Did you believe that writing about the experience would help you understand what had happened? You still cling to romantic notions about writing, that you’ll be able to figure things out, that you will understand life, as if life is understandable, as if art is understandable. When has writing explained anything to you? Writing does not force coherence onto a discordant narrative.
Like the ‘author’ invoked throughout Rabih Alameddine’s The Wrong End of the Telescope (clearly an avatar for Alameddine himself, a very close autobiographical proxy), I cling to romantic notions about writing—if, that is, it is ‘romantic’ to look to writing to give shape and meaning to the experiences it invites us to contemplate. I’m not sure that is naïve in the way that this excerpt insists: writing is art, not life; it is representation, not reality. A writer can choose fragmentation and incoherence, or unity and design: these are just different ways of managing the relationship between form and content. In this novel, Alameddine has sought—against his usual instincts or habits, this metafictional commentary suggests, and after many failed attempts to do otherwise—to find a form that resists the wished-for resolution.
“Why did you keep at it for so long?” his narrator, Mina Simpson, asks of his efforts to find “the one key that would unlock your mystery”:
Did you believe that if you wrote about Syrian refugees the world would look at them differently? Did you hope readers would empathize? Inhabit a refugee’s skin for a few hours? As if that were some kind of panacea.
Mina goes on to mock this idea of fiction as a device for inspiring empathy: “At best, you would have written a novel that was an emotional palliative for some couple in suburbia.” Maybe that’s true, but it also strikes me as tendentiously reductive: does anybody actually think novels are a “panacea”? and on the other hand, does anybody really think that it makes no difference at all to change or add to the stories people tell or know about the world? These are false alternatives, and I’m not sure how satisfactory a tertium quid it is to write a novel that ends up being more about how to write a novel about Syrian refugees. Metafiction directs our attention back to the author’s struggles (as this novel relentlessly does), which is just a different kind of key to the puzzle, and a somewhat solipsistic one. “Empathy is overrated,” Mina declares. Fair enough, but but at least it tries, and literary history suggests it isn’t always futile.
I’ve created another false alternative myself, though, in my irritation at this aspect of The Wrong End of the Telescope. I didn’t much like the book as a whole, mostly because of the way it scattered its and thus my attention around, but it is a very empathetic novel; over and over it does put its reader into different stories, inviting them to understand better the fear, horror, desperation, and hope that lead people to crowd into boats and risk everything to cross the sea. Its structure does have some linearity or continuity to it, through the story of Mina’s arrival on Lesbos and her efforts to help the refugees there, especially one woman, Sumaiya, who is dying of cancer. Mina’s narrative is like a tree limb, with other stories branching off it. Cumulatively they don’t make the situation “understandable” or even, narrowly speaking, “legible,” though there are certainly moments in which one character or another offers the elements of an explanation. “I loathe these Westerners who have fucked us over and over for years and then sit back and wonder aloud why we can’t be reasonable and behave like they do,” Mina’s brother Mazen exclaims at one point—this and other pieces of the novel offer historical and political frameworks for the ‘refugee crisis’ along with pointed criticisms of the West’s response. Overall, though, it is a novel built primarily of vignettes.
Whether this is a better way to write a novel on this topic than any other, I don’t know. The Wrong End of the Telescope evades what I wrote about once as ‘moral tourism’; it also tries not to turn suffering into spectacle and us, or the author, into voyeurs (like the “do-gooders” on the island preoccupied with taking selfies of themselves with refugees as a particularly offensive form of virtue signaling). At the same time, its deliberate refusal to “figure things out” means it leaves its readers with impressions, with experiences, that in themselves are incomplete as the basis for any next steps—moral or political. Its self-consciousness also risks framing the refugee crisis primarily as an aesthetic problem. In that old post, alluding to some of the reading I had been doing on ‘ethical criticism,’ I quote Geoffrey Harpham’s comment that “without action, ethics is condemned to dithering,” and note on my own behalf that “nuance and complexity are, perhaps, luxuries permitted to those who need not make decisions.” Whether a novel can or should drive people to decisions is debatable, of course.
Ironically, after complaining about the metafictional aspects of The Wrong End of the Telescope, I have written primarily about them rather than about the novel qua novel. Here’s Mark Athitakis doing that job well in the LA Times, if you’d like to know more about it; there are lots of interesting aspects to the novel that I haven’t touched on at all here. I particularly like Mark’s description of the novel as “threading a needle between that urge to witness and the recognition that doing so may be pointless.” Probably the major difference between our readings is not whether we think that effort is successful but whether we think it is worthwhile.