The Queer Time of Paul Lisicky’s Provincetown

[…] We hate old people because we’re not going to be old. And Lisicky masterfully situates himself within this history, giving his readers a unique glimpse into his fear of getting tested, the Provincetown-specific frailty of human relationships in the face of contagion, and how death looms as would a shadow in the daily life of a meandering writer. Just for meeting my friends day after day. It’s the kind of shame that renders it transgressive, that makes any encounter rebellious, and therefore alluring. Perhaps, somewhere, he knows that AIDS isn’t just something that happens to your body. “Imagine it,” he writes, “Look at a drop of your blood, your semen, your saliva, and think of it containing a thousand little grenades. Lisicky’s memoir offers Town as a site for studying the social politics embedded in community as a task for literary representation and quotidian living. “By that I mean the idea of it: the air we breathe is drenched in its possibility. His experiences exist suspended in time, as he faces his fear and acceptance of death at every encounter, with no escape. Trying to silence the howl of illness. These feelings power Lisicky’s prose and help bring us into the various worlds that constellate the memoir. When Lisicky arrives in Provincetown — which he calls Town — in 1991, at the height of the AIDS crisis, he enters a world familiar to that historical moment: a queer time that forgoes futurity and surrenders to the urgency of a precarious present that could dissolve at any moment. This risk seems to turn Lisicky on: “Desire flushes me with shame, the kind of shame I want to rub out of my skin until it relaxes,” he writes. “She puts her arms around me so I will feel the consequence in my body, the consequence of her losing once again,” writes Lisicky. The gay component of Town is completely young, but the young people have the physical problems of their grandparents. He seduces us, breaks our heart, and helps us put it back together — but not once does he allow the space for a post-memorial nostalgia. Holding back the dread then becomes an illness of its own that Lisicky has to control to survive. ¤
Michael Valinsky’s work has been published in i-D Magazine, Hyperallergic, OUT Magazine, BOMB Magazine,, and Kirkus Reviews, among others. It’s this willingness to survive despite the dread that opens up the possibilities of the book: he falls in love, can assist AIDS-affected men in their daily lives with some company, read at open mics, fall out of love, into bed with a warm body, slip on the rubber. MAY 8, 2020
HOW DOES THE EVERYDAY survive an epidemic? His mother, waking up to the idea of a house without her son, sets the tone of Lisicky’s affective life. We know this shame. Just for waking up. It’s procrastination, plain and simple[.] […] I’m feeling cowardly, while at the same time I know I’m brave, very brave. How can he express desire in a single glance? This refusal to get tested: is it murdering me? [O]ld gay men don’t exist in these times. Paul Lisicky’s third memoir, Later, takes readers down the precarious temporality of an epidemic. Such urgency can often be found lingering in the work of many gay writers publishing during or reflecting on the ’80s and ’90s. This important jump from the ’90s to the present infuses the text with a much-needed temporal shift to a time of treatment and management. Town, for Lisicky, is a messy terrain that holds an unstable present and uncertain future simultaneously, oozing with potential even as it faces the fading of life. As experienced through illness, temporality in Town turns its back on the past, making the moment in which Lisicky writes so much more powerful. “No wellness without illness, I realize this now,” he writes. My body has always known this, but my brain was slow to catch on.” This final section of Later helps ground the reader in this realization. It’s the kind of shame that stems from allowing ourselves desire at a moment when desire might mean death. “We’re close to AIDS, so close it’s almost inside before it’s even inside,” Lisicky writes. It allows the everyday to continue unfurling. When the memoir opens, Lisicky is on his way out of the familial dwelling, crowning toward the newest chapter in his writing career. Time is warped in Town; it is the enemy against which Lisicky fights with every word. How can he maintain enough privacy to focus on his work without sacrificing his inclusion in the community? But, more specifically, Later asks us to consider the power of retrospection, a timely consideration given the global confinement regulation in the face of the current COVID-19 outbreak. How and when should he wear his chore jacket? You’re ancient and rare if you’re forty. With PrEP, Lisicky can at least try to get one kiss closer to an intimacy that he never imagined could exist in his epidemiological time. Lisicky beautifully renders the readers complicit in this act of survivance. Could you disappear into yourself, into your skin, ever again?” 
As Lisicky explores the limits and potential of his own sexuality and desire, he “refuses” to get tested. Lisicky invites his reader into this delicate, brutal, and moving psychoanalytical terrain, and for those of us cut off by birth and history from the peak of the AIDS crisis, this intergenerational invitation is irresistible. But what do we make of the past, then? Not just for you, but for the lover you come into contact with. Maybe refusal is too strong a word — refusal suggests agency and resistance, and my own position? There are all kinds of suicide, and maybe I’m just doing a long, slow suicide[.] […] I’m talking about holding the wave of dread back five times a day. Readers see through the eyes of a visitor who becomes a local through his constant exposure to death and illness but also through the opening of his heart to the possibility of love and community in epidemiological time. But it’s also the kind of shame that feels generative, reflexive, productive. And perhaps the most powerful instant in the book is its eventual ending, where the testimony jumps forward to 2018 — a year almost out of science fiction for the Lisicky of the 1990s. How would your life change? And that’s why it doesn’t even occur to us to be bothered by latex, the smell and gummy barrier of it.”
AIDS penetrates every aspect of mundane life in Lisicky’s Town, so much so that it almost feels impossible to think before or outside of it. Oscillating between a projective fantasy and a daily flirtation with death, Lisicky navigates his sexual encounters like an interested flâneur: he questions his desire to fuck, his sexual preferences, the feeling of bodies intertwining. And every word written is a second lost, a desire negotiated. It’s the new normal, the only context through which to navigate the present and think the future. “The world was never merely divided into two columns. The author sits in his doctor’s office and asks for Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). In that moment, the author places a weight on readers that they won’t be able to shake off until they put the book down. This weight takes many forms, among them embodied anger, prohibited desire, melancholia, and deviant sexual citizenship. As readers are taken through Lisicky’s engagement with queer and critical theory via quotes from prominent thinkers including Lauren Berlant, Leo Bersani, and José Esteban Muñoz, which serve as epigraphs to various sections of the memoir, the narrative ultimately arrives at a present that feels full, manageable, and free. In the contemporary moment, Lisicky must live with the fact that he has survived or perhaps is always still surviving. He is the author of .TXT, Zurich: 89plus/LUMA Publications, 2014. Well, it’s not even a position. How transgressive is it to imagine skin-to-skin contact in a time of plague? With Provincetown as its center, the book explores the author’s complicated relationship with his body, identity, and sexuality in a moment when bodies have become data, identities systematically marginalized, and sexuality stigmatized to the nth degree. Later takes us on a heart-wrenching journey through Lisicky’s transition from living with his mother to his exploration and discovery of gay communities, and finally to his encounter with death and illness as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. That, he says, is murderous. It’s not only a disease that kills you, but it’s also a psychological state that picks away at your sanity, day after day, funeral after funeral. It’s what keeps you going to the doctors for validation and reassurance, but also what keeps you as far away from them as possible. We deny age, abhor it, including any of the gay men who have made it to fifty, sixty, unscathed.