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Reviewed by:
Timothy F. Murphy and Suzanne Poirier, eds. Writing AIDS: Gay Literature. Language, and Analysis. New York: Columbia UP, 1993. 339 pp. $29.50 cloth, $14.50 paper.

In the short time since Writing AIDS first appeared in 1993, the range of representations of the disease and of responses to those representations has increased exponentially. In this light, the paperback release of this collection of essays on the complexity with which AIDS has [End Page 400] been constructed in the public eye serves as a timely reminder of the need to continue examining the ever-shifting dynamics of AIDS representation. In the volume’s opening selection, Lee Edelman interrogates current AIDS activist discourse that, he believes, participates in constructions of male subjectivity posited on the repudiation of supposed threats to that subjectivity (that is, homosexual “narcissism,” “passivity,” and anal pleasure). Edelman argues that even gay-affirmative AIDS activism is inscribed within discursive traditions that seek to preserve the sanctity of heterosexual male “identity” at the expense of homosexuality. Hence, Edelman concludes that “we must recognize that ‘our’ ‘activist’ discourse is only a mutation of ‘their’ ‘master discourse’ and that its effect on them, though certain, is also always unpredictable.” Edelman’s provocative study provides a rich backdrop against which to read a series of essays that investigate, often through the explicit or implicit invocation of deconstructive analysis, the complex messages about gender, sexuality, and disease encoded in AIDS representations in a variety of media.

Among the most engaging pieces in the collection are those by Sander Gilman and Paula A. Treichler. These two selections illustrate the extent to which even gay-positive AIDS representations, despite their good intentions, may reinscribe homophobia and racism, while representations whose primary concerns seem to be the epidemic’s effect on the heterosexual nuclear family may, on the other hand, invite more complicated responses than their creators intended. In a dazzling reading of Peter Zingler’s novel Die Seuche (The Plague), Gilman not only considers the problematic valuing of heteronormativity within this text, but also examines the ways in which the novel’s intentionally ironic replay of Nazism in the form of AIDS interment camps reproduces Nazi anti-Semitism and its linking of Jews and disease—for, as Gilman notes, “simple reversals of images lead to their structural perpetuation.” In her analysis of the television dramas An Early Frost and Our Sons, Treichler argues that “[e]ven the most mainstream prime-time television medical narratives do not simply reinforce traditional dichotomies between the real and the fictional, the objective and the subjective, the scientific and the entertaining.” Rather, Treichler suggests, medical stories often serve as arenas in which to investigate the complex ways in which meanings are produced. In turn, Treichler shows that, despite its hegemonic nature, the depiction of the two [End Page 401] male lovers in An Early Frost as gay versions of Ozzie and Harriet is not negligible, nor are the narrative techniques that force the viewer to identify sympathetically with the film’s gay protagonist.

Not all of the essays in the collection are as compelling to read as these; indeed, the subject matter of several may strike some readers as predictable (that is, analysis of war metaphors in AIDS discourse). Nonetheless, most illuminate the diverse ways in which AIDS has been constituted through language. Philip Brian Harper’s exploration of responses to the African-American newscaster Max Robinson’s death from AIDS-related illness and Peter Bowen’s account of a freshman composition course he taught that focused on AIDS astutely examine the deafening silence that still underwrites a great deal of AIDS discourse. James W. Jones’s discussion of the “absence of AIDS” in contemporary gay novels, on the other hand, suggests that in some cases “refusing the name [of AIDS]” may bespeak an attempt by gay novelists to “[deprive] AIDS of its power to define reality.”

Despite the breadth of materials examined in this volume, women, particularly lesbians, seem conspicuously absent from the analyses. In her introductory essay, Poirier acknowledges that most of the material discussed in the essays focuses on gay white males, yet as the volume’s comprehensive annotated bibliography...

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