“My Dead Book”: AIDS, Survival, and What That Means to Gen-Z

By Jude Jones

To mark World AIDS Day 2023, acting managing editor Jude Jones reviews American author Nate Lippens’s recent autofiction novel My Dead Book, a haunting testimony to working-class life through the AIDS crisis that seeks to establish an intergenerational dialogue between the crisis’s survivors and those who have come since, our queer micro-community’s millennials and Gen-Z who have grown up in a “post-AIDS” world, but who refuse to let themselves forget.

A queer thing happened to me while I was trying to write my review for this book: it disappeared. Swaddled safely in my bedroom somewhere between my Guibert and my Nelson, My Dead Book – Nate Lippens’s fragmentary kaleidoscope of semi-fictive memories and almost-autobiographical musings on working-class queer life in the American Midwest (a Midwest haunted by the twin spectres of Dahmer and the AIDS pandemic), resplendent with the red-ink scribbles and underlines I had dutifully added to it – had dissolved into windowsill dust and stagnant bedside air, heavy with a sense of morning-after. All my primary research had been useless. But, for a book that celebrates uselessness, to use Lippens’s own words, perhaps this was a fitting end, the only fitting end my own authorial process could reach.

“My Dead Book” by Nate Lippens (Pilot Press, 2021).

What I do have left, though, are a series of photographs I captured of the pages that jumped out above others. “I’m alive,” declares the very pixel-rendered last lines of the book’s very last page, one of the lucky survivors, “Of course, I’m alive.” It seems also taunting in this context, laughing at those dead pages that my iPhone camera failed to immortalise. This, though, is perfectly in-line with the caustic tone that I do remember permeating the rest of the book, penned by Lippens as he approached his fiftieth birthday as a rumination on what it means to have survived his youth, to have survived the AIDS crisis but to have to live with the ghosts of those who didn’t.

Survival here being the key word. Nowadays, in the epoque of PrEP, suburban gay families, and marriage for all, tales of queerness seem to fall meaninglessly into one of two categories: either unadulterated queer trauma (AIDS, religion, violence, death), or overly emphatic queer joy (beaches in Mykonos, six-pack abs, and the same pink-flamingo-filled lawns that John Waters – now on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – once went to such ends to mock). Admittedly, both have importance. Even spinning trauma into handy exemplar stories serves to at least remind my Gen-Z queer counterparts of the communities and struggles we came from: “Rudy is scornful of young gay men who haven’t lost anybody to AIDS,” observes our protagonist at one point, “‘They don’t know though,’ he says, ‘They never will.’”

My Dead Book falls into an ambivalent in-between: trauma certainly permeates – the title is a reference to the funeral-monument of dead friends accumulated by the protagonist over the years – yet this lingers more than it defines, joy equally fluttering by without deafeningly dominating. The result is a refreshing psychological realism, inflected through what Lippens calls his ‘queer pessimism’: “What does it mean to operate from a place of refusal?” he wants to ask per one of the few interviews he has conceded to give, “What does it mean to not expect understanding, acceptance or love? It’s freeing. People think that it’s pessimistic – and it is – except it can also be a kind of liberation.”

These words throw me back cognitively to the heaps of theory books between which My Dead Book will inevitably be hidden, once it decides to re-manifest for the sake of my own haptic indulgence. Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive is perhaps the chef d’œuvre of this queer-pessimist canon, a dense, psychoanalytical account of how, in a capitalist world so self-invested in its own reproduction, unreproductive (in a biological sense, at least) queer desire will always be pushed to the margins, queer existence will always be precarious. And this precarity takes us inevitably to Judith Butler, queer theory’s founding deity, and their thesis that capitalism leaves all life precarious, except some lives are allowed to be more precarious than others. This is life abject: society’s dirt, its scum, its young Wisconsinite sex workers who have to suck and fuck and cruise and fester to make enough money to score their next drug hit or maybe buy food.

I, of course, am writing from the sort of contemporary position that My Dead Book refuses, as a White, middle-class, PrEP-taking queer man at a prestigious British university who typed out these words on my parent-bought MacBook Air. However, as Lippens shared in conversation with Donna Marcus, it is work like his that needs to exist to salvage queerness’s foundational radicality and urgency as neoliberalism increasingly assimilates queer people – or gay men, at least – into its monstrous, ever-growing body. “I’m realising through social media how much younger queer people read,” he shared, “Young readers are making powerful connections between their experiences and those of the past […] young queers are proactively connecting the dots of lineage, discovering spaces and histories […] Opening up history provides possibility and helps oppose the comforting narrative of centrists.”

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Forbidden Colors”, 1988.

My Dead Book is thus oppositional but is also knows its specific place. Testimony, meandering between truth and fiction, to how we got here, a reminder to remember and to never cease the fight. It is thus fitting that Lippens’s book, his first full-length release, came out via Pilot Press, visual artist Richard Porter’s independent publishing house founded, per their website, “as an attempt to retrieve a philosophy of publishing lost to AIDS and capitalism.” It is then also fitting that Lippen’s next scheduled release is a short piece to be published within Pilot Press’s Responses to “Forbidden Colors” (1988) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a volume of contemporary creatives’s reactions to the late artist’s depiction of the Palestinian flag’s green, white, black, and red as the Israeli state unfolds its newest wave of genocidal attacks against the Palestinian people. An Israel that uses its own queer “progressivism” to justify its on-going colonial project. All proceeds from this publication will be donated to Medical Aid for Palestine,

We, as queer people – or more simply, as people – must never cease the fight. This is the lesson that My Dead Bookteaches us: never stop fighting, from the Midwest to the Middle East.

My Dead Book by Nate Lippens is published by Pilot Press and is out now.

Jude Jones is the managing editor at GAY45. He is also a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, whose interests include the literary, visual, and academic cultures of HIV/AIDS in Britain, France, and the USA.

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