Essay by Sally Elhennawy
Art by Haley Cheng
While considering the thematic elements that characterize the literary space occupied by HIV/AIDS writing, it is perhaps just as important to take note of the narrative forms utilized by writers in communicating these themes. The HIV/AIDS epidemic was characterized by a pervasive sense of impending mortality; consequently, members of the affected communities found themselves in a limbo of time and togetherness. A shifting sense of temporality was ushered in by an anticipation of death, while collective identities were formed in the midst of a communal crisis. In an effort to preserve their livelihood against an imminent threat, many turned to writing in a lifesaving move that heralded the literary tradition of AIDS writing: “AIDS [became] a central motivating fuse for fictional creativity” (Agar 74). This essay will look to identify patterns of collective identity and subverted temporality in the (meta)narrative structures of Rabih Alameddine’s fictional work Koolaids: The Art of War (1998). In orienting these devices as a necessary response against the inevitable mortality of the AIDS epidemic, I posit the novel as a reclamatory reading of accounts of living with HIV/AIDS, and of characters endowed with the ability to reclaim their relationships to the signification of death brought about by the crisis.
Koolaids is characterized by a non-linear progression of events, with flashbacks, childhood rememberings, and chronologically ambiguous vignettes interwoven throughout. The effect of this subversion of temporality can be read in a multitude of ways. The novel begins with a protagonist’s account of experiencing what we infer as symptoms of HIV-related dementia, which can be characterized by “a relapsing and/or remitting pattern of cognitive impairment” (Valcour and Paul, 2006). This protagonist, whom we assume to be Mohammad, states “I can’t think straight. Time gets very confusing” (2). In a practical reading, then, we can see how the non-linear structure of the novel functions to mirror this byproduct of living with HIV/AIDS. Yet deeper analyses allow for an interpretation beyond a mere rehearsal of the illness narrative. Mikko Carlson, in a textual analysis of Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, argues that “the function of non-linear chronology is to release readers’ attention from the pre-given choreography of AIDS as illness; rather, it helps us to consider how the process of illness is being modified in the process of the act of writing” (25). This reading allows for an extrapolation that positions mortality as undergoing a similar modification in the novel; the fluidity with which events occur in the lives of the HIV-positive characters allows them to exist in a liminal space that death may never reach. Alameddine writes: “Kurt surprised everybody. He did not die that night” (62). Lines later, Kurt does die. Pages later, he speaks again.
Alameddine’s structural choice in conveying this mercurial temporality is reflected in the metanarrative ventures of the previously mentioned protagonist, Mohammad. Throughout the novel, Mohammad expresses an unfulfilled desire to write, the stylistic imperatives of his intent often reflecting those of Alameddine himself in writing Koolaids. One such expression unfolds as follows: “I wanted to write an endless book of time. It would have no beginning and no end. It would not flow in order. The tenses would make no sense. A book whose first page is almost identical to the last, and all the pages in between are jumbled with an interminable story” (119). Such characteristics are notable in their representation of the very elements of which Koolaids itself is composed. The shifting temporality that characterizes Mohammad’s fictional world reflects his own newfound inability to experience time as normal: “Time is what I need right now, but the concept eludes me always” (113). Yet in the various works of writing he sets out to complete, he is able to manipulate this temporal distortion towards a mode of self-preservation: “… he has discovered that ‘AIDS gives you plenty of time to die’ (I, 11). This newly found awareness, linked strongly to temporal perception, is equal to the self-awareness that AIDS also gives him plenty of time to write (life and writing strongly equated through self-expression and creativity)” (Agar 2007). This sentiment is manifested two-fold in our reading of the novel: a work of fiction written by an author who, in a 2016 Guardian interview, said “Somewhere along the line, 1996, all my friends died, and I decided that to be able to survive, I must put everything aside. And I did … I started writing my first book.” (Alameddine) This urgent drive is then reflected in the novel’s first expressed instance of Mohammad’s desire to write: “When I first started seeing my friends die, I wanted to write a book …” (18).
The connection drawn between Alameddine and his fictional creation serves as a telling introduction to the novel’s emphasis on collective identity, a vital facet of the response to the HIV/AIDS crisis represented in Koolaids’ narrative structure. In her article “Collectivity in Trouble: Writing on HIV/AIDS by Susan Sontag and Sarah Schulman”, Paula Treichler remarks that “the epidemic drew people together with an intensity fueled … by death and dying” (246). The forming of communities necessarily borne from the shared AIDS experience is manifested through the collective identities found in the multiplicity of narrative voices present in Koolaids, between which the reader is often unable to distinguish. Alameddine further writes two protagonists whose identifying characteristics are remarkably similar; Mohammad and Samir are both gay, HIV-positive, Lebanese-American men who paint. It is often difficult to ascribe a given narrated experience to one or the other; the reader must sift through contextual clues in order to attempt an assignment. This merging of identities reflects the universality contained in the “collectivity of loss [encountered by the gay community in the AIDS crisis]” (Carlson 27). In keeping with the metanarrative trend of Mohammad’s literary aspirations, he expresses a desire to be able to evoke characters’ collective identity through writing. Offering as an example a short story of Coover’s in which “he brings the various characters into view, except they are all the same character” (30), Mohammad yearns, “I wish I could write short stories like that. I could describe the human condition so eloquently and so succinctly” (31). Mohammad expands on this desire in another of his imagined literary ventures; he wishes to write a story whose protagonist is born in Lebanon, lives in the States, is HIV-positive and dedicates his life to an art form (Alameddine 170). The construction of this identity mirrors that of Mohammad’s own (and subsequently that of Samir, whose narrative voice often exists in tandem with Mohammad’s), engendering a continued “interchangeability” that may function to “universalize the particularity of AIDS” (Treichler 254). It is important to note as well that Mohammad’s creation of this fictional doppelgänger is a reflection of Alameddine’s (a gay, Lebanese-American painter) writing of Mohammad. Carlson provides a relevant summary of Smith and Watson’s conjecture that “both story-telling and the self constituted by it are narrative constructions of identity” (22); in the near-interchangeability of the “selves” constituted by their story-telling, Alameddine and Mohammad enact a narrative of collectivity in their constructions of identity.
It is further possible to offer a reading of this collective narrative identity as a safeguard against the apprehension of death. If characters are self-identified with one another, their immortality may be assured through another’s continued livelihood. “… [N]o doubt we all profoundly know that we are immortal. … I am all others, any man is all men” (Alameddine 80). In Mohammad’s self-identification with the fictional representative mentioned above, we can also see that the death of a character with whom one’s identity is interlinked offers a certain reclamatory power over the signification of death. “It would be so interesting to write, as the main character, the description of the knife stabbing me. I die. I find that so powerful” (Alameddine 171). Rather than existing in a space of apprehension heralded by the realization of mortality, Mohammad embraces its possibility. In doing so, he is granted a newfound livelihood: “Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid” (Alameddine 100). From this, we can infer that a welcome anticipation of death is a requisite for a gratifying life.
In these ways, Mohammad’s continued expressions of desire directed towards a literary undertaking also function to position his shifting relationship to mortality throughout the novel. In the majority of instances, he is in a constant limbo of attempting to write; as Carlson might say, “the writing process becomes his companion” (20). His continually referenced inability to execute his written opus goes hand in hand with a reluctance to open his arms to the possibility of death. He derides platitudes such as “Death is an endless night so awful to contemplate that it can make us love life and value it with such passion that it may be the ultimate cause of all joy and all art” (103), which he disdainfully attributes to Theroux. Such scorn becomes significant in hindsight, however, as it orients Mohammad’s eventual concession to the generative function of “answer[ing] death in the affirmative” and “accept[ing] it as one of the great eternal forms of life and transformation” (Alameddine 15).
It is against this background that we view the striking shift in Mohammad’s attitude that allows for the seeming completion of his work. In an impassioned proclamation aimed towards the reader, we can read Mohammad’s message nevertheless as one of hope for his own benefit: “One day, you will write that book. … One day, you will begin to live your life” (122). Yet when Mohammad finally accomplishes his literary feat, it is accompanied by the arrival of his demise. In a fictional conversation with the French poet and critic Paul Valéry, Mohammad is reassured: “You’re dead. Your work is complete” (186). Mohammad’s resignation to his fate just lines earlier may provide context for this perhaps counterintuitive occurrence: “I wait for the peace beyond all understanding. I lie on my deathbed waiting” (186). It is the acceptance of his own mortality that allows him to bypass it; we return to the understanding that immortality is not granted him through the physicality of remaining alive, but in his conquering of the fear associated with imminent death. This analysis lends insight to our reading of a work that Mohammad expresses a desire to have written early on in the book: “… I wanted to write a book where all the characters died in the beginning” (18). What better way to regain one’s footing against the chilling imminence of death than to take ownership of the death act itself? This desire also functions as collateral; for in seeing his friends die, Mohammad is confronted with the realization that he, too, is a mortal being with an expiration date. In reckoning with this, his turn to writing, oft-thwarted, can be seen as a “period of furious creativity in which he strives to complete all his unfinished writing” (Carlson 27), mirroring that of another HIV-positive narrator-protagonist whom Carlson describes in his analysis. Mohammad’s urge to write a book functions in opposition to an impending mortality, informed by “the truth … that we all live by leaving behind” (Alameddine 80).
In conclusion, the narrative devices utilized throughout Koolaids: The Art of War serve to establish its representation of responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The novel’s subversion of structural forms allows for a reading of the text that ultimately stands in the face of an omnipresent sense of mortality. Literary representations of collectivity and shifts in temporality (both on the part of Alameddine and his characters) serve to promote writing as a lifesaving act during a period of such intense crisis as the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This can be seen through close inspection of the ways in which one of the novel’s central narrator-protagonists, Mohammad, achieves a reclamation of his relationship to a signification of death. In completing the preservative feat of a written work, Mohammad finally embraces the oft-repeated incipit of his imagination: “Death comes in many shapes and sizes but it always comes” (Alameddine 18).
Agar, James N. “Self-Mourning in Paradise: Writing (about) AIDS through Death-Bed Delirium.” Paragraph, vol. 30, no. 1, 2007, pp. 67–84. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43152700. Accessed 10 Dec. 2022.
Alameddine, Rabih. Koolaids. Grove, 2015.
Carlson, Mikko. “Reflective Interplay between Self and Other: Textual/Sexual Space and the Cultural Meanings of AIDS in Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life.” NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, vol. 17, no. 1, 2009, pp. 18–33., https://doi.org/10.1080/08038740802688770.
“Rabih Alameddine: ‘I Think We Lose Something Once We Get Accepted’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 Oct. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/09/rabih-alameddine-the-angel-of-history.
Treichler, Paula A. “Collectivity in Trouble: Writing on HIV/AIDS by Susan Sontag and Sarah Schulman.” Amerikastudien / American Studies, vol. 57, no. 2, 2012, pp. 245–70. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23509447. Accessed 10 Dec. 2022.
Victor Valcour, and Robert Paul. “HIV Infection and Dementia in Older Adults.” Clinical Infectious Diseases, vol. 42, no. 10, 2006, pp. 1449–54. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4484758. Accessed 10 Dec. 2022.