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Not Moving While the World Falls Apart: Living in Quotes in John Weir’s The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket

Anna Ferrari

Abstract

The paper deals with John Weir’s 1989 novel The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket through the lens of boredom studies. Weir portrays the anxieties brought by an era that is usually associated with excitement, innovation, movement, and development through a character that does not move. Set in 1980s New York against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, the novel portrays a young gay man who, as a reaction to the epidemic, is overcome by numbness. By highlighting the most relevant aspects of the novel and the tension between anxiety and paralysis, this paper shows the relationship between boredom and trauma in Weir’s response to AIDS.

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1The 1980s are generally crystallized in popular culture as a time of movement, an era of fast technological and economic development, characterized by excitement as well as great tensions that heavily shaped the world we live in today. The decade has, more than anything else, been defined by sharp contrasts—from economic and political, to cultural and artistic. These contrasts compelled American literature to chronicle the 1980s in different ways, with excitement as well as darkness. Ben Agger identifies this era with the beginnings of fast capitalism and its new technologies such as “express mail, fast magazines, electronic advertising, and jet travel, including the Concorde” (ch. 1), all of which intensified a generalized sentiment of estrangement from reality. Many authors chose to portray this alienation of the individual as a reaction to the fast-paced ethos that defined the times, and one of the ways to depict this alienation was through the concept of boredom. According to boredom studies scholars, the relationship between boredom and estrangement or anxiety is characteristic of modernity. Michael Gardiner writes that “boredom is simultaneously a product of modernity and intrinsic to the very nature of modern existence itself, at once cause and symptom of the dilemmas, anxieties, and experiences that mark the contemporary age” (43). Gardiner’s understanding of boredom, echoing the theories formulated by Elizabeth Goodstein, recognizes a crucial relationship between boredom and modernity. Goodstein traces her argument back to the Enlightenment, following boredom through the development of urban space, the Industrial Revolution, as well as the social, economic, and political changes that marked the twentieth century: “in a time when the drives to novelty and innovation, speed and progress that have always defined modernity have become the foundation of a process of continuously accelerating transformation, boredom haunts the Western world” (1). We may easily recognize this dynamic in what happened in the 1980s, when new developments again “altered the quality of human being in time” (Goodstein 3). This intersection between modernity, technological innovation, and fast-paced change shaped a new way in which people experience the world and perceive themselves, bringing a “crisis of meaning” to the human experience (Dalle Pezze and Salzani 14). Although it dates back to the beginning of modernity, the significance of boredom is even more profound in the fast capitalism of the 1980s.

  • 1 For other analyses of trauma and boredom in this issue, see Mark Pedretti, “Tedium and Terror: Drea (...)

2The 1980s are often referred to as a superficial era without values, when hedonism and materialism represented the propelling forces—particularly in the United States. This period can therefore be considered as an indicative specimen of Barbara Dalle Pezze and Carlo Salzani’s argument that modernity produced a monster—boredom—which “swallows everything... into the great yawn of indifference” (7). This crisis is also echoed by Lars Svendsen, who notes how “the emptiness of time in boredom is not an emptiness of action, for there is always something in this time, even if it is only the sight of paint drying. The emptiness of time is an emptiness of meaning” (ch. 1). This emptiness inspired reflections from the pens of many of the most interesting literary voices of the decade. From Don Delillo’s White Noise to Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero, the 1980s are characterized by literary works that deal with a lack of meaning brought by the numerous political, economic, environmental, and cultural anxieties of the time: the Cold War, Chornobyl, and the AIDS epidemic, just to name a few. Among these works, a quasi-forgotten book from 1989 deals with this atmosphere in a different way. The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket, the debut novel of John Weir, which won the 1989 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Debut Fiction, tackles the challenges of the era (with a specific focus on the AIDS epidemic) by employing the themes of emptiness and inaction: the main character deals with the anxiety brought by the time he lives in by remaining immobile. Throughout the analysis, we will see how Eddie’s paralysis can exemplify a deep connection between boredom and trauma—in this case, the trauma the character experiences as a gay man living during the AIDS crisis.1 Focusing on Weir’s novel, we will see Eddie’s immobility as a crucial metaphor in 1980s American literature and how, in portraying the tragedy of the epidemic, the apparent detachment provided by boredom actually touches the reader in a more effective, moving way as a result of the connection between boredom and trauma.

3Immobility is at the center of The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket. Weir’s novel follows its apathetic, nihilistic eponymous character through AIDS-devastated New York City. Sharing an East Village apartment with his roommate Polly Plugg, Eddie lives an existence of immobility, where nothing relevant happens. He is indifferent to almost anything and nothing shakes him from his dullness:

that his life was filled with despair he never questioned: the despair of loneliness or the despair of boredom, the despair of having had too much of what he nominally wanted yet nothing of what he yearned for truly in his heart of hearts, the despair of being white and guilty about it, and of being generally gifted, but not specifically motivated, just inert.... He didn’t believe in actions; faithful imitation of real events.... To give himself the illusion of having a connected emotional life, he had created his punishing pig. (5)

4The “punishing pig” functions as a sort of conscience for Eddie: it talks to him, usually to point out his inadequacy, giving him the harshest judgments possible. It is also the entity with whom Eddie shares his reflections about his state of immobility and inaction: early on in the novel, the pig tells him, “if it weren’t for me you’d never get anything done” (14). As a young gay man living in Downtown Manhattan, Eddie is surrounded by the effects of the AIDS epidemic. Despite this, he seems untouched by it—at least in the beginning. At first, the only way we can see that AIDS has impacted his life lies in the fact that Eddie has not had sex in two years—one more way for him to remain still. The apathy that fills his days is in deep contrast with the powerful emotions that animate this era: the whirling movement of the city, the hedonism of the yuppie generation, and the tragic consequences of the epidemic. Not even when he discovers that he has been infected in the second part of the book, does Eddie’s behavior change: his only interest throughout the novel seems to be his crush on Merrit, a character Reed Woodhouse has called “a moral black hole” (208), who has no interest in Eddie and never even visits him when he gets sick, after not believing his diagnosis in the first place. As we will see, the fact that Eddie remains still in a world that is perpetually moving around him represents an important metaphor for the trauma suffered by the gay community during the epidemic. It is a unique metaphor: the character of Eddie Socket stands out not only in the novel but in the landscape of AIDS literature at large.

5As it developed in response to the silence surrounding the epidemic under the Reagan administration, most of the literature produced by gay authors on AIDS had an activist intent and was propelled by a sense of urgency: writing about anything else, novelist Andrew Holleran states, would have been like “playing bridge on the Titanic while it was sinking” (qtd. in Denneny 41). As a result, the autobiographical element became pervasive in AIDS texts—both in fiction and non-fiction. As the virus was raging through the American gay community, the majority of gay authors portrayed their experience either by chronicling illness (for example, Paul Reed’s 1984 novel Facing It) or from an explicitly political perspective (an approach particularly present in plays, such as Larry Kramer’s 1985 The Normal Heart). The prevalent tendency in any AIDS text, however, was for the authors to refuse, despite the tragic effects of the epidemic, to portray gay people or PWAs (people with AIDS) as victims—on the contrary, the gay community was described as proactive, taking their destiny into their own hands. Particularly in AIDS narratives, the PWA is typically portrayed “as a resister” (Jones 115), and while we may recognize an activist intent in Eddie Socket as well, Weir’s novel is unique in AIDS literature. Eddie Socket, suffering from what Svendsen calls “an absence of personal meaning” (ch. 1), stands out in the landscape of PWA characters, who are not passive even when facing terminal illness. Therefore, Weir’s thematic choice gives us the possibility to consider a different perspective on the repercussions of the gay community’s struggles of the time through the lens of boredom studies.

6Through the theme of immobility, Weir creates a particularly stark contrast against the backdrop of the epidemic. Eddie suffers from what critics have referred to as “existential boredom,” which Peter Toohey defines as a “philosophical sickness,” infecting “a person’s very existence” (5–6). This trait is at the same time what sets him apart from the rest of the AIDS literary canon and, as we will see, what makes this character a powerful metaphor for the trauma the gay community endured during the epidemic. Goodstein recognizes how in boredom studies literary texts “play a crucial role, for in representing boredom, they depict its sociological and philosophical significance as intertwined” (15). As he moves without really moving, looking at the world with apathy that resists any activity or deep thought about his times, Eddie symbolizes the incongruities of the era. Although we find physical immobility in his behavior, Eddie’s state has more to do with emotional immobility: Eddie gets out of the house, but his life in Downtown New York is all the same uneventful. He embraces “boredom as a way of life...[,] a kind of will-to-powerlessness (what Nietzsche would denigrate as ‘passive nihilism’), the purposeless sense of merely enduring rather than living a full and creative life” (Sandywell ch. 3). Even after his diagnosis, when he starts to move physically, his emotional immobility persists. Echoing Flaubert, Svendsen identifies the defining feature of existential boredom as having to do with desire—or lack thereof: “while situative boredom contains a longing for something that is desired, existential boredom contains a longing for any desire at all” (ch. 1). This empty yearning is theorized by many boredom scholars. Goodstein describes boredom as a “failure of desire” (1), and British psychotherapist Adam Phillips defines boredom as a “state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire” (68). This state poignantly frames Eddie, who opens the book by stating: “I want a hero” (3). This mood, Weir seems to suggest, may be in part a trait of the whole generation: neither Eddie nor Polly seem to be involved in the events that have marked their time. Even though Polly’s life is not as still as Eddie’s, Weir characterizes both as members of the “blank generation”: “too old to revolt, too young to conform, trapped between Yippies and yuppies, children of the nonexistent seventies, their president was Gerald Ford, their music was the Bee Gees, their movie star was John Travolta, and so on” (118). Therefore, Weir seems to imply, Eddie’s lack of engagement could spark from a generational absence of meaning. From the very first page, Eddie wonders when life is going to begin for him: “he was twenty-eight years old, but he looked, and felt, and probably acted nineteen. He was still waiting for whatever miracle he thought it would take for his real life to begin” (3). Eddie’s state, however, goes beyond a generational tendency as he is affected by a particular kind of “philosophical sickness” (Toohey 5). There is no comparison between Polly’s sense of being lost and Eddie’s immobility as the latter is closely connected to the trauma brought by the AIDS crisis.

7The fact that the epidemic dragged on for years made death and illness omnipresent in the life of the gay community. There is a specific connection to trauma in AIDS literature. Cathy Caruth writes at length about the pervasive quality of the effects of a traumatic event, comparing the effects of trauma on the individual to being “possessed by an image or an event” (Explorations in Memory 4–5). The epidemic undoubtedly possesses the characters—and authors—in AIDS literature. Caruth, focusing on PTSD, states that traumatic events are “not fully grasped as they occur” (Unclaimed Experience 91). Therefore, we have to wonder what the impact of trauma on the individual is when the traumatic event is not in the past but is still ongoing. The distinguishing feature of AIDS literature is that these texts are not written after the events: “this is not strong emotion recollected in tranquility; these are reports from the combat zone. AIDS writing is urgent; it is engaged and activist writing; it is writing in response to a present threat” (Denneny 46). There is no chance for AIDS authors (and characters) to develop PTSD because the trauma is not in the past. Each text, including Eddie Socket, represents a response to a traumatic event that is still developing. What makes Eddie Socket different from most AIDS literature lies in Weir’s employment of the concept of boredom.

8Eddie’s state of immobility has no parallel in the book, and his presence as a gay man amid the AIDS epidemic obviously carries specific implications. The other gay characters (who generally are older than him) are portrayed as involved in the gay community: they are heavily affected by AIDS and deeply engaged in what is happening, be it activism or caretaking. Eddie, however, is a young gay man who does not participate in the life of the community or in the community’s grief: “he didn’t feel centered, or a part of something larger than himself” (Weir, The Irreversible 5). He personally does not know people who have been affected by the virus and goes through this mournful time without being touched by either big passions or anger, which are among the defining features of other gay characters in the novel—and of most characters in AIDS literature. In her essay “Notes on Trauma and Community,” Kai Erikson argues that “trauma can issue from a sustained exposure to battle as well as from a moment of numbing shock” (185). This definition is a fitting description of the landscape of the AIDS epidemic, which brought incessant deaths to the American gay community for two decades. Douglas Crimp argues that “certain people are experiencing the AIDS crisis while the society as a whole doesn’t appear to be experiencing it at all” (qtd. in Caruth and Keenan 539). This entails that AIDS was a communal experience for the gay community, and the trauma it caused also reflected a specific identity. This kind of trauma, Erikson writes, is different—it is collective: “one can speak of traumatized communities as something distinct from assemblies of traumatized persons.... [T]raumatic wounds inflicted on individuals can combine to create a mood, an ethos—a group culture, almost—that is different from (and maybe more than) the sum of the private wounds that make it up” (185). Trauma is a central element in AIDS narratives, for both authors and characters. Works such as Susan Sontag’s short story “The Way We Live Now,” which reproduces the conversations of friends surrounding a PWA, put emphasis on the impact AIDS has had not only on the individuals directly affected by the virus but on the community as a whole. Sontag does not explicitly name the disease in the story, but there is no doubt about what she is writing about. The avoidance of the name suggests the weight AIDS carries for her, too. Eddie Socket deals with the effects of trauma differently: not through silence, rage, or desperation but through numbness. The communal and concurrent response to AIDS, which, as I argued above, was a trademark of AIDS texts, makes Eddie’s immobility all the more striking, considering the turmoil in the community inside and outside the novel. We can find more movement in the passage that describes the swirl of phone calls waking up Merrit and his lover Saul after the passing of a friend (22–23) than in the totality of Eddie’s actions throughout the novel. Through other characters, Weir represents what Erikson refers to as the “gathering of the wounded” (187), a community bounded by common experience, yet Eddie is not part of it. This should not suggest, however, that he is not wounded too.

  • 2 In his book, Svendsen argues that “much boredom derives from repetition” (ch. 1).

9The struggle that is portrayed in the novel—the traumatic experience of the AIDS crisis—is closely connected to the theme of Eddie’s boredom. As I mentioned above, Caruth describes “a new mode of seeing and of listening – a seeing and listening from the site of trauma” (Unclaimed Experience 56). Her definition of trauma, tied to the concept of PTSD, puts PWAs in a peculiar position when it comes to trauma studies as they did not have the luxury of developing PTSD: Eddie does not have the time to elaborate on the trauma and is stuck in the “inaccessibility of its occurrence” (Caruth, Unclaimed Experience 18). The inaccessibility of an ongoing traumatic event explains why Eddie, in Caruth’s words, experiences the epidemic “in a numbed state” (Unclaimed Experience 11). Eddie’s numbness—and subsequent immobility—is a sign of his inability to fully grasp the traumatic event. The concept of numbness echoes boredom, described as a “refusal to feel” (Goodstein 2). Goodstein associates boredom with the alienation brought by modernity, but here the refusal to feel is connected to the traumatic events of the AIDS crisis. What I want to argue here is that Eddie’s way of looking at the world is not so much a reaction to modernity as it is to trauma. In Eddie Socket, immobility can be interpreted as a reaction to chaos, which is brought not by the technological, economic, or political developments of fast capitalism and late modernity, but primarily by the devastation of the AIDS epidemic. Fredric Jameson frames boredom “as a reaction to situations of paralysis and also, no doubt, as a defense mechanism or avoidance behavior” (71). The employment of boredom and numbness as defense mechanisms adequately describes the way in which boredom can function as a protection against the trauma of AIDS. Repetition, another key concept in boredom studies,2 is, according to Gardiner, mostly “derived from the dictates of technology, work, and production” (44). When applied to the AIDS crisis, though, repetition is not directly related to modernity. In the context of the epidemic, repetition means a repetition of loss and resulting trauma: the gay community endured incessant deaths for almost two decades to the point that it was difficult to mourn individual deaths.

10This dynamic includes Eddie Socket: in the novel’s first part, Eddie runs into Saul, his boss, who is coming from a viewing of a friend who had just passed away. Throughout the novel, Saul repeatedly refers to the deaths in his life in an almost casual way: as the losses have become so numerous that he cannot but be numb to the pervasive presence of death. In this light, we could argue that Eddie takes a shortcut and chooses numbness from the beginning. Although Weir gives us some clues about the fact that Eddie has always been passive toward life (for example, he passively changed his name to Socket after meeting Polly Plugg), the book depicts a new dimension of loss of meaning experienced by his character as a consequence of the trauma caused by the epidemic. Erikson argues that “the classic symptoms of trauma range from feelings of restlessness and agitation at one end of the emotional scale to feelings of numbness and bleakness at the other” (183–84). The feeling of numbness is therefore closely connected to both boredom and trauma. Eddie does not react to anything, so much so that we could argue that he goes through life as a person who is already dead, thus becoming an embodiment of Svendsen’s argument that:

boredom is related to death, but it is a paradoxical relationship because profound boredom is like some sort of death, while death assumes the form of the only state possible—a total break with boredom. Boredom has to do with finitude and nothingness. It is a death within life, a non-life. In the in-humanity of boredom, we gain a perspective on our own humanity. (ch. 1)

11Eddie has embraced the non-life Svendsen writes about, and the emptiness that results from it creates a non-romanticized world that has an unexpected effect: it allows the reader to gain a new human perspective, thus making Eddie Socket one of the most moving portraits of the AIDS era. Eddie’s immobility betrays a deeper level of trauma, the absence of meaning has the best of him, while his physical suffering is shown to us without the filter of emphasis or emotion, therefore conveying the raw reality of his experience. Thiele argues that “to be bored is to be paralyzed: emotionally, spiritually, and perhaps even physically” (492), and we have seen how physical and—above all—emotional paralysis is a distinctive trait of Eddie’s behavior. Considering the connection between boredom and trauma in Eddie Socket, the word “paralysis” is more accurate than “immobility” because it evokes not only the concept of physical stillness but also the emotional consequences of trauma. Through paralysis, Weir gives voice to a collective dimension of trauma by creating a character whose numbness symbolizes the trauma of a generation. As Woodhouse has noted, “Eddie is harder to grasp, harder to take, harder to forget” than other literary portrayals of AIDS at the time (210). While Eddie himself is not explicitly shown as particularly traumatized, as lack of engagement is one of his defining traits from the beginning, his figure can be read, as we will see, as a metaphor for the trauma of the whole gay community.

  • 3 Kruger notes that in the first part of the novel, “AIDS in fact seems more distant from Eddie than (...)

12The representation of Eddie’s trauma becomes more explicit in the passage where we find out that he is HIV-positive, mainly because of the way the author chooses to structure the moment. While most AIDS texts announce the diagnosis of a character with some foreshadowing, for example by displaying symptoms, Weir “carefully avoids any intimation of Eddie’s illness in the first third of his novel, so that the announcement of diagnosis comes with no preparation” (Kruger 166). While during the first part of the novel Eddie is mostly a stranger to the context of the epidemic,3 the second part unemphatically opens with the sentence: “Eddie Socket got it. AIDS. ‘America is dying slowly,’ he said” (99). As Eddie is unfazed by almost anything, the tone of the narrative remains “genuinely unromantic, refusing much meaning at all to the suffering of its hero without falling into the counterromanticism of nihilism or cosmic gloom” (Woodhouse 206). Eddie is not shocked by his diagnosis, nor does he react with despair to what, at the time, was very likely a death sentence. In fact, unlike most PWA characters, he does not react at all: he does not consult a doctor after discovering his positivity, nor does he tell anyone. His only response is to smugly call the doctor who diagnosed him “Dr. Fillgrave.” If in the first part of the novel Eddie conducts an inert life in a constant state of immobility, this partially changes after his diagnosis, but only in the physical sense: Eddie runs away from New York to San Francisco. His attitude toward life, however, does not change. Eddie may travel, but he is still not moving: his trip still revolves around the absence of meaning.

13Although he shows no signs of anger or political engagement, Eddie’s absence of meaning sometimes expresses a nihilistic, critical perspective on the world. During a confrontation with Merrit, Eddie tells him: “‘You run away because you think it matters. You think life matters. But it doesn’t matter, Merrit, not to me.’ ‘What matters to you?’ ‘Nothing matters’” (140). Eddie makes observations that acknowledge a world in pieces and a life, his own, that does not have a point, which echoes Goodstein’s definition of boredom as experiencing the “self and world collapse in a nihilistic affirmation that nothing means, nothing pleases, nothing matters” (1). The statement that “nothing matters” is one of the most nihilistic declarations on Eddie’s part in the book, a rare foray toward the tragic taken by a character that usually lets everything wash over him—including his observations, free from anguish, on the world as a wasteland. We could attribute this outburst to the fact that his relationship with Merrit is the only thing that moves Eddie in some way, even if it is to acknowledge that nothing has meaning. This passage confirms to the reader that the nature of Eddie’s boredom is existential. Thiele argues that “nihilism is profound boredom with a world that has lost its meaning. More to the point, nihilism is profound boredom with a world from which humans have ceased to solicit or demand meaning. At the heart of nihilism, the significance of significance itself evaporates” (503). This definition of nihilism encapsulates Eddie’s view of the world and suggests something more. We can also infer that Eddie’s boredom expresses a critique of the world, on the part of both the character and Weir himself. After all, Eddie notes, “laziness is just subverted rage” (4), a point that echoes Svendsen’s argument that “boredom always contains a critical element, because it expresses the idea that either a given situation or existence as a whole is deeply unsatisfying” (ch. 1). Eddie’s boredom, as we will see in more detail below, is not just a way for Weir to express his generation’s trauma but to critique the world that had caused it.

14In order for Eddie to deal with the trauma and to coexist with his paralysis, Weir gives the character a recurring habit: Eddie speaks in quotes. Throughout the novel, he has the tendency of expressing himself almost exclusively through quotes, “because his head was stuffed with advertising slogans and images, big clocks of solid colors shaped to suggest penises,... television jingles, ‘Lost in Space,’ and literary references, and Bette Davis draining a martini and saying, ‘Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,’ he didn’t know how to think, or feel, but only how to avoid thinking, or feeling” (102–103). The act of using other people’s words as a shield to detach himself from the human experience is another element that exemplifies his emotional paralysis and numbness as a defense mechanism. Eddie quotes obsessively, and, just as obsessively, he asks his interlocutors: “who am I quoting?” This tendency climaxes when he gets diagnosed: “the whole fucking world was in quotes. Was death going to be in quotes, too?” (106). Quotes become a way for Eddie to disengage and distance himself from the reality of life: if he does not know what to say, a premade sentence will suffice. The significance of his use of quotes is reflected in Thiele’s argument that “boredom is, in itself, an anesthetizing mood. It inhibits thought and reduces feeling to torpor” (502). This employment of quotes becomes another way for Eddie to practice that torpor, even after learning about his diagnosis. Quotes function as an emotional and intellectual barrier between Eddie and his ability to experience emotions and, more than anything, pain.

15Quotes also become a way for Eddie to employ another defense mechanism against AIDS: humor. A frequent presence in AIDS texts, humor was employed as a subversive tool to preserve sanity: author Christopher Bram calls it “an additional weapon, an extension of vocabulary” (253). From the moment Eddie finds out he has AIDS, humor becomes a key to dealing with a tragic situation: “he was ready for his close-up, now that he had AIDS, ready with jokes and witty comebacks..., but he was not ready for his feelings” (101). Humor is also employed to comment on the alienation experienced by a young gay man during the Reagan years: Eddie walks around New York wearing a ‘Reagan Youth’ pin, a clear reference to Hitler Youth, as a joke. This detail sparks controversy within the novel. First, when Merrit sees the pin, he does not find it funny at all: “‘It’s a joke.’ ‘You think it’s funny?’ ‘Not a funny joke. Some other kind of a joke[,]... achingly funny. You know, tragically funny” (43). The ironic thing is that, unlike his partner Saul, in his own way Merrit is also disengaged from what is happening in the community. Eddie’s act of wearing the pin, ironically detaching himself from the trauma, is portrayed by Weir as less nihilistic than the fake outrage displayed by Merrit. Humor is a crucial feature that sets Eddie apart from Merrit and draws a distinction between their different displays of disengagement and boredom. Eddie’s ironic numbness is human, while Merrit’s detachment is just empty. Subsequently, Eddie discusses the pin with his mother who also reprimands him for it, though less harshly: “‘Now, if I spray-painted ‘McCarthy Youth’ across my tits, would you be embarassed to be seen with me in public?’... Eddie shared her sense of humor, completely. He loved her for being outrageous. They found the same things funny. Unfortunately, his life was one of those things” (75). Humor helps Eddie to negotiate with the outside world as well as with his diagnosis:

he had not done many things, the past eight years, had not paid his bills for months, had not done his laundry, logistical things but also personal, spiritual things, had not thought at all of his life as something to lose, the way he lost track of time, of his keys, or the cats. He had mistaken the freedom not to act for being an adult, he thought. Some things, of course, were not to be done, like voting Republican or drinking Coors, but he saw now, alas, that he might have made some decisions peculiarly his own. (165–66)

16As the interior monologue above shows, Eddie also uses humor to joke about his own paralysis.

  • 4 Even the event of his contagion, Woodhouse notices, is treated in a peculiar way: “unlike earlier A (...)

17The employment of humor also has a role in portraying the social dimension of trauma. If, as Erikson argues, “traumatized people often come to feel that they have lost an important measure of control over the circumstances of their own lives” (194), humor becomes a way, both on Eddie’s and on Weir’s part, to take back at least some of that control. Humor is Eddie’s only attempt to go beyond passively enduring his situation. The use of humor is yet another way in which Weir distinguishes himself from the work of other AIDS authors. While frequently used in AIDS writing as a subversive tool, the humor we find in Eddie Socket has a different spirit, as it is not as defiant and outrageous as David B. Feinberg’s or Tony Kushner’s. It’s not explicitly trying to subvert or provoke, but it still represents Eddie’s attempt, albeit small, to react to AIDS. Eddie’s humor is subtle and resigned. Where other AIDS portrayals are more moving because of the tragic yet hilarious grandeur of some experiences (for example, Prior and Belize in Kushner’s Angels in America or Cassandra in Michael Cunningham’s Flesh and Blood), Eddie’s humor is moving because of its smallness, because Eddie is aware of the smallness and insignificance of his impending death. The reader is often reminded of the entity of the loss of Eddie’s life, which is, tragically and ironically, minor4: Woodhouse recognizes the strength of Weir’s book in “its patient imagination of a life that is not very important to anyone, certainly not important enough to justify a big tragic statement. [It is] for that reason strangely touching” (212). However, we never laugh at Eddie: we smile at him, as we empathize with his trauma.

18The smallness, the ridiculousness of Eddie’s life, and the non-romanticized description of his disease are what makes this novel one of the most effective portrayals of the AIDS crisis. The acknowledgment of Eddie’s smallness becomes another feature that allows us to see the profound humanity in his character. In a literary landscape that was filled with memories of emotionally significant deaths (books like Paul Monette’s 1988 memoir Borrowed Time, written about his lover’s death, are a good example), Weir writes about an unremarkable one. Since Eddie has not amounted to much in his life, his death will not amount to much either, which makes Woodhouse wonder “how can our bona fide Great Tragedy be happening to someone as tragedy-free, as undeserving of tragic dignity, as Eddie Socket?” (208). The presence of the comical element in Weir’s style is central to this dynamic, as how else, Woodhouse continues, “could AIDS appear in his life? How could it not be comic and unformed?” (208). He adds that “Weir’s narrative move shocks the reader because the emotional weight of Eddie’s illness is (like him) so touchingly small: there is no drum-roll leading up to Weir’s announcement, no funeral march leading away from it” (208), unlike the examples we can find in several other AIDS texts. Not many critics have dealt with this novel, but those who have almost unanimously, at some point, used the word “touching” to describe it (cf. Clum 218). The smallness of Eddie’s figure is, in a way, what makes him stand tall in the landscape of AIDS literature: in their unemphatic insignificance, his life and death highlight the weight of the loss of so many others, many of whom unremarkable among the numbers of the epidemic, which reflects the dynamic of repetition as outlined in Goodstein’s definition of boredom: “a subject in crisis, a vacuous world, interchangeable losses” (1). Through Eddie’s smallness, Weir shows the reader that even unremarkable characters have importance, as we can see from Polly’s mourning monologue at the end of the book. As we saw, Eddie’s character is not politically engaged: the act of wearing the Reagan Youth pin is arguably his biggest political statement. But even though Eddie is not involved with the community during the epidemic, Weir was. The author was active in GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) in the mid-1980s and later became involved with ACT UP, participating in multiple demonstrations. In her book An Archive of Feelings, Ann Cvetkovich writes that during the AIDS crisis “queer activism insisted on militancy over mourning” (5). Weir arguably finds another way of intertwining the two, thus transforming the paralysis caused by trauma into a militant tool. Eddie’s lack of engagement and the trauma of the epidemic leading him to paralysis could therefore be read as a political statement on Weir’s part, a metaphor with activist implications. Eddie’s boredom, as mentioned earlier, is the ultimate critique of an environment that had caused the gay community the pain it had. In an interview, Weir recounts that “it was a very weird, infuriating and tragic experience to witness the ends of some of these guys’ lives. And even more infuriating that no one fucking knew about it, in a larger world; and didn’t want to hear about it” (“ACT UP”). Eddie could be considered an irrelevant figure, but then again, he belonged to a community that at the time was largely considered irrelevant by the US institutions. However, Weir tells us, he mattered. They all mattered.

19When it comes to portraying the experience of PWAs in AIDS narratives, the graphic description of what the virus was doing to a young body was as important as the representation of the emotional journey. A physical portrayal of the disease became a harsh but effective tool to represent and at the same time denounce the situation. The rejection of the portrayal of PWAs as romanticized heroes was a common approach in AIDS texts: a more honest and, therefore, graphic description of the effects of a disease that destabilizes everything in the human body was often the preferred strategy. Eddie Socket is no exception. As Kruger reminds us, however, it is rare for novelists to explicitly show the death of a character, while “Weir follows Eddie to his death, keeping him constantly in view, focusing close attention on his body and its decay” (177). The last part of the novel includes a few scenes in which Eddie’s terminal body is portrayed in a very detailed, raw, non-romanticized, almost grotesque way that brings the character “into an intense intimacy with other characters and with the reader” (Kruger 178). Weir explicitly shows us the devastation that happens to Eddie, and mercilessly presents it to the reader:

his legs were pale and bluish in spots, and covered with lesions that multiplied daily. His feet were scaly and dry. His hips were stretched with skin that sagged and bunched almost like the hospital shift. His penis hung sadly, grotesquely flaccid, and brown. His ribs were like the cartoon carcass of a fish, licked clean of flesh. (211)

20Despite maintaining a certain emotional numbness when it comes to his feelings, Eddie physically suffers for weeks in the hospital. In a way, the physical suffering awakes him from his numbness, although not completely: “I haven’t felt much about anything... for a long time. Not until this.... I sort of wonder where I was in all of that, it all just sort of happened, and I thought, all right, try this, try that, I tried a lot of things, but none of them—oh, fuck it, I don’t know” (233). As I have shown, Eddie’s paralysis and the lack of despair he feels towards his own death do not make his experience less human: Weir pens what is perhaps the most excruciatingly moving portrait of what AIDS does to the human body, as the description is detailed but devoid of emphasis. The reader perceives the tragedy precisely because Eddie’s body is not described in tragic tones.

21The lack of pathos makes Eddie’s portrayal all the more moving: it’s AIDS at face value, nothing more, nothing less. Like many PWA characters, Eddie does not die alone: Polly is with him. Therefore, the reader is allowed to witness the moment through her gaze, which is obviously filled with grief—her grief, though, not Eddie’s. Sentiment never enters the picture. We know how Polly feels, but the portrayal of the moment is, once again, not romanticized but narrated in its bare simplicity. Given Eddie’s numbness, there is no filter of appropriateness or sensitivity in what Weir shows us, in what he allows us to see. Even Eddie’s death, therefore, falls into the category that Barry Sandywell calls the “game of boredom,” which frames boredom as “tedium or uneventfulness of life, or, with little sense of its self-contradictory status, as a ‘non-experiential experience’” (ch. 3). At the same time, the showing of Eddie’s body is crucial to Weir’s portrayal of AIDS. Kruger notes how, especially at the time of his death, “Weir insists on looking at Eddie, on not having him simply disappear, whisked away, replaced by more comfortable, controllable memories or mementos” (177). Unlike most deaths in AIDS texts, often shown through characters already comatose or unconscious, Eddie is present for his demise. The scene, however, is described without emphasis, just in heartbreaking detail:

Polly found Eddie on the floor of his hospital room, splayed and still, as if dropped there.... He was no longer close to resembling the boy she had known since college.... He lay splattered on the floor now, like a bird thrown up against the windshield of a car, not reduced to his essential humanity, but transformed into something messy, and pathetic.... Polly noticed a circle on the floor, somewhat brighter in the light than the surrounding tiles, and the twisted dampness of Eddie’s hospital shift, tangled around his waist.... She picked a towel off a stack on a chair by the side of the bed, and dropped it onto the floor, to soak up the urine.... She had made up her mind not to be squeamish at all.... She soaped his arms and chest, and legs, and his back, very gently, and she drained the tub and rinsed him everywhere.... She sat beside him on the bed.... Most of him was spread across her lap—there wasn’t much of him. She stroked his ankle, and he talked softly.... ‘But being poor I have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet,’ he said, but that was as far as he got. He lay on Polly’s lap and turned his head away from her and draped his legs and dropped his arm, and he died. (244–51)

22Not even at the time of his death, though, does Eddie get not to be “pathetic.” Despite the tragic nature of the events, and although Weir makes him die in a position reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Pietà, Eddie’s suffering is portrayed in a way that is more grotesque than anything else, up to his failed “who am I quoting?” intended ending. As abovementioned, this tendency is complementary to Eddie’s representation through boredom. Eddie is not portrayed as a tragic figure, but he is a vehicle expressing collective trauma. The interpretation of his character as tragic (comical and grotesque, yes, but also tragic), including the depiction of the most grotesque aspects of his illness, is possible because of the paralysis that represents his most salient feature throughout the novel.

23In dry detail and lack of emphasis, Weir’s description is more reminiscent of the work of some visual artists than of writers: I am thinking of Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1988 self-portrait—showing his emaciated face floating like a ghost in the dark background, with his hand clutching a cane knob in the shape of a skull in the forefront—and in particular of David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 series of photographs of the dead body of his friend Peter Hujar, twenty-three close-ups which captured the detail of the virus’s effects. Eddie’s death is tragic because, in its clinical realism, it portrays the experience of the whole community. Erikson has noted that in a community “trauma... has a social dimension.... Trauma shared can serve as a source of communality in the same way that common languages and common backgrounds can. There is a spiritual kinship there, a sense of identity, even when feelings of affection are deadened and the ability to care numbed” (186). In a cathartic way, Weir unemphatically shows the reader what every gay man in New York at the time had seen too much of, that is the obscenity of the decaying body and death of a young man. In this context, Eddie can be considered a symbol: Weir portrays a community that acts, mourns, and, simply, tries to walk on, including at the end of the novel when the people in Eddie’s life scatter his ashes. Only Eddie is frozen and experiences the paralysis for all of them, in a strange way metaphorically carrying the trauma of his generation. The lack of mercy these passages show toward the reader also has an activist effect, as the author in a way extends the trauma of the AIDS experience to readers too, making them share some of the burden. Reprising Freud, Caruth notes that “history, like trauma, is never simply one’s own,... history is precisely the way in which we are implicated in each other’s traumas” (Unclaimed Experience 24). In this sense, Eddie carries the trauma of his era, and each and every reader gets implicated in it: since many did not survive, and therefore did not have the time to elaborate and develop PTSD, the burden of the AIDS trauma is going to be passed on to the reader.

24Weir not only documents the rage and the pain, but also the feeling of being lost. The author manages to convey to us, to make us recognize—and therefore empathize with—Eddie’s trauma, which, in many ways, is Weir’s too, as the author was deeply involved in AIDS activism and has talked about how that experience inspired the novel. The connection between trauma and paralysis could be applied, in fairness, also to Weir himself: after the publication of Eddie Socket in 1989, Weir did not publish another book until What I Did Wrong in 2006—his second novel, which appropriately enough deals with the theme of mourning and PTSD. Life in the mid-1980s, Weir reminisces in an interview, was all about people dying. He recounts how his first community, the one he came out in, was GMHC: Eddie Socket was written as a result of his experience as a buddy, taking care of terminal PWAs (“ACT UP” 7–10). We could therefore make the following distinction: Eddie Socket is the representation of trauma in the making, while What I Did Wrong is the novel that deals with Caruth’s definition of trauma as PTSD.

25In her seminal book, Cvetkovich describes an “archive of feeling” as “an exploration of cultural texts as repositories of feelings and emotions, which are encoded not only in the content of the texts themselves but in the practices that surround their production and reception” (7). Cvetkovich frames the importance not only of the contents of a text but also of the context that produced it, which includes the experiences of the author, who participated in the same trauma he portrays in the book. The trauma Weir describes through Eddie Socket’s paralysis could thus be considered to be his own as well—it is telling that, toward the end of the novel, the author puts this reflection in Polly’s mouth: “Eddie Socket was a sentimentalist. He was not ‘in quotes,’ as he claimed, not at all. He had merely been embarrassed by his own romanticism. If anything about Eddie was in quotes, she thought, listening to his records, it was nihilism, which was merely his defense against his need to be wanted, and loved” (217). Eddie’s sentimentalism, in fact, transpires only once in the novel, in what may be his only straightforward utterance—when, at the end of his trip, he calls his mother to tell her he has AIDS. In the call, Eddie reclaims his use of the quotes as protection from sentiment, and therefore from pain, and continues to ramble on until he finds the courage to face his one moment of truth in the novel, the one when he comes to terms with the seriousness of his diagnosis:

why do you think I put anything in quotes? The difference between you and me is that you don’t mind it that your feelings are clichés... at least I can remind myself that I know better than my feelings, which are really the drippiest, most sentimental, self-pitying things. You’re tougher than that. So listen, now, and here’s the point, I’m on the train, I’m riding down the platform, and I’m waving and waving good-bye. I want this moment to be sentimental. This is my David O. Selznick moment, Mom, because I have a terminal disease. (192)

26Weir too, like Eddie, manages to avoid his own sentimentalism about AIDS and ends up employing paralysis as a shield as well. But, also like Eddie (and through Eddie), he manages to convey the human experience of the epidemic through that paralysis.

27The idea to stop moving because of pain is not unique to Eddie Socket. A few years after the publication of the novel, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner put the concept at the center of his masterpiece, the play Angels in America (1991–92), where a reactionary Angel appears to the main character, Prior, whose diagnosis with AIDS has made him a prophet, and orders him to make humanity stop moving (78). In the play, Prior rejects the request and asks to continue living. Although his condition would justify a cry of despair or a nihilistic approach, Prior opts for an optimistic view of the future and recognizes the need for movement, not paralysis, advocating for humanity to move forward:

I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do. I’ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much much worse, but... You see them living anyway. When they’re more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they’re burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children, they live. Death usually has to take life away. I don’t know if that’s just the animal. I don’t know if it’s not braver to die. But I recognize the habit. The addiction to being alive. We live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough, so inadequate but... Bless me anyway. I want more life. (266–67)

28The employment of the Jewish blessing “more life” is significant on Kushner’s part, as it echoes the experience of the Jewish people, another community that went through unspeakable horrors but did not give in to despair—and who, ironically, literally kept moving. If we see the character of Eddie Socket as conveying at least part of Weir’s own anxieties about the epidemic, then we have to believe that the act of writing about it is a way for Weir to negotiate with his own trauma and deal with the AIDS crisis. By putting Eddie’s paralysis on the page, the author gives voice to both his personal trauma and the collective trauma of the whole generation. Therefore, we may interpret Weir’s choice to portray the epidemic through immobility and numbness as a supreme act of empathy toward the anguish of his community—and his own choice to pursue storytelling (an act that in and of itself is projected toward the future) as the ultimate way to dissolve the existential boredom, shake off the paralysis, start moving and, as a representative of that generation and therefore a bearer of that trauma, demand more life.

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Bibliography

Bram, Christopher. Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America. Twelve, 2012.

Caruth, Cathy. Preface to Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.

---. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Caruth, Cathy, and Thomas Keenan. “‘The AIDS Crisis Is Not Over’: A Conversation with Gregg Bordowitz, Douglas Crimp, and Laura Pinsky.” American Imago, vol. 48, no. 4, 1991, pp. 539–56.

Clum, John. “‘And Once I Had It All’: AIDS Narratives and Memories of an American Dream.” Writing AIDS: Gay Literature, Language, and Analysis, edited by Timothy Murphy and Suzanne Poirier, Columbia UP, 1993, pp. 200–24.

Cunningham, Michael. Flesh and Blood. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995.

Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Duke UP, 2003.

Dalle Pezze, Barbara, and Carlo Salzani. Preface to Essays on Boredom and Modernity. Rodopi, 2009.

Denneny, Michael. “AIDS Writing and the Creation of a Gay Culture.” Confronting AIDS through Literature: The Responsibilities of Representation, edited by Judith Pastore, U of Illinois P, 1993, pp. 36–54.

Erikson, Kai. “Notes on Trauma and Community.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory, edited by Cathy Caruth, Johns Hopkins UP, 1995, pp. 183–199.

Gardiner, Michael. “Henri Lefebvre and the ‘Sociology of Boredom.’” Theory, Culture and Society, vol. 29, no. 2, 2012, pp. 37–62.

Goodstein, Elizabeth. Experience without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity. Stanford UP, 2005.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke UP, 1991.

Jones, James. “The Sick Homosexual: AIDS and Gays on the American Stage and Screen.” Confronting AIDS through Literature: The Responsibilities of Representation, edited by Judith Pastore, U of Illinois P, 1993, pp. 103–23.

Kruger, Steven. AIDS Narratives: Gender and Sexuality, Fiction and Science. Garland, 1996.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. 1995. Theatre Communications Group, 2003.

Monette, Paul. Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

Musvik, Victoria. “‘Boring Photography’: American New Topographics, Socialist Boredom, and Post-Soviet Deadpan Photography.” European Journal of American Studies, vol. 17, no. 4, 2022.

Pedretti, Mark. “Tedium and Terror: Dreading Narration in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.” European Journal of American Studies, vol. 17, no. 4, 2022.

Phillips, Adam. On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored. Harvard UP, 2016.

Sandywell, Barry. “The Dialectic of Lassitude: A Reflexive Investigation.” Boredom Studies Reader: Frameworks and Perspectives, edited by Michael Gardiner and Julian Haladyn, Routledge, 2017.

Sontag, Susan. “The Way We Live Now.” The Best American Short Stories of the Eighties, edited by Shannon Ravenel. Houghton, 1988, pp. 1–19.

Svendsen, Lars. A Philosophy of Boredom. Reaktion, 2008.

Thiele, Leslie Paul. “Postmodernity and the Routinization of Novelty: Heidegger on Boredom and Technology.” Polity, vol. 29, no. 4, 1997, pp. 489–517.

Toohey, Peter. Boredom: A Lively History. Yale UP, 2011.

Weir, John. The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket. HarperPerennial, 1989.

---. “ACT UP Oral History Project: Interview Number 120.” Interview by Sarah Schulman. 24 June 2010. The New York Lesbian & Gay Experimental Film Festival, Inc. static1.squarespace.com/static/6075fe20d281ea3f320a7be9/t/60f0ddc4c699444e2e3ddfb8/1626398148203/120+-+John+Weir.pdf. Accesssed 15 Nov. 2021.

Woodhouse, Reed. Unlimited Embrace: A Canon of Gay Fiction, 1945–1995. U of Massachusetts P, 1998.

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Notes

1 For other analyses of trauma and boredom in this issue, see Mark Pedretti, “Tedium and Terror: Dreading Narration in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One” and Victoria Musvik, “‘Boring Photography’: American New Topographics, Socialist Boredom, and Post-Soviet Deadpan Photography.”

2 In his book, Svendsen argues that “much boredom derives from repetition” (ch. 1).

3 Kruger notes that in the first part of the novel, “AIDS in fact seems more distant from Eddie than from any of the other major characters, except his parents” (164).

4 Even the event of his contagion, Woodhouse notices, is treated in a peculiar way: “unlike earlier AIDS stories,... his infection with the disease does not come (in good Sophoclean fashion) as a result of his passionate willfulness (i.e., lots of sex), but of boredom and bad luck” (210).

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References

Electronic reference

Anna Ferrari, Not Moving While the World Falls Apart: Living in Quotes in John Weir’s The Irreversible Decline of Eddie SocketEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 17-4 | 2022, Online since 26 December 2022, connection on 28 January 2023. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/19038; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.19038

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About the author

Anna Ferrari

Anna Ferrari holds a PhD in American literature from Sapienza, University of Rome and teaches at the University of Molise. Her research is focused on the use of humor and camp in AIDS literature. Ferrari’s articles have appeared in JAm It! Journal of American Studies and The Polyphony.

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Copyright

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