Analysis of Susan Sontag’s The Way We Live Now 

First published in the New Yorker in 1986, Susan Sontag’s The Way We Live Now addresses AIDS in detail without ever mentioning the disease by name. The story subsequently appeared in The Best American Short Stories of 1987, The Best American Short Stories of the Eighties, and, most recently, in an illustrated edition, The Way We Live Now (1992). Sontag, a controversial and widely known social commentator and cultural critic who died in 2004, wrote novels, short stories, plays, and screenplays. She is, however, universally lauded for her collections of essays entitled Illness as Metaphor (1978) and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989). In these groundbreaking essays she explores the way illness is used in pejorative ways to describe social conditions and the accompanying moral, economic, political, and military crises; in particular, she demonstrates misconceptions and confusion about the AIDS disease. In The Way We Live Now, Sontag presents the myriad responses to a nameless central character who has been diagnosed with the (also nameless) disease. The result is, in the words of the New York Times Book Review critic Gardner McFall, “an allegory for our time” (20). The story’s impersonal third-person narrator brings the reader up to speed in the very first line by indicating the progress of the disease and then drawing in the almost overwhelming number of friends of the AIDS-stricken character: “At first he was just losing weight, he felt only a little ill,” we learn from Max, who is conveying information to Ellen (The Way We Live Now 7). Greg adds that he skipped his doctor’s appointment because he could still manage to work, but Tanya points out that he quit smoking. Added to the chorus of his concerned friends are the rest of the characters: Orson, Stephen, Frank, Jan, Quentin, Paolo, Kate, Aileen, Donny, Ursula, Ira, Nora, Wesley, Victor, Lewis, Robert, Betsy, Hilda, Xavier, Zack, and Yvonne. Although never developed at length, these characters form a significant support group of friends who not only relate the progress of the disease and its effect on the main character but also illustrate the multiple and diverse reactions to manifestations of the disease and its effects on “the way we live now.” Early in the tale, Ellen speaks for many when she compares their lifestyle to that in London during the Blitz, and Aileen likewise speaks a central truth: “As far as I know, I’m not at risk, but you never know” (8). A bit later in the story, Betsy remarks that “everybody is worried about everybody now . . . that seems to be the way we live, the way we live now” (12).

During the course of the story, we learn that one character, Zack, has already died, and another, Max, becomes stricken with the disease. As the friends of the main character react to this news through constant conversation, they differ on whether or not to tell him about Max. When he is hospitalized, we learn a little more about the main character, a little more about his friendships, and a little more about the disease. He is 38 years old, a charming man whose love of antiques and art is shown in a Byzantine icon, a Majorelle desk, and some maki-e lacquer boxes. And, ironically, since the story and his friends do not, he believes in saying the name of the disease aloud, using it often to make it “just another word” (18). He loves both women and men and at one point is described as a “Prince of Debauchery” (24), whose friends vie for his attention and argue among themselves about whom he loved best—apparently he “was crazy about Nora, what a heartrending couple they were, two surly angels” (11). By the end of the story, Nora still has not visited him.

Among his men friends, Quentin moves into the main character’s apartment when he is discharged from the hospital, “cooking meals and taking telephone messages and keeping the mother in Mississippi informed, well, mainly keeping her from flying to New York” (16). When Ellen reports that her gynecologist has told her that everyone is at risk, that “sexuality is a chain that links each of us” and becomes a “chain of death” (19), Quentin pointedly responds that she need not worry: “It’s not the same for you as it is for me or Lewis or Frank or Paolo or Max, I’m more and more frightened” (19), he says. Stephen asks the most questions and reads the most articles on AIDS research: Better to have the disease now than two years ago, he reports, since “so many scientists are working on it,” both the Americans and the French “bucking for that Nobel Prize” and sure to have “real treatment” for AIDS in a few years (17). Yvonne, who has just flown in from London, notes that none of them is afraid to hug or kiss him: “In London we are, as usual, a few years behind you, people I know, people who would seem to be not even remotely at risk, are just terrified, but I’m impressed by how cool and rational you all are” (19). As the disease progresses, they realize, in Betsy’s words, that “we are the family he’s founded, without meaning to,” although “some of us, Lewis and Quentin and Tanya and Paolo, among others, are ex-lovers and all of us more or less friends” (20). Greg adds, increased knowledge of AIDS means that “if you have a conscience, that you can never make love, make love fully, as you’d been wont—wantonly, Ira said—to do. But it’s better than dying, said Frank” (23).

Near the end of the story, the main character, although still speaking to friends, is presented through the first person: When he was home, he says, “I was afraid to sleep,” but when he moves back to the hospital— to a private room this time—he feels less fear. In some ways his “calamity is an amazing high” that makes him feel powerful, “but there was also the bad taste in the mouth, the pressure in the head and at the back of the neck, the red, bleeding gums, the painful, if pink-lobed, breathing, and his ivory pallor, colour of white chocolate” (27). His friends understand to varying degrees that they are “learning how to die,” even though Quentin is readying the apartment to which he will be discharged 10 days hence. “He’s still alive, Stephen said” (29, 30).

BIBLIOGRAPHY Barnett, Allen. “Philostorgy, Now Obscure.” New Yorker, 4 June 1990, pp. 36–46.
DeLuca, Virginia. “A Sister’s Story.” Iowa Review 21, no. 2 (1991): 161–184. Dyer, Geoff. “The Way We Live Now.” New Statesman 2, no. 41 (March 17, 1989): 34–35.
Mars-Jones, Adam. “Introduction.” In Monopolies of Loss. New York: Knopf, 1993.
———. “Slim.” In The Darker Proof: Stories from a Crisis. New York: NAL, 1988, 1–10.
McFall, Gardner. “Review of The Way We Live Now, by Susan Sontag.” New York Times Book Review, 1 March 1992, p. 20.
McFarland, Dennis. “Contributors’ Notes.” In Best Best American Short Stories 1990. New York: Houghton, 1991.
———. “Nothing to Ask For.” In The Best American Short Stories 1990, edited by Richard Ford and Shannon Ravenel. New York: Houghton, 1991.
Monette, Paul. Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir. New York: Avon, 1988.
———. “Part One: Halfway Home.” In Men on Men 3: Best New Gay Fiction, edited by George Stambolian. New York: Plume, 1990.
Nevai, Lucia. “Close.” New Yorker, 7 November 1988, pp. 36–39. Rollyson, Carl. “AIDS.” In Reading Susan Sontag: A Critical Introduction to Her Work. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.
Sontag, Susan. AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989.
———. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978.
———. “The Way We Live Now.” In The Best American Short Stories of the Eighties, edited by Shannon Ravenel. New York: Houghton, 1988.
———. The Way We Live Now. Illustrations by Howard Hodgkin. Boston: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992.
Stambolian, George. “Introduction.” In Men on Men 3: Best New Gay Fiction. New York: Plume, 1990.
Warner, Sharon Oard. “The Way We Write Now: The Reality of AIDS in Contemporary Short Fiction.” In Tales We Tell: Perspectives on the Short Story, edited by Barbara Lounsberry, et al., 186–189. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

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