Characterization

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1658

If you had trouble keeping track of the characters in ‘‘The Way We Live Now,’’ consider yourself in good company. Reviewers at two prestigious publications confused the unnamed man at the story's center with one of the friends who gather around him. Barbara A. MacAdam of ARTnews refers to the AIDS patient as Stephen, who is, instead, one of his closer friends. Gardner McFall of the New York Times Book Review calls him Max, who is actually member of the circle of concerned friends who, late in the story, is himself diagnosed.

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I point this out not to mar the reputations of two fine critics, but to call attention to an unusual and challenging aspect of Sontag's style. If reviewers— professional readers and writers—can't keep the characters straight, how are the rest of us expected to? The short answer is, we aren't.

Most short stories are about distinct, individual characters and how they interact with one another. Most have a protagonist, in addition to an array of other characters of varying importance. "The Way We Live Now,’’ has no protagonist. The AIDS patient at its center is silent and nameless. The story represents the lifestyle and mentality of a large group of people who have been forced to respond to AIDS and treats them as minor and, to a certain degree, interchangeable characters. Either Sontag has done a very bad job attempting to portray conventional characters, or she has chosen to portray them in an unconventional way for particular reasons. The fact that she includes twenty-six characters and names each of them beginning with a different letter of the alphabet is a clue that readers are not intended to consider each character as an individual person, but to step back and view them more abstractly—as the expression of an idea about life in the age of AIDS.

In her introduction to ‘‘The Way We Live Now'' in The Best American Short Stories of the Eighties, editor Shannon Ravenel observes that ‘‘here the story's form is truly wed to its content.’’ In this essay I will consider how Sontag's form relates to the social dynamics surrounding AIDS by looking at her techniques for representing character.

For the most part, Sontag simply withholds information about the relationships among the various small groups of characters who gather to share news and engage in the rambling, speculative talk that makes up the narrative. The story's characters are defined only in terms of what they say about the man who is ill and how they react to his illness. She doesn't mention what they do, where they live, and with whom they are closest. Furthermore, she deliberately obfuscates who is speaking by writing in long sentences that run the speech of different characters together. For example, this mouthful:

He didn't want to be alone, according to Paolo, and lots of people came in the first week, and the Jamaican nurse said there were other patients on the floor who would be glad to have the surplus flowers, and people weren't afraid to visit, it wasn't like the old days, as Kate pointed out to Aileen, they're not even segregated in the hospital anymore, as Hilda observed, there's nothing on the door of his room warning visitors of the possibility of contagion, as there was a few years ago; in fact, he's in a double room and, as he told Orson, the old guy on the far side of the curtain (who's clearly on the way out, said Stephen) doesn't even have the disease, so, as Kate went on, you really should go and see him, he'd be happy to see you, he likes having people visit, you aren't not going because you're afraid, are you.

This passage offers a useful illustration of how the form of Sontag's writing de-emphasizes and even obscures the significance of individual characters in favor of evoking the mood and dynamics of the group. The passage describes some of the details of the sick man's first stay at the hospital and broaches the phobic fear of people with AIDS reflected in both hospital policies and the attitudes of friends. This information is communicated through the spoken words of four different speakers—Paolo, Kate, Hilda, and Stephen—in a single run-on sentence.

Speech is usually closely identified with individuality and carefully labeled to indicate which character is speaking. Yet Sontag eschews the conventional punctuation marks that would offer readers visual cues for distinguishing between one character' s words and that of another character. There are no paragraph indents or quotation marks to separate the speech of different characters.

Because sentences are often so long, readers must gloss over the clauses that describe who is speaking to whom in order to follow the gist of the conversation: He didn't want to be alone ... so lots of people came ... there were other patients on the floor who would be glad to have the extra flowers ... people weren't afraid to visit anymore, etc.

These choices about how to present the speech of different characters shape the reader's whole concept of character. You cannot linger on what one particular person says, or sort it out clearly from what another says, all while trying to reach the end of an eleven-line sentence.

Instead, the sentence carries you along with its momentum. You hear a chorus of panicked, reassuring, argumentative, joking, and despairing voices that interrupt each other and continue each other's thoughts. So why does Sontag use this stylistic technique for writing about the AIDS crisis? What does Ravenel mean when she says that Sontag's form is ‘‘truly wed to her content’’?

Sontag compares the AIDS crisis to London during the Blitz of World War II and refers to the disease as ‘‘an exaggeration.’’ To a certain extent, her style can simply be understood as a representation of the pressured kind of conversation that takes place in an emergency. Sontag's long sentences express the friends' compulsion to communicate about the situation that is on their minds all of the time.

It seemed that everyone was in touch with everyone else several times a week, checking in, I've never spent so many hours at a time on the phone, Stephen said to Kate, and when I'm exhausted after the two or three phone calls made to me, giving me the latest, instead of switching off the phone to give myself a respite I tap out the number of another friend or acquaintance, to pass on the news.’’ The characters are in crisis and do not rest when they would normally rest. Likewise, the sentence goes on and on when it really should stop.

The style also expresses the changed sense of priorities that emerge when a person is seriously ill. The individual identities of each friend and their separate interests become less important than their relation to the patient and his condition. They are ‘‘side effects," "the well," "at risk.’’ Compared to the patient, whose situation is so extreme, the friends begin to think of themselves as a "we.''

Yet this is not to say that AIDS brings a leveling of identity, that all characters become somehow the same as soon as one of them falls gravely ill. Some characters are more closely allied with each other than others. Some relationships are intimate, others cold.

Yet, depending on the example, it's either difficult or impossible to keep track of which is which: Quentin and Ira compete; Lewis and Frank have a falling out; Kate is a mediator. Yet this is revealed only because it relates to everyone's central concern: the AIDS patient. Sontag's style suggests that the specific details of what links various people is less relevant than the fact that they are linked. The long sentences that merge the speech of many characters emphasize the connection between various speakers—forged by their vehement reason for talking—even as it causes confusion.

Xavier comments that the man's illness sticks the friends ‘‘all in the same glue.’’ This image of merging and mixing has specific meaning in the context of AIDS, which is spread through only the most intimate bodily contact. In the story, it has both positive and negative connotations.

There is much past and present intimacy within the circle of friends. The bonds of loyalty, caring, and closeness that form the patient's intimates into a "utopia of friendship'' are, in some cases, potentially lethal. The AIDS patient has had sex with Lewis, Quentin, Tanya, Paolo, and Nora, ‘‘among others.’’ The timing and nature of these relationships is unknown, but these characters are presumably at some risk of having contracted the virus from the man. Quentin, Lewis, Frank, Paolo, and Max are gay men and thus, demographically speaking, at higher risk than the rest of the population.

Yet Ellen notes that"everyone is at risk, everyone who has a sexual life, because sexuality is a chain that links each of us to many others, unknown others,’’ a point Sontag stresses by including a full range of sexual preferences and orientations among the twenty-six characters. The characters are linked by various kinds of intimacy, which is the source of their strength and their weakness, their comfort and their fear.

A corresponding idea of intimacy may also be gleaned from Sontag's style: she makes her sentences into chains. The lack of punctuation links the individual speakers. The sentences also stick characters ‘‘all in the same glue.’’

The merging between characters, which creates, at its best, a communion of concern, also has a deadly flip side: in the AIDS crisis love and death get mixed up. As one character muses, ‘‘now the great chain of being has become a chain of death as well.’’ I would therefore conclude that the confusion Sontag creates by linking so many characters in her epic sentences is both intentional and effective. Such confusion is part of the way we live now.

Source: Sarah Madsen Hardy, Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2000.

The Theme of Death in Sontag's Story

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2065

Sontag's short story ‘‘The Way We Live Now’’ is about a man who is dying of AIDS. Although AIDS and HIV are not specifically mentioned in the story, it quickly becomes clear to the reader that this is the dreadful illness the man has contracted. In fact, the disease is mentioned only in terms which assume that AIDS is such an ubiquitous and dreaded presence at this point that all one need say is: ‘‘... what makes you think the worst, he could be just run down, people still do get ordinary illnesses, awful ones, why are you assuming it has to be that.''

However, the story focuses less on the experience of the man with AIDS than it does on the group response of his wide circle of friends to the progression of his illness. The story is also more broadly about "the way we live'' as a culture "now'' that the AIDS epidemic—and the potential of any given individual to contract the HIV virus—has become a fact of modern life since the early 1980s.

Critics universally recognize the social milieu of the dying man's friends as a group of young, professional, New York intellectuals—and so the story charts the response of this particular subculture to the presence of death in their lives. The style in which the story is written captures the dense texture of "discourse" generated by the infected man's friends in response to the fact that he is dying of AIDS. In other words, the story is written as a composite of the excess of talk and discussion by which this group of intellectuals attempts to deal with death. Although death is an existential reality that all human beings throughout history have had to face, the advent of the AIDS epidemic has made death a more immediate and widespread presence in the lives of many young adults in the United States, forcing them to grapple early in life with a wide spectrum of possible responses to death. Furthermore, by focusing on the survivors, rather than the victim, of the disease (although, as the atmosphere of the story indicates, every survivor is a possible next victim of AIDS), Sontag highlights the effect of the dying man's disease on the social structure of his circle of friends and acquaintances.

Although Sontag has been accused by critics of focusing her writing only on a relatively small, privileged, educated, elite segment of society, ‘‘The Way We Live Now’’ consciously highlights an excessively intellectualized group response to death which interrogates the nuances of human pettiness, competition, and self-interest which invariably accompany such nobler (though no less valid) reactions as commitment, compassion, and self-sacrifice to the dying of a cherished soul. Sontag's narrative technique in this story captures a dense matrix of conversation carried out among the members of the dying man's social milieu: Max, Ellen, Tanya, Orson, Frank, Jan, Quentin, Kate, Aileen, Greg, Donny, Ursula, Ira, Paolo, Hilda, Nora, Wesley, Victor, Xavier, Lewis, Robert, Betsy, Zack, Clarice, and Yvonne. Sontag intentionally confuses the reader with this complex and extensive web of voices precisely because she is not interested in the reaction of any one individual to the AIDS epidemic. Instead she explores the way "we," as a group, a society, a culture, attempt to make sense of something which is essentially incomprehensible—the end of a human life. Sontag thus weaves long, run-on sentences which reproduce the feverish pitch at which Stephen's friends attempt to talk their way through, or around, the presence of death at their doorstep. Note the opening sentence of the story:

At first he was just losing weight, he felt only a little ill, Max said to Ellen, and he didn't call for an appointment with his doctor, according to Greg, because he was managing to keep on working at more or less the same rhythm, but he did stop smoking, Tanya pointed out, which suggests he was frightened, but also that he wanted, even more than he knew, to be healthy, or healthier, or maybe just to gain back a few pounds, said Orson, for he told her, Tanya went on, that he expected to be climbing the walls (isn't that what people say?) and found, to his surprise, that he didn't miss cigarettes at all and reveled in the sensation of his lungs being ache-free for the first time in years.

In addition to exploring their own responses to their friend's illness, his friends maintain an incessant dialogue regarding both his physical health and his psychological state. Sontag's concern primarily with the talk generated by the man's friends is indicated by the frequent references throughout the story to the process by which his condition is evaluated, discussed, speculated upon, argued, and debated. The story is thus riddled with phrases such as: ‘‘Max said to Ellen," "according to Greg,’’ ‘‘Tanya pointed out," "said Orson," "Tanya went on," "as Max pointed out to Quentin,’’ and so on.

The dying man's friends also continually report to one another what he has said to them, as they all compare notes in order to produce a composite picture of how he is doing:

And when he was in the hospital, his spirits seemed to lighten, according to Donny. He seemed more cheerful than he had been in the last months, Ursula said, and the bad news seemed to come almost as a relief, according to Ira, as a truly unexpected blow, according to Quentin....

The narrative is also riddled with references to whom he said what to, and who told whom what he had said to whom; this is captured in the third sentence of the story (emphases mine):

And he said to Frank, that he would go, even though he was indeed frightened, as he admitted to Jan, but who wouldn't be frightened now, though, odd as that may seem, he hadn't been worrying until recently, he avowed to Quentin, it was only in the last six months that he had the metallic taste of panic in his mouth, because becoming seriously ill was something that happened to other people, a normal delusion, he observed to Paolo, if one was thirty-eight and had never had a serious illness; he wasn't as Jan confirmed, a hypochondriac.

A further layering of discourse is indicated through reference, not only who said what about the dying man, but also who said what about a third party, or even about what the AIDS patient has said to a third party; for example (emphasis mine):

... or maybe just to gain back a few pounds, said Orson, for he told her, Tanya went on, that he expected to be climbing the walls ...

In another example:

But is there anything one can do, he said to Tanya (according to Greg), I mean what do I gain if I to the doctor; if I'm really ill, he's reported to have said, I'll find out soon enough.

The dying man's friends even comment on the excess of conversation among them:

It seemed that everyone was in touch with everyone else several times a week, checking in, I've never spent so many hours at a time on the phone, Stephen said to Kate, and when I'm exhausted after the two or three calls made to me, giving me the latest, instead of switching off the phone to give myself a respite I tap out the number of another friend or acquaintance, to pass on the news.

Sontag is further interested in the ways in which the friends of the dying man find that the habit of concerned discussion generated by such a crisis takes on a life of its own. Aileen suspects her motives in focusing so extensively on the friend's illness, suggesting that there is a measure of "excitement’’ in the process of responding to crisis: ‘‘I suspect my own motives, there's something morbid I'm getting used to, getting excited by, this must be like what people felt in London during the Blitz.’’

As Sontag is concerned with the effects of illness on the social structure of the loved one's circle of friends, she focuses attention on the ways in which the crisis elicits petty feelings of competition and jealousy among the dying man's friends and acquaintances; the crisis seems to elicit in them a desire to ‘‘jockey for position’’ in relationship to the dying man:

... but you could hardly expect him to have said the same thing to all his friends, because his relation to Ira was so different from his relation to Quentin (this according to Quentin, who was proud of their friendship), and perhaps he thought Quentin wouldn't be undone by seeing him weep, but Ira insisted that couldn't be the reason he behaved so differently with each, and that maybe he was feeling less shocked, mobilizing his strength to fight for his life, at the moment he saw Ira but overcome by feelings of hopelessness when Quentin arrived with flowers....

As the illness progresses, this ‘‘jockeying for position’’ among the dying man's friends becomes more intense; it is worth quoting the long passage which captures the complex dynamics of competition which arise from their sincere concern for his well-being:

According to Lewis, he talked more often about those who visited more often, which is natural, said Betsy, I think he's even keeping a tally. And among those who came or checked in by phone every day, the inner circle as it were, those who were getting more points, there was still a further competition, which was what was getting on Betsy's nerves, she confessed to Jan; there's always that vulgar jockeying for position around the bedside of the gravely ill, and though we all feel suffused with virtue at our loyalty to him (speak for yourself, said Jan), to the extent that we're carving out time every day, or almost every day, though some of us are dropping out, as Xavier pointed out, aren't we getting at least as much out of this as he is. Are we, said Jan. We're rivals for a sign from him of special pleasure over a visit, each stretching for the brass ring of his favor, wanting to feel the most wanted, the true nearest and dearest, which is inevitable with someone who doesn't have a spouse or children or an official in-house lover, hierarchies that no one would dare contest, Betsey went on, so we are the family he's founded, without meaning to, without official titles and ranks (we, we, snarled Quentin); and is it so clear, though some of us, Lewis and Quentin and Tanya and Paolo, among others, are ex-lovers and all of us more or less than friends, which one of us he prefers, Victor said (now it's us, raged Quentin), because sometimes I think he looks forward to seeing Aileen, who has visited only three times, twice at the hospital and once since he's been home, than he does you or me; but, according to Tanya, after being very disappointed that Aileen hadn't come, now he was angry, while, according to Xavier, he was not really hurt but touchingly passive, accepting Aileen's absence as something he somehow deserved.

Although one could interpret Sontag's story as in part a depiction of the pettiness and self-absorption of a group of over-privileged intellectuals when faced with the reality of suffering and death, Sontag's tone seems to be ultimately compassionate toward the friends of the dying man—and, indeed, toward all of us in the late twentieth century. All of the talk generated by the friends of the dying man is ultimately a symptom of the incomprehensible horror and tragedy of the death of a loved one—with its attendant reminder of one's own inevitable death— which has been made all the more present by the seemingly ubiquitous nature of AIDS.

As one friend of the dying man puts it: "Well, everybody is worried about everybody now, said Betsy, that seems to be the way we live, the way we live now.’’ The ultimate horror and tragedy of the presence of the epidemic is poignantly expressed by the character Ellen: ‘‘... everyone is at risk, everyone who has a sexual life, because sexuality is a chain that links each of us to many others, unknown others, and now the great chain of being has become a chain of death as well.''

Source: Liz Brent, for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2000.

Theme and Form in The Way We Live Now

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1620

It is not surprising that Susan Sontag's short story ‘‘The Way We Live Now’’ was published in 1987, the same year as Randy Shilts's journalistic work And the Band Played On, as well as the same year ACT UP, an AIDS activist organization, was formed. Shilts's groundbreaking book chronicles the AIDS epidemic in America, covering its political, scientific, and personal impact from the early 1980s, when AIDS was a little-known disease associated with the relatively small gay male community, to 1987, when practically all Americans perceived the threat of the disease looming over them or those they loved. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was organized in response to the growing epidemic to increase awareness and force policy makers and researchers to give it their attention; the group did so through demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience. In contrast with Shilts's journalistic angle and ACT UP's activist approach, Sontag's response to the AIDS epidemic was through fiction. In her story ‘‘The Way We Live Now,’’ Sontag develops the theme that, as a result of AIDS, "the way we live now'' is in fear and isolation; to propel her message, she employs an unusual form as well as character voices and dialogue. The initial impression of the story is of a cacophony of voices. The labyrinthine sentences (the first sentence is 133 words long), with names thrown around like confetti and no quotation marks despite the fact that many people are speaking, create a sense of confusion and chaos. This form reflects one of the aspects of "The Way We Live Now'': life has become frantic and impersonal. The characters live in a fast-paced world where technology permeates every facet of life, and, despite surface appearances, technology ironically precludes them from actually connecting with each other. The character Stephen says, ‘‘I've never spent so many hours at a time on the phone.’’ Later in the story, Yvonne flies in from London for a weekend to see her ailing friend. Tanya says to Lewis that ‘‘the thing I can't bear to think about ... is someone dying with the TV on.’’ Stephen and Yvonne may feel that they are using technology to enhance their friendships, but it really disconnects; it is too easy, too quick-Stephen has many brief conversations, and Yvonne comes in for only a weekend-while real human connections take time. The television, as Tanya observes, is a substitute for human interaction, and she mourns the idea of someone dying while watching it. Despite the fact that all of the characters who speak in the story seem to interact with each other, they do not really relate to each other in truly meaningful ways. Since none of the characters is developed fully, it can be assumed that they know each other only superficially. Furthermore, they do not know well the one person with whom they really need to connect-"him," the one suffering from the disease and obviously (at least to the reader) dying from it.

By the end of the first paragraph, which goes on for more than a page, it becomes clear that there is one person in the story who is not speaking, and ironically this person is the subject of everyone's conversations. "He,’’ who in fact is never named in the story, is the one around whom the story revolves. Not only is "he'' never named in the story, but also the name of the disease from which he suffers is never mentioned-though it becomes clear that the disease is AIDS. Interestingly, his friends say that he himself uses the name of the disease, and say that this is a good sign:

From the start... he was willing to say the name of the disease .... As Stephen continued, to utter the name is a sign of health, a sign that one has accepted being who one is, mortal, vulnerable, not exempt, not an exception after all, it's a sign that one is willing, truly willing, to fight for one's life. And we must say the name, too, and often, Tanya added, we mustn't lag behind him in honesty.

The fact that the friends never name either him or the disease indicates that the friends have not accepted that he is mortal and, by extension, that they are mortal as well. At the same time that his friends are congratulating him for living honestly, they themselves are in denial.

The friends continue to exhibit this reluctance to confront the truth throughout the story. To Ellen's question, ‘‘how is he really?’’ Lewis responds, ‘‘But you see how he is ... he's fine, he's perfectly healthy.’’ It is obvious to both of them that this is not true, and yet they cannot bring themselves to talk about how he is "really." Quentin tells a story about Frank saying, in response to someone's comment that a man is dying, "I don't like to think about it that way.’’ Frank, like the other friends, refuses to confront the reality of the situation. However, Quentin is not without blame in the reality-denial department: he intercepts the ‘‘bad news’’ about two acquaintances, and later about their friend Max, so that the unnamed "he'' will not have to suffer the disheartening truths about the disease from which he suffers. All of these friends attempt to look out for their friend's best interests, but in doing so, they become guilty of dishonesty and denial. They seem really to be looking out for their own best interests.

A true postmodern story, "The Way We Live Now'' has no reliable narrator. In other words, there is no single voice that the reader can trust to tell things the way they are. Instead, the story consists of many conflicting voices; this is a reflection of the many different types of friendships "he'' has. The reader is told ‘‘You'd hardly expect him to have said the same thing to all his friends, because his relation to Ira was so different from his relation to Quentin (this according to Quentin, who was proud of their friendship).’’ In the same paragraph, Quentin says, ‘‘who wouldn't exaggerate at a time like this,’’ throwing into question the trustworthiness of everything he, or any of the other friends, says. Even the title is an evasion: the story is really about the way we die today. Whereas once people had their family around them when dying from a terminal disease, now the reader is told that the mother in Mississippi is being kept "informed, well, mainly [kept] from flying to New York and heaping her grief on her son and confusing the household routine.’’ When she finally does fly to New York, ‘‘he seemed to mind her daily presence less than expected.’’ Everything is "according to'' someone, or it is reported by one person who is reporting what somebody else has said. The story is made up of gossip and sound bites, and it is impossible to weed out the truth from the exaggerations from the evasions.

The story ceases to be about how the one afflicted with the disease copes with it and evolves into a tale about how the friends are affected by it. At first, the friends are frantic with concern, but, in time, the disease brings out some rather unsavory aspects of their personalities, though it is difficult to blame them for their flaws since they are so self-aware that they are able to articulate their own failings. For instance, Ellen says, ‘‘I suspect my own motives, there's something morbid I'm getting used to, getting excited by, this must be what people felt in London during the Blitz.’’ Quentin asks whether it is possible that"being as close to him as we are ... is a way of our trying to define ourselves more firmly and irrevocably as the well, those who aren't ill, who aren't going to fall ill, as if what's happened to him couldn't happen to us.’’ Finally, Jan says, ‘‘I know for me his getting it has quite demystified the disease ... I don't feel afraid, spooked, as I did before he became ill, when it was only news about remote acquaintances, whom I never saw again after they became ill." Intellectuals who stand back and observe themselves, all of the friends seem to be getting something out of his illness. This allows them to become removed from what is happening to their friend and to themselves-it is another tool for denial. As the friends discuss their own reactions to the disease, it becomes clear that the story is about them, and not about the one immediately afflicted with AIDS.

Yet, the friends are doing their best. They are human, and the disease brings out their humanity, with all its defects and its strengths. In this age of telephones, computers, fax machines, and airplanes, the disease, in contrast, is a biological force; though the disease is horrible and devastating, it brings these characters back into close contact with one another, forcing them to examine themselves and their relationships with others. The characters fail at accepting the reality of their friend's condition, but through the constant conversation of the community of friends, they do at least construct a network among themselves. At the end of the story, though the characters are still in denial-Tanya is shocked by the decline in his handwriting, Jan wonders "where [is] his anger,’’ and they send his mother home to Mississippi-they do at least take some joy from the fact that he is "still alive.'" 'The way we live now'' is in fear and denial, but it is also in concern for others and in an attempt to make real connections-even if we are not successful in doing so.

Source: Emily Smith Riser, for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2000.

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