Photo by Michael KuppermanOn a recent evening, Allan Gurganus, author of the novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, appeared at the Los Angeles Central Library to read from his most recent novel, Plays Well With Others. The book is set in entry-level art-world Manhattan before, during and after AIDS. Gurganus was interviewed onstage by Bernard Cooper (Truth Serum: Memoirs and Maps to Anywhere). The following is adapted from their discussion.
Bernard Cooper: I recently read a quote by Edmund White in which he discouraged writers from using humor when writing about AIDS, saying that it somehow trivialized the epidemic. Which I don’t find to be true at all. What do you think of that particular statement and about the kind of minefield that writing about AIDS has become?
Allan Gurganus: I admire Ed White, but here I disagree with him completely. To look at the eclipse, you’ve gotta have a piece of smoked glass. In the long run, humor and compassion are really about all we’ve got going for us. You have the pleasure of eating, and the pleasure of sex, of liking where you live, and surrounding yourself with people you enjoy, and loving your work, and laughing at yourself. It seemed that to write another novel that began with a diagnosis on Page 1 and had a funeral on Page 212, that ended with the eulogies on Page 230, was too much like life, which, thank God, art is not. Fiction should not be life. It should not be a case history. It should offer a vision.
One of my impulses in writing the book was to remember the great party — as somebody who arrived in New York in ’79 and surrounded himself with gorgeous and gifted people, some of whom lived through to tell the tale with me, thank God. It was pure party from the time I set foot in the city until the time I left it. And the party, alas, came to include a lot of funerals. We took the balloons and we took the jokes and we took the outrageous campy behavior into St. Vincent’s Hospital. We cheered each other in the middle of it all. Some people left, but those of us who stayed managed that because we could joke about what was happening. There was nothing else to do.
Listening to you talk about humor, I’m also reminded of something I heard Lorrie Moore say when she was asked what the purpose of humor was in her work. She said, "To be funny." All facetiousness aside, it sounds like youdo think there’s a purpose in humor.
Oh, there is a purpose. All of art is a series of tensions and releases. And the faster you can build an arc of tension and release it — the more arcs you can have per page — the more interesting and alive the prose is. I’m not interested in reading soggy, solemn prose about a soggy and solemn experience. I want a series of recognitions and detonations, and, for me, that beautiful mechanism is a joke.
I admire Life Is Beautiful. It’s extraordinary partly because of the sheer nerve of imagining that a comic vision can be brought to bear on a subject as awesome at the end of the century and as horrifying to all of us as the Holocaust. We see a 1930s frothy, awful-truth kind of Irene Dunne/Cary Grant white-telephone-comedy comic vision get a running start in the ’30s and then run into the ’40s and terrible Holocaust camps. I admire the will of the director and the writer to sustain that comic vision in order to protect the innocence of one child. That’s the right impulse for the truth teller in history. Nothing is sacred, because everything is.
One of the things that strikes me about reading your work on the page is the way you sometimes play with spacing, punctuation, the sort of visual effect of the language which seems to take into account some of the considerations of poetry. I mean, not only metric considerations, but also visual considerations. Are you a reader of poetry? Or were you ever?
I was a painter. I went to art school for a year. I always thought I would be a painter, but the war in Vietnam put me on an aircraft carrier with 4,000 other guys, and they didn’t exactly encourage arts class and easel work.
No easels on the aircraft carrier?
No, but there were books. And I was so bored that I actually, you know, read one. I’d been a student in high school who could bullshit his way in and out of classes, but as for sitting down and actually reading a book front to back, I was really not a reader. I was a painter, I was drawing constantly. I also grew up in a very blessed time when we had the woods. Do you remember the woods? There used to be these things called woods and there would be a house and then there would be acres, and nobody knew who owned the acres, but if you were a little kid you could go out and build camps. Somebody once said to me, "Who was your greatest teacher?" And the phrase that came out, "The privacy of the woods."