The Darker Proof by Edmund White and Adam Mars Jones

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The Darker Proof by Edmund White and Adam Mars Jones

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: The Darker Proof is about the individual experience of disease. It dips a toe into AIDS politics but is overwhelmingly personal in its collection of simple but moving stories. It is a bleak book, but it is also very much worth reading.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 250 Date: July 1987
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 0571150683

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The Darker Proof is a collection of short stories about AIDS by two prominent gay writers: Adam Mars-Jones, who is English and Edmund White, who is American. They are stories, not biographies, autobiographies, or eye witness accounts so they aren't about real people but they are as true as anything by or about real people has ever been. I'll tell you about the first story.

"Slim" is what the narrator of the first story calls AIDS. The acronym AIDS is deliberately never mentioned throughout The Darker Proof by either author in an attempt to relieve the word of some of its taboo and thus perceived power. That seems a little contrived to me and it's not what I'd have done, but it is the only criticism I have of the entire book. Slim is the story of the relationship between an AIDS patient and his "buddy". A buddy is a kind of volunteer home-help-come-extra-friend organised by organisations such as The Terence Higgins Trust. The ill man is full of wry, self-deprecating humour and his buddy is full of health, vitality and well-meaning kindness. The patient (we never learn his name) spends much of his time and tiny reserves of energy trying to bait Buddy:

"Buddy's very good. That sounds suitably grudging. He tries to fit in with me. He doesn't flinch if I talk about my chances of making Slimmer of the Year."

Ouch. But the narrator is never less than honest with himself. He knows he baits Buddy because he is fascinated by and envious of his health and he knows that he watches every single tiny detail of Buddy's vitality: the way he runs up and down the stairs to the flat, full of energy; the way he arrives with hair still damp from swimming, a faint smell of chlorine still clinging. That is this man's life; he is an observer and chronicler of his own decline and he marks that decline by reference to Buddy - his volunteer, a person he likes, is fascinated by, is grateful for, and yet can't help resenting. This first is perhaps the best story in the collection speaking as it does of the difference between health and illness, ability and disability with a layer of discreet sexual loss coating the words but never directly expressed.

There are another seven to read. There is Gareth, the unofficial executor, who must clear Charles' flat of any "kinky relics" before he dies - leather chaps, baseball caps, coded bandanas, bottles of amyll nitrate - and his grieving parents take possession. There is Luke, returning to his home-town from Paris, already ill and visiting his cousin, a Southern bible-thumping, homophobic Baptist woman about to embark on a missionary expedition to the UK. There are the dying, the grieving, there are the doctors and the nurses. There are eight different stories told by eight different people. The only thing that connects them in any way is AIDS.

You're probably thinking that this will be hard for you to read. How many stories of dying people, hospital beds, grieving friends and relatives do I want you to see to find the truth of AIDS? Well, I suppose it is hard to read because these stories are sad, so sad, but you should read them because perhaps then you will find the truth of AIDS. The truth is that there is no truth of course, just as there is no truth of motor neurone disease, or multiple sclerosis, or cancer, or any of those other non-infectious but equally potentially fatal conditions, there are just the people unfortunate enough to suffer from them and those people are all as different as you and I. These are gay writers and they're writing about gay people, they're writing about the community they know because that is what they know, but this book won't leave you thinking of AIDS as a gay disease, or a gay plague, or anything else like that, because it's a collection of stories above all about people. Each narrator is a true, individual voice. It is bleak; it was written over ten years ago and before there were any life-saving combination therapies available, when the disease was even more stigmatised than it is today.

Re-reading it now, I feel sad for the people in the West for whom those medications came too late - and especially sad for the two of them who were my friends and didn't make it. The Darker Proof also makes me think of the developing world where HIV infection rates are soaring almost unchecked. It seems to me that some of us have moved on from dismissing this disease because gay people and drug addicts suffer from it most often to dismissing it because it's affecting people who live in another continent. So millions and millions of dying people are not worth helping because their geographical and political situations mean their lives are likely to be "nasty brutish and short" anyway? Is that it? The billions spent on AIDS research in the West aren't helping these people very much. AIDS isn't a kind of nemesis or revenge for an evil and unnatural lifestyle, neither does it elevate its victims to sainthood or the status of heroes. It's not a millenial apocalypse or a tester of humanity or nobility. It's an infectious disease transmitted via blood and to a lesser extent other bodily fluids - semen and saliva. That's it. That's all it is, a virus, just as all cancer is is a bunch of messed-up cells that mutated in a bad way. The only thing we need to know is that AIDS, like cancer, can kill the people who contract it, whoever they may be.

It is hard to take something like AIDS and use it in fiction; how to avoid turning a disease into either a deserved retribution or an agent of beatification? I think that by offering these simple but moving stories, almost monologues, and not a novel, White and Mars-Jones made a sensible and wise choice. A novel would need a beginning, a middle and and an end; almost certainly someone contracting, suffering and eventually dying from AIDS. Or at least, it would have at the time White and Mars-Jones were writing. It would have been almost impossible for them not to fall into one trap or the other. Instead, in The Darker Proof, you see a much less predictable series of stories telling of the individual, personal experience of disease and I think that where AIDS is concerned that's the best thing that they could have done. You won't read it and find out what it would be like for you to have AIDS, or for you to love someone that has AIDS, or for you to have a son or daughter that has AIDS, or for you to nurse someone with AIDS. You will see that experience of everything is different for us all and that labelling a person as a disease-sufferer and nothing else is not the way to go. You will see people who were neither damned by their illicit lifestyles nor turned into saints through suffering. You will just read their stories.

Both men write well, I like Mars-Jones, his caustic wit and the way his characters use the disease for terrible jokes slightly better than I like the more poetic, whimsical White, although I like White too. In The Darker Proof I think they've produced a testament that you should read. You don't owe it to them, you owe it to yourself.

An equally difficult but worthwhile book dealing with contemporary social issues is Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland.

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