By the time the reader reaches the final third of Kramer’s frenetic history/novel, he may be energized. I, however, found myself worn down by a litany of characters who serve as rotating masks for the megaphone of Kramer’s beliefs about the science of HIV and AIDS and the inadequacy of the American response to it.
Kramer’s project to tell a collective history includes both fictional and fictionalized characters as well as real people, dramatizing when it suits and adding flair to the mundane. The book is intended to be fast-paced, cutting, trenchant and witty, but the scraps of truth, fiction, history, and story don’t come together in the transcendent way that Kramer is aiming for.
In this partial roman à clef (many people and places are real), even diseases, microorganisms and medical equipment are liable to fictionalization: “Under the Quotrum, my semen quickly reveals abnormally high titers of sindel and abnormally low measurements of fane.” Sure.
Perhaps my major qualm with The American People is that I don’t recognize any of my fellow Americans—or anyone, really—in it.
Sure, there are heros, scientists, activists, villains, and lovers—but none exists outside of the need to service Kramer’s ideological platforms. The section which hovers around the 1930s includes doctors, a transgender man named Evilleena, nuns, and Adolf Hitler’s boyfriend of five days, none of whom are particularly compelling, and none of whom show any signs of, well, being characters.
The book is at its most trenchant when dissecting the medical establishment; while it can be hard to digest sentences like “science often smacks of parody or silliness when it can prove to be neither one shitty thing nor another shitty thing,” Kramer’s anger at our inability to listen and to learn still feels visceral. When one doctor makes an important discovery, he writes, “Nobody noticed. The world did not listen.”
Kramer, however, has almost always written as if his relationship to truth is an exclusive one, and this history/novel’s idiosyncrasies cannot mask the condescension. One character says about another, “Though, of course, he is not as smart as I am. They never fucking are.” Kramer could also be (is also?) writing about himself.
No one doubts Kramer’s intelligence—and this history-novel hammers home his ability to syncretize with allusive aplomb—but it is reasonable to doubt his poetry. (Perhaps he would argue that poetry is inconsequential in the face of the story he must tell, but I suspect he does aspire to it.) Does the following sentence belong in a history, a novel, or neither?
“What Dr. Florence Hung Nu (she is to Americanize her name in 1942 so people will stop thinking she caused World War II) of the Laboratory of Fecal Hematology has discovered (not that she knows it) is that what will become known in the 1980s as The Underlying Condition makes its first home in the bowel (as will be confirmed for the first time, by the remarkable Dr. Donald Kotler of New York’s St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Medical Center, in 1983).”
I vote neither.
Mark Canavera is a humanitarian aid and development worker who focuses on child protection in West Africa. He has worked on former child soldier reintegration in northern Uganda, small arms control in Senegal, girls’ education promotion in Burkina Faso, and child welfare system reform in Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, and Benin. He holds Master’s degrees in Peace Studies from Notre Dame and Public Policy from Harvard. He is also the co-founder of the Rustin Fund for Global Equality, a new non-profit organization that promotes individual American giving to the global LGBTI movement.