BOOK REVIEW / Aids to love and grief: 'Monopolies of Loss' - Adam Mars-Jones: Faber, 5.99 pounds

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IN ONE of the few stilted moments in these nine stories - four of which previously appeared in A Darker Proof, co-authored with Edmund White - a man asks his dying lover: 'What strikes you most about the whole terrible situation?' The answer (pre-emptively tagged 'obliging') is: 'It brings out the best in people. And the worst.' This volume, the first to have appeared under his own name for 11 years, suggests that the worst has brought out the best in Adam Mars-Jones.

His silence has in fact been even longer, for the three pieces published in 1981 as Lantern Lecture were written in the mid-Seventies, while he was still an undergraduate. As the years passed with no follow-up, the suspicion grew that the real problem was that, although Mars-Jones was dressed to kill, he not only had nowhere to go but was too fastidiously knowing to consider any possible destination worthwhile.

Aids changed that, as so much else. 'Hoosh-Mi', his hilarious account of the home life of our own dear raving Queen, was written in the Silver Jubilee year as a 'corrective myth', but the onslaught of the epidemic, and the resulting demonisation of the gay community, has provoked something quite different and far more difficult: a sustained attempt to acknowledge and respond to the emotion whose absence made those earlier fictions scintillate so irresistibly.

Mars-Jones tackles the ethical implications of writing about Aids head-on, both in a typically lucid introduction and in 'The Changes of Those Terrible Years', a masterpiece of dramatic irony in which a self-satisfied carer unwittingly reveals his ambivalent relationship with the misery he has dedicated himself to alleviating.

Although each story is distinct in tone and treatment, what emerges as the central theme is not so much death, or even the appalling suffering which precedes it, but the struggle against the way in which the epidemic alienates every aspect of experience. The hideous jargon of the medical trade is countered with private synonyms and pet-words; symbolic victories are celebrated against the doctors' arrogant professionalism and the ignorance and hostility of the straight world in general. Mars-Jones says that in one early story he refrained from using the word 'Aids' to avoid giving people 'the permission not to care', but in the long run the trick only works because he has given himself permission to do so.

There is a story about the master of an Oxford college welcoming a new don with the words, 'Don't try and be clever, we're all clever here. Try and be kind.' As the cleverest of his generation of writers, Mars-Jones has found the attempt to come to terms with feeling more arduous than most, but now his writer's block appears to have been swept aside, and not one but two full-length novels are promised soon. In the meantime, this collection of studies in love and grief is required reading for anyone prepared to accept that such emotions, like these losses, are not the monopoly of one section of the community.