“The Way We Live Now” by Susan Sontag


This was story/week 36 of my one story per week reading project, “Project: Deal Me In!” Not for the first time this year, I was almost wholly ignorant of the author. I’d heard of her name, of course, but that was about it. What I found here was a very well-written but also very depressing story of a dying man and how his circle of friends react to and deal with the situation. The story shares its title with a work by Anthony Trollope, but the words “the way we live now” also appear in the story’s dialog, so I’m unsure of the ‘deeper meaning’ of her choosing to recycle a Trollope title. Maybe Trollope’s own words in his autobiography (which I’ve actually read) provide a clue, but I don’t necessarily think so.

“Nevertheless a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable. If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel. Instigated, I say, by some such reflections as these, I sat down in my new house to write The Way We Live Now.”

Though not mentioned by name, it becomes quickly apparent that the affliction the man is suffering with is AIDS. Originally published in 1986 in The New Yorker magazine, the story was highly acclaimed at the time and became a touchstone work in world of the arts that dealt with this new and dreadful disease.


In my reading, I was confused at first by the names and lack of names. “Oh, is THAT the name of the ‘patient’ or, wait, no that’s another friend’s name…” and so on. I found this a little distracting but decided to go with the assumption that it was intentional by the author, who perhaps wanted the many friends to represent different “types” and how these different types dealt with the situation.

As I mentioned above, I found it very depressing and it also brought back some unhappy personal memories (as I’m sure it must with many readers) where I found myself part of a similar “cloud” of friends circling an ailing family member. It’s still a story worth reading, though, as Sontag really nails a lot of the emotions that such a group runs through. At only sixteen pages, it’s a pretty quick read too. I own it as part of my “Best Short Stories of the Century” anthology, which I’ve already mentioned (and pictured, so I won’t do it again here) several times on the blog.

Anyone else read this? Do you have recommendations for further reading from this author?

(Below: author Susan Sontag)