What controversial ideas? 1) HIV has been around since the beginning of Homo sapiens. 2) A bunch of presidents were gay. Hearing this lights some people’s hair on fire. Dismissing these ideas outright is exactly the kind of hysterical reductionism Kramer rallies against, though many accuse Kramer himself of being a hysterical reductionist. He is an example of that rarest of birds – an intellectually militant gay radical. Many are fatuously accused of harboring a radical gay agenda. Proudly, Kramer actually possesses one, and The American People is his reinterpretation of the our national myth.
It is told by Fred Lemish, a metafictional version of Kramer, who is writing a history of America, and by the historians, epidemiologists, biologists, ethicists, et al that Lemish interviews for his project – all fictionalized caricatures of real life scholars. The HIV virus itself is anthropomorphized and is a competing voice with the rest of the parodied monologists. Lemish’s history of America starts with a biological history of HIV as told literally by the voice of HIV. It’s ballsy, ambitious, and extremely disorienting. A lot of it is stuff you recognize from your grammar school history book only to fugue into hardcore horrors. Plague/death is synonymous with life/sex. Allegorical sex/death fantasias abound. Luckily for me, I’ve been saying William S. Burroughs is my favorite author for so long that nothing is true and everything is permitted, but Kramer is a far better writer. The monologues are poetic, fiery, funny, shocking, tragic. The book’s length and structure are a bit much even for me, but listening on audio gives the text a much needed infusion. There is a full cast and each narrative voice gets their own actor. This is a novel written by a playwright.
If you are thinking, “Bryan, I am never reading this,” you might already be familiar with Kramer’s life and work. The Oscar nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague about the fierce early days of AIDS activism features Kramer prominently. The HBO miniseries The Normal Heart is based on Kramer’s largely autobiographical play of the same name.