The Angel of History (2016)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS

Alameddine, R. (2016). The Angel of History. New York: Grove Press. 304 pp.

In 2016, Rabih Alameddine published The Angel of History, critically acclaimed as a “tale of survival” and a “sprawling fever dream.”  The lasting night-sweats of this “post-AIDS” novel require not-so-considerable investment in character(s) and the pedantic discourse among the Devil, Death, and a variety of angels. Still, the novel poses a timely and looming question at the heart of our queer present:  How do we live with AIDS after AIDS?

Alameddine suggests that “forgetting is an integral part of memory”.  Much as texts become “unintelligible” to audiences of removed historical periods, queer experience(s) exert difference and allow passage into new stages of relevance.  “You cannot forget if you do not remember, and you cannot remember without forgetting.”  Can we understand the process of living with and without AIDS as a process and equal balance of living with while forgetting the trauma (and horrors) of the crisis period?

The Angel of History ruminates upon the cultivation and preservation of queer history. “All AIDS books are out of print because of [post-AIDS generations], because you only read books sanctioned by the petite NPRsie and their indiscreet charm, your fault, your fault, your grievous fault. We refused everything, rejected their heavens and their hells, and you turn around and accept both and you keep saying I do and I do and I do and fuck me more daddy while they shove you in a tiny vestibule and you pretend it’s Versailles.” The crux of Alameddine’s novel returns to the “resolve of memory.” The characters acknowledge the lack of crisis (snidely remarking about daddy fetishes and the non-radical queer Left), signifying a historical shift, or a generational gap. In this way, he portrays the anger and hurt of an AIDS-impacted generation while encouraging a system of thinking (one must remember in order to forget) for progress.

His question stands: How do we live with AIDS after AIDS?  Are our lives without sufficient history after AIDS?  We cannot deny that AIDS created a queer sensibility, affect, and an ethics of care for an entire generation of queers, alive and deceased.  Stressed, now, is this dilemma of remembering.  Can the “post-AIDS” generation learn from ethics of care enacted by AIDS survivors? And is learning enough to radically alter sexual practice and personal care to ensure that other infections (i.e. super gonorrhea) do not send us spiraling into a similar crisis? How do we define an ethics of “post-AIDS care” that takes from historical experience the centrality of sexual and emotional wellbeing while integrating more advanced knowledge about biomedicine? Essentially, what must we take away from the AIDS generation without learning and “forgetting”?