Auguries of Immanence
Updated: Aug 25, 2021
A review of As If Death Summoned by Alan E. Rose
When I finished reading Alan E. Rose's latest novel, As If Death Summoned, and closed the back cover, I discovered two things: One, I had just been taken on a fascinating, emotional time-and space-shifting journey in which the unnamed narrator weaves the fifteen worst years of the AIDS crisis and his own story of redemption through an eight-hour dark night of the soul in a hospital waiting room. Also, I had done something I almost never do to novels: I had dog-eared many pages.
Confession: I am a book mangler. In non-fiction works I dog-ear, underline, highlight, margin-note and generally bend, fold, spindle and mutilate the pages. My second-grade teacher, Mrs. McCartney, rolls in her grave every time I open a book. But the number of times I have purposely bent a page of fiction over decades of reading can be counted on my fingers and toes. Only the most heart-opening of ideas or soul-moving turn of phrase forces me to break the taboo.
After reading this story, I need more fingers and toes.
I first turned down the corner of page 17. The narrator, a long-time AIDS counselor and veteran of dozens of death-vigils, sits in yet another hospital waiting room, wishing to visit a man in ICU who is dear to him. Denied that wish, he waits for news of the man's fate. More than the life or death of a single man, however, the narrator has seen enough death and suffering to deeply feel the mortality of all human beings:
There’s this sense that much more than a life is ending. An entire world is coming to an end, a multitude of experiences, millions of moments and memories, hopes and goals and desires and dreams, all reduced to this: a biological organism slowly releasing its hold on life, a vast network of physiological processes gradually shutting down. Seems like someone should be here to witness it. You sense the presence that was this person has already departed, a presence no longer present, and not for the first time wonder who or what is actually dying.
And thus begins the journey of the narrator to discover "who or what is actually dying". An odyssey that takes us from starry nights in the high desert of Australia to rainy days in the seedy hotels of Portland, Oregon. We are shunted back-and-forth through time, from the first mention of a "gay cancer" in 1981 to the establishment of volunteer cadres who fight on every front of the crisis in 1995, just before the first effective treatments were discovered. We meet men and women, gay and straight, from every walk of life who find themselves in a battle that is common to all, but in this case, falls entirely on the shoulders of a few. That battle had claimed 300 thousand American lives by 1995, and the narrator has sat with over thirty, including his partner of a decade, as they release their hold on life. We learn as his tale unfolds that he is carrying every one of those souls on his heart.
As If Death Summoned is one of those rare novels that defies category or genre while telling a gripping tale. It is literary fiction and fictionalized memoir - the author was a front-line AIDS volunteer in Portland and Australia during the time of the story. The authenticity in his depiction of that time and place and challenge are undeniable in every paragraph and page. It is a love story, one that seeks to answer the age-old question about of whether lost love is better than no love. It is also a philosophical inquiry, with hints of The Dialogues of Plato, as the narrator meets and engages with characters of high and low status, of keen intellect and spirited libido, of optimistic and pessimistic inclinations. As the Socrates of this dialogue, the narrator confesses his lack of understanding and seeks knowledge from others to give him the ability to understand, if not alleviate, his soul-deep grief.
In the last third of the book, I dog-eared this page, as the narrator reached what he thought was the worst of his sorrow:
The snow began falling again. I remained at the wooden rail, wrapped in the moment’s soft snow-glow, gazing out over the dark river. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so low. But the mind has a short memory. Along with a short memory, it’s also prone to hyperbole: This is the lowest, the saddest, the worst you’ve ever felt. Face it, the mind’s a drama queen. At such times, I fall back on my professional training, counseling myself, trying to put me in contact with my rational, wiser mind to bring some perspective to the drama queen.
“You’re just having a bad day,” I say.
Yes, but it’s been a bad day for a very long time.
I gripped the railing through my gloves, closing my eyes, and whispered, “Bear it, Heart. You have borne worse.”
When we arrive at the ending, back in that hospital waiting room, we discover we've also been treated to a spirited and intricate mystery story, one that ties up all the loose ends we didn't know were left untied and redeems both the narrator and ourselves. Having felt the weight of sorrow in the narrator's heart for chapter after chapter, we rejoice in the hint of redemption, one that is promised to come to him in the world beyond the back cover of the book.
Though a dark story of a dark time, the pages are well marbled with humor. More than simple graveyard-whistling, the characters often face the worst with the strength that comes from laughter, and the narrator deflects pain with a dry wit. "Humor is just another defense against the universe" said Mel Brooks, and the people represented by Rose's characters were in desperate need of defense against the universe, in the form of the virus, and against the indifference and antipathy of their fellow citizens. Another dog-eared page marks one of these defensive actions, where the narrator is sitting vigil for yet another friend, at his bedside as the dying man wakes:
Then around 4:00 a.m., I was dozing when I heard a stirring and jerked awake, opening my eyes just as Jerald was opening his, both of us groggy. He looked around the dimly lit room, appearing confused. Seeing me, he asked, “Am I in heaven?”
“No. Providence Hospital.”
“Thank God. I would have been seriously disappointed if this were heaven.”
The author's choice to leave his protagonist nameless - a nickname of "Hobbes" is the closest he comes to a moniker - is telling of his philosophy, if I read him right. The novel is a gripping portrayal of a horror visited on a subset of our citizens, and of the heroism that rose from that subset to proclaim their rights and demand their humanity be affirmed by all. In telling that story, the author points to our common, shared frailty and strength, setting the challenge we all face in sharp relief. The unnamed "everyman" narrator of As If Death Summoned represents the immanence of the divine within each of us if we are brave enough to look into the mirror of his struggle and see ourselves. The story Alan E. Rose tells is an explication of the last lines from William Blake's poem, "Auguries of Innocence":
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day
Through that long, dark night spent waiting, Rose's narrator invites us to "dwell in realms of day".