“A Discordant Narrative”: Rabih Alameddine, The Wrong End of the Telescope

wrong-endDid 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.

wrong-end-2I’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.

“What Are These Pages?”: Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman

unnecessaryI really enjoyed reading Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman. How could I not, being who I am? The novel is custom-made for its inevitable audience (readers!): not only is it about an avid reader but one of its central themes is the transporting exhilaration of reading itself. Its voice is wry and ironic,  acerbic and occasionally even acidic — because these are the qualities of its heroine and narrator, Aaliya. It is also, as Aaliya is not (or, only very rarely), sympathetic: it prompts us, implicitly, to understand Aaliya and to be on her side, despite how prickly and anti-social she is. It’s hard to be this close to someone, to see things from her point of view, and not end up, if not her friend, at least her ally. And for a lot of readers, being prickly and anti-social is probably pretty familiar anyway: if we’re reading An Unnecessary Woman in the first place, there’s a better than zero chance that we too like being in a book better than being in most rooms, being with our favorite authors and characters better than being with many of the people we know in real life. So Aaliya, though she is not particularly nice or likable, is perversely “relatable.”

Is reading a way of engaging with the world, or a way of taking refuge from, or just avoiding, it? This seemed to me the novel’s fundamental question. Aaliya’s story actually reminded me (if in a considerably more highbrow register) of Kathleen Kelly’s line in You’ve Got Mail: “So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book; shouldn’t it be the other way around?” For most of the novel, and most of her life, Aaliya retreats to literature; it isolates her, but it also comforts her in her isolation. “I have adapted tamely,” she says, “but not conventionally, to this visible world so I can retreat without much inconvenience into my inner world of books.” She lives intensely but vicariously; despite her solitude, her books keep her from feeling solitary. Her translation projects giver her a purpose — but not a public or communal one, as she keeps her work to herself. The irony, of course, is that translations can open up or further conversations, making communication possible across boundaries. But that’s not what Aaliya wants from hers, and so they get boxed up and stored as she finishes them: unread, useless, unnecessary, except to Aaliya herself.

leavemealoneUp to a point, then, Aaliya’s tale is a celebration of the intrinsic pleasures and challenges of literature. Reading is, after all, a fundamentally individual activity: it’s your mind alone with the words on the page. From the outside it can look like a form of self-absorption. It is certainly a kind of self-sufficiency: as long as I have a good book, I don’t need anyone else. Someone reading intently projects (usually without meaning to) a tacit hostility — a wish to be left alone, to be uninterrupted. Every avid reader has probably, at one time or another, been teased or hassled about this, which may be one reason Aaliya is (for all her faults) such an appealing heroine to other readers: she’s a dedicated, unrepentant reader who relishes (and fights quite selfishly for) her lonely apartment with its stacks of books. Her life epitomizes a reader’s life (which is a loner’s life), perfected but not idealized.

But reading isn’t just a way of being apart from life: it can also be a way of understanding life, a way of finding or thinking through the narratives that make sense of our experience or help us give it meaning. “We live our lives through texts,” as Carolyn Heilbrun writes in Writing a Woman’s Life;

 Lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard.

That’s another value Aaliya finds in her books: they help her sort through her life, indirectly, perhaps, but still with an outward, rather than an inward, glance.

Also, as bloggers well know, books don’t have to isolate: they can also build connections, provide impetus for conversation, bridge distances between people otherwise separated by the “unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.” When, eventually, Aaliya is compelled out of her self-imposed exile from fellowship, it’s not necessarily the epiphany she claims to scorn (“There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies”), but it is at least an opening up, like the unfolding of a reluctant rose, still thorny but touched by some warmth and light. It’s not a big transformation, just a sense of new possibilities. But we wouldn’t want Aaliya or her life to be changed utterly anyway, not if we have stood by her so far. She’ll still be a reader, above all — but maybe not such a lonely one.

She’s also a writer: she calls the novel her “tale” and refers to it every so often as a work in progress (“If this were a novel,” “What are these pages,” “As I write this”). The question of what exactly “these pages” are is never directly addressed, though, and I felt as if this was a lost opportunity. Not all first-person narrations explain their own textuality directly, of course, but Aaliya is such a self-consciously literary character that it would have been interesting to know why she is writing, and for whom. The form of her “tale” seems deliberately opposed to some kinds of fiction, for instance: it’s a relatively plotless book, and occasionally seemed almost too meandering to me, not quite stream of consciousness but not organized in a clear way, not building to any climax. It’s primarily a study in character, but it proceeds more through revelation than through self-reflection or analysis.

These strategies do seem appropriate for Aaliya — they suit her personality as well as her literary preferences. “Causation extraction makes Jack a dull reader,” as she says caustically; also, “One reason we desire explanations is that they separate us and make us feel safe.” So, no explanations; we have to infer her motivations, including for writing. But what about the question of language? I wondered for some time what language we were to think she was actually writing in, until a remark about her pen moving from right to left across the page gave it away. What we are reading, then, is actually an invisible, or imaginary, translation, and in a novel so much about translation — as the promise, or the possibility, or the buried hope, of connection — isn’t that another lost opportunity to make overt (to thematize) the narrative itself? Instead, the pretense is of perfect transparency. I realize that this is to take the words on the page literally in a rather stupid way, but I still ended up feeling very slightly dissatisfied with the book as a result of fretting about this question.

the-library-by-sarah-stewartFor all the enjoyment I took in the novel, I also ended up feeling that perhaps it’s too pat: that it plays too neatly into my hands and the hands of other readers who like nothing better than to have their passion for literature confirmed in an interesting and non-platitudinous way. For people who like this sort of thing, is An Unnecessary Woman too deliberately exactly what they like —  is Aaliya too ready-made a literary heroine? She was certainly easy for me to side with, so cosmopolitan and secular and apolitical. A lot goes on around her while she reads and reads and reads (in this respect, An Unnecessary Woman reminded me of another irresistible fictional reader, Elizabeth Brown in Sarah Stewart’s The Library), but while she’s endlessly and intimately affected by it all, she also refuses to see herself as an engaged part of it:

I may be able to explain the difference between baroque and rococo, between South American magical realism and its counterparts in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, between Camus’s nihilism and Sartre’s existentialism, between modernism and its post, but don’t ask me to tell you the difference between the Nasserites and the Baathists. I do understand that this neighborhood can’t be Baathist; Sunnis are anti-Syria these days, and the need to belong to a party, any party, is greater than the fear of appearing stupid once again, hence Nasser is the hero du jour. However, I can’t figure out what the terms mean.

People are dying around her over these differences, but the only thing she fights for — the thing she actually acquires a gun to defend — is her apartment, her private space to read. Is this, in the end, the answer to the novel’s question about art and life? “The end of woman (or of man) is not a book,” concludes Aurora Leigh in Elizabeth Browning’s epic verse-novel, but for Aaliya, maybe it is. And why not? “Belief is murderous,” as she says. She writes with passion about the morals and politics and tragedies of others, and cares passionately how history is written, but by keeping her own eyes on the page, she avoids (and so we too avoid) having to confront any of this too directly.

And of course not all people, not all novels, have to be out on the front lines, and most of us live more or less like Aaliya, getting by as well as we can from day to day. At best, we find a way to live with integrity and dignity according to what we have decided really matters. An Unnecessary Woman is a sharp, touching, but unsentimental portrait of a woman who is “unnecessary” to any larger narrative about the world, but central, as she must and should be, to her own. That’s not necessarily an uplifting thought. “Giants of literature, philosophy, and the arts have influenced my life,” she reflects,

but what have I done with this life? I remain a speck in a tumultuous universe that has little concern for me. I am no more than dust, a mote — dust to dust. I am a blade of grass upon which the stormtrooper’s boot stomps.

I had dreams, and they were not about ending up a speck. I didn’t dream of becoming a star, but I thought I might have a small nonspeaking role in a grand epic, an epic with a touch of artistic credentials. I didn’t dream of becoming a giant — I wasn’t that delusional or arrogant — but I wanted to be more than a speck, maybe a midget.

There’s inevitably something melancholy in realizing how small a part you play in the drama of life. But if, like most of us, you are destined to rest in an unvisited tomb, there’s surely nothing wrong with its being one well-lined with books.