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This bus has free wifi. Nifty. Review of the book I read Saturday, July 16th.

I read both parts: Part I is called Millennium Approaches and Part II Perestroika. Kushner insists that they are separate plays and that one is a sequel to the other and they have different tonalities and so on, but I'm sorry, the first does not have sufficient arc by itself; I really feel these have to be considered as a unit.

So this is a serious attempt to engage with AIDS, and a serious attempt to engage with the turn of the century, and a mystery play, and a meditation on America, and all that jazz. Surprisingly enough, it basically lives up to its ambitions.

I consider the protagonist to be Prior Walter, the man who is starting to die: KS, pneumonia, all the rest of it. An angel appears to him, literally, and tells him that he is to be a prophet. Very sensibly, he declines, with force.

And there's his lover, who is still healthy, who can't take the prospect of watching him die, and leaves, unforgivably; and the man his lover takes up with, a conflicted Mormon lawyer; and a friend who is a medical orderly and drag queen and basically made of pure awesome. There's a Mormon mother-in-law, there's the dying and raging Roy Cohn, still convinced the best thing he ever did was getting Ethel Rosenberg executed, there are the angelic principalities of each continent. It's a complex knot of theology, politics, and absurdism, and it is very funny, as Kushner intended and acknowledges in the foreword. (I think the funniest single moment is when Prior, in the hospital, is asked by his nurse who the lady with him is, and he says "That's my ex-lover's new boyfriend's Mormon mother." The nurse blinks and says "Even for the eighties in New York, that's weird." Which it is. But also touching, and deriving from a completely logical set of circumstances, if you were there.)

There's a dimension of this that does not lend itself well to being read, in that there's a whole lot of double and triple-casting; the nurse, for example, is the same actress as the Angel of America. There is so much doubling that it is not possible for me to keep track of all of it, not having seen a performance. Each of the angels is someone else from the cast, for instance.

But the overall impression, even knowing I wasn't tracking some of what was intended, is still one of great brilliance, complexity, and emotional depth. Belize, for instance, Prior's medical friend, keeps having people say nasty racist things to him because they are in pain in other ways, and there's a moment where he mutters to himself "My problem is that I'm trapped in a world of white people." And the thing is, that literally is his problem, because he's in this play, which is trying to be a reflection among other things of the way America sees itself at the time of writing, which means a Token Black Guy who doesn't get any depth. Which Belize isn't, but what we are seeing is the world of this play, which is except for him white people, and in which he is stuck. And the play acknowledges that, in lines that seem throw-away.

Or the scene in which Prior Walter's ancestors, also named Prior Walter, come to him to prepare the way for the angel-- the angel thoughtfully dug up the ones who died of plague, so that they would have something in common-- and it's not the same plague, it's not the same issues, she got it wrong, he and his ancestors have nothing to say to one another. (In fact the angel's problem with understanding humanity can be summarized by the fact that she presents as aggressively and sexually female to her prophet, who is a gay man, despite the fact that it is textual that she is hermaphroditic: but the way she impresses herself on his mind is as female, and you can't prove she even knows about his sexual orientation. Angels. Frickin' ineffable annoyances sometimes.)

And the way the play handles Mormonism is fascinating; it's clearly here as a contrasting American angelic revelation, and the politics of the religion are damaging to the people who interact with it, but the one who really believes and has faith uses her faith to be astonishingly competent and kind. Nuanced, is what I'm saying, in a play with a lot of extremely valid anger.

So yeah. I'm sure I'm late to this work; it's one of the great landmarks of AIDS literature and won all kinds of prizes and there is a well-regarded HBO miniseries and you don't need me to tell you how good this is. But it really is.


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