Thursday, May 21, 2015

Review of "Journals of the Plague Years" by Norman Spinrad

Deft prose, in-your-face ideas, cut to the punch mentality—Norman Spinrad is one of the more contentious voices in the field, if not one of the most welcome for it.  The poet Alicia Ostriker calling all good art a dance with the devil, Spinrad knows how to tango, challenging the reader with the forthrightness of his conceptions.  Exemplifying these attributes to a socially relevant T is his 1988 novella “Journals of the Plague Years”.  Tackling HIV/AIDS concerns arising at the time, the story cuts to the bone of social, political, and commercial involvement with the disease. 

“Journals” and “Years” plural (as opposed to the singularity of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year), the novella is divided between four perspectives: a soldier, a researcher, a senator, and a teenage girl.  Not rotated strictly on waltz rhythm, Spinrad leapfrogs amongst them in developing the overarching story.  HIV exploding in the US population through rampant sexual activity, massive quarantine zones and health cards are implemented by the paranoid Christian senator Walter T. Bigelow in an attempt to keep the virus under control.  His program an initial success, the spread of the disease falters, giving Richard Bruno a chance, deep in his laboratory, to effect a cure.  A cure he does find, but soon enough the virus mutates, and he’s back at square one.  The disease continuing to creep through the population, Linda Lewin learns, at the tender young age of sixteen, that she’s Got It.  Her parents aghast, she runs away to find a new life in the San Francisco quarantine zone and there do what she can before her time is over. But all hell breaks loose when the concerns of Bruno’s laboratory and the interests of the population at large come to loggerheads.  Infected soldier John Davis conscripted in his dying days to perform one last mission, the fate of HIV in the US hangs in the balance.

The prose fresh and dynamic, “Journals of the Plague Years” is stylistic pleasure.  Spinrad imbuing each of his four main characters with a unique voice, Davis’ ‘kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out’ attitude is captured perfectly in word, while Bigelow’s paranoia oozes from the page.  Lewin’s choices initially turning the skin, one eventually finds empathy in her situation, while Bruno’s everyday-man attitude likewise finds the appropriate tone.  With hints of Anthony Burgess, the novella rolls off the page in fine style.

In the end, “Journals of the Plague Years” is scathing commentary on the US political and commerical sector’s interests in mass disease, particularly HIV/AIDS. The government and pharmaceuticals yet to prove their interests entirely opposite to what Spinrad outlays, the novella remains as relevant today as it did more than two and a half decades ago.  (It is also forms a nice dichotomous relationship with Michael Bishop’s Unicorn Mountain; similar theme, different approach.)  Caustically satirical in tone, sharp in style, and getting at the throat of an issue that, while it has partially diminished its threat from the 80s, remains a threat to humanity at large, the novella is as readable today as it was twenty-five years ago. 

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