Susan Sontag, "The Way We Live Now"

A young man’s illness sends shockwaves of concern and conjecture through his circle of friends.

(from Ann Charters’ The Story and the Writer: An introduction to short fiction — on loan from the Lori HIll Library)

An amazing story, not just for its honest, insightful, sometimes witty portrayal of people dealing with crisis — but also for its unique and mesmerizing style. It’s written in sort of curvilinear tangents, propelling the story in the confusing, untrustworthy way that gossip conveys information. Hard to explain it any better than that without spending the next hour trying to transcribe one of these enormous sentences. Just know that not a single quotation mark appears in a story that is almost entirely dialogue.

(Know also that the copy I read was in a college sophomore’s English anthology, so sentences and phrases were occasionally underlined or offset by parentheses. Made the whole thing look a little like algebra. Which was a good thing. Reducing serpentine sentences to little graspable worms was an effective tool. Not that the author was shooting for clarity.)

It’s a fact: Since it was first published in the Nov. 24, 1986, issue of The New Yorker, “The Way We Live Now” has been praised as one of the first American stories about AIDS, although it never names the disease outright.

Susan Sontag died Tuesday at the age of 71. By all accounts she was an exceptional person. She wrote extensively on the subject of photography, but had no desire to own a camera. She battled cancer and won, at least for a long while. She wrote stories, novels, essays. I saw her speak once; I remember the way she ran her fingers through her silver streak before launching into a complicated theory on oh, let’s say,the inherent superiority of the image over the written word. I didn’t understand.

Anecdotes abound concerning the way she put the hammer down whenever, whereever, however she saw fit. This is from her obit:

“Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?” she wrote in The New Yorker [Nov. 24, 2001].”In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.”

Sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s that you have the morally neutral courage to say it.

And I’ll give her the last word, since she surely would have demanded it. She once said:

“There is only so much revealing one can do. For every self-revelation, there has to be a self-concealment. A life-long commitment to writing involves a balancing of these incompatible needs. But I do think that the model of writing as self-expression is much too crude. If I thought that what I’m doing when I write is expressing myself, I’d junk my typewriter. It wouldn’t be liveable-with. Writing is a much more complicated activity than that.”

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