By Andrew Sullivan
1999, Vintage Books
(paperback) $13.00 (US)
Reviewed by Michael Walker, Oasis Science and Medical Editor
Andrew Sullivan became a leading voice in debates regarding the origins of and reasons for homosexuality with his well-written albeit controversial book Virtually Normal : An Argument About Homosexuality and with numerous essays and articles. Sullivan has a true gift with words, turning them as swift agents for his purposes in writing piercing, powerful essays and such talent is lamentably rare among essayists and journalists concerning themselves with gay-related topics these days. So when Sullivan released his second full-length book, I was eager to see what he would offer us this time around. In Love Undetectable, Andrew Sullivan approaches with care, clarity, and reserve some of the most volatile of issues of concern to the gay community in the late 1990s, including, most predictably, AIDS, sex, and once again the origins of homosexuality.
Because Sullivan is a writer and editor first and foremost and not a social scientist or other brand of academic, he is free to provide his personal--often anecdotal--reflections and perceptions of the subjects he writes about instead of being grounded in scientific or legalistic theory and hard data. Such freedom allows Sullivan a considerable freedom to explore all the many-faceted aspects of male-to-male love and the place of sex within that scope of love. He is also able in this book to approach the AIDS epidemic with a dynamism that is rare in writing about the disease. Social issues, emotional topics, and politics rarely converge with the sort of wholeness and completeness that we find in Love Undetectable. Sullivan is HIV-positive himself and never shies away from what this means to his writing about AIDS nor allows his status to cloud his perception of AIDS as a social illness or to break down into overwrought histrionics. I cannot claim to share all of Sullivan's beliefs about either the origins of homosexuality or about the social etiology and trajectory of AIDS, but I appreciate his views and welcome any writer with such talent and adeptness to express himself.
Sullivan's focus on friendship, a major and recurrent theme throughout Love Undetectable, is really the glue that binds the entire work of three essays together as a consummate book. One of the great pleasures in reading this book is seeing how Sullivan's own life weathers various changes -- including his diagnosis as HIV-positive -- and how he changes as person due to the circumstances he finds himself in. I believe that many if not most gay men of my own generation, those who make up the majority of the readers of Oasis, could learn a lot about life from reading this book, as well as learn a good deal about how one person has tackled and reacted to the crisis that AIDS still presents to us. I also feel that Sullivan has taken a decidedly humanistic and personal approach to AIDS and the issues that surround it and that while his approach is haunting, evocative, and astute, it should be balanced by reading the works of researchers and journalists who are more based in scientific evidence than personal observation. Certainly, there is ample room for both schools of thought on a topic as consuming and broad as AIDS.
I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in how AIDS can be manifest in one person's life and can act as something of a catalyst to further personal, social, and spiritual discovery. Furthermore, I cannot imagine this book being published at a more needing nor apt time: right now, the gay men who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s are starting to become a demographic majority outsizing the older cohort of gay men who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. This younger grouping has experienced a very different socialization than their older peers and it is important to have a dialog that includes not only the prime issues of gay discourse of our time -- AIDS and sexuality and its origins -- but also more expandable and universal concerns such as the roles of friends and lovers. Love Undetectable encourages such a dialog and offers an excellent though highly personal position of departure towards a better conceptualization of what it means to be gay in our contemporary world.
Michael Walker is the Science and Medical Editor of Oasis Magazine and a frequent contributor to other publications. Aside from issues relevant to gay life and gay youth, he writes about the socialization of the professions, architectural and art history, cultural theory, and public health. He also writes poetry and fiction, examples of which have appeared in Oasis. He may be reached at: MCWalker@hotmail.com