John Boyne: A tale of Manhattan, sex, drugs and Aids

Book review: Tim Murphy’s novel about young New Yorkers treats the subject of Aids with deep respect

Author: Tim Murphy
ISBN-13: 978-1509818570
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £16.99

There's a 1960s' novel by BS Johnson, The Unfortunates, which was published in a rather playful way. The chapters were each printed separately, then placed inside a box in a random sequence, the theory being that you could throw them in the air and read them in whatever order they landed while still being able to make sense of the story. I was reminded of that book while reading Christodora, by Tim Murphy, a New York epic spanning the early 1980s to 2021 that moves back and forth through time with such relentless speed that I began to feel like Marty McFly, only rather than travelling across the decades in a souped-up DeLorean, I was taking part in the literary equivalent of a temporal sling-shot.

The American novelist Jay McInerney gives a quote of endorsement on the jacket of this novel, an astute choice of supporter as the book is reminiscent of McInerney at his peak, concerning itself with young Manhattanites and their relationships with sex, drugs, psychologists, art and real estate. I mention the latter, for the novel’s title refers to an apartment building in the East Village through which several of the characters pass but which is most notably the home of Jared and Millicent, she a painter, he a sculptor, and their adopted African-American son, Mateo.

It is Mateo who is the most interesting and tragic figure of the story. Never quite feeling part of what he calls his Jared-dad and Millimom’s life, never quite fitting in to their ultra-liberal and yet shockingly white social group, never quite being able to cope with the death of his birth mother from Aids, his descent from teenage angst to heavy drug user is entirely convincing. A chapter in which he celebrates 90 days of sobriety by taking copious amounts of heroin and persuading a vulnerable girlfriend, also a recovering addict, to do to the same is among the strongest scenes in the novel and contains some of the best drugs-writing I’ve read. It’s never sensationalised but is written with such understanding of his inexorable cravings that the reader succumbs to a horrified fascination. Mateo is selfish and needy and yet he’s also desperately lonely and confused and, as with the best fictional characters, readers will have ambiguous feelings towards him.

Murphy pulls off a neat trick of placing two non-humans at the heart of the novel and bringing them entirely to life. One is the building itself which, often through the presence of the doorman Ardit, seems to silently judge its residents as they pass through the lobby. The other is a disease: Aids. Perhaps in 2016 we forget the hold that Aids had over the homosexual community during the final decades of the 20th century, the terror that existed, the fear of testing, the phrases like AZT and T-Cell Counts that became common parlance among people with no medical training whatsoever. This part of the story is well represented by Hector, a gay man, once handsome and shy, now a foul-mouthed mess of a man, evicted from the Christodora for a range of crimes from drug-dealing and prostitution to allowing his dog to run free and bite children, drawing blood, the greatest killer of the time. Hector, who once worked at the Department of Health with Millicent’s mother Ava – a quintessential New Yorker, high on what she calls her “head meds” – slips into a terrifying existence while Ava herself sets up a home for women dying of Aids, and seems capable of caring for every female in the city except her own daughter.


Filled with anguish

Christodora is a long and complex novel whose characters exist in a torrent of anger, lust and vulnerability. There are sections that are hard to read as they are so filled with anguish but it suffers a little from the author's decision not to follow a more chronological sequence. There are plenty of reasons for bouncing back and forth through time in a novel but occasionally here, it becomes confusing. I found myself frequently having to flick back and forth through the pages to remind myself of what had already happened in the characters' lives and what had not. Unlike The Unfortunates, which is mischievous and inventive, the conceit becomes frustrating.

However, there is no denying the quality of the writing and the deep integrity of this novel. Aids is a subject that has been underwritten in fiction. To date it has claimed a lot of victims – more than 35 million – and yet their stories remain under-represented in art. Tim Murphy treats the subject with respect and authority and in doing so reminds us that cities like New York might be teeming with life but they have also buried an extraordinary number of residents well before their time.

John Boyne's latest novel is The Heart's Invisible Furies (Doubleday)

John Boyne

John Boyne

John Boyne, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic