“The Way We Live Now” is a brilliant orchestration of voices, showing how AIDS can change the lives of everyone who knows a victim. As Max’s friends speculate about what he is going through, it is as though they are suffering from the disease themselves, trying to keep him alive in their thoughts and wishes. How they react to his disease depends very much on the kind of people they are. They argue with one another and sometimes support one another, desperately seeking ways to cope with the imminence of death. Max’s approaching fate forces them to confront their own mortality, although they rarely acknowledge that they are indeed thinking of themselves as much as they are of him.
Death has many faces, many manifestations, Susan Sontag seems to be implying. For some, it is to be shunned. Some of Max’s friends visit him rarely—one supposing that they had never been close friends anyway. Other friends, such as Stephen, almost seem to want to take over the fight against death—quizzing the doctors, boning up on the latest medical research, and conducting a kind of campaign against any capitulation to the disease. Very few friends are fatalistic; almost all of them hope that a medical breakthrough will come in time to rescue Max.
They live in fear. One friend finds out that his seventy-five-year-old mother has contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion she received five years earlier. No one is immune to the disease; even if everyone does not get it, everyone will probably know someone close to them who does. It is the extraordinary vulnerability of these people that makes them argue with or reassure one another and question what is the best behavior. Everyone encounters an ethical dilemma about how to lead his or her life and how to respond to those who are afflicted with the disease.