There can never be too many New York novels, especially New York novels as vivid and passionate as Christodora (Grove, $26), by Tim Murphy. Murphy paints the lives of his many characters against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic, art, and the changing city. The stories he tells are stunning, gritty, and devastating. Murphy takes the reader right into the 1980s and inside the devastation and broken lives of those affected by the epidemic, as well as chronicling lesser-known histories of AIDS activism. The disease is the great equalizer, and yet ultimately Christodora is not just about the fight against AIDS. It is also about struggling against personal demons, addiction, and mental illness as well as about the search for family and forgiveness. Chapter by chapter, the characters’ stories piece together a great narrative quilt that makes this novel one of the most emotionally intense and extraordinary reading experiences.
Rabih Alameddine’s haunted and haunting fifth novel encompasses East-West tensions, racism, gender issues, illness, and more, though it unfolds over the course of just a few hours in the waiting room of a San Francisco psychiatric clinic. Visited by The Angel of History (Atlantic Monthly Press, $26) and other demons, Jacob, a Yemeni-Lebanese poet, is hearing voices. He’s heard them before, though not in a while, and now the return of familiars such as Death, Satan/Iblis, the Fourteen Holy Helpers (martyred saints no longer officially recognized) threatens to overwhelm him in a flood of unbearable memories, from his early years with his mother as part of the “whorehold” of a Cairo brothel to his father’s abandonment of young Ya’qub to be (re) educated by the French nuns of a Catholic school—all punctuated by news of ongoing drone attacks in Yemen. But what Jacob feels most keenly is the loss of his partner and many, many friends twenty years before. “AIDS killed all of us,” Jacob says, but, in fact, though grief left him “roofless in a downpour,” it did not kill him. Jacob survived—not, as he thinks, “in order to be lonely,” but to remember. As his paralyzing anger at last loosens, he wrests it into the form of stories, journal entries, and Satan’s interviews with the figures in Jacob’s life. As complex as its protagonist, Alameddine’s book is a dazzling cubist portrait of a man deeply hurt by history.