What is the role of humour in a genre shaped by loss and mourning? Anna Ferrari explores John Weir’s semi-autobiographical 2006 novel, ‘What I did Wrong’.
This article is part of a week-long takeover (23-27 March) of The Polyphony by HIV Humanities guest editors José Saleiro Gomes, Louisa Hann, and Stian Kristensen.
Since becoming a manageable condition with the introduction of protease inhibitors in the mid-nineties, AIDS lost much of its symbolism and its space in American literary discourse, and after the advent of the new millennium, in particular, it became a secondary theme even in texts about the epidemic. In this context, the work of John Weir, author of two AIDS novels, The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket (1989) and What I Did Wrong (2006), stands out. The differences between these novels exemplify some of the ways in which AIDS literature and its common themes have evolved over recent decades.
Eddie Socket describes in an atypical way the most typical parable in AIDS literature, tracing the main character’s traditional journey from diagnosis to death (cf. Blades 2017, 148) through a detached and ironic approach; humour is a crucial feature in Weir’s portrayal of the epidemic. What I Did Wrong, set in the United States in 2000, was written when the emergency of the epidemic had been halted by the development of antiretroviral therapies, and the collective attentions of the country (which had never been particularly focused on AIDS in the first place) had been monopolised by the aftermath of 9/11 – particularly in New York, which had also been the epicentre of the epidemic. This perspective allows for interesting observations: Weir processes the trauma of the epidemic while mourning New York in a way that is both about AIDS and evocative of 9/11. Here we will deal with the evolution of AIDS representation in Weir’s work, focusing on the author’s decision to maintain in What I Did Wrong the humour he had employed in Eddie Socket.In the context of gay American literature, the main leitmotif after the advent of antiretroviral therapies is mourning. What I Did Wrong represents a twofold expression of this theme. Weir alternates the action to flashbacks, as the main character, Tom, remembers the last weeks of his best friend Zack, whose character is closely shaped after Weir’s best friend in real life, author David Feinberg, a unique voice in the landscape of AIDS literature, and who had died of AIDS in 1994. Thus, as the literary character Tom mourns Zack, the writer Weir mourns Feinberg. What I Did Wrong is one of only a handful of post-2000 texts to address queer friendship (cf. Pearl 2013, 148), and portrays real-life events to the point that Weir himself has described the novel as “posing as fiction”. Throughout the text, Weir combines mourning for a world that has disappeared with the mourning for a specific individual. Zack haunts Tom like a ghost, and often argues with him, allowing Weir to “write about the history of the early AIDS epidemic without historicizing it” (Blades 2017, 155-56). Weir works through the ‘archive of feelings’ (cf. Cvetkovich 2003) cutting pain with a humorous tone, a trademark of both his and Feinberg’s writing.
Feinberg’s humour, in particular, was ferocious: Sarah Schulman described him as being not sentimental at a time when a lot of people were, “so angry it was funny, until it became just pure pain” (Schulman 2012). Weir puts a clear focus on Zack’s illness and on the stark contrast between the portrayal of his body and the anger and irreverence that animate him: “Zack is starving to death. He looks wasted but he doesn’t act it. Instead, he’s pared down to fighting weight and swinging wildly” (Weir 2006, 27).
Pearl rightly observes that we should “consider the AIDS literature from 1995 and after in two historical periods – before and after 9/11” (Pearl 2013, 118). In What I Did Wrong, the decision to set the novel after the turn of the millennium but before 11 September 2001 creates a temporal window that not only allows Weir to mourn the way in which New York has been irrevocably changed by AIDS, gentrification, and 9/11, but also allows him to avoid what Schulman calls the ‘gentrification’ of memory that happened after the attacks. The events of 9/11 exacerbated a process of cultural gentrification that was already underway during the Nineties, exemplified by products like Philadelphia or Rent; whilst these did at least have the merit of directing public attention to the epidemic, in the new millennium we see the opposite effect: an obliteration of the memory of AIDS altogether. Schulman observes how this tendency replaced AIDS deaths with the “ritualized and institutionalized mourning of the acceptable dead” (Schulman 2012) – those who died on 9/11 – and erased the cultural and historical memory of the epidemic. Schulman argues that “there is something inherently stupid about gentrified thinking,” replacing “complex realities with simplistic ones” (Schulman 2012). Weir, on the other hand, revisits AIDS trying to make sense of this simultaneous historicization and forgetting (cf. Blades 2017, 146), and does so observing AIDS through an uncommon gaze. Weir adopts an approach that echoes Feinberg’s poetics, and which might be considered the opposite of a simplistic approach: humour. In What I Did Wrong, irony and sincerity are “not oppositional; they are complementary” (Blades 2017, 152), and humour, a crucial feature in Feinberg’s writing, allows Weir to mourn him without being too sentimental. Humour is present in the portrayal of both the epidemic and the process of mourning. In his novel Plays Well with Others, Allan Gurganus states that “my dead friends can bear most anything but solemnity, especially solemnity about them” (Gurganus 1997, 24), and this is a sentiment that resembles what Weir does with Feinberg: he mourns while not giving up on the humorous gaze. The impulse to laugh is life-giving: Feinberg himself best framed the argument, writing that “humour is a survival tactic, a defence mechanism, a way of lessening the horror. … Once you joke about something, you appropriate it, you attain a certain amount of control over it” (Feinberg 1994, 87).
In 2011, Weir participated in a symposium on AIDS literature at the New School. The video is on YouTube. Reading excerpts from What I Did Wrong, Weir used the real names, not the characters’, complete with an impression of Feinberg’s voice. While he reads, one can hear at the same time the pain and emotion in his tone, the audience cracking up at Feinberg’s behaviour, and Weir’s gratification for hearing their laughter. Definitely not simple – definitely not gentrified. Much changes with the advent of protease inhibitors, but the subversive nature of laughter in Weir’s voice (and, by extension, Feinberg’s voice) remains, providing an irreverent and honest testimony of what it was like during the AIDS epidemic.
Anna Ferrari holds a PhD in American Literature from Sapienza University of Rome. She works on AIDS literature, humour and camp. Her writing has appeared in JAm It! Journal of American Studies in Italy.
Andrew Blades, “‘The Past Is not a Foreign Country’: John Weir’s AIDS Fiction,” in Studies in American Fiction, 44, 1 (2017): 139-160
Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings. Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press, EPUB book, 2003
David B. Feinberg, Queer and Loathing. Rants and Raves of a Raging AIDS Clone. 1994. New York: Penguin, 1995
Allan Gurganus, Plays Well with Others. New York: Vintage, 1997
Emmanuel S. Nelson, “AIDS and the American Novel,” in Journal of American Culture, 13, 1 (1990): 47-53
Monica B. Pearl, AIDS Literature and Gay Identity. The Literature of Loss. New York: Routledge, 2013
Sarah Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind. Witness to a Lost Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, EPUB book, 2012
John Weir, What I Did Wrong. New York: Penguin, 2006
 Cf. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Xi0qFFYnT0&t=81s. Accessed on January 5, 2020.