Young grief, untimely death, etc

SKINNED ALIVE Edmund White Chatto £14.99 Natasha Walter on Edmund White's new set of short stories and the perils attached to the literature of Aids
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The Independent Culture
We know so much about the physical reality of Aids. Has any other illness ever commanded such detailed fascination from literature? "The side-effects of trimethoprim for the pneumonia were kidney damage, depression, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, hepatitis, diarrhoea, headache, neuritis, insomnia, apathy, fever, chills, anaemia, rash, light sensitivity, mouth pain, nausea and vomiting"; "He suffered a terrifying attack of diarrhoea halfway through his meal and had to spend a sweaty, bowel-scorching 30 minutes in the toilet." So Edmund White treads in the steps of other writers - Herv Guibert, Adam Mars-Jones, Dale Peck - and coolly explores the medical reality of the disease that has become the overriding metaphor of his world.

It is hard to imagine what would be left in these short stories if one subtracted the HIV virus. It provides what little there is of suspense: which of the two lovers will be HIV positive? Or of poignancy: Ray looks back on those lovely bathhouse days when George, the better-endowed of the two, was such a hit. Or of morality: how far should you go with an HIV-negative partner? Or, indeed, of tragedy: your only real love dies, and at least a week of solitude passes before you give your heart to a Greek hooker.

White seems to believe that the threat of death will save these tales from superficiality. When one story's protagonist sees a charming redhead in a bookshop and fantasises about living with him, he muses: "it occurred to me that if I thought only now, at this moment in my life, of belonging to someone, it was because my hold on life itself was endangered." But literature cannot simply rely on the shadow of death to give it meaning. The actual relationship with the redhead never seems to rise above a pose, a gesture towards the possibility of love rather than love itself.

White has never been a great fiction writer. But in A Boy's Own Story, his acclaimed first novel, he was moving through almost uncharted territory. There was something charming and fearless about the way his naive, lolloping prose mapped out a world most people preferred to ignore. He made what was previously seen as something rather unAmerican - homosexuality - into an all-American, breathy, boyish tale of growing up.

The first tale, "Pyrography", is an attempt to re-enter that world of love that dared not speak its name. But the fresh wonder has been overtaken by a camp knowingness reminiscent of a Bruce Weber photoshoot. We are given images of naked boys swimming and glancing at each other - "Howard had never seen Otis's dick except as a soft shape in the pocket of his underpants; he wondered if he'd see it on the canoe trip. Would they all go skinnydipping?" - but without the vivid, bemused joy that once accompanied them they seem ghostly, part of a paradise that is too lost to be recaptured.

White's breezily underwritten style, even in A Boy's Own Story, could lead to a startling loss of affect: "if the Devil had offered us even a single dollar for our parents' heads, we would have cut them off and presented the bloody, bulky packages in happy exchange," one bizarre aside ran. Now, that underwriting often descends into mere jotting. Declarations of love are constantly overtaken by careless infidelity. Even grief over a young love's untimely death cannot be trusted. When one bereaved man goes to Greece to recover, he looks at an old shepherd: "Ray, expensively muscular in his Valentino swim trunks, thought he was probably not much younger than this ancient peasant and suddenly his grief struck him as a costly gewgaw, beyond the means of the grievously hungry and hardworking world." Contrasts like these are always tricky to pull off, and to use them in such a throwaway manner means that the grief is killed stone dead, unable to resonate any further with the reader.

What's more, physical beauty is the only attribute that seems important in sparking off relationships, which could be fine, except that it is described with a static, glossy archness reminiscent of John Cleland. One protagonist gloats over his lover's rear view: "Let's not hastily turn him around to reveal `Regis's Daily Magic Baguette' as I now call it. No, let's keep his back to us, even though he's deliciously braced his knees to compensate for the sudden new weight he's canti-levered in his excitement." This is a sexy mannequin, not a person, unable to act except as a pretty puppet. In these stories, White's world has become foreshortened, a series of self- conscious games. But at times he creates something beautiful out of this decadence. In the best story, "Reprise", an ageing, HIV-positive man meets up with a long-lost lover from his adolescence, and desperately recaptures the first fine rapture: "And if we had spent a life together, I wondered, would we each be a bit less deformed now? Now each time I touched him I could hear music, as though a jolt had started the clockwork after so many years."