil’s in particular, had acquired a demonic status over the few previous years. Before that time, blood seemed largely a symbolic substance, and people’s attitudes towards it signs of something else. Being a blood donor involved only a symbolic courage, and squeamishness about blood was an odd though perhaps significant little cowardice. Now blood had taken back its seriousness as a stuff.
Mars-Jones specialises in these “signs of something else”, and by centreing on the minutiae of life with – and after – HIV, he deals it an ironic blow of belittlement. Even the stereotypes of gay life outside Aids get a witty rejoinder, as when at the gym with the muscle fetish set: “‘Reps’ for repetitions, ‘lats’ for latissimus dorsi, ‘pecs’ for pectorals. Blood that normally went towards finishing words seemed to be redirected to rebuild muscle tissue.”
Yet it is also this epigrammatic neatness which hampers the collection, particularly in the later (in both senses) stories. Mars-Jones’s narrators are urbane, knowing, and even sanguine to a man: so keen is he not to allow Aids to overwhelm that it can risk seeming less important than it warrants. Then again, it could just be his given mode of expression: William from The Waters of Thirst and John Cromer from Pilcrow were similarly cool around the most emotionally heightened subjects. Monopolies of Loss’s weakness is perhaps that messiness and death require more than cleverness and neatness as a response, even when emotionally true and intellectually satisfying. Nonetheless it remains a timely read, as Aids continues to devastate entire populations in Africa; even if Mars-Jones never gets further south than Brighton.