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A New Testament to the Fury and Beauty of Activism During the AIDS Crisis

Schulman’s own political awakening came early. Many members of her family had been killed in the Holocaust, and she grew up listening to the stories of neighbors and friends who had stood by and done nothing. The figure of the bystander haunts her work. In the 1980s, she began working for the gay press, all the while writing fiction.

Sarah Schulman, whose new book is “Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993.”Credit…Drew Stevens

The novels are bottled lightning. All grit and guns, cockeyed verbs — and the girls. Imagine if Patricia Highsmith hadn’t had to hide behind male characters, if Djuna Barnes’s hothouse flowers had to be at work (or frankly anywhere) in the morning, if Jean Rhys’s women drank themselves askew sitting on an upturned milk crate in the back of a seedy deli.

Schulman’s novel “After Delores” remains my personal defibrillator. When I feel myself going numb or complacent from reading too much, too quickly, too professionally, this is the book that shocks me into feeling. It’s fast, funny lesbian noir — and a powerful AIDS novel in which the disease is rarely mentioned but stalks every page, is felt in the cosmology of a fictional world in which people suddenly go missing and there is no guarantee of safety, only the small solaces we can offer one another.

I tarry here, on the novels, because they are crucial to understanding Schulman. She writes nonfiction as an artist, she insists, not as a historian or academic. She does not measure her success by proof of her arguments but by their usefulness, plenitude and provocation.

The organizing principle of “Let the Record Show” derives from the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel “Enemies, a Love Story.” Schulman was inspired by how Singer felt no compunction to create virtuous Jewish characters as if to emphasize that virtue wasn’t a prerequisite for compassion. In calamity, “people just become themselves. But ever so much more so,” she wrote in “Rat Bohemia.”

But the story of AIDS has been profoundly distorted — gentrified, Schulman might say. There is an ignoble tradition of keeping straight people at the “heroic center” of the story: See “Philadelphia,” “Angels in America” and “Rent,” which appeared to rip off, and weirdly warp, Schulman’s novel “People in Trouble.”

The other grave misrepresentation she perceives comes from accounts like David France’s 2013 documentary, “How to Survive a Plague.” France gave the impression that it was a few white gay men who sustained ACT UP. According to Schulman, he ignored the contributions of activists who were women or people of color and how their backgrounds in Black liberation movements, the labor movement and reproductive rights profoundly influenced strategy. France’s focus on a few “heroic individuals,” Schulman writes, “could mislead contemporary activists away from the fact that — in America — political progress is won by coalitions.”

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