“People in Trouble” was not the first novel of AIDS, but it may be the
first social-realist novel centered on AIDS activism. Schulman had
covered the unfolding AIDS crisis for the queer New York press since the
early eighties. When she sat down to write a novel on the subject, she
told me recently, she began by making a long list of everyday details
from the crisis that risked getting lost as gay writers and journalists
died: wristwatch alarms going off, reminding people it was time to take
their AZT; men carrying teddy bears as talismans of comfort and
hope; people spreading
AL-721 on their morning toast. Then she looked for a plot structure that
would not only document the crisis but also take the rest of America to
task for its inaction.
In the end, Schulman settled on a love triangle, one inspired by a
relationship of her own. The novel switches perspectives between the
three participants, all downtown New Yorkers: Kate, a painter enjoying
some success in the Manhattan gallery scene; her husband, Peter, a
lighting designer for the theatre; and Molly, Schulman’s stand-in, a gay
woman who works part time at a movie theatre. Molly and Kate become
lovers, and Kate, at first, keeps the affair secret from her husband.
But she soon confesses. It’s not as if she’s a lesbian, she insists;
she just likes Molly—maybe more than she’d ever thought she would, but
still. Peter tries not to be bothered, and succeeds for a while. He
doesn’t think he has a problem with gays or lesbians; he even fooled
around with a man once. “There was something in the whole idea that was
arousing,” he thinks.
Molly lives just a few blocks away from Kate and Peter, but she inhabits
a different world. Unlike them, she isn’t comfortably ensconced in a
middle-class career in the arts. Unlike them, she has gay friends.
Unlike them, she is surrounded by the daily chaos of AIDS. She knows
about Kaposi’s sarcoma and drug trials; she’s all too used to going to
friends’ hospital rooms, deathbeds, and funerals. And she’s coming to
terms with the fact that, while her world is under siege, straight
America—even in the liberal East Village—doesn’t care enough to help.
She’s furious, and she finds an outlet for her anger in Justice, a queer
direct-action group with many similarities to ACT UP, the now famous
AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. (Schulman was an early member of the
group, and a founder of the ACT UP Oral History Project.)
While Schulman was writing “People in Trouble,” she wandered into Trump
Tower’s lobby, curious. “It was so ugly, so anti-New York. It was
offensive,” she told me. In the novel, it becomes clear that Horne’s
political and business ambitions are closely intertwined. Horne Realty
is buying up downtown apartment buildings with high numbers of gay
occupants, in anticipation of imminent vacancies hurried along by AIDS.
At a rally for his mayoral campaign, Horne promises that, once all the
New Yorkers with AIDS are on an internment barge, their apartments will
“immediately be converted to luxury co-ops for intact nuclear families,
which statistics show are the least likely to spread AIDS.” Horne’s
developments aren’t just gaudy and expensive; they’re weapons aimed at
reshaping urban refuges for human difference into nodes for profit. This
was the beginning of Schulman’s fascination with real-estate politics,
which pervade her work. (They are the primary subject of her best-known
book, “The Gentrification of the
Kate and Peter, from what we know of them, are unlikely to vote for
Horne. They like the theatre, the downtown scene, philosophy. When they
see homeless people on the street, they feel bad for them. They’re not
particularly wealthy—their own apartment is rent-controlled and
relatively small. They likely couldn’t afford a Horne apartment. But
they are unwilling to give any sustained consideration to the
possibility that, despite all this, they do have power—or to the idea
that by not fighting back against Horne’s plans for the city and its gay
population they are tacitly lending that power to evil.
Peter proves particularly incapable of recognizing this. The longer that
Kate and Molly’s affair goes on, the more he retreats into a fog of
resentment—against women, feminists, homosexuals. “It’s not as easy to
be a man as it once was,” he complains to a co-worker. “Actually, it was
never easy and now it’s worse than before.” When he runs into Molly on
the street, he lectures her. “You see, I think people are all the same .
. . men are people too. People have rights even if they’re not gay.” He
starts to sound like a men’s-rights activist.
Kate does better, but just barely. Thanks to her relationship with
Molly, she is introduced to viewpoints that challenge her own, including
her assumption that a bohemian-lite downtown life style—or the production
of formally challenging art, no matter its immediate subject
matter—constitutes a politics in itself. She starts to feel the holes in
this reasoning, but refuses to jump through them to whatever might lie
on the other side.
Didacticism has a bad reputation in narrative art: we often think of the
storyteller’s job as avoiding political or moral instruction in the
service of evoking the complex humanity of every individual life.
“People in Trouble” is unapologetically judgmental, but only in a small
handful of moments does this make the novel seem overly schematic. On
the whole, Kate and Peter feel like real people, not cartoon villains.
And so, in the novel’s best moments, their complicity feels real, too,
as do their attempts to wriggle out of it.
“I don’t think we’re as far apart as you say,” Kate tells Molly at one
point. “I mean, when the shit comes down, we’ll both be on the same side
of the barricades.”
“The shit is already down,” Molly replies.
“I mean when people are dying in the streets.”
“Kate, people are dying in the streets.”