MAY 8, 2020
HOW DOES THE EVERYDAY survive an epidemic? Paul Lisicky’s third memoir, Later, takes readers down the precarious temporality of an epidemic. With Provincetown as its center, the book explores the author’s complicated relationship with his body, identity, and sexuality in a moment when bodies have become data, identities systematically marginalized, and sexuality stigmatized to the nth degree. Later takes us on a heart-wrenching journey through Lisicky’s transition from living with his mother to his exploration and discovery of gay communities, and finally to his encounter with death and illness as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. But, more specifically, Later asks us to consider the power of retrospection, a timely consideration given the global confinement regulation in the face of the current COVID-19 outbreak.
When the memoir opens, Lisicky is on his way out of the familial dwelling, crowning toward the newest chapter in his writing career. His mother, waking up to the idea of a house without her son, sets the tone of Lisicky’s affective life. “She puts her arms around me so I will feel the consequence in my body, the consequence of her losing once again,” writes Lisicky. In that moment, the author places a weight on readers that they won’t be able to shake off until they put the book down. This weight takes many forms, among them embodied anger, prohibited desire, melancholia, and deviant sexual citizenship.
These feelings power Lisicky’s prose and help bring us into the various worlds that constellate the memoir. When Lisicky arrives in Provincetown — which he calls Town — in 1991, at the height of the AIDS crisis, he enters a world familiar to that historical moment: a queer time that forgoes futurity and surrenders to the urgency of a precarious present that could dissolve at any moment. Such urgency can often be found lingering in the work of many gay writers publishing during or reflecting on the ’80s and ’90s. And Lisicky masterfully situates himself within this history, giving his readers a unique glimpse into his fear of getting tested, the Provincetown-specific frailty of human relationships in the face of contagion, and how death looms as would a shadow in the daily life of a meandering writer.
Lisicky’s memoir offers Town as a site for studying the social politics embedded in community as a task for literary representation and quotidian living. How can he express desire in a single glance? How and when should he wear his chore jacket? How can he maintain enough privacy to focus on his work without sacrificing his inclusion in the community? Town, for Lisicky, is a messy terrain that holds an unstable present and uncertain future simultaneously, oozing with potential even as it faces the fading of life. Oscillating between a projective fantasy and a daily flirtation with death, Lisicky navigates his sexual encounters like an interested flâneur: he questions his desire to fuck, his sexual preferences, the feeling of bodies intertwining. How transgressive is it to imagine skin-to-skin contact in a time of plague? This risk seems to turn Lisicky on: “Desire flushes me with shame, the kind of shame I want to rub out of my skin until it relaxes,” he writes. We know this shame. It’s the kind of shame that stems from allowing ourselves desire at a moment when desire might mean death. It’s the kind of shame that renders it transgressive, that makes any encounter rebellious, and therefore alluring. But it’s also the kind of shame that feels generative, reflexive, productive. It allows the everyday to continue unfurling. “We’re close to AIDS, so close it’s almost inside before it’s even inside,” Lisicky writes. “By that I mean the idea of it: the air we breathe is drenched in its possibility. And that’s why it doesn’t even occur to us to be bothered by latex, the smell and gummy barrier of it.”
AIDS penetrates every aspect of mundane life in Lisicky’s Town, so much so that it almost feels impossible to think before or outside of it. It’s the new normal, the only context through which to navigate the present and think the future. But what do we make of the past, then?
[O]ld gay men don’t exist in these times. You’re ancient and rare if you’re forty. The gay component of Town is completely young, but the young people have the physical problems of their grandparents. […] We hate old people because we’re not going to be old. We deny age, abhor it, including any of the gay men who have made it to fifty, sixty, unscathed.
As experienced through illness, temporality in Town turns its back on the past, making the moment in which Lisicky writes so much more powerful. His experiences exist suspended in time, as he faces his fear and acceptance of death at every encounter, with no escape. Time is warped in Town; it is the enemy against which Lisicky fights with every word. And every word written is a second lost, a desire negotiated. “Imagine it,” he writes, “Look at a drop of your blood, your semen, your saliva, and think of it containing a thousand little grenades. Not just for you, but for the lover you come into contact with. How would your life change? Could you disappear into yourself, into your skin, ever again?”
As Lisicky explores the limits and potential of his own sexuality and desire, he “refuses” to get tested. Perhaps, somewhere, he knows that AIDS isn’t just something that happens to your body. It’s not only a disease that kills you, but it’s also a psychological state that picks away at your sanity, day after day, funeral after funeral. It’s what keeps you going to the doctors for validation and reassurance, but also what keeps you as far away from them as possible.
This refusal to get tested: is it murdering me? Maybe refusal is too strong a word — refusal suggests agency and resistance, and my own position? Well, it’s not even a position. It’s procrastination, plain and simple[.] […] I’m feeling cowardly, while at the same time I know I’m brave, very brave. Just for waking up. Just for meeting my friends day after day. There are all kinds of suicide, and maybe I’m just doing a long, slow suicide[.] […] I’m talking about holding the wave of dread back five times a day. Trying to silence the howl of illness.
Holding back the dread then becomes an illness of its own that Lisicky has to control to survive. It’s this willingness to survive despite the dread that opens up the possibilities of the book: he falls in love, can assist AIDS-affected men in their daily lives with some company, read at open mics, fall out of love, into bed with a warm body, slip on the rubber. Lisicky beautifully renders the readers complicit in this act of survivance. Readers see through the eyes of a visitor who becomes a local through his constant exposure to death and illness but also through the opening of his heart to the possibility of love and community in epidemiological time. And perhaps the most powerful instant in the book is its eventual ending, where the testimony jumps forward to 2018 — a year almost out of science fiction for the Lisicky of the 1990s. The author sits in his doctor’s office and asks for Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). This important jump from the ’90s to the present infuses the text with a much-needed temporal shift to a time of treatment and management. “No wellness without illness, I realize this now,” he writes. “The world was never merely divided into two columns. My body has always known this, but my brain was slow to catch on.” This final section of Later helps ground the reader in this realization. As readers are taken through Lisicky’s engagement with queer and critical theory via quotes from prominent thinkers including Lauren Berlant, Leo Bersani, and José Esteban Muñoz, which serve as epigraphs to various sections of the memoir, the narrative ultimately arrives at a present that feels full, manageable, and free.
In the contemporary moment, Lisicky must live with the fact that he has survived or perhaps is always still surviving. With PrEP, Lisicky can at least try to get one kiss closer to an intimacy that he never imagined could exist in his epidemiological time. Lisicky invites his reader into this delicate, brutal, and moving psychoanalytical terrain, and for those of us cut off by birth and history from the peak of the AIDS crisis, this intergenerational invitation is irresistible. He seduces us, breaks our heart, and helps us put it back together — but not once does he allow the space for a post-memorial nostalgia. That, he says, is murderous.
Michael Valinsky’s work has been published in i-D Magazine, Hyperallergic, OUT Magazine, BOMB Magazine, NewNowNext.com, and Kirkus Reviews, among others. He is the author of .TXT, Zurich: 89plus/LUMA Publications, 2014.